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New Zealand Jesus

Social and Religious Transformations of an Image, 1890–1940

Geoffrey Troughton

What did early twentieth century New Zealanders make of Jesus, and what do their understandings tell us? This study provides the first historical analysis of New Zealand images of Jesus. Using a diverse range of churchly and secular sources it examines key themes and representations. These images provide insights into the character of New Zealand religion and its place in the nation’s history and culture – from dimensions of childhood and gender through to debates about social reform. They also highlight broader dynamics of social and religious change. Crucially, this work traces the rise of a new kind of Jesus-centred religiosity that reflected wider cultural shifts. The form was particularly evident among Protestant Christians, who embraced Jesus in their efforts to modernise Christianity and extend its influence within the community. The author shows that this development was a response to change that profoundly reoriented Protestant Christianity.


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1. Jesus, History and Religion in New Zealand 11


11 1. Jesus, History and Religion in New Zealand The central claim of Christian revelation is that God became incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Orthodox Christian belief emphasises that Jesus was God, but also that he lived a fully human existence. Yet the ways in which his life have been understood and interpreted have varied substantially over time. This book addresses pervasive ways in which New Zealanders thought about Jesus, and what they made of him, during the years from approximately 1890 to 1940. It considers ways that Jesus was spoken of, contexts in which he was especially invoked and ends for which he was employed. The analysis that follows interprets Jesus historically as an ideal and religious justification. It hinges on three key premises: that Jesus has a history; that religious transformations are invariably bound up in social and cultural change; and finally, that Jesus talk can be highly reflexive, especially when focused on the dimensions of his humanity. That principle of reflexivity was a basic insight propounded in Albert Schweitzer’s devastating critique of the so-called ‘Quest of the Historical Jesus’, published in 1906. Having surveyed the efforts of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers to interpret Jesus in historical rather than doctrinal terms, Schweitzer concluded that reconstructions of Jesus’ life typically revealed as much about authors and their times as their subject.1 People always view others out of the dimensions of their own personality and experience. Methodologically, Schweitzer’s observation suggests that interpretations of Jesus can also...

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