>Book Review: Jesus Made in America

Posted: 21/12/2009 in American Civic Religion, book review, iconoclasms


Just Give me Jesus…Which Jesus?

One of the most difficult endeavors anyone can undertake is describing what “water” is to fish. Or in this case, how American culture influences Christianity to members of American cultural Christianity.

Yet this is exactly what Stephen J. Nichols accomplishes in his book Jesus Made in America.

This book is a historic survey of American Christianity. It begins with the puritans and ends with the present day. Some chapters on the past help us understand the present. Who is Jesus according to founding fathers or Jesus according to cowboys? Later, several chapters of the book are dedicated to issues relevant to the present day Christians. Who is Jesus according to the political right (and left) and who is according to Bible book stores? The book is a flowing, and fascinating read that is neither boring nor heavy on jargon. All of it is quite illuminating and challenging.

But this book is not for faint-hearted or the non-introspective. Nichols criticizes much of contemporary evangelicalism as having missed the mark on the understanding of Jesus of all matters. Not only does he tell fish what water is, he tells fish that the water is polluted. There are more than a few sacred cows (golden calves?) that Nichols wants scratch at. He even calls out a few heroes by name, including Max Lucado, Beth Moore, and James Dobson. Not even Veggie tales remains untouched!

Space does not allow me to cover every section of this book, but I there were two that hit close to home for me. The first was Christian music. Nichols points out how often Evangelicals get their theology from their songs, and their songs are sometimes –shall we say thin. Much of evangelical CCM creates and then perpetuates the cultural image of Christ that Nichols decries. There is too much emphasis on “how Jesus makes me feel,” little regard for “what Jesus has done in history,” and barely any “who Jesus is.” He even points out how close Christian lyrics are to pop love songs*, as has been satirized on South Park. At one point the Christian Contemporary music was a grass-roots, spontaneous and genuine before in turned into a money making industry that watered down its message as it tried to evangelize. This leads to the second section of the book I enjoyed: Jesus according to consumer culture.

Many Christians are often shocked when Jesus overturned money tables and chased out the lenders with a whip. Strange think is, Nichols probably believes that Jesus would do the same thing at most Bible bookstores. Jesus and consumer culture form an unhappy marriage in Nichol’s view. One of the saddest points in the book is a story of women who was not able to buy a Jesus fish for her car. She wondered who she was supposed to witness. Nichols is fair in his belief that the Holy Spirit can use anything, but the culture of T-shirts, endless mass-market books, childhood media, etc makes him wonder if this is because of or in spite of a mass-market Jesus. Yet this is the water that many people swim in. What kind of Jesus are we really looking at? Is the culture conforming to Christ or is Christ revised to fit the culture?

Even thought the book is critical, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Nichols, in the epilogue, explains that he believes evangelicalism can hit the mark. To do so, Christians must learn to look outside their own generation and pull on resources from the past. He suggests the great Creeds (while recognizing the bias they had) as a guide for evangelical Christology. He also admits that the Christology has never been an easy task, but we should never be afraid of complexity. It is our job, as Christians in the dominant west to ensure we both learn and pass on these teaching of Christ. No matter how difficult the task.

Thanks for reading. Now go read this book or see a few other interesting ones.


*May I gently add a point to all the Christian girls/women who ask “where are all the good, single, Christian men?” this comment: please consider that men worship God differently than women do. For instance, Christian heterosexual men are generally not interested in relating to Jesus as if he is our boyfriend. We’re not interested competing with him either.

  1. Anonymous says:

    >"members of the American cultural Christianity" isn't English.

  2. Q says:

    >I would probably disagree with his conclusion. The West, though it's certainly not dying, is not dominant in the theological conversation anymore. It has become one cultural voice among many. If American Christians, particularly evangelicals (who have been very slow to acknowledge that the West is not the beholder of all Christian truth), want to move past their consumeristic ideals, they need to look to Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia for their guide. The creeds are great, don't get me wrong, but that's more of a reactionary move rather than a revolutionary move. And Christianity needs a revolution, not a reaction.

  3. Jin-roh says:

    >The world will miss your PhD thesis, Jeff.But tell me, have you ever considered just writing a book of your own?

  4. Jin-roh says:

    >By the way, Q, when did you get all Anabaptist on me? 😉

  5. Q says:

    >Ha! I didn't realize I got Anabaptist on you. 😉 But if I did, it probably happened when I took a class on the Radical Reformation.I have thought about writing books, but it's a daunting task. So we'll see. I could probably do it once I'm out of Princeton.

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