Groothuis Review of Gary Wills's book, "What Jesus Meant"
April 14, 2006
Jesus of Nazareth was a man who shook up and continues to shake up the established order: religious, social and personal.
Garry Wills, a prolific and provocative writer, presents such a portrayal of Jesus in What Jesus Meant, a short book that is, in turn, insightful, idiosyncratic and iconoclastic. While the book raises many substantial topics, in the end it too often fails to back them up sufficiently through the New Testament.
Wills, a practicing Catholic and scholar of New Testament Greek, intends to capture the meaning of Jesus - a Jesus he believes is too often enshrined in religious pieties that fail to recognize his radical life and teachings. To that end, Wills supplies copious quotations from the New Testament Gospels in his own colloquial translation, along with other biblical references.
He writes: "This is not a scholarly book but a devotional one. It is a profession of faith - a reasoning faith, I hope, and a reasonable one; what Saint Anselm called 'faith out on a quest to know.' "
While not technically scholarly (there are no footnotes or bibliography), Wills is no sappy purveyor of precious thoughts about Jesus. He is, rather, a learned provocateur who has little patience with those who want to deny much of what the Gospels teach us about Jesus in favor of picking and choosing a Jesus that suits their scholarly or political tastes. He thinks that such artificial editing of the Gospels "tames the real, radical Jesus, cutting him down to their own size."
Rather, "the only Jesus we have is the Jesus of faith," he says. "If you reject the faith, there is no reason to trust anything the Gospels say."
Nevertheless, Wills does not accept everything written in the Gospels at face value. He seems to view demons and Satan as personifications of evil and not as real spiritual entities (a reading hard to justify from the texts themselves), and he uses some literary criticism to reconstruct events. Still, he takes the Gospels as trustworthy historical accounts of Jesus' life.
Wills' central thesis is that Jesus is not safe; he shatters our shabby securities. His teaching grates against much of what is taught and practiced by Christians today and throughout history. In the chapter "Against Religion," Wills argues that Jesus challenged much of the religiosity of his day: touching the unclean, associating with various outcasts and breaking various religious rules.
Wills argues that since Jesus broke some of the holiness codes by accepting those deemed "unclean," he would also have accepted homosexuals without any judgment on their sexual behavior. This argument, while passionately presented, is speculative and based on a questionable inference. It doesn't follow that, simply because Jesus broke some of the ceremonial laws of the Jews when he touched the untouchable, he would have overturned the Hebrew moral law concerning marriage and sexuality.
In the Gospels, Jesus ratified heterosexual marriage as God-ordained and presents no evidence of accepting any other form of sexual behavior. Although Jesus did closely associate with outcasts, he always called his followers to repentance and faith as the means of entering the Kingdom of God - a fact that Wills generally ignores.
Wills posits that Jesus was apolitical and that there can be no "Christian politics." Yet he also argues that Jesus brought the Kingdom of God - the divine reign and rule - to Earth in a new and powerful way. If the Kingdom of God reaches into all areas of life (including the state), there should be a legitimate means of engaging the political order that is faithful to the teachings of Jesus and his Apostles. Wills' treatment is overly simplistic and a bit dismissive.
Wills also claims that Jesus was not interested in establishing any kind of hierarchical church structure, noting that Jesus never ordained any priesthood and that his earliest followers were not arranged in any tight hierarchy.
Sounding almost Protestant, Wills contends that the present pope's understanding of the Eucharist is contrary to the teaching of Jesus himself and that the doctrine of apostolic succession is not endorsed by Jesus.
But Wills writes much to inflame many Protestants as well, claiming that Jesus' death by crucifixion had nothing to do with appeasing God's anger at sinners, but only with God's love for them. If this were so, one wonders why Jesus cried out from the cross, "My God, My God. Why have you forsaken me?" - a text that Wills avoids. Moreover, many biblical texts, in both the Gospels and the rest of the Bible, indicate that Jesus' death was a sacrifice that atoned for sins.
Much more could be said about this incendiary book. But if What Jesus Meant draws readers back to the Gospels to learn of and learn from the Jesus found there, Wills will have done his audience a service.
Douglas Groothuis is a professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of "On Jesus."