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What Jesus Meant Hardcover – March 2, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Christianity has been twisted and warped to such an extent that not even Jesus would recognize it now. This is Wills's thesis in his stimulating, fresh look into the life and message of Jesus of Nazareth. The now-ubiquitous phrase, "What Would Jesus Do?" encouraged Wills, professor of history at Northwestern University and prolific writer on contemporary religion, to take a closer look at how the Christian message has been used and abused in recent times. Wills believes that most Christians don't understand Jesus' startlingly radical message, so they should not claim to have knowledge of how he would act today. People of all political persuasions have used Jesus' words to rationalize a domesticated, flaccid Christianity that upholds the status quo, or, worse yet, supports discrimination toward those who are on the margins. This attitude, according to Wills, completely misses the truth that Jesus "walks through social barriers and taboos as if they were cobwebs." Readers who are familiar with Wills's writing know that he is not shy about critiquing organized religion, and they will not be disappointed. Although his arguments lean toward hyperbole at times, at its core this book invites Christians toward more honest reflection on the life and message of the one they call "Savior." (Mar. 6)
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From Booklist

From the foreword's critique of the initials WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) and politicians who claim to be guided by the slogan, Wills' explication of the canonical expressions of Jesus may seem to merit the publicity pitch that the book is a pre-midterm-elections volley in the politico-religious theater of the culture wars. It is much better than such touting suggests. For instance, instead of co-opting the Christian Right-associated WWJD for liberals, Wills directs us to such things as 12-year-old Jesus sneaking off to palaver at the temple without telling his parents, and grown-up Jesus telling others to hate their parents and asserting "I am the truth." This is scandalous behavior in a person, comprehensible only of "a divine mystery walking among men," Wills says. Looking more closely at Jesus' words and deeds, Wills says we find God with us in them, and an inescapably egalitarian message of love. Jesus establishes no institutions and endorses no political structure or leader. Indeed, he rails against religious hierarchy in the harshest terms, and he utterly divorces religion from politics. Yes, he preaches justice, but beyond justice, he preaches the personal acceptance and security of love. Wills' dissent from certain pro-clerical and exclusivist statements Benedict XVI has made assure him the continued opprobrium of institutional church hardliners, but his portrayal of Jesus the radical is so profoundly familiar as to be irrefutable. Ray Olson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult; 4th Printing edition (March 2, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670034967
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670034963
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.7 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (126 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #574,416 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Garry Wills is one of the most respected writers on religion today. He is the author of Saint Augustine's Childhood, Saint Augustine's Memory, and Saint Augustine's Sin, the first three volumes in this series, as well as the Penguin Lives biography Saint Augustine. His other books include "Negro President": Jefferson and the Slave Power, Why I Am a Catholic, Papal Sin, and Lincoln at Gettysburg, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Customer Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

302 of 329 people found the following review helpful By C. Hutton on March 9, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Garry Wills is a historian specializing in the first 100 years of America (see "Lincoln At Gettysburg"-1992 and "Inventing America: Jefferson's Declaration of Independence"-1994 among his other works). He is also a practicing Catholic who has written about "Saint Augustine" (1999) and "The Rosary" (2005) and other works about Christianity. His newest endeavor, "What Jesus Meant" explores what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

This slender volume can be read at one sitting but will cause the reader to ponder the author's title. Many Christians forget that Jesus hung out with society's outcasts of his day, had few possessions, was apolitical, and yet his radical message of love and redemption, healing the sick/raising the dead and challenging the religious structure of his day contributed to his crucifixation. Image Jesus among us today: eating with prostitutes, AIDS victims and drug abusers: claiming no party affiliation; condeming the wealthy; and challenging the rigidity of the institutional Church while calling the reader to give up all your possessions to follow Him. Mr. Wills writes as a believer to explain the faith while accepting the historical Jesus. For the reader who desires to move beyond Mr. Wills' brief introduction to Jesus, please read any of the works by either John Meier (especially his three volumes entitled "A Marginal Jew"), Ray Brown ("The Death of the Messiah") or Gunther Bornkamm ("Jesus of Nazareth").
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60 of 64 people found the following review helpful By Robert H. Stine Jr. on April 17, 2006
Format: Hardcover
I very much enjoyed this book. It's a quick but thought-provoking read, and I plan to re-read it in the near future. In part because of his expertise in Koine, the original language of the New Testament, Wills is able to breathe life and provide insight into many well-known Biblical passages.

The viewpoint is from that of a devout believer. As I was reading Wills's book, I was also reading "Mere Christianity", by C.S. Lewis, and I was struck by the similarity in outlook of the two authors. Although I recognize that some of the passages critical of church hierarchy in general and Pope Benedict XVI in particular will ruffle some feathers, Wills did not seem to stray from Scripture or interject modern political sensibilities into the Christian message. In fact, the hypocrisy of attempting to use Jesus' message for worldly purposes is one of the book's major themes.

"What Jesus Meant" would be a good companion volume for anyone who is working through the New Testament.
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148 of 167 people found the following review helpful By Big D VINE VOICE on March 27, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Those who would align Jesus with today's poltical right or political left (and there are both) may not like this book. They may well brand it heresy...But those of us who think Jesus was not a political figure in the sense of today's thinking will find it well worth the read. Much of modern religion tries to compartmentalize Jesus to espouse their preconceived notions. Thus the title of the book: "What Jesus Meant" It could be subtitled "What Jesus REALLY Meant!" A reader who approaches this book with an open mind and a sincere search for knowledge and truth will find this to be a valuable read. Those who come with preconceived notions of their own infalibility will be threatened by it. Read it. Think. That is part "working out" one's faith.
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74 of 82 people found the following review helpful By Jean E. Pouliot on March 31, 2006
Format: Hardcover
There's never any question, when reading one of Garry Wills' books, that the reader is promised a terrific ride.

"What Jesus Meant" is less one of Wills' patented scholarly works than a devotional one. He, like many contemporary Christians (many of whom find no place within Churches) has an obsessive need to get close to Jesus. This book is an attempt to cut through the gauze of our misplaced certainty about Christ to look at him with fresh eyes. More often than his critics would contend, Wills presents a Jesus that is probably as close as we can ever come to the enigmatic man whom two billion Christian s call Lord.

Wills hooked me from the first page. His depiction of Koine Greek - the language of the New Testament - as a kind of pidgin language, missing the connectives and articles of classical Greek -- was captivating, if not entirely convincing. It was fascinating to imagine Christ and Pilate struggling to converse in a kind of "You Kingee Jews?" broken Greek that would have caused laughter to their educated contemporaries. Wills gives a few examples of his own word-for-word scriptural translations that seem very rough indeed. Most of his other examples, however, are much less rough, making me wonder whether he was making too much of this thesis.

Wills turns to the Jesus story with the same hit-or miss blend of brilliance and improbability that he used with Koine Greek.

Wills is as unhappy with just about everybody. He dislikes the scholars of the Jesus Seminar and has little use with traditional images of Christ provided by the Churches, especially his own Roman Catholic Church. The former group, Wills says, "tames the real, radical Jesus, cutting him down to their size." Hear, hear.
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Format: Hardcover
Who and what was Jesus? What did he teach? What were his intentions? There are nearly as many answers to these questions as there are people answering them and the reviews here reflect that diversity. I have been a passionate reader of the New Testament since high school and have reflected on the life of Jesus and debated its meaning both with myself and my friends since junior high. Raised Southern Baptist, I was taught to read the New Testament for myself and not merely at the direction of others and even my time in divinity school (the nondenominational Yale Divinity School) made me trust others more than myself. I was delighted in reading this book to find very much the Jesus that I also encountered in reading the New Testament. Like Wills, I have been horrified at the domestication and puritanizing of Jesus by organized religion. I was delighted in reading this book to find ably described the Jesus of faith that I also had found.

Of course, that a Baptist and a Catholic can find the same Jesus can possibly only occur of the Catholic isn't a very compliant one, and many of the reviews here express the dismay some readers have felt in reading so many views in opposition to the Roman Catholic tradition. I have no problem with this because it has always been obvious to me that Jesus detested religious ritual and ceremony, established no priesthood or hierarchical clergy, and certainly never established anything like the papacy. I was fascinated, however, to find Wills holding positions similar to my own on a host of issues. He apparently has as low an opinion of the papacy I do (I hail from Little Rock, Arkansas, home of one of the two cardinals opposed to the dogma of papal infallibility in the late 19th century). I have not read Wills's book on why he is a Catholic.
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