Jesus Made in America

jesusmadeinamerica.jpgStephen J. Nichols, Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to The Passion of the Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008).
In Matthew 16:13-20, Jesus asked his disciples two provocative questions. First, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Two recent books by scholars of religion survey the answers of Americans generally. They are Stephen Prothero’s American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon and Robert Wightman Fox’s Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession. But Jesus went on to ask the disciples, “Who do you say I am?” In Jesus Made in America, historian Stephen J. Nichols surveys the answers of American evangelicals particularly. What he finds makes for disturbing reading.
Nichols begins, as historians of American Christianity must begin, with the Puritans. He critiques the Puritans for failing to live out a Christlike ethic, with regard to native Americans, African slaves, and Salem witches. Otherwise, however, he sets up their two-nature Christology and Christ-centered spirituality as a standard from which their evangelical successors have fallen. Christianity is a religion of head, heart, and hands – of doctrine, devotion, and deeds. Nichols is right to critique the ethical lapses of the Puritans, but they were certainly correct in believing in and worshiping the God-man Jesus Christ.
In a sense, the Revolutionary Era of American history reversed the error of the Puritans. They emphasized deeds over doctrine and devotion. Typical of this emphasis, a young Benjamin Franklin wrote: “My mother grieves that one of her Sons is an Arian, another an Arminian. What an Arminian or an Arian is, I cannot say that I very well know; the Truth is, I make such Distinctions very little my Study; I think vital Religion has always suffer’d, when Orthodoxy is more regarded than Virtue.” It helps to know that Franklin’s mother was a product of Boston Puritanism and that Franklin rebelled against his upbringing. Although there were a few orthodox Christians among the founders – Nichols mentions John Witherspoon, Benjamin Rush, and John Quincy Adams – the Founders were typically Unitarians. They thought highly of Jesus as the human teacher of moral virtue, but no higher than that. Thomas Jefferson went so far as to excise miracles, atonement, and declarations of Jesus’ divinity from his copy of the Gospels. By emphasizing virtue and denying divinity, the Founders customized Jesus to meet the needs of their new republic.
In the Democratic Era that followed on the heels of the Founders, Jesus was further customized into the ideal frontiersman. The early nineteenth century saw a sea change in American religious attitude, as the populace shifted from the elitism of the Episcopal, Congregational, and Presbyterian churches to the egalitarianism of the Baptists, Methodists, and Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ. The frontier made no time for abstract theology. It focused on spirituality and ethics, on results, not thinking. In some cases – Baptists and Methodists – the Christological conclusions were orthodox. In other cases – Barton Stone of the so-called Christian churches – they were not. But the methodology by which these conclusions were reached was something distinctly American. There was no need for educated clergy or church tradition. “No creed but the Bible,” in Peter Cartwright’s formulation. Any man could pick up the Bible and develop whatever doctrinal system he saw fit. And many did. The individualism and rough-hewn character of the frontier gave way to Victorian sentimentality as the frontier closed and the American populace settled in for city life. Jesus was brought inside, bathed, clothed, and made to act respectably. Think of “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” and you’ll get the picture of Victorian Jesus. Interestingly, the Victorian Jesus was suitably domesticated to be claimed by both sides of the Civil War. A Jesus who has been stripped of his divinity does not stand outside human systems to critique them; rather, he is product of those human systems, who make him in their own images.
At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the reaction to this Victorian sentimentality set in with a vengeance. Social Gospel liberalism saw Jesus as a hero for humanity, liberating the oppressed from the wicked maw of capitalism. This heroic Jesus was not the God-man, however. Harry Emerson Fosdick, perhaps the most famous preacher of that age, made sure that such fundamentalist doctrines were explained away. But others – such as J. Gresham Machen, Fosdick’s bete noir – responded with the re-assertion of creedal orthodoxy. “Liberalism regards Jesus as the fairest flower of humanity,” Machen wrote; “Christianity regards him as a supernatural person.” The battle between Fosdick’s modernism and Machen’s fundamentalism (a term he hated, and a side he barely wanted to be associated with) continues to this day.
Unfortunately, while one would expect evangelicals – the Puritans’ self-proclaimed heirs – to boldly reassert Christological orthodoxy and to reframe real Christianity as a religion of head, heart, and hands, the evangelicals have been busy domesticating Jesus in their own novel ways. Their worship music has turned him into everyone’s Boyfriend (“Hold me close to You / never let me go”). Their movies have occluded his divinity. (Even The Passion of the Christ, so lauded by evangelicals and Pentecostals who otherwise would abominate R-rated movies, doesn’t adequately portray Jesus’ divinity.) Their stores have turned Jesus into a slogan (“Jesus is my homeboy”) or a bracelet (“WWJD?”) or a doe-eyed Savior (Precious Moments figurines). And their politics has shoehorned Jesus into a proponent of a preconceived right-wing ideology (lately, a left-wing ideology too).
When Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was, Peter responded with good theology: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” But that theology barely nudged Peter’s conceptions of what a Christ should act like. Matthew 16:21-23 tells the rest of the story. Peter had no room for a crucified Savior and rebuked Christ when Christ suggested crucifixion was his destiny. In turn, Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!”
After reading Jesus Made in America, I have begun to wonder whether American evangelicals (and us Pentecostals) might be due for our own exorcism.

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