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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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7. Conclusion 231


231 7. Conclusion By the late twentieth century, Jesus still seemed to have a high profile in New Zealand religion. Widely publicised Jesus marches in 1972 provided one example of his prominence,1 while the growth of Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity was also accompanied by a more explicit devotional emphasis on Jesus. One hundred years after In His Steps first appeared, Charles Sheldon’s question ‘what would Jesus do?’ was back in vogue, only remarketed for a new generation as WWJD with matching bracelets and assorted paraphernalia. While Sheldon’s Jesus had been invoked on behalf of the social gospel, this late twentieth- century personality was overwhelmingly associated with evangelical forms of Christianity. These later representations of Jesus were in some ways built on an earlier pattern. The Jesus of late twentieth-century evangelical religiosity was often highly personalised, and cohered with a tendency to downplay doctrine and theology. Despite these commonalities, however, there were also substantial differences. Most significantly, the early twentieth- century emphasis on Jesus was not simply indicative of an evangelical- isation of religion. Indeed, while it remained an important influence, most commentators rightly note that evangelicalism was fracturing and its influence waning rather than increasing at this time.2 Jesus-centred religion was primarily shaped by a preoccupation with religion and its audiences. In particular, the churches embraced Jesus as a means for navigating their way through the social and cultural changes of the age. He was a tool for addressing the challenges of modernity in a mature colonial society....

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