Garry Wills, “What Jesus Meant”

Given the author’s aggressively liberal politics, I began reading this (and his other) works on the Bible with some trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised.  Not that the political liberalism is absent, mind you, but it does not overpower much that is good and worthwhile, whatever one’s politics.  The book’s foreword, in particular, is wonderful.  There are many good insights, and he is surprisingly textualist.

Wills is Catholic, but happy to criticize his church, and he criticizes not just John Paul II and, especially, Ratzinger, but earlier popes as well and the church itself.   See 67-70 (no priests) and 78-84 (rejects Catholic exclusivity and papal succession).

He says,

In writing [this book], I had in mind certain devotional treatments of Jesus written by fellow Catholics — especially those by Gilbert Chesterton (The Everlasting Man), Francois Mauriac (Life of Jesus), Romano Guardini (The Human Christ), and Shusaku Endo (A Life of Jesus).  These men were not scripture scholars, just firm believers who read the gospels carefully, with the insights their own faith gave them.  End consciously imitated Mauriac….

He ends with Paul’s “clanging gong” passage (I Cor. 13:1-13).

Two other notes, balancing each other:

  • Wills’s take on Satan’s bread-from-stone temptation is that he wanted Jesus to use His power simply to feed the poor, but Jesus rejects this as insufficiently spiritual.  “Jesus in not a social reformer” (13).  Likewise, he writes that Jesus “avoided all direct political action” (43) and that “Jesus had no political program” (51).
  • On the other hand, Wills advocates compassion for gays, which of course is fine, but also suggests  that gay sex is not a sin, since other old Jewish prohibitions are not longer considered sins either (32-35); and he also argues that sex for fun (and not just to survive) is fine, since food for fun (and not just to survive) is fine.  I think he is wrong about the former and not about the latter, but it seems to me that in all events the analogy (especially in the latter instance) ignores for one thing the obvious point that the act of sex is just a bigger deal than the act of eating breakfast — emotionally, socially, and spiritually.