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

Overview

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 ...

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

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Overview

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 greaterin 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Jenkins is well equipped for his task. He is wonderfully and widely read, and his capacity for doing the tough work of intellectual history is as well manifested in the notes as in the text. Students of the history of interpretation, theology, and the religious culture of America over the past century and one half will find this book of enormous interest."—The New England Quarterly

"...an ambitious project whose main strength is its innovative treatment of many familiar American theologians in the context of literary and theological ways of thinking and modes of writing. All those interested in the ties between American theology and literature will be rewarded in reading this book." The Journal of American History

"Thomas E. Jenkins' The Character of God is an impressive...addition to this body of scholarship. Written in a vigorous, snappy style, The Character of God is an ambitious, opinionated book that deserves to be read by specialists and nonspecialists alike."—First Things

"Jenkin's elegant, succinct study sheds light on a theme infrequently treated these days: depictions of God in American literature."—American Literature

Gregory Wolfe
The Character of God is an ambitious, opinionated book that deserves to be read by specialists and nonspecialists alike.
First Things Magazine
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195112023
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 12/28/1997
  • Series: Religion in America Series
  • Pages: 288
  • Lexile: 1180L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Weseleyan University
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Table of Contents

1 Introduction: Character Styles 3
Pt. I The Neoclassical and Sentimental God of the Nineteenth Century
2 The Problem of God's Anger 19
3 Serenity and Torment: William Ellery Channing, Edwards A. Park, Charles Hodge, and Archibald Alexander Hodge 39
4 Sympathy and Alienation: Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe 56
II The Romantic God of the Nineteenth Century
5 Vitality and Anger: W.G.T. Shedd 79
6 Love in the Trinity: James Henley Thornwell, George Griffin, and Samuel J. Baird 95
7 Desire and Disgust: Horace Bushnell 113
Pt. III The Vague God of the Twentieth Century
8 Modernism and Literature: Theodore Munger and Amos N. Wilder 137
9 The Social Gospel and Its Critics: Walter Rauschenbusch, Reinhold Neibuhr, and J. Gresham Machen 160
10 The limitations of Political Theology: Carl Henry, Harvey Cox, and Martin Luther King, Jr. 180
11 Prospects 200
Notes 205
Index 263
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