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

by thomas e. jenkins
oxford, 288 pages, $44.99

Theologians move in two worlds, working not only with the abstract categories of philosophy but also with the highly concrete and often complex literary forms of the Bible. One of the central tasks of biblical theology is to provide a description of God that is compelling as well as truthful. If literary form is important to the theologian’s task, then it follows that he must uncover names of God that are beautiful.

The past three decades have seen a host of theologians and literary critics focus their attention on the literary texture of the Bible, and also turn to look at the ways theology itself uses stories, metaphors, and other narrative strategies. From Hans Frei and Stanley Hauerwas, pioneers of “narrative theology,” to distinguished critics such as Robert Alter, Frank Kermode, and Northrop Frye, to the more trendy ideological arguments of Harold Bloom and Jack Miles, the field has become crowded and contentious.

Thomas E. Jenkins’ The Character of God is an impressive, if flawed, 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.

Jenkins argues that American Protestant theology in the nineteenth century was enriched by the romantic movement in literature, producing complex and imaginative readings of God’s character, especially when contrasted with twentieth-century Protestant thinkers who reduced God to a vague, distant force and ultimately subsumed the divine into their political activism. By the time Jenkins reaches the recent past, his critique mounts in intensity as he castigates conservatives, liberals, feminists, and even Martin Luther King, Jr. for their impoverished theology.

Theologians, Jenkins writes, are always tempted to portray God as an “emotionally singular” character, since this allows them to simplify matters: if God is viewed as a serene, unperturbed deity, it is easy to spin out clear, rational ethics and a harmonious spirituality. But the Bible, Jenkins argues, gives us a vastly different picture of God. God in the Old Testament is seen always in complex, anthropomorphic terms—filled alternately with wrath, mercy, and second thoughts. In the Gospels there are moments when Jesus is far from serene or single-minded, according to Jenkins: in the garden of Gethsemane, for example, and in his feeling of abandonment on the cross.

Nowhere in The Character of God does Jenkins discuss the larger theoretical questions surrounding the notions of a singularly versus a complexly-described God, or the relationship between our perception and God’s self-disclosure. In the epilogue, he cites Jack Miles’ God: A Biography with approval, revealing, perhaps, something of his own stance: Miles, who earned a Pulitzer Prize and a Book of the Month selection for his study of the Old Testament, also believes that God is complex—so complex that He developed multiple personalities and ultimately decided to fade into oblivion because humanity didn’t need Him any more.

And yet, despite aligning himself with Miles (and receiving a blurb from him on the dust jacket), Jenkins never falls into Milesian deconstructionism. As he progresses through his survey of nineteen American Protestant theologians, Jenkins develops a case that maintains a grounding in common sense, if not in theory. The Character of God begins in the early nineteenth century, when a more traditional Calvinism was giving way to a theology influenced by neoclassicism and sentimentalism. Both literary movements tended to stress single, overriding emotions. For neoclassicism the key trait was serenity, imagining God as the benevolent ruler of the cosmos. Sentimentalism, on the other hand, cherished sympathy above all and sought its metaphors in the intimacy of family life rather than impartial Newtonian laws.

Jenkins links literary neoclassicism and sentimentalism with Protestant theories of the atonement—the doctrine that served as the locus of theological debate in nineteenth-century America. Jenkins clearly admires the traditional Calvinist or “juristic” theory of the atonement because it is emotionally complex, balancing God’s wrath against his love. The juristic theory, though, was on the defensive in the nineteenth century, when it was seen as too primitive, even barbaric, for contemporary sensibilities. Jenkins points out that conservative theologians such as Charles Hodge and, later, J. Gresham Machen built their theology on an essentially neoclassical image of God. The most popular theory of the atonement emerging in this era was “philanthropism,” which stressed God’s love above his anger. By the end of the century, philanthropism had triumphed over the more moderate “moral” or “governmental” understandings of the atonement.

Neither neoclassicism nor sentimentalism produced vibrant theology, Jenkins asserts, though he does find a rich vein of imagination in the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Jenkins’ chapter on Stowe, perhaps the best in the book, reveals her as an audacious and original theological writer in such books as Woman in Sacred History and Footsteps of the Master. Taking her starting point from the sentimentalist interest in domestic drama, Stowe found high tragic tension in, for instance, the relationship between Jesus and his mother.

By the time the Romantic movement hit American theology at mid-century, Jenkins notes, neoclassicism and sentimentalism were entrenched and heavily defended. Only a few obscure theologians were taken with the new spirit in art and literature, excepting the well-known but thoroughly eccentric Horace Bushnell. Nonetheless, Jenkins sees romanticism as having an invigorating impact on the theology of this period.

The romantic hero—emotionally ambivalent, suffering from bouts of anger and alienation—provided Bushnell and lesser-known religious thinkers like W. G. T. Shedd with rich metaphors. Shedd limned a God whose restless anger sought out sinners and stimulated them to repentance. Bushnell and Samuel Baird wrote of a God filled with an erotic desire to propagate salvation in the human race. (Shedd and Baird, like nearly all the romantic theologians, were conservatives, a fact that contradicts the common belief that romanticism serves as the handmaiden of liberalism.) In the aftermath of the Civil War, according to Jenkins, the romantic penchant for Sturm und Drang lost its appeal.

Jenkins is unhappy with twentieth-century developments where, in his view, liberal and conservative theologians alike insulated themselves from the currents of modern literary culture, leaving their image of God correspondingly vague, hollow, and distant. The godfather of modern liberal theology, according to Jenkins, was none other than Matthew Arnold, whose Literature and Dogma reduced God to “a power not ourselves working for righteousness.” But conservatives, put on the defensive by Darwinism, began to be fearful and withdrew from cosmopolitan culture. Conservative theology pushed God into ever higher and more inaccessible realms of transcendence, while liberals dissolved the deity into immanent visions of social progress.

To compensate for their enervated vision of biblical faith, Jenkins claims, conservatives and liberals both politicized theology. Jenkins is, predictably, critical of Walter Rauschenbusch and the naïve optimism of the Social Gospel, but he is also hard on Rauschenbusch’s most potent critic, Reinhold Niebuhr. Despite Niebuhr’s stress on human fallenness and the limits of political action, he was unable to move beyond an image of a vague God troubled by “paradoxes,” Jenkins writes. The Character of God ends, gloomily, with mordant surveys of traditionalists such as Carl Henry and Francis Schaeffer, progressives like Harvey Cox, and an assortment of feminist scholars. Jenkins’ comment on feminist Mary Daly pretty much sums up his “plague on both your houses” conclusion: “Like Niebuhr and Francis Schaeffer, Daly was quick to inflate what did not fit her theological and political agenda into something of totalitarian proportions.”

While there is much to admire in the historical sweep and literary intelligence of The Character of God—and ample reason to support the book’s dark story of a mighty tradition reduced to the small beer of politicized theology—it is marred by a number of strange lacunae and questionable judgments. For example, Jenkins takes three pages in his epilogue to praise Miles’ God: A Biography, with its muddled and ultimately irrelevant God, but devotes only a single sentence to the fertile school of narrative theology. He also misses a golden opportunity to examine some of the towering Christian writers of the modern era—from T. S. Eliot to Flannery O’Connor to Annie Dillard—and suggest ways that their visions might help to reinvigorate the literary sensibilities of contemporary theologians.

Another puzzlement is his treatment of romanticism as a monolithic phenomenon—as if this movement remained essentially unchanged from William Wordsworth to Adrienne Rich. It never seems to occur to him that some forms of late romanticism may have contributed to the loss of emotional complexity in theological images of God. Nor does he cite many thinkers who would contradict, or at least provide exceptions to, his thesis.

Perhaps most disappointing of all is Jenkins’ unwillingness to press his material toward a deeper theoretical conclusion. To my mind, The Character of God represents one of the most telling illustrations ever written of T. S. Eliot’s analysis of modern culture. In his famous essay on “The Metaphysical Poets,” Eliot spoke of a “dissociation of sensibility” that began to take hold in the seventeenth century in the wake of modern philosophy. Eliot pointed out that to a writer with a premodern mind, like John Donne, thought and feeling were fused in a single experience. But with the advent of neoclassicism, sentimentalism, and romanticism, thought and feeling—or, one might say, reason and imagination—began to diverge. In theology, it could be argued that this dissociation caused conservatives to ally themselves with legalistic rationalism while liberals fell into sentimental humanitarianism.

Jenkins chronicles in The Character of God the toll taken on American Protestant theology by Eliot’s dissociation. Unfortunately, by choosing to back Jack Miles’ rather confused horse, and failing to engage the writers and theologians who are restoring a deeper, more integrated image of God, Jenkins’ book ends in anticlimax.

Gregory Wolfe is the Editor of Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion and editor of The New Religious Humanists: A Reader (Free Press).

Image by Daderot, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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