New Zealand Jesus: Social and religious transformations of an image, 1890-1940

On the first Monday of each month I offer some reflections on a New Zealand book I have been reading. These are not book reviews, but a reflection on how the book interacts with my story and the questions that I currently have. I share where the book takes me with my questions, whether it conjures up new ideas or questions, whether it helps me frame my experiences and gives me things to ponder.

This month I am reflecting on New Zealand Jesus: Social and religious transformations of an image, 1890-1940.  By Geoffrey Troughton.

The past helps us see the future

The trajectory of the church fascinates me, where is it going?  Why?  and how is it going to get there? I’m more interested in the future than the past.  But I am becoming aware that understanding the past can help us as we try and see the future. So when a reader suggested NZ Jesus for my  book club reflection I thought it would be a good challenge to learn a bit about the history of the church in New Zealand and it’s social context. 

Images of Jesus in their social and cultural context

Troughton sets out to explore the changes that occurred in the images of Jesus that were common in the churchbetween 1890 and 1940, and how they related to the social changes that were also occurring at that time in NZ.  He describes these particular years as an era in which NZ experiencedkey changesas it moved from a settler based culture to a modern nation.  WWI and increasing industrialisation and urbanisation were some big changes that NZ society was facing.  Troughton describes the worldview of the time as modernist romanticism.  Into this environment we find Christianity struggling to navigate the changing context. He also reinforces some of the more unique aspects of NZs context.  For example he states that:

“For New Zealanders, peculiarly colonial experiences of social change were compounded with other forms of upheaval associated with modernisation.  Together with war and economic fluctuation these altered the context in which religion operated.  Changes upset the basis of connection with the community, and contributed to a sense that the churches’ traditional influence was being eroded. “ (pg 232)

In response to this the church began to become more centred on Jesus (before this the centre had been the Bible).   This promoted what Troughton describes as a kinder, gentler faith that “affirmed the individual and supported simple practical religiosity.”  He goes on to identify 5 key themes to the way Jesus was portrayed by the churches of this time.

The first theme was to emphasise Jesus’ personality and humanity.   As described in the book this was a move away from a focus on Jesus divinity to show that he was human.  Jesus became more personalised and this could be seen in the art and literature of the time. Interestingly that affected how people talked about the motivation to mission service, becoming more about following Jesus example and the great commission, to share God’s love. Previously it had primarily focused on human sinfulness and the glory of God.

The second theme that Troughton writes of is Jesus portrayed as an anti-church prophet.   The Jesus found in this theme stands against organised religion, to some extent this was a reaction against the Christianity of the Victorian era.  There were many claims that the church had misunderstood and misrepresented Jesus.  This Jesus was often associated with socialism and religious reform.

The third theme saw Jesus as a social campaigner.  This involved moral and evangelistic efforts to reform people.  At this time there was also a renewed focus on the Kingdom of God.   “True Kingdom was interpreted in ethical terms and The Sermon on the Mount given special status.” (p.106)

In the fourth theme Troughton shows how Jesus was described to children at the time, particularly in Sunday school and bible class.  He was presented as a gentle friend that loves children.  There were concerns at this time about the number of children who would leave Sunday school and not become part of the church.  There were also concerns that the images of Jesus were too immature to support an adult faith.  

Finally he describes ‘a manly Jesus’.  This developed for a concern about the churches feminisation, and about low numbers of working class men that were involved in church.

What I found interesting.

I struggle to be interested in history so found it difficult to stay engaged in some of the more historical pieces of this book.  But it made me more aware of how little I know about the history of Christianity in NZ.  I was particularly fascinated by how many of the themes didn’t seem that out of date.  For example Jesus as a social campaigner and an emphasis on the Kingdom of God is quite common today. The 1990’s wave of WWJDdoesn’t seem that different from the 1933 version that was made popular by a religious novel.

I was also interested to read how much argument and resistance there was to portraying Jesus in certain ways. It seems that disagreements, resistance to change, dissension and church splits are constants in the history of Christianity.

I was surprised that the desire of the church to address the loss of young people and to identify and serve their needs has been a problem that goes back much further than the last 20 years.  It came across as a key issue behind some of the changes in the images of Jesus  in the time period that Troughton studied.  We actually come from a much larger context of changing social contexts (although possible not as fast a change in worldview as we have experienced lately) and a struggle to engage the next generation. 

It is interesting and important to think about the relationship between what is happening in society and culture and how that influences the church and how we see and portray our faith and Jesus.  As I mentioned in last week’s blog post there is a long history of the church changing its theological emphasis and what it considers important.  This book demonstrates those changes well.  Reading the book has highlighted the subjectivity with which we approach the bible, Jesus and our faith.  It demonstrates very clearly the difficulty of coming to the core of our faith impartially without being influenced by our culture, context and society.  At first I was a bit overwhelmed with the impossibility of the task of finding what we can be sure of in the face of our own subjective lenses. But as I reflected on Jesus incarnation I began to conclude that to a certain extent (good scholarship, does come in here as well) Jesus coming to be part of our humanity, means that we can see him as we need to see him, whether that is as a refugee, a social campaigner or someone who experiences pain and grief.

It is clear as we track the development of Christianity in NZ that it does have its own flavour and cultural influences that make it uniquely kiwi.  There was a desire not to repeat the same divisions in the church as had been experienced in Europe.  But Troughton also describes the church of the time as having a ‘weak tradition of theological reflection’, he sees it as more focused on “pragmatic concerns, and a preference for effective action rather than reflection or formal theology” (p.236). This may help us explain the Churches current state where the pragmatic is emphasised over the creative or intuitive. 

If you read the book

The book does help us understand the trajectory of the church in New Zealand and provides insight into the relationship between church and context that is helpful as we consider our own faith communities today.  It serves as a prompt to start considering the images of Jesus that we share today and how they relate to the history of the church and the society in which we live.

For your reflection

What images of Jesus did you grow up with?

What images of Jesus do you notice being presented around you?

What ‘ basis of connection’ does your church (or christian gathering)  have to its community?

How does NZs focus on a practical faith express itself in your Christian community?