In what are billed "culture wars", people on the political right and the political left cite Jesus as endorsing their views. Garry Wills argues that Jesus subscribed to no political program. He was far more radical than that. In a fresh reading of the gospels, Wills explores the meaning of the "reign of heaven" that Jesus not only promised for the future but brought with him into this life.It is only by dodges and evasions that people misrepresent what Jesus plainly had to say against power, the wealthy, and religion itself. But Wills is just as critical of those who would make Jesus a mere ethical teacher, ignoring or playing down his divinity. An illuminating analysis for believers and nonbelievers alike, What Jesus Meant is a brilliant addition to our national conversation on religion.
"A spiritual workout." (Newsweek) "Engaging and provocative." (Chicago Tribune) "Fascinating...like a long, rich conversation with a learned friend...[Wills'] is a kind of devotion...that engages the heart and mind, to the benefit of both." (The New York Times Book Review)
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And I've read a lot of books on Jesus (theology degree). A minor corrective to the excellent review below is that Wills is not really after "the historical Jesus" as it is usually meant. "The historical Jesus," as he explains in the book, connotes the quest for a Jesus of history (in our contemporary sense of "what actually happened") behind the narratives in the Bible. Some biblical scholars work out a number of tests to determine what Jesus actually said and then report that as history. Wills is right to challenge a lot of this way of thinking, though these approaches are certainly valuable. Indeed, anyone with experience in the language and culture of the text will likely be familiar with many of Wills' readings, which are often drawn from scholars who rely on methods from the search for the historical Jesus (Raymond Brown, for instance).
Wills' innovation is to change the terms of the debate from "history" and "faith" to "meaning," which is a brilliant move. What makes this book so powerful is that it actually takes Jesus' words for what they meant (imagine that...). The teachings on non-violence really mean absolute non-violence. The teachings on poverty and against wealth really mean that. Jesus is egalitarian, non-hierarchical, did not come to found a church or a priesthood, and would be saddened by the condition of Christianity today, especially its division and thirst for worldly power. God's love and forgiveness are absolute, and Jesus was an unconditional friend of the outcast, women, and the unclean. He radically changed the codes of cleanness, by shifting their meaning to the heart (not to things like sex, per se), and declared his Father's reign, which was "not of this world." He sent a "Champion" in the Holy Spirit. Later interpretations of atonement theology are a radical misreading of what actually took place. The sections on Judas, who stands for all of us, are moving and well-written.
One objection might be that Wills minimizes the political impact of Jesus' message. A frequent theme is that Jesus did not come "to found a politics," but announce God's "reign," to be fulfilled at the end of time. This idea might rely a little too much on a modern understanding of a separation between religion and politics, which would have been foreign to Jesus' context. The terms of Jesus' message are political, he placed God's reign against the Roman Empire of the time, and he was killed for political reasons. Living out his message as Wills sees it obviously has political implications today. It might be interesting to contrast these assertions with John Howard Yoder's excellent book, The Politics of Jesus. In any case, a minor point of debate. Another might be that the book is pretty hard on the concept of priests, but, as Wills says elsewhere in books like -Why I Am a Catholic-, he's been inspired by priests too. Finally, Augustine comes up a lot as a positive touchstone, but, paradoxically, he helped introduce many of the things Wills most objects to (the fall, atonement theology, sexual purity fixations, hell, war, etc.). There's a tension there. (See his book on Augustine, by the way).
Wills reads the work himself and does an excellent job. A book to share, inspire, and return to.
Gary Wills in "What Jesus Meant" sets out to place Jesus and his teachings in historical context. People of faith and those who are sceptics all have a lot to learn from Wills' easy style, thorough scholarhip, and careful writing.
Wills has several other books written, I suppose, to explain his faith, following the same pattern ("What the Gospels Meant:, What Paul Meant). Each is also beneficial in its own way.
The writing is good and the reading excellent. One may, however, prefer reading the texts in written form or having the hard copy for future reference and study.