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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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3. Anti-Church Prophet 65

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65 3. Anti-Church Prophet One of the most striking and widespread representations during this period was of Jesus as a prophetic opponent of organised religion. Indeed, Jesus arguably became the iconic anti-Church figure of the age. The divine personality was also a man who challenged, confronted and confounded the churches. These misunderstood his identity so that the ‘real Jesus’ remained unknown to them. Jesus was a stranger, and often more confrontationally a critic of organised religion. Portrayals of this kind aimed to dissociate Jesus from organised religion, building on anticlerical and Romantic traditions that accentuated the gulf between Christ and institutions that were supposed to represent him. Reasoning of this kind utilised favoured language and images. For critics of various stripes, the ‘Christianity of Christ’ and ‘the religion of Jesus’ became particularly important motifs for contrasting the dogma and tradition of the churches with the teaching and behaviour of Jesus. The themes were supported by an assumption that the religion of Jesus was pristine and undefiled. Bernard Lightman has noted that nineteenth- century agnostics’ criticisms assumed that ‘Victorian Christianity was a perversion of the original, pure religion as founded by Christ’. Thus, T.H. Huxley, who invented the term, saw Christ as an attractive symbol of true religious ideals, which contrasted the ‘degenerate state of present day Christianity’.1 Another factor was the widespread affection that existed for Jesus, partly on account of the positive images people encountered during childhood. Hence, the maverick New Zealand labour politician John A. Lee contrasted his...

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