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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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2. The Turn to Personality 25

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25 2. The Turn to Personality Jesus’ humanity became an increasingly central reference point within Christian devotion and spirituality during the early decades of the twentieth century. The increasingly personalised connotations of Jesus- centred language and spirituality, however, were not entirely un- contested. In 1919, one Anglican correspondent in the Diocese of Wellington noted the trend, but complained that over-familiarity with Jesus was one of the ‘most questionable tendencies of modern thought and expression’: Men are being taught to fraternise with the Nazarene instead of to approach the Cross of Jesus Christ with reverent and humble adoration. It seems that any phraseology is permitted to-day when men speak of Christ…. The name of Christ has been sufficiently bandied about, and, in the opinion of many, lowered during the last few years. It is high time that we began to regard Christ not so much as just one of ourselves, but rather to endeavour to make ourselves one with Him. This will never be achieved by the encouragement of ‘familiarity’ with His Sacred Name. He must be lifted up, not dragged down.1 In short, Jesus-centred devotion seemed vulgar and irreligious, capturing all too well ‘the purblind overweening individualism of the day’. Reactions of this kind highlighted that ways of speaking about Jesus varied. Moreover, while much Jesus language emphasised his humanity and personality, not all of it implied Jesus-centredness. Conservatives, for example, invoked him often, but also repudiated characteristically Jesus-centred emphases as evidence of liberal trends in theology. Nevertheless, a turn...

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