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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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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. ( )
  makaiju | Feb 17, 2009 |
Wills’ contention is that what Christ meant was that God wanted a religion of love and egalitarianism. That which you do to the least of my brothers you do to me. Treat thy neighbor as thyself. That sort of thing. Not even that you had to believe in him as your savior. That all a person need believe is love and treat other people with love.

Kind of like flower children.

(Full review at my blog) ( )
  KingRat | Jun 17, 2008 |
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 14:03:35 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

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)

» see all 2 descriptions

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