If ever there was a case in which you should not judge a book by its cover, Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to "The Passion of the Christ," would be a classic example. Though the cover art leaves you thinking it's going to be a pop-theology book or Jon Acuff-style book (although there is definitely a place for Jon Acuff's books), this book is quite academic in its examination of American church history and theology. Overview Nichols purports that the American Jesus is a by-product of the cultural ideologies flowing from various eras, some of it good, but much of it deceptively harmful. As indicated in the title, the book begins by examining the origins of an American Jesus during the era and teachings of the Puritans. He traces the trajectory of this Jesus through American church history, from the times of the founding fathers (e.g., Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, and Paine), the concurrent Victorian and rugged-frontier eras, the emergence of liberalism and fundamentalism, the CCM and Christian filmmaking industries, Christianized consumerism, and finally the hijacking of Jesus in support of political movements and agendas. Each chapter looks at multiple facets of how each epoch shaped the identity of the American Jesus, both negatively and positively.
This is one of those books that, even while I disagreed with some of the author's conclusions, has nonetheless made a significant impact on my thinking for the year. Unless Tim Keller writes some more books fast (he did just release another), I'm guessing this book is going to go on my list of ten best reads for the year. :) Value Paradigm-Shifting and Perspective-Tilting
This book provides an excellent lens through which to view our current culture, both secular and Christian, both the culture at large and our smaller subcultures. I found myself doing this with clearer perspective after reading this book. Particularly with the increase of social media use this presidential election year, Facebook statuses and tweets laced with founding father quotes, spiritualized materialism, and religious elitism were an excellent reminder of how we all fail to see how much we've allowed culture to override our religion.
Sadly, American Christianity is far more influenced by culture than we would like to believe. So ensconced are we in our own culture that we accept spiritualized untruth and allow it to seamlessly flow into our once pure streams of pure doctrine, and it happens so gradually that we never notice the waters are tainted.
While Nichols exercise keen insight and awareness into the way our Christian subculture is a reflection of the cultural sensibilities at large, he is not aloof or misinformed of his surrounding culture. On the contrary, he seems very well-versed, a sometimes participant, in much of secular and Christianized entertainment, yet without appearing to indulge in it. This is a rare combination, but one that lends credibility to his cultural critique.
Highlighted the Importance of Robust Doctrine and Right Living
Both indirectly and directly, this book highlighted to me the importance of both robust doctrine and right living (and right community), and how they are united. Nichols seems to bifurcate the two throughout the book, giving the Puritans a pass on their glaring approval of human mistreatment, simply because their doctrine was correctly aligned. (To clarify, I realize that every era of theologians will have their own blind spots that will eventually be glaringly obvious when given the hindsight of time and distance.)
Robust doctrine is essential. We cannot have mere pendulum-swing theology and teaching that focuses on reacting to what the religious community perceives to be the cultural errors. Yet, this is what happened during various American eras, and we have allowed those cultural emphases to shape "our Jesus," both in conservative and liberal divisions of American Christianity.
As John R. W. Stott wrote (183), "every heresy is due to an overemphasis upon some truth, without allowing other truths to qualify and balance it." In the first portion of the book, Nichols highlights the dangers of reactions to the Puritans preaching, yet the reactionary back-swing of the pendulum can be equally dangerous when not taught along with all doctrine and the truths to qualify and balance.
For instance, we must study and teach diligently both Jesus' humanity and His divinity. If the culture or doctrinally weak religious institutions of the time overemphasize Jesus' humanity, it can be tempting to attempt to try to correct this by overemphasizing His divinity (or, vice versa--heresies exist in both overemphases). The Church must teach both aspects of Jesus' identity, though a heavier, still balanced, emphasis on one or the other may be appropriate in varying contexts. Concerns and Criticisms: Nichols seems to suggest, at times, that doctrine is more important than lifestyle. While one cannot have right living apart from right theology, it seems il-advised to elevate one above the other, or even to attempt to separate the two.
I'm not against strong writing, but there is a problem with overstatement. And, sometimes, Nichols tends to overstate his point. In demonstrating the Jesus Made in America of today or bygone eras, he seems to focus on otherwise innocuous expressions of contextualized biblical lifestyle or teaching as a sign of the Jesus made in their own image. When you're hunting coyotes in the woods, every moving branch appears to be a coyote.
Drawing major conclusions from historical instances is dicey work. For one, there are probably plenty of examples to counter the argument you're trying to make. Second, you may never know how many examples to muster in order to prove your point. Nichols is an admirable historian, yet there are points at which the point he is making seems dubious at best, based on the historical exhibits. (For example, he discusses the theology of Puritans Edward Taylor and Jonathan Edwards to make a broad conclusion regarding the Puritans as a whole. Choosing two out of the many American Puritans may be the case for an observation, but perhaps not an airtight conclusion.) In essence, Nichols runs the risk of historical cherry-picking — selecting one or two examples, then purporting such examples to be representative of an era, and thus the linchpin of a major point.
Where does contextualization end and misappropriation begin? Christianity must be contextualized for every age and culture, just as it was in its 1st century ancient Roman setting. The fine line between contextualization and compromise has vexed the church for centuries. In some areas, Nichols may simply be looking at appropriate contextualization, and vilifying it as an American fabrication of Jesus; yet in others, he very clearly and helpfully points out the dangers of subtle misappropriation dressed up in contextualization and spiritualization.
When reading an erudite author, it can be easy to think that whatsoever the author saying is truth. Nichols is both a brilliant scholar and a skilled writer, that it can be easy to let everything he says pass uncontested. There are some areas, as in any book, where we may view his conclusions with some degree of thoughtful hesitancy.
Some of these statements of the book are particularly insightful, and worth reflecting on.
"Once Jesus is liberated from the confines of revelation, he ends up looking a lot like the ideals of his reinterpreters." (55)
"The first step in retooling Christ means freeing Christ from the abstractions of creeds and instead looking to the simpler Jesus who graces the pages of the New Testament. The second step entails an emphasis on personally experiencing Jesus over merely learning of him. More often then not, this second step means looking beyond the pages of the New Testament." (77)
"Commodifying evangelism turns persons who relate into customers who buy, a rather alien approach to that of Christ's." (187)
"Listening to the critics of evangelicalism, both sympathetic and not, may go a long way to helping see blind spots. Perhaps evangelicals especially have such blind spots because of putting Jesus, whether its on the [political] left or the right, in the wrong place." (212)
"Co-opting Christianity for the cause of politics does not serve to elevate, but reduce Christianity, to relegate it to a place it does not deserve." (215)
"American evangelicals have sterling proficiency in the realm of the subjective and experiential. But not all of the answers to life's questions come from within or come from our own time." (224)
Back to Those Puritans As to Nichols's seeming eagerness to gloss over the faults of the Puritans, I believe that theologian-pastor Thabiti Anyabwile does an excellent job addressing this common-to-more-than-just-Nichols issue in his somewhat recent article, "The Puritans Are Not That Precious," particularly from points five and onward. I believe this paragraph addresses the Puritans as presented in this book, in particular:
"[G]ood theology does not mechanically lead to good living. We need to understand this. It’s a commonplace Christian assertion that if we believe the right things we ought to do the right things. Then we’re perplexed when either people who believe the right things actually do vile things, or people with supposedly faulty theology actually live better than the orthodox. We’re left groping for explanations and defenses. How did the Puritans “miss it”? Why did “liberals” seem to “get it”? Well, “it” doesn’t follow mechanically, ipso facto, ex opere operato from some set of solid beliefs. There’s a whole lot of effort, application, resistance to the world, self-examination, and mortification that’s gotta accompany the doctrine in order for the duty to follow. As Flav put it, “They’re blind, baby, because they can’t see.” That’s why they missed it; they couldn’t see it. Their theology wasn’t a corrective lense; it didn’t fix the cataracts. It didn’t fix the degenerative sight of Southern Presbyterians who also missed it, or the Dutch Reformed of South Africa who not only missed it but supported Apartheid, or some of the German Reformed who missed it in Nazi Germany, and so on. And this is why I’m made slightly nervous by the tendency of some Reformed types to advocate “pure” doctrine and demur at “pure” social action. The Puritan movement was a movement in church reform and revival, and some of their heirs (I count myself one) can be too purely concerned about the purity of the church without a commensurate concern about the purity of social witness. We can stack our chips on theology, as though theology inexorably produces the social results we want with little to no attending effort. Mistake, I think. The Puritans prove that."
Thomas Kidd also offers helpful, related thoughts and reactions here.
Whilst mostly drinking water, I enjoyed reading history through a new lens via Tom Standage's A History of the World in 6 Glasses. For every history teacher who has had to listen to the "history's so boring" line from their students, this book will handily prove that the opposite is true. Standage delves into history and delivers more than just dry facts and dates. This unique history presents how these important six beverages became integral to human existence and flourishing and have maintained their place in our world.
Although each beverage is presented in the order of it's introduction to the world, the book also makes an excellent continued history to show the way it has remained a part of human existence even as new drinks arose in popularity.
The history begins in ancient Mesopotamia with the discovery of beer. Although it was a bit different than our modern version, many elements remain the same. As civilization moved from hunter-gathering to a more agricultural society, the introduction of grain cultivation brought about a number of dietary changes.In the process, both bread and beer were introduced, and "bread was solid beer, and beer was liquid bread." Much of the beer in its beginning was quite full of sediment, and so it was usually drunk communally with each drinker using his own straw.
From beer, the history moves on to wine, which flowed (pun intended) out of Greece and Rome, and took elements of those cultures with it as it moved through the rest of the world. Spirits are the final of the three alcoholic beverages before the book moves on to three important caffeinated beverages that were introduced in the more modern eras: coffee, tea, and Coca-Cola.
Some of the history is somewhat surprising: beyond the fact that the origens of beer and spirits were both rather unknown to me prior to this book, I was surprised to learn the key role tea played in the opium wars between the British Empire and China (and how that consequentially led to China further walling itself off from the rest of the world). Other parts are quite sad, such as the role spirits played in the slave trade.
One particular excerpt from this section was quite telling of the greed that trumped all else (106-107):
"The [sugar] industry was heavily dependent on slave labor. Ligon ran into the religious logic used to justify slavery when a black slave, to whom he had explained the workings of a compass, asked if he could convert to Christianity, "for he thought that to be a Christian was to be endued with all those knowledges he wanted." Ligon relayed this request to the slave's master and was told that slaves were not allowed to convert--since, "by the Lawes of England...we could not make a Christian a slave"--so any slaves who were allowed to convert would have to be freed. And that was unthinkable, since it would have stopped the lucrative sugar business in its tracks."
Each of these six drinks share a common history of exposing or exacerbating human greed and conquest, yet each also has some element of unifying and bringing together people and ideas. All of these beverages were, and are, also much more than just an enjoyable beverage. Most of them were important in providing a potable form of water, for use medicinally, or to serve as a form of payment, and even to stimulating inventions and world-changing ideas. Without each of these beverages, our world would look very different than it does today.
This book will likely lend helpful background information to any historical reading or study. Just yesterday, while reading a biography of George Washington, information I'd learned from this book about rum and spirits and the surrounding history provided a helpful enhancement for just a couple of sentences discussing Washington's drinking of "grog" and later on, on discussion of slavery and spirits.
Thanks to Tom Standage and his toast human history, I doubt I will ever look at (or drink) any of these six beverages quite the same again.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a memoir of Douglass’ life from being born into slavery in Maryland through the first years of his live...moreNarrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is a memoir of Douglass’ life from being born into slavery in Maryland through the first years of his live as a freed man. Although Douglass had to teach himself to read and write, it is very clear that he was a brilliant man and skilled in writing, which is remarkable considering that Douglass wrote the book when he was in his twenties.
Douglass was a child of a Harriet Bailey, a female slave, and was fathered (in the biological sense of the word) by a white man who was unknown, but suspected to be Aaron Anthony. He did not know his mother, who died when he was seven years old. He was transferred from plantation slavery to city slavery, living with Hugh and Sophia Auld. It was there that Sophia began teaching him the alphabet, but that was put to an abrupt halt when her husband demanded that she cease for fear that an educated slave would realize his pitiful condition. (It was against the law, as well, to teach a slave to read.) After that, Sophia grew to be more brutal toward Douglass, though never nearing the plantation and deep-south brutality and atrocities. During his time in the city, he was exposed to opportunity and education, but was for a brief time sent back to the plantation, at which time he was whipped and observed further atrocities upon other slaves. From there, several more transfers were made, including some even after he was again sent back to live with the Auld family. He eventually escaped, seven years after learning about the abolitionist movement. (Interestingly, he seemed to be opposed to the Underground Railroad system, though he still encouraged that slaves should escape.) He was assisted by abolitionists following his escape, at which time he was also married. He began speaking on behalf of enslaved black Americans, and this is where the narrative ends in his life.(less)
Twelve Years a Slaveis the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free-born African American husband and father who was kidnapped, drugged and beaten, a...more
Twelve Years a Slaveis the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free-born African American husband and father who was kidnapped, drugged and beaten, and sold into slavery in Louisiana. There, he bore the hardships of slavery for twelve years before he was able to be freed.
I am thankful for the recent interest in this book (not to mention, it's about to be released as a major motion picture). Because we are still historically close to the era of slavery and segregation (which extended far beyond official Emancipation), Americans often react defensively upon hearing indictments on our cruel history. And yet, it is our history, and this is not merely a random anomaly that occurred within an otherwise "good system."
(As Douglas Blackmon wrote in Slavery by Another Name, "When white Americans frankly peel back the layers of our commingled pasts, we are all marked by it. Whether a company or an individual, we are marred either by our connections to the specific crimes and injuries of our fathers and their fathers. Or we are tainted by the failures of our fathers to fulfill our national credos when their courage was most needed. We are formed in molds twisted by the gifts we received at the expense of others. It is not our “fault.” But it is undeniably our inheritance.")
Gradually, as we distance ourselves from history, it does become easier to accept the past and even strive to make amends. Thanks to the life-long work of Dr. Sue Eakin, we now have this once bestselling, subsequently overlooked book available.
In recounting her own discovery of the book, I found Dr. Eakin's story rather telling:
"I searched for years for a copy of the old book for my own, but one was nowhere to be found. Then, when I entered Louisiana State University in 1936, I searched at Otto Claitor's Bookstore, with its storehouse of old books spilling out of his gallery. Suddenly I spied Twelve Years a Slave and asked the price with trepidation. "What do you want that for?" asked Mr. Claitor, known as an authority on rare old books. "There ain't nothing to that old book. Pure fiction. You can have it for 25 cents." And that began my life with Solomon Northup."
At times, this book was a very difficult read. Over the past three years, I have read a good number of books on slavery and the horrible treatment of slaves and African Americans at large, and so the fact that this occurred is not necessarily shocking revelation for me. But it was nonetheless heartbreaking to read, and a few portions left me feeling nauseous. I can only imagine the feelings hidden within the souls for whom this was their life.
Remarkably, Northup saw several of the slave owners as products of a system, who, with different upbringing and religious exposure may have seen through the evils of slavery, rather than simply accepting what had been handed down to them and what they had been desensitized to. Northup's biography is more than a recounting of facts; rather, he lends great wisdom and insight into the philosophy, beliefs, and practices of his time. He was clearly a very gifted man, both physically and intellectually.
This book was an atrocious account, but an an incredible read, recounting the indentured servitude of blacks in the South after Civil War. The book op...moreThis book was an atrocious account, but an an incredible read, recounting the indentured servitude of blacks in the South after Civil War. The book opens describing the life of Green Cottingham and his indentured service in a mine in 1908. Blackmon uses the history of the Cottingham family and their various ancestors and descendants to paint the main picture of life in the South. This covers the historical period from the Civil War up through World War II. Around this time, the lawless practice of unofficial slavery was finally acted upon legally in a way that sent a message that such slavery was unconstitutional behavior for the states participating in this heinous act. (World War II and the Japanese equating America’s treatment of blacks with Germany’s treatment of Jews was a catalyst in the realization of and cessation of this horror.)
During the Reconstruction, black Americans living in the South actually had hope of opportunity and civil rights. They were able to vote and began to have other liberties previously unknown. But after the federal government withdrew (both in presence and policy), the atrocities towards blacks began to rise. Blacks were often arrested randomly (sometimes on official charges like vagrancy: not having a job; but any black out and about during laboring hours could be arrested on these charges regardless of his reasons for doing so; other times, there were no official charges, but when one could not afford to pay court fees, he had to “sell himself” in order to pay for his fees, whether he was guilty or not). So, the blacks were “sold” to both individual plantation owners and to corporations, mills, and factories. Often a sentence for six months was given, but then the “slaves” would be charged for the equipment they wore out, food and water, shelter, etc…, and the slavery went on and on. There was no way out, because it was often the justice system and officials participating in the buying and selling, as they received fees for every man sold. Both men and women were sold, as well as children. The brutalies and physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse committed with no regard to the lives of these men and women are shocking.
As hard as this was to read, it is a part of our nation’s history, and it does us no good to gloss over it. I found this quote at the end of the book to be helpful: "When white Americans frankly peel back the layers of our commingled pasts, we are all marked by it. Whether a company or an individual, we are marred either by our connections to the specific crimes and injuries of our fathers and their fathers. Or we are tainted by the failures of our fathers to fulfill our national credos when their courage was most needed. We are formed in molds twisted by the gifts we received at the expense of others. It is not our “fault.” But it is undeniably our inheritance."(less)