Making a case for Jesus as the enemy of religion.
March 20, 2006 issue – Garry Wills’s latest book, “What Jesus Meant,” should affront most of his fellow Christians—right from the foreword, which argues that Christ was not one of them. The megachurch set won’t care to hear that “Jesus did not come to replace the Temple with other buildings, whether huts or rich cathedrals.” The Christian left, committed to good works, won’t care to hear that Jesus “does not work miracles from humanitarian motives.” The Christian right, cozy with secular power, won’t care to hear that “if they want the state to be politically Christian, they are not following Jesus.” Pope Benedict XVI really won’t care to hear that he, “like his predecessors, is returning to the religion that Jesus renounced, with all its paraphernalia of priesthood.” What parishioner of any denomination wants to hear that the Gospels are “a deep threat to the institutional church,” since Jesus opposed “just about every form of religion we know”?
This devout contrarianism is no less than you’d expect from Wills—who followed his 2000 broadside “Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit” with a work of history and spiritual autobiography called “Why I Am a Catholic.” He’s a tough-minded, many-minded man: a historian, a critic and a social and political observer, as well as a Christian apologist; he’s written brilliantly about Lincoln and Nixon, Bill Clinton and John Wayne, Saint Augustine and Shakespeare. Wills was identified with the conservative movement in its more intellectually respectable days—he wrote for years in National Review—but in this book he praises Jesus as a “radical egalitarian,” a proto-feminist and a subversive who “was never afraid to speak truth to power.” (Smart as he is, Wills isn’t above a cliche’ now and then.) He critiques the lingering notion that sex is somehow “unclean,” and he sticks up for the Dobsonites’ latest punching bags: “Those persecuting gays are persecuting Jesus.”
Wills’s title plays off the evangelical catchphrase “What would Jesus do?”—which he finds absurd. The Jesus he sees in the Gospels is seldom the kindly, meek and compliant Savior who made Sunday school so boring, but a mercurial, unpredictable dissident who asserts “an authority as arbitrary as God’s in the Book of Job … 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.” The beginning and end of this Jesus’ teaching is love, but hardly “family values”: he preached (in Wills’s own translation) that “if one coming to me does not hate his father and his mother, his wife and his children, and his brothers and his sisters … he cannot be my follower.”
Despite his intellectual rigor, Wills lets some inconsistencies slip in. He tells us the word “kingdom” is a misleading translation, yet two pages later he writes of the emergence of “the kingdom.” He denounces Biblical translators’ “reverential archaisms,” yet his own translations lumber with archaic dignity: “you speak aright,” “sleep you, Simon?” and the old “judge not.” And his explications of the principal conundrum of Christian doctrine—why does the plan of a loving God require the Crucifixion?—won’t convince those without faith. Whose explications ever have? But Wills gives believers a spiritual workout, and he puts Jesus, whoever we think he is, in our faces with enough immediacy to startle even those who think they know him.