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Book Review- Jesus Made in America

Art class was by far my most dreaded class throughout elementary school. The teachers were always nice but the bottom line was that I stunk at whatever I tried to make. I remember on occasion having to make something with either clay or paper mache or whatever. Sometimes I would psyche myself up and really get into it. I’d focus and think and work. But after 30 minutes or so I would look up and see what my classmates had constructed and think, “Dang, my art project doesn’t look anything like theirs’.”

Sometimes I look up from my work and look around at other Christians and think, “Dang, my Jesus doesn’t look anything like theirs’.”

Stephen Nichols writes the compelling book addressing how America has molded and shaped a Jesus in accordance with her own desires throughout her short history.

Pivoting out of the Puritan Era, Nichols traces the various season of Christological makeover. He walks through the Jesus of the founding fathers to the Victorian Jesus (weak and effeminate) that clashed with the Frontier Jesus (tough and burly), through the ages of liberalism on up to the days of the Moral Majority.

In an early chapter Nichols (with help from Stephen Prothero) points out a great historical observation as to the declination of the American religion:

“In the early nineteenth century evangelicals liberated Jesus first from Calvinism and then from creeds. Second, following America’s Civil War, they disentangled Jesus from the Bible, replacing the sola scriptura (‘Bible Alone’) rallying cry of the Reformation with solus Jesus: Jesus alone. The final stage came when, in fulfillment of Thomas Jefferson’s seminal dream of religious diversity, Jesus was liberated from Christianity itself, which came into fruition in the midst of the post-1965 immigration boom.”

The interesting consistency throughout American history is the crafting and molding of Jesus for what ostensibly appears to be good motives but at the end leaves you holding your nose. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident then in the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) industry. In his chapter “Jesus on Vinyl” Nichols shows the origin and growth of the CCM industry. It is not the fact that there is such a thing as the CCM that is so troubling, but rather it is the stale Christology that is so unabashedly promoted that causes concern.

Nichols quotes from several “Jesus is my boyfriend/girlfriend songs” to demonstrate the hollowness and frankly, the utter ubsurdity of singing about nothing when you are talking about Jesus who is, after all, everything

“Consider some of these lyrics from different songs of Rebecca St. James. In ‘Take all of Me,’ written by Marty Sampson, the first stanza ends with ‘Take all of me, yeah / all of me.’ She also croons, ‘Take me I am yours’ and ‘All I want is you,’ in ‘Pray.’ In her cover of Rich Mullins’ ‘Hold Me Jesus,’ she asks Jesus to, well, ‘hold her’ because here life doesn’t make sense, and she’s ‘shaking like a leaf.’ She adds in another song that she has fallen for Jesus ‘harder than the first time.’ All of these songs focus not on any act of God in history, not on the concrete events of Christ’s life and death and resurrection. These songs all lack exactly what Jon Fischer lamented as a great loss, linking Jesus’ love not to anything done in history but to the personal experiences of feeling Jesus near, of feeling him close during those hard times. Like a good boyfriend, Jesus show up at the right moment, says the right thing, and knows how to hug. Take out the name Jesus that occurs from time to time and these songs could be sung to a boyfriend.”

The morphing of Jesus continues through politics, commercialism, and the silver screen. And thankfully Nichols does a good job interacting with each. His writing style is clear, engaging, full of pithy assessments and biblically refreshing.

Overall I am very thankful that Nichols spent the long hours engaging with this topic so we might in a few hours, be more informed and where need be even corrected. The great lesson in a book like this is that when Christians skip Bible class they will spend their time in doodling a Jesus on their notebooks according to their imaginations. Christians must be informed and reformed by the Word of God. If we are not we will inevitably be back in art class molding a Jesus in our own likeness and then trying to sell him to the culture around us.

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4 Responses

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  1. I never would have picked this book up, so thanks for covering it.

  2. Jon, pretty much anything by Nichols is worth your time and money. His is a great writer and thinker. Glad you found this helpful.

  3. erik.
    I couldn’t agree with you more…this book was excellent and I have enjoyed everything that I have read of Nichols so far.

    Hope all is well down in Omaha…

  4. I think it was you that first recommended it…nice call.

    Omaha is good. It is raining today, very Seattle-like. As an OU fan you can relate to how teams like Nebraska feel like on a Tuesday after a disappointing loss on Saturday (J).

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