Jesus with a human face, Hugo Petzsch

New Zealand Jesus: Social and Religious Transformations of an Image, 18901940
Geoffrey Troughton
Peter Lang, US$78.95,
ISBN 9783034310475

The figure of Jesus and the powerful ideas that are often associated with him have attracted men, women and children for centuries. Understanding the power and influence of these often complex and popular ideas is challenging, not least because there is a tendency to create social and personal images of Jesus in the light of our own needs and experiences. This habit goes well beyond the conventionally devout. The most powerful example of the influence of such ideas is the change in the 11th century when a new focus on the suffering of the crucified Jesus led to deepened piety and penitence, evidenced most clearly by the changing images on the crucifix. Christ triumphant became the broken, suffering Christ.

Geoffrey Troughton reviews a period of New Zealand history when there is interest in the figure of Jesus. At the same time, New Zealand was in transformation from a settler society towards full nationhood. While identifying New Zealand perceptions of Jesus, he simultaneously explores a broad and fresh approach to the history of Christianity in New Zealand, blending religious, social and cultural histories. Crucially over this period, there are specific and diverse appeals to the figure of Jesus which provide rich material for study and which illustrate important strands in New Zealand thinking and devotional life. Troughton makes clear that his study looks exclusively at the Pakeha world, acknowledging that a fuller investigation will provide a more complete picture of religious culture in New Zealand society.

Any discussion of images of Jesus and of the ideas influencing those images must necessarily be complex and nuanced. This is especially so because the influences can overlap and appear similar in their expression in a way that can obscure useful and important distinctions. Troughton has the patience for this exploration and guides the reader steadily and skilfully through the local context of each aspect of Jesus invoked in New Zealand church and society. At the same time there are refreshing observations that succinctly bring together a detailed and well-referenced discussion. Concluding an extended discussion of the manly Jesus is the remark: “Perhaps his most important function was as a source of confidence for religious men.”

Over the period under discussion, the figure of Jesus remained central in New Zealand Christianity but new levels of meaning were added or developed. A key starting point is the enormous influence of William Holman Hunt’s The Light of the World, one of three copies touring the British Empire, which visited New Zealand twice at the beginning of the 20th century. At the same time and in a different sphere, the growth of historical criticism gave additional weight to the Jesus of history as a point of reference, and this connected with the early 20th century’s growing focus on humanity. The figure of Jesus was perceived as the solid core of Christianity, and the historical base gave it a power and appeal above and beyond doctrinal controversies. As theological thought became more interested in inclusive approaches, again Jesus was seen as an ally and facilitator of a unified and simpler faith. These themes are explored in five sustained discussions. Each begins with a clear and accessible introduction clarifying the area of enquiry and placing the specific New Zealand experience within the wider context.

Troughton opens by tracing the approaches to Jesus in Christian doctrine and devotion. The humanity of Jesus had been a focus for both conservative and liberal traditions. However, there were conservative anxieties that a focus on the figure of Jesus might overplay his humanity at the cost of an appropriate appreciation of his divine nature. Through the first half of the 20th century the focus sharpens on Jesus, and this goes hand in hand with an emphasis on his humanity.

Contrast is offered by a popular counter-image of Jesus as prophet, one whose being and message challenges the churches. This was the most wide-spread image of Jesus in the period under discussion. Here the different and contrasting images are seen as either offering a model of renewal to the ecclesiastical establishment or of challenge even to the point of overthrowing the status quo. There are many interesting avenues explored here, including the influence of Jesus among early rationalist thought and his role as a literary outsider.

It follows that Jesus was used as a point of reference in social campaigning. He was claimed by competing sides as a point of reference of moral authority. In this sphere his authority was personal and ethical because those adopting him as an ally might not choose to avail themselves of or recognise his doctrinal authority. The short section of this chapter on moral campaigning and the alcohol question is one of several passages of the book where a local and specific story is well told with detailed research brought lightly to bear in highlighting the tensions of the moment. The account of the responses to Professor William Salmond’s eirenically entitled pamphlet of 1911, Prohibition: A Blunder, show exactly the difficulties that can flow from at least two distinct claims to Jesus as a single source of authority. Salmond points out the difficulty of appealing for moral support to one who so clearly endorsed the use of wine. Troughton outlines the development of the debate and explains the context of the positions held and their respective influences.

The fourth area of exploration in the use of images of Jesus in the work of the churches is among those of Sunday school age and young adults. Childhood is an area where all Christian traditions focus energy on the young and where images of Jesus are dominant and influential. The Education Act of 1877 was a stimulus to the churches to channel their energy towards religious education, and the images of Jesus suitable for children were central in that. There was more to this than simply expanding on the notion of the Good Shepherd. It was recognised that there is difficulty surrounding the idea of the child Jesus as the model of ideal childhood. The childhood of Jesus is not the richest seam in the canonical gospels. Interestingly, a tension can be seen between the ethical or sentimental figure of Jesus taught to children and the criticism of these strands among New Zealand religion offered to adults. That aside, however much energy was expended in the area of Sunday school and work with teenagers, the churches did not successfully reduce the falling away of young men, who were not following through to adult church membership in the same numbers as women.

This leads naturally on to discussion of images of Jesus employed by the churches when thinking of young men: the final general area of review. While men tended to occupy the church leadership roles denied to women in an organisation whose main numerical support came from women, men generally were fewer in number in the pews. There was also concern in the churches to reach out to the returning servicemen, especially following WW1. In response to a concern that images of Jesus had been feminised, those images of Jesus were masculinised or militarised with the aim of broadening the appeal of Christian faith, and thereby meeting the perceived needs of the young men and separately the returning soldiers. In New Zealand, as elsewhere, the impact of the carnage experienced by those who fought in a war of attrition was devastating. While there were attempts to imagine the ordinary trooper’s view of the church in books like As Tommy Sees Us (1918), in a spiritual sense there is little evidence that lasting faith connections were made and much evidence that returning soldiers did not find a home in the churches. Knowing what we now know about combat stress, this will not surprise us but the discussion of the efforts made is interesting and sometimes moving. Fellowship and support were more readily found through ANZAC commemorations and the Returned Servicemen’s Association.

There is more in this study than can be adequately described here. The author makes good use of a wide range of primary, secondary and unpublished work. At all points there are well-marked avenues for further reading. While the broad lines of discussion are well set out, firm conclusions are elusive. This is an honest response to the complexity of the material under discussion. A strength of the book lies in the detailed consideration of local events and discussions, all of which give the study a human face, bringing clarity and insight to an elusive and interesting topic.


Hugo Petzsch is an Anglican priest, sometime vicar of Roseneath and Anglican chaplain to Victoria University of Wellington.


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