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What Jesus Meant by Garry Wills
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What Jesus Meant (2006)

by Garry Wills

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It's not uncommon for scholars (especially liberals) who can read the New Testament in its original language to remain clueless as to what it teaches. Gary Wills, a historian and classicist who is proficient in Greek, ironically wrote this book to dispel popular cultural misunderstandings of Jesus, not realizing that his polluted theological presumptions grossly distort Christ's teachings and promote a perverted anti-Christ agenda.

This book is awful, but I did like how Wills, a practicing Catholic, criticizes and rejects the papacy, knowing that Jesus would have too (15), and argues that the New Testament has no sacrificial system of priests like the Roman Catholic church does (67ff.). He also provides his own translations of all the New Testament passages he quotes, and sometimes, though not always, they are better than the popular translations, such as John 3:16: "Such was God's love for the creation [world] that he gave his only-begotten [unique] Son to keep anyone believing in him from perishing, to have a life eternal" (122). This does a better job of rendering πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων--"everyone believing"--into the present progressive, which delimits "the world" to refer to believers only.

Unfortunately, Wills doesn't know how to interpret the Bible, as we will see.

The Money-Hatin' Jesus

Wills rightly says "that Jesus wore no gorgeous vestments. He neither owned nor used golden chalices or precious vessels. He had no jeweled ring to be kissed" (44). But he goes too far, claiming that, "though the gospels make it clear that riches are the enemy of the spirit, they raise an even more urgent warning against power, and especially against spiritual power" (44). Riches are not evil; "the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (1 Tim. 6:10). Jesus even said, "There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel's sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life" (Mark 10:29-30).

The Ahistorical Jesus

Wills imposes his irrational, mystical unbelief--"Jesus as a person does not exist outside the gospels, and the only reason he exists there is because of their authors' faith in the Resurrection.... So this book...will treat the Jesus of faith, since there is no other. The 'historical Jesus' does not exist for us" (xxvi, xxviii)--and his anti-Christian ethics into the Gospels, resulting in a pro-homosexual, social justice, pacifistic, egalitarian, inclusive, disobedient, rebellious Jesus who

went a different way,...neglecting (no doubt) the family business of cabinetmaking.... Though we are not explicitly told anything about "the hidden years" beyond Luke's description of his running away from his parents when he was twelve, the stance of the rebel who would not be contained in the expectations of his hometown comes out again and again when family ties are mentioned. (6, 7)
In an effort to criticize Christian leaders who "have often rebuked the rebelliousness of young people by offering them a pastel picture of the young Jesus as a model of compliance and good behavior" (7), Wills blatantly misreads the Gospels. The Bible never says that Jesus was disobedient and ran away from his parents: "[Jesus] went down with [His parents] and came to Nazareth, and He continued in subjection to them; and His mother treasured all these things in her heart. And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men" (Luke 2:51-52). Jesus never broke God's law. He is the only person in existence that has kept the law fully and perfectly:

Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.... For as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous.... For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. (Matt. 5:17, Rom. 5:19; Heb. 5:14)
The Cultic Jesus

Wills also claims that "when [Jesus] moved from the spiritual isolation of the Essenes to the activist denunciations of [John] the Baptist, that would have dismayed his family even more profoundly. They would have felt what families feel today when their sons and daughters join a 'cult' " (11). The Bible doesn't say anything about Jesus being an Essene, and why would Jesus' family think that Jesus joined a cult with John the Baptist if "everyone considered John to have been a real prophet"? (Mark 11:32) Prophets played an integral role in Jewish society. They weren't Essenic, cultic leaders.

Additionally, Wills claims that John the Baptist mentored Jesus, though the Bible says that they were almost the same age, and John even said he wasn't worthy to untie Jesus' sandals: "One is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to untie the thong of His sandals; He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Luke 3:16). Wills promotes the typical Catholic portrayal of Jesus as a weak and frail ascetic, though neither He nor His disciples fasted (Luke 5:33); but He did do the hard work of a carpenter and was strong enough to turn tables over and whip money changers out of the temple (John 2:13ff.). Wills seems to forget that Christ couldn't carry the cross because He was beaten mercilessly beforehand, not because He was naturally weak (23).

The Pacifistic Jesus

Next, Wills claims that, "though [Jesus] is opposed to war and violence, he is choosing followers for a form of spiritual warfare.... Jesus consistently opposed violence. He ordered Peter not to use the sword, even to protect his Lord... he never accepted violence as justified" (25, 53-54). Jesus Himself, however, told the disciples to buy swords so that, when the time came, they could defend themselves, not Him:

"Whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one. For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, 'And He was numbered with transgressors'; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment." They said, "Lord, look, here are two swords." And He said to them, "It is enough." (Luke 22:35ff.)
Wills, furthermore, doesn't believe in demons and tries to explain away certain passages which clearly show that demons exist and possess people: "Many of Jesus' miracles are worked for outsiders...with whom observant Jews are to have no dealings...with those made unclean by their illnesses (therefore "possessed").... He casts the uncleanness out of one man into forbidden animals, into pigs (Mk 5.13), to show that no person made in God's image should be treated as unclean" (30). But if demons don't exist, then why was Jesus "choosing followers for a form of spiritual warfare" (25)? Will repeatedly contradicts himself. I wonder, then: Was Jesus crazy for talking to Satan, who, according to Wills, doesn't actually exist because he is merely evil personified (120)?

Wills also argues that the Father's "love is undiscriminating and inclusive, not graduated and exclusive" (29). But doesn't God love Esau and hate Jacob and make vessels of wrath (Rom. 9)? Wills asks:

Why did the payment [of sin] include Jesus' death, and such a horrible death? Was the creditor so exacting? Behind this conclusion lies the imagery of an angry God, hard to appease but by the most terrible of sacrifices. This is a view that some people call 'gruesome.'... If we talk of salvation as sacrificial in the sense of appeasement or propitiation, there is a note of assuaging an angry God. If we talk of it as rescue, the power from which mankind has to be rescued is not God but the forces at work against God--all the accumulated sins that cripple human freedom.... He sheds his blood with and for us, in our defense, not as a libation to an angry Father.... God initiates [Christ's sacrifice] to conquer sin, not to placate himself.... it is a proof of God's love, not his anger. (115, 121, 122)
Wills sound extremely confused, but he's not; he tries hard to impose his passive god into the Bible. He completely ignores all the verses that speak of God's wrath. I would like to see how Wills would reconcile his pacifistic Jesus and Father with passages like Romans 12:19--"Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord" (NASB)--2 Thessalonians 1:7-9--"the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power"--2 Peter 3:7--"But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men"--Jude 14-15--"the Lord came with many thousands of His holy ones, to execute judgment upon all, and to convict all the ungodly of all their ungodly deeds which they have done in an ungodly way, and of all the harsh things which ungodly sinners have spoken against Him"--and Revelation 19:11-16:

And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, "KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS."
Oh, and let's not forget the passage where Jesus violently whips the money changers out of the temple (John 2). And this one: "He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him" (John 3:36). Or this one: "Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life" (Rom. 5:9-10). This one too: "The boastful shall not stand before Your eyes; You hate all who do iniquity" (Ps. 5:5). And last but not least: "God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day" (Ps. 7:11).

Wills doesn't like the word "propitiation" either, even though it's a Bible word, because it means that God is angry at unrepentant sinners, and the only way He can forgive them is by crushing His unique Son: "The LORD was pleased To crush Him [Christ], putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering...whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness" (Isa. 53:10; Rom. 3:25) and to satisfy His wrath, the wrath that we deserve, so "that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:26).

The Social Justice Jesus

Wills asks another important question but gives another horrible answer:

What are the tests for entry into the reign or exclusion from it? They are very simple. One will not be asked whether one voted, whether one was a good citizen, or even whether one dealt justly. That is not enough.... The simple test is this. Did you treat everyone, high and low, as if dealing with Jesus himself, with his own inclusive and gratuitous love... "Whenever you did these things to the lowliest of my brothers, you were doing it to me." [This] means that...those who despise the poor are despising Jesus. Those neglecting the homeless are neglecting Jesus. Those persecuting gays are persecuting Jesus.... Our test for entry into heaven's reign is whether we fed Jesus in the hungry, clothed him in the naked, welcomed him in the outcast. (58, 137)
So, according to Wills' social justice Jesus, if we don't love everyone, help the poor, and affirm homosexuals, we will not be saved. (What about the thief on the cross?) But it gets worse: "How can we tell who among us is securely affixed to the Vine? We cannot. He [Jesus] told us as much" (140). The real Jesus, however, told us, "All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out" (John 6:37). And John the apostle wrote his letter "to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 John 5:13).

Wills continuously misapplies verses to make them fit his fictional Jesus. Matthew 25:35-40 does not obligate Christians to help the poor; it commands Christians to help other Christians--brothers--when they are in need, especially during persecution. Jesus also said,

Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.'... For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day. (Matt. 7:21-23, John 6:40)
According to the Bible, salvation is by grace "through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:8-10).

The Unclean Jesus

This is one of the worst parts of the book. Wills asks:

Who are the Jews of our day? Who are the cursed? Some Christians tell us who. At the funeral of a well-known gay man who died of AIDS, a "Christian" group showed up with placards saying "God hates fags." In the San Diego diocese, a Catholic bishop forbade Christian burial to an openly gay man. Is there any doubt where Jesus would have stood in these episodes--where, in his mystical members, he was standing then? He was with the gay man, not with his haters. This is made all the clearer by the fact that gays are called unclean for the same reason as were other outcasts of Jesus' time--because they violate the Holiness Code of the Book of Leviticus. (32)
Unless they become new creatures by repenting of their sins and believing in Christ, God is with neither the gay man nor his haters, "for unless you believe that I [Jesus] am He, you will die in your sins...unless you repent you will all likewise perish" (John 8:24, Luke 13:3). And if gays are called unclean (an abomination, actually, cf. Lev. 18.22, 20.13) because they violate the Holiness Code of Leviticus, then why does God still condemn homosexuality in Genesis 19, Ezekiel 16:50, Romans 1:26-28, 1 Corinthians 6:9, 1 Timothy 1:8-10, Jude 7, etc., none of which are a part of the Holiness Code? Because homosexuality violates God's natural order and is done outside of the Biblical definition of marriage. Wills, however, doesn't even address these passages.

The Heretical Jesus and Heroic Judas

Wills also makes a blunder I'd never seen before. He claims that Jesus shared His divinity with the Father:

[Christ's] own divinity is a divinity in the Father, not apart from him. He will not test the Father, because he is too closely identified with him. It would be putting himself on trial. As he says in John's gospel: "The Son, I tell you the truth, can do nothing but what he sees the Father doing. And whatever he does, the Son does in his turn. For the Father loves the Son, and shows him whatever he does" (Jn 5.19-20). (16-17)
Wills doesn't seem to understand basic theology. He completely distorts this passage, which actually teaches that the Father and the Son have one divine will, not a shared divinity. Christ Himself is fully God, just as the Father and Holy Spirit are, "For in Him [Christ] all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form...and He is the head over all rule and authority" (Col. 2:9, 10). Wills should reread the Athanasian Creed:

We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.
Wills doesn't just fictionalize Jesus; he turns the traitorous thief, Judas Iscariot, into a good guy as well:

There must have been some good in the man for Jesus to have chosen him not only to follow him but to be one of the Twelve and the trusted bearer of the common purse (Jn 13.29). Judas is a practical man, who deplores the waste of money on precious oils, but he seems idealistic as well, wanting to save money for the poor (Jn 12.4-5).... Jesus knows that Judas is fulfilling the plan of the Father, which leads to the disgraceful death and burial of both men. He says of his followers in general: "Not one of them is lost but the one marked out to be lost to fulfill the scripture" (Jn 17.12). Judas is involuntarily following the will of the Father, as Jesus does voluntarily. (101)
Wills doesn't understand that all men are naturally evil (Rom. 3). Jesus chose Judas to fulfill the prophecy, not because there was something good in him: "I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition [Judas], so that the Scripture would be fulfilled" (John 17:12). Judas was not an "idealist" either. The reason he didn't want the money to be wasted on precious oils was "not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it" (John 12:6). Judas was not "involuntarily following the will of the Father" because he himself "was intending to betray Him [Jesus]" (John 12:4). It's astonishing how Wills flatly contradicts the Bible. He also says that Judas

killed himself for having killed God. It was an act of contrition that redeems him, makes him a kind of comrade for all of us who have betrayed Jesus. He is our patron. Saint Judas.... I believe the Shepherd [Jesus, when He supposedly descended into hell after He died] was first seeking out his special lost one, Judas. (104)
Blasphemy! Judas was not redeemed; he was the "son of perdition," which means he was damned to hell for being a wicked, God-hating sinner who betrayed Christ. "Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place" (Acts 1:25 NKJV).

What Jesus Meant is the worst interpretation of the Gospels I've ever read. I find it fitting to conclude with a message for Gary Wills from the historical, complementarian, divinely just, exclusive, obedient, King of kings and Lord of lords Jesus: "You blind guide, who strains out a gnat and swallows a camel!" (Matt. 23:24) That's what Jesus meant.

Rev 1/13 ( )
1 vote cemontijo | Jan 18, 2016 |
Garry Wills is one of those very few Christians (almost invariably Catholic) whom I can sort of respect---honest, knowledgeable, even intellectual, and perfectly willing to challenge fundamental tenets of his religion's dogma and to denounce the current pope and his predecessors. But in the end, it still comes down to blind faith in utterly unsupportable mystical gibberish---and his intelligence just makes it even more inexcusable, as it must require that much more evasion to maintain. ( )
  AshRyan | Dec 18, 2011 |
This book is unusual for being so short. At 142 pages long it is divided up into eight chapters. The first five chapters are about 20 pages long and the remaining three are about 10 pages each. There is also a Note on the Translation (New English Oxford used throughout), Forward, and Afterward. There are large quotations filling every chapter.
Wills calls his book a "devotional" book, not a scholarly one. By that Wills intends for all readers of the gospels, "to keep asking what Jesus means" to them (p. xxx). Therefore Wills presumes to give us what he thinks is a "reasoning faith". He hopes to add his name to other believers who had read the gospels carefully with insights from their own (personal experience of) faith: Chesterton, Endo, Mauriac, Guardini. The basic premise of the work is that Jesus was a radical who never intended to found church structures of governance nor political policies. Jesus did want a spiritual kingdom (i.e. a dynamic process) enlivened by his Holy Spirit here on earth until he comes again. Jesus is the definitive excluded fugitive who wants egalitarian inclusiveness. Wills even says that he was too radical for his mother who is aptly pictured in Annunciation altarpieces as in a panic for what is to become of her because of her extremist son. The crux of the book rests on whether Jesus indeed selected Peter as a "rock" on which to build his church, as the Gospels attest. Wills covers this in chapter five where his argument is that Peter was not given any power which Peter himself could hand onto another successor. The evidence being that later popes were notoriously corrupt. Therefore, how could have Jesus originally handed over to Peter something which Peter could not in turn give to another without it being degraded by latter fallible vicars of Christ. Therefore, the concept of apostolic succession is a "fictional" solution to finding an unbroken chain of authority originating with Peter himself, argues Wills. This is something to consider except that the whole of Wills' book is based on the assumption that church hierarchy has no real foundation with Jesus as he is portrayed in the gospels. The easier answer and more Jesus-like thing would have been for Jesus to have just said plainly to Peter, and the other eleven, "no church structures...ever". That is, if it was as important as Wills claims it to be. Wills gives no reason why the radical Jesus could not have done this, other than turning Jesus' words on the cross into a prophetic lament "Father, forgive them...". The evidence of papal corruption, though a historical fact, does not advance the idea of Jesus being set against religious organization. So it is clever for Wills to say he wants to look at only the gospels and ignore the Acts of the Apostles where very plausible reasons are given for the genesis of such structures.
Usually when people call a book "devotional", it is meant to stifle criticism for falling outside the rigors of sound argumentation. Devotionals are meant for the like minded and insofar as they aid fruitful meditation their rhetorical flourishes ought to be encouraged. Wills does give some critical remarks to the Jesus Seminarists, the Altar of the Chair in St Peter's, Thomas Jefferson, Cardinal Ratzinger, and the New Testament Scribes and Pharisees. But it is hard to see Jesus as a true rebel if he really did refuse to challenge temporal authority. Wills says that Jesus' mission from the Father did not pertain to that. Wills has put onto paper a Jesus who only values others who actually help others as in Matt. 25:31-46 (pp. 56-58). Wills paints himself into a corner, since writing devotionals aren't listed there. Two last things. This book might have benefited from the author having read Immanuel Kant's "Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone" beforehand. And it would help if the author knew the actual reason Jesus was condemned to death by crucifixion (p. 109) (hint: it was not for being the king of the Jews).
  sacredheart25 | Aug 8, 2010 |
Interesting twist on Jesus. Garry Wills really emphasizes two points of Jesus' ministry:
1/ Rebellion against the established religion of Judaism. A fact about Jesus that comes clearly through the gospels, no matter the translation, was that Jesus was "bucking the system" present in the legalism of the Jews. He criticizes them and ignores certain Sabbath laws; the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders are constantly finding fault with him. This is not revelatory; this is taught in Sunday school!
But Wills does take the idea a bit farther than most. Wills believes that Jesus would not recognize the church(es) that has sprung up in His name and the hierarchies established amongst the 'leaders.' This is an interesting point, given Wills is a Catholic, and he is highly critical of the current Pope, Benedict XVI, and of the papacy in general.

2/ Jesus is love, which apparently manifests in the form of a supreme liberal hippy. Who knew? Some of Wills' claims seem valid at first glance - like his claim that Jesus always sided with the underdog and the lowly, so if He were here today he would support homosexuals. Yes, Jesus is the divine Lover and He forgives all sins. What Wills' leaves out is that while Jesus dined with prostitutes and tax collectors, He also instructed them to "Sin no more" and did not encourage his followers to ignore the Law completely!
Wills also states that when Jesus descends into hell, he will release all of the dead into heaven, including the unbelievers. (This begs the question: Why follow Jesus anyway if His death on the cross was essentially a get-out-of-jail-free card?) Wills personally thinks that the very first person Jesus will seek in hell, to liberate from torment and sorrow, is Judas Iscariot.
REALLY? I know we've been giving Judas a much more sympathetic view in recent decades (I love his portrayal in Jesus Christ Superstar! Much better than the dehumanized evil figure he's been throughout most of the church's history) but that seems like a bit of a stretch.

The book was thought-provoking, but the more I consider Wills' words the more I find that I disagree with. I am glad I read it, and I might even seek out Wills' what Paul Meant and What The Gospels Meant, but it isn't the mind-shattering revelation I had expected from all the buzz surrounding this book. ( )
1 vote makaiju | Feb 17, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0670034967, Hardcover)

As the religious rhetoric of the culture wars escalates, New York Times bestselling author and eminent scholar Garry Wills explores the meaning of Jesus’s teachings

In what are billed as "culture wars," people on the political right and the political left cite Jesus as endorsing their views. Garry Wills argues that Jesus subscribed to no political program. He was far more radical than that. In a fresh reading of the gospels, Wills explores the meaning of the "reign of heaven" Jesus not only promised for the future but brought with him into this life. It is only by dodges and evasions that people misrepresent what Jesus plainly had to say against power, the wealthy, and religion itself. Jesus came from the lower class, the working class, and he spoke to and for that class. This is a book that will challenge the assumptions of almost everyone who brings religion into politics—"Christian socialists" as well as biblical theocrats.

But Wills is just as critical of those who would make Jesus a mere ethical teacher, ignoring or playing down his divinity. Jesus without the Resurrection is simply not the Jesus of the gospels. Wills calls his book a profession of faith in the risen Lord, the Son of the Father, who leads us to the Father. He argues that this does not make people embrace an otherworldliness that ignores the poor or the problems of our time.

What Jesus Meant will no doubt spark debate about our understanding of Jesus and the Scriptures, especially as we head into midterm elections that will certainly prompt many heated discussions on the role of religion in our society.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:34 -0400)

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In what are billed as "culture wars," people on the political right and the political left cite Jesus as endorsing their views. Wills argues that Jesus subscribed to no political program--He was far more radical than that. It is only by dodges and evasions that people misrepresent what Jesus plainly had to say against power, the wealthy, and religion itself. Jesus came from the working class, and he spoke to and for that class. This book will challenge the assumptions of almost everyone who brings religion into politics--"Christian socialists" as well as biblical theocrats. But Wills is just as critical of those who would make Jesus a mere ethical teacher, ignoring or playing down his divinity--Jesus without the Resurrection is simply not the Jesus of the gospels. He argues that this does not make people embrace an otherworldliness that ignores the poor or the problems of our time.--From publisher description.… (more)

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