The Character of God: Recovering the Lost Literary Power of American Protestantism

The Character of God: Recovering the Lost Literary Power of American Protestantism

The Character of God: Recovering the Lost Literary Power of American Protestantism

The Character of God: Recovering the Lost Literary Power of American Protestantism

Synopsis

Educated people have become bereft of sophisticated ways to develop their religious inclinations. A major reason for this is that theology has become vague and dull. In The Character of God, author Thomas E. Jenkins maintains that Protestant theology became boring by the late nineteenth century because the depictions of God as a character in theology became boring. He shows how in the early nineteenth century, American Protestant theologians downplayed biblical depictions of God's emotional complexity and refashioned his character according to their own notions, stressing emotional singularity. These notions came from many sources, but the major influences were the neoclassical and sentimental literary styles of characterization dominant at the time. The serene benevolence of neoclassicism and the tender sympathy of sentimentalism may have made God appealing in the mid-1800s, but by the end of the century, these styles had lost much of their cultural power and increasingly came to seem flat and vague. Despite this, both liberal and conservative theologians clung to these characterizations of God throughout the twentieth century. Jenkins argues that a way out of this impasse can be found in romanticism, the literary style of characterization that supplanted neoclassicism and sentimentalism and dominated American literary culture throughout the twentieth century. Romanticism emphasized emotional complexity and resonated with biblical depictions of God. A few maverick religious writers-- such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, W. G. T. Shedd, and Horace Bushnell--did devise emotionally complex characterizations of God and in some cases drew directly from romanticism. But their strange and sometimes shocking depictions of God were largely forgotten in the twentieth century's use "theological" as a pejorative term, implying that an argument is needlessly Jenkins urges a reassessment of their work and a greater understanding of the relationship between theology and literature. Recovering the lost literary power of American Protestantism, he claims, will make the character of God more compelling and help modern readers appreciate the peculiar power of the biblical characterization of God.

Excerpt

Theology is so widely assumed to be boring that it is easy to take its dullness for granted. But why should this be? Why should the discourse that deals with one of the strangest characters imaginable--God--have become tedious? We can understand how this discourse might have become incredible, but how could it have become dull? How could God have become boring?

For American Protestant theology, a large part of the answer has to do with characterizations of God, especially God's emotions. Most American Protestant theologians have assumed that, strictly speaking, God does not have emotions, at least in a human sense. But most have also acknowledged that for the purposes of theological writing it is necessary to ascribe some feelings to God. the question is, which feelings? Here liberal and conservative theologians came to share similar assumptions beginning in the early nineteenth century. in general, they depicted God as an emotionally singular character, having one predominant feeling, such as a serene benevolence, holiness, or tender sympathy. the confinement of God's character to this emotional singularity, and these specific feelings, accounts in large measure for the dullness of modern Protestant theology.

Where did theologians get these notions about God's character in the early nineteenth century? the Bible might be a good guess, given that Protestants have traditionally claimed it as their chief authority. But we will see that theological characterizations of God were often at odds with the Bible. in fact, the effort to reconcile the two was at the center of Protestant theological writing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. So theological assumptions about God's character did not come straight from the Bible. Other influences on the depiction of God were doctrinal theories, biblical criticism, science, morality, and politics. But one of the most distinctive and persistent influences was literature. the impact of early nineteenth-century literature here was decisive and long lasting. Through the twentieth century, liberal and conservative theologians alike presented characterizations of God that derived from literary styles prominent in early nineteenth-century America. Although they may have been strong in the early nineteenth century, these styles lost a great deal of power . . .

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