Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What Jesus Meant (2004)

     I don't want to come off as overly critical of this book.  Nor do I want to engage in some lengthy, well researched rebuttal of the points author Gary Wills sees fit to make.  I don't know very much about Wills.  He is an acclaimed writer and supposedly much of that was written in a more academic mien.  At some point he decided to write on a level not only more accessible to the lay reader, but also became heavily influenced by authors who eschewed the notion that the academic and structured study of religion was not necessary for one to properly understand it.  There is an argument in their for the nature of the Holy Spirit, not unlike Kierkegaard's argument for the religious life.  Wills makes it clear that he is approaching the subject of Jesus' essential message with fresh eyes, forgoing the traditional and reinforced translations which modern day Christians have likely known since growing up in the faith.
     What makes the book so weak is that Wills selectively cites a few – I did not count, but it seemed like less than fifty – passages from the New Testament, relying heavily on the Four Gospels.  He picks and chooses which book is correct at any given time, occasionally speaking out against traditional interpretations.  But he consistently reuses the citations he has chosen, presenting them repeatedly as though making the same argument as to the meaning becomes more true each time it is asserted.  Wills blatantly ignores any passage that would contradict the points he wishes to make rather than to address them and systematically refute them.
     At times, What Jesus Meant (2004) serves as a platform for Wills to argue that Jesus was both human and divine, some being that existed in such a way that it is foolish to emulate (the totality) of his actions and one should rather focus on his teachings that it is through a direct relationship with him that one can come to know the Father.  At other times, it serves as a means to publicly criticize the current Pope (using letters he wrote when he was a Cardinal).  He all but speaks out against the notion of a Church without ever addressing the Fellowship that is supposed to be present for Church gatherings or even prayer.  The human element seems dirty to Wills, or that is how I read him.  He does speak out against how women were excluded from the Church but offer no remedy to that, instead treating a coming unto Jesus as an event that involves nothing of the individual other than a commitment of the soul; there is no sense of the person or people involved.
     I disagree with most of the conclusions Wills reached, but I will freely admit that I haven't read The Bible (cover to cover) since the late 1980s and am not of the mind to write an academic examination of the messages brought by Jesus.  Where I think that Jesus' message of personal accord holds as much or more weight if he were just a man, Wills thinks that denying Jesus his divinity destroys any message.  Where I think it is the Fellowship of people coming together to celebrate their shared love of each other and God that makes a church a worthwhile institution, Wills argues that the only church that really matters is the individual coming unto the Lord (or multiple people sharing a meal unto the Lord).  Wills makes Jesus, church, and God seem like cold and unrealistic concepts, which I know was not his goal.
     I would have been happier with Wills taking a much more thorough approach, one that did not cherry-pick passages (and ignore many others) to support his radical point.  I think that this was a book written for those who want to agree with the message within, in part that proper worship of God needs no instruction (indeed, instruction can lead one astray!).  Even given that, I think that Wills only frustrates the critical reader and for that reason I cannot recommend this book.
     By the way, I have no idea how I came into possession of this book.  I just found it on the bookshelf and figured it was short enough for me to read before August was over (it took two days to read and I finished on the 29th).  At a cost of $0 – or so I assume – I'm not that upset that I read it, but I'm glad I didn't purchase it.

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