Shaping Godzone: Public Issues and Church Voices in New Zealand, 1840-2000 by Laurie Guy
Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2011
Negotiating the fault-line between history and apologetics - A review by Bill Cooke of Auckland
The title says it all. Shaping Godzone: Public Issues and Church Voices in New Zealand, 1840-2000 is a very ambitious book. Laurie Guy, lecturer in church history at Carey Baptist College, has written a history of church involvement in public issues from the Treaty of Waitangi to the Hikoi of Hope. He denies the work is comprehensive, although he leaves little out in this 480 page book (plus another 120 pages of notes, bibliography and so on). The only area Guy has omitted that should not have been, in my view, is the long story of sectarianism, arguably the most significant feature of pakeha Christianity in the century after Bishop Pompallier stepped ashore in 1838. Guy doesn’t avoid the issue entirely, but without a chapter of its own, sectarianism, and the Christianity that gave rise to it, escapes serious scrutiny.
A book this long could easily become indigestible and Guy does a good job of breaking his story into manageable portions. Shaping Godzone is clearly written, well researched and makes a serious and consistent effort to be scholarly and fair; no mean achievement. However, writing from a position of strong commitment to the Christian outlook is like walking along a faultline; it’s fraught with challenges. On one side of the faultline lies the path of good history, which follows the evidence wherever it leads. But the other side of the faultline is religious apologetics, which often requires history to be shoe-horned into unfitting shapes already set by theology. The challenges this dangerous faultline pose are not peculiar to people with a religious commitment, although the teleological element of religious commitment adds an extra layer of difficulty that secular historians do not encounter.
Anyone, whatever their personal opinions are, has to have a clear understanding of negotiating the risks. Laurie Guy, to his great credit, largely succeeds, but, with this important affirmation firmly in mind, there are some issues worth drawing attention to.
People of their time?
On several occasions Guy gives unwitting expression to a sliding scale of what constitutes the ‘genuinely Christian’ voice. Christians mouthing racism, sexism, militarism or whatever, are explained away by Guy as people of their time, whereas the few who dissented from the majority views are spoken of as the true Christians. This, surely, is wanting to have it both ways. It is too convenient to corral Christians whose views don’t now pass muster as people of their time, while those with views the author approves of somehow escape that trap. It presumes the default position that opinion justifying the name ‘Christian’ should all be ahead of their time and uniformly admirable. This may well work as apologetics, but not as history.
... or just plain ‘outmoded’?
Guy’s sliding scale takes on an interesting new form when dealing with more recent issues. His treatment of more recent controversies, like censorship, abortion, or homosexual law reform is very good. But the reader soon notices that the evangelical churches, who led the opposition to the law reform in each of these areas, are criticised for the poverty of their biblical interpretation, but not for being people of their time. The views of the conservatives are now condemned as being ‘outmoded’. Why this shift from being ‘people of one’s time’ back then to being ‘outmoded’ now? I suspect he is implying that the progressive Christians, whose views he largely supports, are now the ones who are people of their time. The only
difference is that this has now become a Good Thing. In this way, Guy has tried to preserve good Christianity as something essentially a historical, which runs counter to what proper history should do.
Racism in religious language
As another example of the difficult road being traversed here, Guy comments on the widespread racism among European settlers in the nineteenth century, which he attributes to Social Darwinism, even though such attitudes were prevalent long before that title could be ascribed to it. To his credit, he acknowledges this, but nonetheless could be accused of letting slip the inference that the racism was a secular affair, another symptom of the age, and not a problem for Christians. Guy’s account of this attitude begins with ‘Thomas Robert Malthus’, without mentioning he was a Reverend.
Once again, Guy is trying to straddle the difficult fault-line between secular history and Christian apologetics and, in doing so, having it both ways.
Either the vast majority of settlers were Christians, or they weren’t. To be sure, they were Christians of many shapes, sizes and with varying levels of observance. Guy, along with other historians of a religious persuasion, claims (rightly) that the majority of the population at this time were professed Christians, to some degree or other. But if this is the case he must then be prepared to take the responsibility for many of the views such people had which no longer pass muster. The fact remains that most nineteenth-century New Zealanders were Christian, many of whom were racist, and a few of them expressed their racism using religious language.
At the risk of labouring the point, I am not saying that Christians were racists because they were Christian. This is the mistake John Stenhouse makes when he accused Charles Southwell of racism (which is true) but then goes on to claim his racism was an integral feature of his being a freethinker (which is not true). With respect to Guy’s treatment of the issue, I am making the weaker point that most racists in nineteenth century New Zealand happened also to be Christians, and his speaking of Social Darwinism in this context tends to obscure this fact.
Well-written church history
These criticisms should not be taken as an accusation of Guy producing bad history. That is not the case at all. It has long been lamented that the quality of church history in New Zealand is low, with little insight into the wider context, little genuine objectivity, and tedious writing styles. Shaping Godzone is a significant departure and improvement from much previous New Zealand religious history. It is better written, has a far broader awareness of the context in which churches operated, and is quite prepared to quote prominent churchmen in a way that puts them in a poor light when historical objectivity demands that be done. For example, some of the more extreme comments from partisans of the prohibition issue do them little credit. Even when the protagonist is a Baptist (Guy’s own denomination) he doesn’t shy from drawing the reader’s attention to the mean-spiritedness of much of what they were saying. And he resists the temptation (as some other religious historians would not) of loudly mentioning someone’s freethought or rationalist connections when they say something silly. At one point, he quotes some racist utterances from Sir Robert Stout and William Pember Reeves, without hastening to add that they were both rationalists.
The problem, however, remains that Guy is wanting to write good history while also defending a set viewpoint. This is a very difficult stand to take.
This sentence, at the end of two chapters on the battle over the female franchise, illustrates the problem We may rightly condemn some early Christian interventions in New Zealand society as being excessively narrow and negative. We ought equally to praise this one for its positive breadth and humanity. (p 192)
At one level this is unarguably level-headed. But when a broader view is taken, the issue becomes less clear. How much praise does a church claiming unique lines of communication with the creator of all things deserve when, almost two thousand years into its run, and after a century of social and secularising pressure, some of their number stumbles toward a new social gospel? If the new-found social concern was so praiseworthy, how was it that the reactionary interpretation of scripture ruled supreme for so long? Was it not that the discovery of this social gospel vision was a response to a strongly secular-oriented Enlightenment which had spoken in these terms for more than a century? And if so, shouldn’t it be them we should thank?
World War I
The difficulties of negotiating the faultline between history and apologetics are also apparent with respect to his treatment of the churches’ dismal record during the First World War. To Guy’s credit, his condemnation is strongly put, but is then undermined by his offering a weak excuse:
The church largely gave moral support to the [First World] war, sanctifying the sacrifice of the fallen, providing military chaplains and even, in some cases, using the pulpit as a recruiting platform for the armed forces. Arguably, this stance remains a terrible church stain in the public square, a major failure to recognise and proclaim the Christian message of peace at a time of overheated patriotic zealotry. It was hard, though, in a climate of solidarity and loyalty, for contrary voices to stand out, Christian or otherwise. (p 235)
Once again, the failure of Christian churches to provide the sort of moral leadership he thinks is their due is put down to the difficulty of the situation on the ground. He is right that the climate of the nation was toxically in favour of war. And he gives enough examples of the churches contributing toward that toxic climate. But is not the fact that the conditions on the ground were hard exactly why unique truth of an all-powerful God to be all the more shining in their righteousness? This is not an unreasonable expectation. It is, after all, only taking the churches at their own word. The truth of the churches’ dismal performance here (and elsewhere) is so much easier to explain from a secular perspective, which sees churches as man-made institutions projecting man-made conceits across a cosmic backdrop. With that understanding in place, the all-too-human behaviour of the churches becomes comprehensible. By contrast, Guy’s excuse is a lot less credible.
History or Apology?
Right at the end of the book, and in the face of the account he has given us, the historian stands aside and the apologist takes control. At the beginning, Guy likens the story of Christianity in New Zealand religion to a game of two halves. In the first half of the twentieth century, Christianity was considerably more powerful and influential than it was in the second half of the century. Very true. He illustrates this diminution of influence well but, crucially, gives no real explanation for it. If the influence of the churches was as pervasive as he claims, it is all the more imperative we are told why this influence has waned so spectacularly.
It is more than a casual oversight that this analysis does not happen. This is the part of the story that is the most difficult for the apologist. If Christian churches are, as they have claimed to be, vehicles for the Word of God, then the decline of Christianity can only be seen in moral terms, as the progressive turning away of a sinful people from the Word. Guy the historian isn’t prepared to actually say that, but Guy the apologist slips this in at the very end of the book. Here he says that we cannot live in a values vacuum. Few would disagree, but on the basis of that sound observation, he then makes a plea for ‘religion’ as the only legitimate vehicle for the provision of those values.
At its deepest, society’s questions remain spiritual in nature. Even for the agnostic, there are still the questions of what it means to be a human being and how people can establish a good society. These questions are questions of religion.
Perhaps the word ‘remain’ provides an interesting clue. Here once again is the sliding scale we saw in the body of the book, where good and true Christian opinions somehow escape the tides of history. With this word, is Guy assuming that society once recognised that the deepest questions in society were spiritual in nature, but that now, in an age of weakened churches, we have lost that insight? That would explain why ‘the agnostic’ is grudgingly included in the equation, but only as the species most estranged from this vital truth. Guy is also making a lot of assumptions about the range of religion and the equation of religion with the spiritual. And then, to compound all this, in the last sentences he makes an ambiguous declaration
about Jesus Christ as ‘the light of the world’ and as such, reason why ‘the church voice must remain in the public arena.’ As a lecturer in church history, Guy is going to be well aware of the thoroughly contested nature among Christian theologians of what such a declaration might mean. Or whether it means anything.
With all these caveats in place, Shaping Godzone is worth reading. It even fills a gap in the literature’ - a stock item of praise I have commented on elsewhere. The observations made here are offered in the spirit of reasoned dissent within a context of gratitude for a scholarly piece of work that, for the most part, keeps the contrasting roles of historian and apologist in their proper places.