What Jesus Meant

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Overview

Whose side is Jesus really on? Whose views do his teachings support? Should we aspire to be "Christlike"--meaning homeless, subversive, scandalous, in constant danger of being kidnapped or arrested, and keeping company with the less-than-respectable? In a time of national debate about what the Bible says on social issues, Wills, a distinguished historian and writer on religion, examines what Jesus actually said about how we should live our lives--and how he chose to live his ...

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What Jesus Meant

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Overview

Whose side is Jesus really on? Whose views do his teachings support? Should we aspire to be "Christlike"--meaning homeless, subversive, scandalous, in constant danger of being kidnapped or arrested, and keeping company with the less-than-respectable? In a time of national debate about what the Bible says on social issues, Wills, a distinguished historian and writer on religion, examines what Jesus actually said about how we should live our lives--and how he chose to live his own.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Many readers know Garry Wills as a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, but observers interested in issues of faith recognize also him as one of the most articulate and committed writers on religion. His 2002 Why I Am a Catholic stands as a seminal affirmation of faith. In What Jesus Meant, Wills distances Jesus' words and deeds from strident political manifestoes and encrusted religious hierarchies. Wills's Jesus is radical, egalitarian, but unmistakably divine and nonpolitical.
Jon Meacham
Drawing on the wonderful scholarship of N. T. Wright, the late Raymond Brown and others, Wills makes a trenchant case for why Jesus' earliest followers believed in their Lord's physical resurrection. If the tomb had not been empty, the authorities could have shut down the early Christians rather easily by dragging out Jesus' bones; they had, after all, gone to all the trouble to execute him, and the only plausible explanation for the disciples' transformation from scattered and scared to fierce preachers and martyrs is that they came to believe Jesus had in fact risen from the dead and began, at last, to understand what he had been saying to them all along. So what was — what is — the ultimate meaning of Jesus? The question will be with us always, even to the end of the age. But we do know this: One cannot read his story without seeing that there is no life without love.
— The New York Times
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 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Wills, one of America's most prolific scholars and a Pulitzer Prize winner, has graced us with what at first appears to be just another book about Jesus, but it is more than that. Though the author's collective writings are numerous and varied, he has always returned to church history (especially Catholic history, e.g., Papal Sin) with particular affection. This book can be seen in the larger framework of Wills's intellectual history, which has often dealt with the power structures of the church. Here he tries to understand Jesus as someone who, without the strictures of religion and politics, managed to transcend the powers and faults of the human condition and explicates the individual Jesus Christ through the Gospels. Addressing the meaning of Jesus' teachings in the first century C.E., the book serves as a tool to combat the politicization of Jesus in the modern world, but this is sure to be a contentious point for some readers. A fresh look at an old topic, this is recommended for public, church, and theological libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 11/15/05.]-Anthony J. Elia, American Theological Lib. Assn., Chicago Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781598873764
  • Publisher: HighBridge Company
  • Publication date: 3/23/2007
  • Format: MP3
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Ships to U.S.and APO/FPO addresses only.

Meet the Author

Garry Wills

GARRY WILLS is a distinguished historian, critic, and author of numerous books including the Pulitzer Prize-winning LINCOLN AT GETTYSBURG and the New York Times bestsellers WHY I AM A CATHOLIC and PAPAL SIN. A regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, he has won two National Book Critics Circle awards and the 1998 National Medal for the Humanities. Wills is an adjunct professor of history at Northwestern University.

Biography

Born in Atlanta in 1934 and raised in the Midwest, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and distinguished religion writer Garry Wills entered the Jesuit seminary after high school graduation, but left after six years of training. He received a B.A. from St. Louis University (1957), an M.A. from Xavier University of Cincinnati (1958), and his Ph.D. in classics from Yale (1961).

After graduating from Xavier, Wills was hired to work as the drama critic for National Review magazine, where he became a close personal friend and protégé of founding editor William F. Buckley. But as the winds of change blew across the 1960s, Wills got caught up in the cross-currents. A staunch Catholic anti-Communist in his youth, he began to drift away from political conservatism, galvanized by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam debate. He parted ways with National Review and began writing for more liberal-leaning publications like Esquire and the New York Review of Books, a defection that left him slightly estranged from Buckley for many years. (They reconciled before Buckley's death in 2008.)

In 1961, while he was still in grad school, Wills's first book, Chesterton: Man and Mask was published. [It was revised and reissued in 2001 with a new author's introduction.] Since then, the prolific Wills has gone on to pen critically acclaimed nonfiction that roams across history, politics, and religion. He expanded one of his Esquire articles into Nixon Agonistes (1970), a probing profile John Leonard said "...reads like a combination of H. L. Mencken, John Locke and Albert Camus." (The book landed Wills on the famous Nixon's Enemies List.) He has also written penetrating studies of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Wayne, and Saint Paul; he has won two National Book Critics Circle Awards; and his 1992 book Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

Something of a rara avis, Wills is a Catholic intellectual who has produced thoughtful, scholarly books on religion in America. His translations of St. Augustine have received glowing reviews, and he has acted both as an outspoken critic of the Church (Papal Sin) and as an ardent advocate for his own faith Why I Am a Catholic). Proof of his accessibility can be found in the fact that several of his religion books have become bestsellers.

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    1. Date of Birth:
      May 22, 1934
    2. Place of Birth:
      Atlanta, GA
    1. Education:
      St. Louis University, B.A., 1957; Xavier University, M.A., 1958; Yale University, Ph.D., 1961

Read an Excerpt

What Jesus Meant


By Gary Wills

Viking Adult

ISBN: 0-670-03496-7


Foreword

Christ Not a Christian

In certain religious circles, the letters WWJD serve as a password or shibboleth. Web sites sell bracelets and T-shirts with the cryptic motto. Some politicians tell us this watchword guides them in making decisions. The letters stand for "What Would Jesus Do?" We are assured that doing the same thing is the goal of real Christians.

But can we really aspire to do what Jesus did? Would we praise a twelve-year-old who slips away from his parents in a big city and lets them leave town without telling them he is staying behind? The reaction of any parent would be that of Jesus' parents: "How could you treat us this way?" (Lk 2.48). Or if relatives seek access to a Christian, should he say that he has no relatives but his followers (Mk 3.33-35)? We might try to change water into wine; but if we did, would we take six huge water vats, used for purification purposes, and fill them with over a hundred gallons of wine, more than any party could drink (Jn 2.6)? If we could cast out devils, would we send them into a herd of pigs, destroying two thousand animals (Mk 5.13)? Some Christians place a very high value on the rights of property, yet this was a massive invasion of some person's property and livelihood.

Other Christians lay great emphasis on family values-should they, like Jesus, forbid a man from attending his own father's funeral (Mt 8.22) or tell others to hate theirparents (Mt 8.22, Lk 14.26)? Or should they go into a rich new church in some American suburb, a place taking pride in its success, and whip the persons holding out collection plates, crying, "Make not my Father's house a traders' mart"

(Jn 2.16) or "a thieves' lair" (Mk 11.17)? Would it be wise of them to call national religious leaders "whitewashed tombs, pleasant enough to outer appearance, but inside full of dead bones and every rottenness" (Mt 23.27)? Are they justified in telling others, "I come not imposing peace, I impose not peace but the sword" (Mt 10.34)? Or "I am come to throw fire on the earth" (Lk 12.49)? Should they imitate Jesus when he says, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but never will my words pass away" (Mk 21.333)? Or when he says, "I am the resurrection" (Jn 11.25) or "I am the truth" (Jn 14.6), or "I have the authority to lay down my life and I have the authority to take it up again" (Jn 10.18)? None of those who want to imitate Jesus should proclaim that "I am the light of the world" (Jn 8.12) or that "I am the path" to the Father (Jn 14.6).

These are just a few samples of the way Jesus acts in the gospel. They were acts meant to show that he is not just like us, that he has higher rights and powers, that he has an authority as arbitrary as God's in the Book of Job. He is a divine mystery walking among men. The only way we can directly imitate him is to act as if we were gods ourselves-yet that is the very thing he forbids. He tells us to act as the last, not the first, as the least, not the greatest. And this accords with the common sense of mankind. Christians cannot really be "Christlike." As Chesterton said, "A great man knows he is not God, and the greater he is the better he knows it." The thing we have to realize is that Christ, whoever or whatever he was, was certainly not a Christian. Romano Guardini put it this way in The Humanity of Christ:

If Jesus is a mere man, then he must be measured by the message which he brought to men. He must himself do what he expects of others; he must himself think according to the way he demanded that men think. He must himself be a Christian. Very well, then; the more he is like that, the less he will speak, act, or think as he did; and the more he will be appalled by the blasphemy of the way he did behave. If Jesus is mere man as we are, even though a very profound one, very devout, very pure-no, let us put it another way: the measure of his depth, devotion, purity, reverence, will be the measure in which it will be impossible for him to say what he says.... The following clear-cut alternative emerges: either he is-not just evil, for that would not adequately describe the case-either he is deranged, as Nietzsche became in Turin in 1888, or he is quite different, deeply and essentially different, from what we are.

To read the gospels in the spirit with which they were written, it is not enough to ask what Jesus did or said. We must ask what Jesus meant by his strange deeds and words. He intended to reveal the Father to us, and to show that he is the only-begotten Son of that Father. What he signified is always more challenging than we expect, more outrageous, more egregious. That is why the Catholic novelist Francois Mauriac calls him "of all the great characters history places before us, the least logical." Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor knew this when he reproached Christ for puzzling men by being "exceptional, vague, and enigmatic."

It is true that Saint Paul tells us to "put [our] mind in Christ's when dealing with one another" (Phil 2.5). But looking to the mind of Christ is a way of learning what he meant, on many levels. We can learn what he valued in the human drama as he moved among his fellows. According to the gospels, he preferred the company of the lowly and despised that of the rich and powerful. He crossed lines of ritual purity to deal with the unclean-with lepers, the possessed, the insane, with prostitutes and adulterers and collaborators with Rome. (Was he subtly mocking ritual purification when he filled the water vessels with wine?) He was called a bastard (Jn 8.41) and was rejected by his own brothers (Jn 7.3-5) and the rest of his family (Mk 3.21). He was an outcast among outcasts, sharing the lot of the destitute, the defiled, the despised. "He was counted among the outlaws" (Lk 22.37).

He had a lower-class upbringing, as a cabinetmaker's son. That was a trade usually marginal and itinerant in his time. He chose his followers from the lower class, from fishermen, dependent on the season's catch, or from a despised trade (tax collection for the Romans). There were no Scribes or scholars of the Law in his following. Jesus not only favored the homeless. He was himself homeless, born homeless and living homeless during his public life: "Foxes have lairs, and birds have nests in air, but the Son of Man has nowhere to put down his head" (Mt 8.20). He depended on others to shelter him. He especially depended on women, who were "second-class citizens" in his culture. He was not a philosopher. He wrote nothing for his followers in a later age. He depended on his uneducated followers to express what he meant. He knew that the Spirit moving them had no need of men with Ph.D.s or with grants from learned foundations (1 Cor 1.20).

His very presence was subversive. He was born on the run, fleeing Herod. As the Anglican bishop N. T. Wright puts it, he "came into the world with a death sentence already hanging over him, as the paranoid old tyrant up the road got wind of a young royal pretender." Jesus would later move through teams of men setting traps for him, trying to assassinate him, to crush his following, to give him the same treatment given the beheaded John the Baptist. He had to "go into hiding" (Jn 12.36). He was in constant danger-of being kidnapped (Jn 7.30, 7.44), of being arrested (Mt 21.46, Jn 7.32), of being assassinated (Mt 12.14, Lk 13.31, Jn 7.1, 11.53), of being stoned for his irreligion (Jn 8.59, 10.31-33), of being thrown off a cliff (Lk 4.29). Herod Antipas, who killed John the Baptist openly, plotted to kill Jesus secretly (Lk 13.31).

Jesus was called an agent of the devil, or the devil himself (Mk 3.22, Jn 7.20, 8.48, 10.20). He was unclean (Lk 11.38), a consorter with Samaritans (Lk 17.16) and with loose women (Lk 7.39). He was a promoter of immorality (Mk 2.16), a glutton and a drunkard (Lk 7.34), a mocker of the Jewish Law (Mt 12.10, Jn 5.16, 9.16), a schismatic (Jn 8.48). He was never respectable. In fact, he shocked the elders and priests of the Temple when he said, "In truth I tell you, tax collectors and whores are entering God's reign before you" (Mt 21.31). Even when a Pharisee was well disposed to Jesus, he was afraid to be seen with the radical by daylight (Jn 3.1). Jesus seemed to prefer the company of the less-than-respectable, since he said that his Father "favors ingrates and scoundrels" (Lk 6.35). I am reminded of the journalist Murray Kempton, who relished the company of rogues. A political leader once said that Murray would have liked him if only he had a criminal record-though I am sure Murray liked him anyway, from the way he used to tell me good-bye by saying "God bless you," as if we would never meet again.

For two years, Jesus slipped through all the traps set for him. He moved like a fish in the sea of his lower-class fellows. He kept on the move, in the countryside. If I think of a music to be heard in the background of his restless mission, it is the scurrying agitato that opens Khachaturian's violin concerto. He went into cities as into alien territory. He was a man of the margins, never quite fitting in, always "out of context." He sought the wilderness, the mountaintop. He gave the slip even to his followers (Mk 7.24). The puzzled disciples trotted behind, trying to make sense of what seemed to them inexplicable, squabbling among themselves about what he was up to. It would never have occurred to them to wear a WWJD bracelet.

Jesus ghosted in and out of people's lives, blessing and cursing, curing and condemning. If he was not God, he was a standing blasphemy against God. The last thing he can be considered is a "gentle Jesus meek and mild." To quote Chesterton again:

We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has hidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heart-breaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters.... There is something appalling, something that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of having a statue of Christ in wrath. There is something insupportable even to the imagination in the idea of turning the corner of a street or coming out into the spaces of a marketplace, to meet the petrifying petrifaction of that figure as it turned upon a generation of vipers, or that face as it looked at the face of a hypocrite.... [The gospel story] is full of sudden gestures evidently significant except that we hardly know what they signify; of enigmatic silences; of ironical replies. The outbreaks of wrath, like storms above our atmosphere, do not seem to break out exactly where we should expect them, but to follow some higher weather chart of their own. The Peter whom popular Church teaching presents is very rightly the Peter to whom Christ said in forgiveness, "Feed my lambs." He is not the Peter upon whom Christ turned as if he were the devil, crying in that obscure wrath, "Get thee behind me, Satan." Christ lamented with nothing but love and pity over Jerusalem which was to murder him. We do not know what strange spiritual atmosphere or spiritual insight led him to sink Bethsaida lower in the pit than Sodom.

The Jesus of the gospels is scandalous, and one of those scandalized was Thomas Jefferson. He was so offended by the miracles and the curses, by the devils assailing and defeated, that he created his own more acceptable Jesus, excising all those parts of the gospels that he considered unworthy of a wise man's story. The result, cleansed of all the supernatural hocus-pocus, is the tale of a good man, a very good man, perhaps the best of good men-therefore a man who would not pretend to work miracles, to wrestle with demons, or to have unique access to God the Father. Jefferson's revised New Testament is not only much shorter than the real one but much duller. Nothing unexpected occurs in it. There is, for instance, no Resurrection. Jefferson's Jesus is shorn of his paradoxes and left with platitudes. He is a man of his time, or even ahead of his time, but not outside time, whereas the Jesus of the gospels is both temporal and above time. As Chesterton concludes:

There is more of the wisdom that is one with surprise in any simple person, full of the sensitiveness of simplicity, who should expect the grass to wither and the birds to drop dead out of the air, when a strolling carpenter's apprentice said calmly and almost carelessly, like one looking over his shoulder: "Before Abraham was, I am."

Needless to say, that verse (Jn 8.58) is excised by Jefferson. His mild humanitarian moralizer is not allowed to say anything shocking, challenging, or obscure. Devils and miracles are not the only things to go. So are passages like this:

"Think not I come imposing peace to earth. I come bringing not peace but a sword. I bring conflict between a man and his father, a daughter and her mother, a wife and her mother-in-law-a man's foes will be found in his own home. One who loves father or mother before me does not deserve me. One who loves son or daughter before me does not deserve me. And anyone who does not take up a cross and tread in my footsteps does not deserve me. The man protective of his life will lose it, but the one casting life away on my account will preserve it." (Mt 10.34-39)

Jefferson's extraction of the "real" gospel from the traditional one-a task he called as easy as "finding diamonds in dunghills"-has been taken up in recent years by a team that finds the task more difficult, but productive of much the same result. This team of scholars calls itself the Jesus Seminar, and it prints a Bible that sets apart by different colors the "authentic" sayings or deeds of Jesus and the sayings invented by the evangelists or their sources. Though these experts use linguistic and historical tests for qualifying the diamonds in their dunghill, they work from a Jeffersonian assumption that anything odd or dangerous or supernatural is prima facie suspect. That disqualifies the Resurrection from the outset. The Seminar's founder, Robert Funk, agreed with Jefferson that Jesus was "a secular sage," and the team trims the gospels even more thoroughly than Jefferson did. One whole gospel, John, has no authentic saying (Jefferson liked quite a lot of John). Most of Mark (usually counted the most authentic gospel, since it is the earliest) also falls by the wayside, along with the last three and a half chapters of Matthew. Luke, as the most "humanist gospel," comes off best, but overall the Seminar retains fewer than a fifth of the gospel acts of Jesus and fewer than a fifth of his words.

This is the new fundamentalism. It believes in the literal sense of the Bible-it just reduces the Bible to what it can take as literal quotation from Jesus. Though some people have called the Jesus Seminarists radical, they are actually very conservative. They tame the real radical, Jesus, cutting him down to their own size. Robert Funk called Jesus "the first Jewish stand-up comic"-which is not as far as it might at first glance seem from Jefferson's view of him as the last sit-down Stoic sage.

Of course, the sayings that meet with the Seminar's approval were preserved by the Christian communities whose contribution is discounted. Jesus as a person does not exist outside the gospels, and the only reason he exists there is because of their authors' faith in the Resurrection. Trying to find a construct, "the historical Jesus," is not like finding diamonds in a dunghill, but like finding New York City at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. It is a mixing of categories, or rather of wholly different worlds of discourse. 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 Jesus of the gospels is the Jesus preached, who is the Jesus resurrected. Belief in his continuing activity in the members of his mystical body is the basis of Christian belief in the gospels. If that is unbelievable to anyone, then why should that person bother with him? The flat cutout figure they are left with is not a more profound philosopher than Plato, a better storyteller than Mark Twain, or a more bitingly ascetical figure than Epictetus (the only ancient philosopher Jefferson admired). If his claims are no higher than theirs, then those claims amount to nothing.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from What Jesus Meant by Gary Wills Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 14 of 12 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2009

    great read

    I found his book to be quite thought provoking - being raised Catholic and after having some difficulty continuing to believe in the Catholic way, this book really helped me to understand that it doesn't matter what religion you are, all you really need is to understand what Jesus meant and then follow through. This book takes the confusion out of understanding the bible and some of Jesus' teachings and puts things into perspective for us to relate to today. It brings to a crystal clear light what exactly Jesus was here for and what he wants of us. I really enjoyed this book.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 5, 2009

    Thought provoking

    Mr. Wills presents a number of slants on the life and teachings of Jesus.
    As a Catholic but one that does not agree with the church's ostentatious style I enjoyed this book.
    None of the points that Mr. Wills puts forth are radical or can be readily dismissed.
    It is not a "deep" composition BUT one that is a good and thought provoking book

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 4, 2012

    Highly Recommended

    This book is for anyone interested in developing their faith and keeping it fresh. Garry has a way of articulating a different perspective in a clear, convincing manner. Even if you don't agree, you have to admit it makes you think. Do not just read the first 50 pages; read the whole (short) book before making a determination; it will change your perception, at least a little.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2010

    informative

    It's nice to read a book that uses current scholarship about Jesus' time and when the books of the New Testament were written but is written by a believer. The author makes sense of parts that might be confusing to a modern reader while acknowledging the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses to the events.

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