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Special thanks to Caitlin from Baker/Brazos for a review copy of this book.

I’ve already reviewed one book by Stephen J Nichols, Jesus Made in America, which made my top 5 new reads of 2008.  I was so impressed, in fact, that I was genuinely excited when I heard he had a new book coming out, Getting the Blues: What Blues Music Teaches Us about Suffering and Salvation.  This was not only due to the fact that Nichols is an interesting and excellent writer, but it’s a genuinely unique book.  I know more about blues music than most 20-something white guys from New England, but I’ll still admit most of what I know has to do with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan, which isn’t exactly old-school blues.  Nichols’ book deals with “Delta Blues,” the blues music that sprang up from the Mississippi Delta in the early 20th century.

I was also intrigued by the irony of a book written by an educated, relatively affluent white man living in Lancaster PA dealing with the Delta Blues, a form of music developed and mastered by the black community living in a time when gross injustice and suffering was a daily reality in that region.  This, of course, isn’t a knock on Nichols or any kind of statement that he somehow ought not to write such a book.  I simply found it interesting.  In fact, he notes in his book that he is on the outside looking in, an approach that may lead to thoughtful insights for the rest of us in the same position.

Nichols sets out to attempt “a theology in a minor key… I am not a musician, but a theologian, and so I offer a theological interpretation of the blues” (14).  Noting that evangelicals tend to avoid dealing with the difficult aspects of life and the Bible, the blues can offer us something we desperately need: an honest look at the difficulties of life. 

To be sure, Nichols shows us that the difficulties we encounter in blues music fall into different categories: women, racism, floods, insects, alcohol, etc.  Sometimes those difficulties are to be expected- you run around with loose women, they’ll probably leave you for another man.  Sometimes those difficulties are an unfortunate reality- natural disasters, for example.  Other times those difficulties are injustices that ought to be righted- racism and the refusal to allow a better life for the sharecroppers living in the Delta region.

So the greatest strength of Nichols book is that he exposes us to more than just the blues music, he reveals the reason the blues existed, and even the theology (though I doubt any of the old blues singers would have used that word) behind it all.  We are living in a painful and cursed world, awaiting the day when God sets all things right but striving to change our world for the better in the meantime.  God’s ways are difficult to understand, but He is still merciful and present.

The tour of the world of the Delta Blues is fun in its own right.  Some of the singers are well know: Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Ma Rainey.  Others are folks I hadn’t heard of: Son House, Charley Patton and Thomas Dorsey (well, I should note that I never knew Dorsey had any connection to the blues).  I even find myself inspired to start nicknaming some of my friends, though I noticed that they tend to be slightly repetitive in the Delta Blues world (Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson and The Reverend Blind Gary Davis).

Admittedly, there are times Nichols lapses into repetition, though its fewer than 200 pages.  I suppose he can’t help that, after all, the subjects of blues songs don’t stray too far from the short list given above.  And, this being my second Nichols book, I find myself contemplating the contrast between Nichols’ treatment of the blues singers and his treatment of contemporary Christian music in Jesus Made in America.  He blasts (sometimes rightly so) contemporary Christian songwriters for their often shallow and trite lyrics, whereas he praises the blues songwriters for the depth of their insight into the human condition.  I guess I can’t help but wonder if part of this is due to the fact that Nichols simply likes the blues more than CCM pop-candy.  Mind you, I can’t blame him.  If I had to choose between listening to Muddy Waters or Rebecca St James, it’s a no brainer.

But, in the end, the “theological” key is that the bluesmen (and women) are writing out of their pain and the pain of those around them.  They recognize injustice and call it out when they see it.  True, there may not be a strong variety in their lyrics (it doesn’t take long to notice some of the phrasings get recycled), but there probably wasn’t a strong variety of experience for them either.  They weren’t allowed the luxury of variety.  Thus, they lamented the pain and sought relief, sometimes from the bottle, sometimes from God, often from both.

Nichols is to be commended for writing another outstanding and incredibly fascinating book.  It’s worth reading just for the insight into blues music.  But more importantly, it’s worth reading because it helps us remember that there is a “minor key” to theology.  There are times to lament and times to cry out for justice.  Admitting that we live in a fallen and cursed world is not a lack of faith, it’s reality.  The Delta Blues, perhaps more than any music form in recent times, helps us connect to this reality.

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I set out this year to read some books from outside my normal genre, biblical studies (especially commentaries), in order to broaden my horizons a bit.  I read a number of books I thought were excellent, some of which have been reviewed (click our “Book Reviews” tab and check them out).  But, I thought I’d point out my favorites from this year.  Note well: these books may not have been published in 2008, but I read them this year for the first time (hence the title “New Reads” rather than “New Books”).  Here they are, in no particular order.

Jesus Made in America, by Stephen J Nichols

I loved this book.  I certainly had some disagreement- the Puritan lovefest, some (but not all) of his criticisms of modern Christian music and movies- but overall Nichols succeeded in showing how American views of Jesus have shifted throughout the generations, often influenced by culture rather than the Bible.  I came away from this book challenged about my own understanding of who Jesus was/is, and not so confident of our own ability to understand Him without cultural baggage making its way into the process.  Jesus Made in America has catipulted Nichols into my “authors I must read” category (in fact, I’m finishing another book of his right now).

An Old Testament Theology, by Bruce Waltke

I’ve been working on a multi-part review of this book for some time, due partly to its massive size and partly to my busy schedule.  Don’t let my last review of this book deceive you, it’s an excellent read and a learning experience well worth the time.  Students of the OT won’t be surprised by this, however, as Waltke’s reputation precedes him.

Neither Poverty Nor Riches, by Craig Blomberg

I’m getting to this book about 10 years later than I should have.  Blomberg, as usual, was informative, challenging and enjoyable.  For anyone interested in ministering to the poor, this is a must read.

Worship Matters, by Bob Kauflin

I’m not a worship leader.  I have no musical gifting whatsoever.  But I’m convinced that worship through music is an integral part of the teaching aspect of the church, so as a Bible teacher I’m fascinated with how we can better use worship to teach people about God.  Bob Kauflin helps us in this area, and gives tons of great insight in practical matters for worship leaders as well. 

Theology in the Context of World Christianity, by Timothy Tennent

This is the only book on this list I haven’t reviewed.  Full disclosure: Tennent was one of my professors at Gordon-Conwell, and one of the finest lecturers I’ve ever heard.  I can’t think of anyone more qualified to write this book.  Tennent is a top-notch missiologist with a strong concern for a theologically grounded approach to missions.  I remember in classes how he would plead for us to listen to the non-Western church and learn from how they “do theology.”  This book helps us do that very thing, by letting us see theology through the eyes of the global church.  This has impacted me in a powerful way; I felt like I never really understood hermeneutics until I studied missions.  It has made me a better student of the Bible.  Anyone interested in theology and/or missions ought to read this book.  I look forward to his next project, a Trinitarian Missiology.

Okay, I’ll stop there.  There were other good ones, to be sure, but these stand out for me.  As for 2009, I have a number of books I’m looking forward to reading, but especially G K Beale’s We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry.  I’ve been jonesing to read this book since I first heard about it, and thanks to Adrianna at IVP, I now have a copy and will be writing a review sometime in the future.  I’m getting excited just thinking about it!

What about you?  What have been your favorite books of 2008?

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Note: This book review originally appeared on my old blog on 6/26/08.

Thanks to Adrianna of IVP for the review copy of this book.

 

A few weeks back I posted some thoughts on the Introduction of Stephen Nichols’ book, Jesus Made in America, published this year by IVP. To be honset, I wish I were a full-time blogger, because I feel like this book deserves a post for every chapter. In fact, I hope to do a multi-part interaction with it someday, possibly in the fall. But of course, don’t hold me to that.

 

Nichols does a terrific job combining careful insight, painful observations (painful for someone in the midst of evangelicalism) with a healthy dose of humor. Throughout the book are fascinating accounts and snapshots of how Jesus has been used (and abused) throughout American history in a more-or-less chronological arrangement, from “the Puritans to The Passion of the Christ“, as the subtitle states. Nichols sets out to “unveil these pictures of Jesus in American evangelicalism, to tell the story of his American evangelical incarnations” (p13) as well as “to raise signification questions about the state of Christology in American evangelicalism” (p17). Even with my disagreements (see below), I have to say: Nichols’ book is a success.

 

 

The Puritans stand as Nichols’ best form of American Christology, the standard to which the rest of American evangelicalism is measured. Through the words of Edward Taylor and Jonathan Edwards, Nichols, rightly, shows that the Puritans were not simply a boring bunch (though I admit “boring” is subjectively defined), who totally confined religion to the intellect and rule abiding. In fact, they loved the arts and poetry. As much as they taught the deeper points on theology, particularly Christology, in their sermons, they were also capable of writing words like: “Here [Christ] comes to give us the caresses of his love, and lay us in his bosom and embraces” (p31-32). Update the language a bit, and you got yourself a Jesus Is My Boyfriend worship tune! Thus, the Puritans were not simply intellectuals, but passionate worshippers of God (contrary to popular belief).

 

 

He does have a criticism, however, and that is “Given their dexterity in articulating both an orthodox, creedal Christology and a heartfelt piety, they didn’t always follow through with Christlike action” (p40-41). Mind you, I think he largely lets the Puritans off the hook here, as he spends far more time praising them than critiquing them on this very important point. I have some thoughts as to why this is so, but I’ll save that for a later post.

 

 

What follows is essentially a lesson in how we tend to “create a Jesus in our own image.” I remember reading Albert Schweitzer’s comment made over 100 years ago, that the liberal scholars of his day were “looking for the historical Jesus down the well of history, only to see their own reflection.” Nichols shows us how the early founders of America (specifically Ben Franklin, John Adams and especially Thomas Jefferson) were concerned not with a divine Jesus (hence Jefferson‘s cut & paste work on the Gospels). ). “What mattered most to Jefferson, especially for the new republic, was that Jesus was a virtuous man” (p57). These founding fathers help pave the way for the virtuous and moral Jesus, rather than the Jesus who is God and died for the sins of the world (p72-73).

 

 

In the 19th century, The frontier Jesus suited the non-educated men and women of the frontier, who did not want to bother with a God-man, but one who can be understood through personal experience and simple stories. The Victorian Jesus introduced the more feminine Jesus, as seen in John Sartain’s picture “of the Victorian jesus, gentle, meek and mild, with flowing hair and high cheekbones, and a softness that only a womanly Savior can muster” (p84). Thus, “the prevailing contribution of the nineteenth century to American Christology is that Jesus…became captive to ideology” (p95).

 

 

Chapter 4 deals with the battle between early 20th century liberalism (such as Harry Emerson Fosdick) and orthodoxy (see J Gresham Machen). Nichols’ quotes Machen’s words, “Liberalism regards him as an Example and Guide; Christianity as a Saviour: liberalism makes Him an example for faith; Christianity, the object of faith” (p117). I think Nichols ought to have pointed out that Jesus is in fact an example for us to follow (1 Peter 2:21, Phil 2:1-11), but his main critique is correct: liberal Christianity has reduced Jesus to an example and removed His rightful place as God in the flesh and Savior of the world. The fallout of this period, though, is that “for contemporary American evangelicals… the tug of war between devotion to Christ, on the one hand, over precise thinking about Christ, on the other, often goes in the direction of devotion” (p120).

 

 

In more recent years (chapters 5-8), Nichols gives us an honest (and sometimes painful) look at Christianity. Here, we see the rise of “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” music (whoever invented that term is my hero, by the way), where “like a good boyfriend, Jesus shows up at the right moment, says the right thing and knows how to hug” (p140). While I felt that his dealing with movies about Jesus (in chapter 6) is his weakest of the book, he makes a good observation: that these movies tend to appeal to emotion and personal experience more than anything else.

 

 

Chapter 7 deals with the commercialization of Jesus and Christianity, whether through WWJD bracelets, t-shirts or Jesus action figures. Perhaps his greatest point is during his discussion of The Shepherd’s Guide: The Christians’ Choice of Yellow Pages, which is a book for Christians to help them find other Christians in various types of businesses. Nichols states, “The Shepherd’s Guide, not to mention CCM and even the union of Christian insurance agents, creates an insular world for Christians” (p185). Christians, ostensibly in an effort to witness by wearing Christian t-shirts or buying only from Christian businesses, have isolated themselves from the rest of the world, who tend to laugh at us more than weep in repentance. It makes me ask: what purpose do these products actually serve?

 

 

Chapter 8 deals with Jesus in American politics. This chapter, I would imagine, may have been the hardest to write, simply because there’s so much to deal with. He’s weakest when discussing the right wing portrayal of Jesus, largely because (in my opinion) there is less about Jesus and more about Christianity here. With that said, it’s well known that the right wing of American politics has often appealed to Christianity to support its agenda. On the left wing, we see men such as Jim Wallis (which is spelled correctly and incorrectly- with the homophonical “Wallace”- multiple times in the same paragraph), who use the stories of the Gospels to show that Jesus cared primarily about helping the poor and the outcasts of society, which they claim lends support to the left wing cause. Ultimately, what happens is that we end up with a truncated Jesus (my term); a Jesus that does not take into account the whole of the Gospels.

 

 

There were a few points that stood out to me as particularly poignant from this book:

 

 

1. We haven’t been especially strong in letting the depth of the Gospels come out. Nichols warns us that “we need not shrink back from complexity” (p226). It’s true, we tend to keep Jesus limited to our experience (Jesus is my fishing buddy, etc) rather than allow the fullness of who He is (as seen in the Bible) impact us.

 

 

2. Interestingly, while we ignore (or fail to be impacted by) many of the stories about Jesus, we tend to “fill in the gaps.” Time and time again throughout this book, Nichols shows how Americans have simply not been comfortable with letting the Gospel stories to speak for themselves. We want to know what Jesus’ face looked like when He spoke to someone. We love to read Max Lucado stories, as he offers up imaginative stories that we do not find in the gospels (p78-79). The problem, however, is that these types of stories tend to provide the substance of the presentation of Jesus, rather than allowing the Bible itself to do so.

 

 

3. His treatment of “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” music is terrific. It’s often true, that you can take many Christian songs and substitute “Jesus” with “baby” and end up with a love song fit for a cheesy romance movie. Many would consider this harmless, but Nichols makes a great point: “Even lovesick teenagers on the shores of life or shaking like leaves need more than a hug from Jesus. Even they need to know that he is the God-man. If they don’t hear it in the songs, the locus theologicus of today, then where will they hear it?” (p145).

 

 

4. American Christianity, for the most part, does not care what the ancient creeds of the church say about Jesus. We think that we have come to the Bible with a blank slate and come away with a biblical portrayal of Jesus. We don’t need some dead guys who spoke Latin to tell us what to believe. The problem is that Christians who do not learn from Christians of history will be more susceptible to cultural influences of their day. Nichols shows this time and time again.

 

 

5. We need to go back and revisit our idea of who Jesus is. Do we have a truly well-rounded and biblical idea of Jesus? What episodes of Jesus’ life do we neglect at the expense of others? What aspects of Jesus’ character do we think about / pray about / sing about / preach about? What are we leaving out? Are we being conformed to Jesus’ image (Rom 8:29) or are we conforming Him to ours? I found myself asking these questions of myself over and over throughout the book.

 

 

To close, I really enjoyed this book. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in some time, and even where I disagree with Nichols (and I certainly do at points), I found myself conceding that he had a point to consider. If you are at all interested in Christianity and culture, American religious history or how evangelicalism has evolved over the last few hundred years, you ought to read this book.

 

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