Friday, August 22, 2008

The Best...Book

The summer is quickly coming to a close, but before it does I'd like to recommend to you the best book I've read in recent months: Stephen Nichols' Jesus, Made in America.
Nichols deftly takes us on a 400 year tour through American history, revealing how the general populous thought of, responded to and 'used' Jesus at various key points along the way. It is a tragic story which begins with a God-glorifying, biblically grounded view of Christ by the New England Puritans of the 17th century but ends in our own day with the wholesale highjacking of Jesus by Christian retailers, political activists, evangelistic film makers and the Christian music industry.
Using his skills as a professional historian and keen cultural analyist, Nichols conclusively topples, among others, the popular notions that our nation was founded upon the Christ of the Bible, that Veggie Tales presents an accurate Christology or that wearing Christian clothing and jewelry (or promoting Christian music or movies for that matter) makes for a church where Jesus is truly understood and worshipped and the true gospel is extended compelling the world to follow Him.
The upshot of the Jesus subculture we've made as American evangelicals is a trivialized Christ, a manipulated God and the creation of a Savior who itches us where we scratch rather than the God of the Bible Who brings us to our knees in repentance, hope and worship. If the American Christian ghetto has ever left you mesmerized or cynical due to its consumer-driven hypocrisy and obsession with 'cutting edge Christian culture,' then this book could prove a healing agent of hope in your life. On the other hand, if you happen to be one of the many Christians who swims so deeply in our evangelical subculture that you assume all its trappings are God-honoring and good, then perhaps you need Nichols' book most of all.
Will the real Jesus (not the 'American Jesus') please stand up! This book carefully, graciously and biblically helps us find Him in the crowd.


The Four Winds said...

I'd like to read it. Just one question though:

I've read quotes from many of the prominent Puritan settlers (sorry, can't reference them specifically right now, but I'll look them up if you ask me to) that indicate they specifically thought they were the New Israel, that they were literally coming to the Promised Land by coming here. Wouldn't you say their attitude ensured from the beginning that the "American Jesus" was cast in their image, rather than the other way around?

Andy said...

It's sad but true. Many Puritans did have an over-realized eschatology which led them to believe they were uniquely founding a second Promised Land. This created an ethnocentrism (and not just among Christians) which has been with us ever since to our shame. Nichols does at times strongly critique Puritan eschatology as well as its effects in their politics and public policy (which led to unchristian events like the Salem Witch Trials). At the same time, he clearly shows how their understanding of Christ specifically was remarkably orthodox and biblical in comparison to our contemporary scene today.

Jason Skjervem said...

But wait, I thought that our founding fathers with many of them and their ties to Masonic lodges and rituals founded our country on a Christ-centered Biblical foundation and moral grounding? Isn't that why slaves and the manifest destiny were "ok" back then? Has our idealistic Christian heritage twisted, over exaggerated, and taken out parts of history for us?

In all seriousness though, I'm looking forward to reading this book. I've always been interested in this topic of how we (myself included) have twisted Jesus to fit my needs instead of changing our lives to His teachings.

It's hard sometimes to look at my life (I would say I grew up right in the heart of the consumerism Jesus market) and although most of it was meant with the best of intentions, alot of what shaped me and my faith as a kid was a marketing ploy to make money.

stephanie j. said...

Thank you Pastor Andy for this book recommendation.

I'd recommend a song to you by "Downhere" called "The Real Jesus". If you click over to my blog, you'll be able to listen to it on my streaming audio. This song has been my "theme song" this year.


ben duncan said...

I’ve not read Nichols’ book, so I can’t comment on it. But I trust your judgment in regards to the assessment of the value of it. I’d like to know: How does Nichols’ emphasis differ from that of Wells in his outstanding series of books?

A few comments:

Puritan Covenantal theology as it pertained to the relationship of church and state and their eschatology may or may not have been faulty, but it would be a serious miscalculation to argue that the Puritan vision has led to the personalization – the “subjectification” if you will - of Jesus (and religion in general) that we see in our age. The best works by the best minds have pretty much squarely pin-pointed the origin of the “problem” as having begun with the 2nd Great Awakening in general and with the great American heretic, Charles Finney, in particular. Regarding Puritan thought, if anything the Salem trials – and the subsequent (and more deserved) persecution of the Quakers and (less deserved) persecution of the Baptists - should serve as an example of how vigorously they opposed the privatization and diversification of Christianity. Nonetheless, in light of the fact that the New England Puritans were independent Congregationalists religious diversity was bound to happen. Confessionalism and independency can’t be equally maintained for long.

Regarding the Salem Witch trials being “unchristian.” Maybe they were and maybe they weren’t. I’m not going to offer my judgment at this time. But I do want to point out that the trials were conducted by the civil authorities. The magistrate had the legal authority from the Crown to carry out capital punishment. We aren’t talking about a lynch mob meting out “thug justice.” Further, witchcraft was a capital offense in virtually every European nation at the time, so this isn’t something that can be justifiably chalked up to “Puritan excess.” Granted, the interrogation methods seem barbaric to our modern sensibilities, but these were the interrogation methods used in that time period for virtually any crime. Now, it is one thing to argue that the civil government is in sin if it does NOT implement God’s civil law in modern states. It is another thing to argue that modern states are in sin if they DO implement the legal code of Moses.

The Four Winds said...


I find a few things you said a bit eerie.

For example, from a Christian perspective, I don't think it's possible to say anyone deserves persecution. Nowhere does the Bible instruct us to persecute even the most vile unbeliever or apostate. Maybe you really meant "more deserved" and "less deserved" and maybe you meant something a bit different. But I find it difficult to Biblically support the notion that anyone "deserves" persecution from believers.

The other thing I find odd is where you said, "religious diversity was bound to happen." Sure, as long as there was somewhere for those who disagreed to flee to (a la Roger Williams). Diversity occurred because the country was big enough for those
"rebels" to set up camp somewhere else. That's not exactly the notion of religious diversity one normally thinks of.

My original point was that the New England Puritans did have their own subjective view of Jesus at their very heart. How else could they have imagined that God was leading them to the Promised Land, and that they were the New Israel?? Really let that concept sink in. That's the ultimate in self-glorification.

Their Jesus may not have been as commercial or bland as the subjective Jesus we see in the US today, but I still maintain that their self-glorifying attitude toward Jesus led this country definitively (I hesitate to say inevitably) toward the situation we find ourselves staring at today.

ben duncan said...

I stick by my use of the term “persecution” because that is what it was. The Puritans – at the civil level – did have a legal program in place to drive away Baptists. This was undeserved. The Baptists weren’t being socially disruptive (unless the mere sight of a Baptist meetinghouse was socially disruptive!), and since they shared views on independency, the only substantive theological difference was in the matter of the sacraments. The persecution – again, a civilly orchestrated plan to drive away – of the Quakers was a far different matter. The Quakers would disrupt church services naked, they would disrupt civil meetings, etc… so after many appeals, they were forced out. And, in my opinion, rightly so. (Some wouldn’t call this “persecution,” but for the sake of argument I’m granting the term to the liberal scholars who place the label.)

Further, the inevitable religious diversity to which I referred was not the spill over of folks leaving the area and moving to new land. I was speaking of the fragmentation of thought within the New England Puritans themselves. The robust theology of the Cottons and the Mathers fragmented and rapidly became the Unitarianism we know. I realize this thread is about Nichols’ book, but I haven’t read it. I can only recommend that which I know, and I know No Place for Truth by David Wells. He does an outstanding job tracing this disintegration.

As I said before, confessionalism – adherence to a written statement of beliefs, and relying upon that statement of faith as the agreed upon interpretation of Scripture which guides our faith and practice –and independency don’t long coexist. History bears this out. What does confessionalism look like? Here’s a test: If I ask the typical evangelical “what is the role of the civil authorities?” Who knows what answer I’ll get in response. But ask that of the New England Puritans and you would have likely have been schocked by the monolithic response.

I realize that if one reads about the New England Puritans via the plethora of god-hating scholars who make it their full-time job to give the Puritans a bad rap that the image one may be led to have is that they were a bunch of self-absorbed, self-righteous, ethnocentrists. I don’t believe that is any further from the truth. I’ve only read about 100 Puritan works and 5 works about the Puritans, but I’m confident in the assertion that the Church has never seen a group who made such a concerted and thorough effort to rigorously understand Scripture and to apply it to all of life.

Sure, they thought of themselves as founding a new Israel, a city on a hill, etc… But the Puritans were masters of Scripture. They understood typology. The Promised Land of Canaan represents the place where 1) God is not worshipped according to the pagan ways of Egypt, and 2) society is organized around God’s Word. Every European nation at the time viewed itself as “Christian.” So that idea wasn’t novel. What the Puritans had been agitating against for over 50 years – with their blood – was the addition of human elements of worship into what God had ordained. In other words, they saw worship in England as corrupt. Further, they saw the society of England as largely pagan. Going to the new world gave them a chance to worship God in purity and to order society according to the biblical patterns they’d been advancing for over half a century. So when they want to give a biblical picture of their program they naturally used the exodus language and imagery because in a real sense the imagery fit. (Unlike Obama’s disgusting concluding remark last night where he called on his followers “in the words of Scripture” to “hold unwaveringly to the HOPE we profess.”)

Again, the best minds and the best works put the “beginning of the end” with the 2nd Great Awakening. It was there that “religious experience” became the standard, where Christianity became sentimentalized, where differing groups “painted” pictures of Jesus and the Christian faith as each one saw fit… I could go on.

The Four Winds said...


Thanks for clarifying a few things.

Regarding the persecution issue, my question was with whether actual persecution is ever a Biblical response. From what you describe about the Quakers, I wouldn't describe the New England Puritans' response as persecution. So that one is easily resolved.

I am with you on the Puritans in the sense that they were wholeheartedly seeking after how to apply Scripture in their lives. I certainly do not trust any theologically liberal point of view about them. That's what I love about their works - they apply Scripture to real life. My only beef would be trying to say that they were masters of Scripture and then believing that they way they always lived it out honored Christ. I don't believe it did. I think they did the same thing in this country, in some ways, as was done to them in the countries they were fleeing from. The most important lesson for me is to not repeat those mistakes in my own desire to live out Scripture as fully as possible.

No argument with you about those who misuse Scripture to their own profit (or claim to be knowledgeable of the Scripture and then completely disregard what it says). I always like to give the example of Patrick Henry's "Give me liberty or give me death" speech. In it, he says, "The only lamp I have to go by is the lamp of experience." Wow, too bad he was ignorant of Ps 119:105.