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What Jesus Meant Paperback – February 27, 2007
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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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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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Top Customer Reviews
Citing many scriptural quotes from Christ himself, Wills shows us the more radical side of Jesus... the Jesus that confounded the Pharisees, broke orthodox religious laws, overturned the money changers' tables, ministered to the "unclean" and died a horrible death on the cross, rejected and despised, even while he prayed for those who killed him. I don't mean to suggest that Wills depicts Jesus negatively... quite the opposite in fact. Wills seems to suggest that we have built up a mental image of Christ, dressed in white robes and surrounded by lambs and children, but that this vignette glosses over many of the important details about him which we tend to forget.
For me to review this book beyond what I have already written would be to do it a disservice, as I lack the words to adequately describe Wills depiction of Jesus. I give it 4 stars instead of 5 only because Wills writing style is a little bit obscure sometimes and I found myself re-reading passages occasionally because my brain couldn't latch on to his point the first time around. This is probably more my failing than Wills'.
Garry Wills is a history professor at Northwestern and a Pulitzer Prize winning author. The Chicago Tribune has called Wills "perhaps the foremost Catholic intellectual" of today. Wills implies that Christians should accept the portrait of Jesus in the gospels, including the miracles: "The only Jesus we have is the Jesus of faith. If you reject the faith, there is no reason to trust anything the gospels say." The proof for this faith is the Resurrection and the miracles. The earliest Christians accepted both at face value.
Wills describes a radical Jesus who inveighed against the rich and powerful. He was a friend to sinners and the losers in society. He drank wine and lived an itinerant lifestyle. He flaunted convention and had little time for religious observance. Jesus was angry with the religious leaders of his time who he viewed as hypocrites. Wills dislikes the hierarchy of established religion. He feels strongly that this is directly counter to Christ's message of equality and the meek inheriting the earth. In the early Church there were no priests, no bishops and certainly no pope. Wills' Jesus would not have been impressed with 21st-century American mega-churches or Benedict XVI's Vatican.
Wills insists that Jesus had no political agenda, that "his reign is not of that order." However, as Wills himself argues, Jesus spoke repeatedly about inequality and injustice. He was "opposed to war and violence" and was "a threat to power." Wills believes that Jesus would support the separation of church and state. However, it was hard for Christians in the first century to affect political change, so the message from the gospels seemed to be, don't bother. Christians today have more influence on the world around them, I am still unclear why political power cannot be used promote Christian values.
After exploring the Atonement traditional theories, most of which involve appeasing an angry God, Wills speaks of Jesus' "mission as lifting humankind up into his own intimacy with the Father." God's love rescues us not from God's anger, but from "the forces at work against God - all the accumulated sins that cripple human freedom." Wills views Jesus' horrible death as a rescue mission rather than a human sacrifice. The only way we could be rescued was for God to come down here and do it in person. Wills tells a touching story of his son waking in the night, terrified by nuns who told him he'd go to hell if he sinned. When his young son asked him, "Daddy, what if I go to hell?" Wills replied, "If you do, I'll go with you." He realized this was an imperfect picture of God's love - a love willing to descend into hell for our sakes.
Wills expresses doubts as to whether the Catholic church has evolved in a way that Jesus would have approved of. He also takes potshots at the pope. In fact he is so upset about present day Catholicism that he almost sounds like a Puritan.
Wills states that Jesus did not come to establish a church but to bring in "Heaven's reign." This reign is the personal presence of Jesus in our lives, through which we are united with the Father: "as the Father loved me, so I love you." In Wills' opinion "entering into the kingdom is the act of union with Jesus." To remain in this love we have to obey Jesus' instruction "to love one another as I have loved you." (John 15:12)
It's a book which is easy to read and understand. If you follow Jesus' teachings in the four gospels, which are clear and straightforward, you won't go far wrong. Wills' view is that there is more to being a Christian than just believing in Jesus, you also have to live a Christian life.