Wednesday, May 31, 2006

What Jesus Meant according to Gary Wills

A good review of Gary Wills' book, What Jesus Meant, by Stephen Prothero is in Book World of the Washington Post May 28-June 3rd 2006. Julian and I went along to a lunch at NYPL last April at which Gary Wills spoke on his book and fielded questions from a packed auditorium.

According to Wills, Jesus was not a social reformer. His kingdom "is not of this world." Jesus came "to instill a religion of the heart, with only himself as the place where we encounter the Father." In the reign of heaven, "love is everything." But this love "is not a dreamy, sentimental, gushy thing. It is radical love, exigent, searing, terrifying." Yet it would appear to be domesticated love without teeth since it is apolitical and pacific. How can Jesus or followers of Jesus speak truth to power about civil rights or slavery?

Wills' has been accused of having Anglican sympathies by his fellow Roman Catholics especially in light of his earlier book, Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit? In What Jesus Meant, Wills opines that Jesus meant for women to be ordained, for clergy to be married, and he recognizes that in Jesus' time there was no hierarchy--no priests, bishops and certainly no Pope. Doubtless, Wills is reinscribing separation of church and state. Jesus isn't a Democrat or a conservative Republican.

The trouble with this approach is that it makes no sense of the ways in which Christians (including those on the right and left today) have understood Jesus to speak truth to power. It makes no sense of the context of nonviolent retaliation as Matthew describes it on Jesus' lips in the Sermon on the Mount. Further, the context of Jesus' death makes no sense unless he is seen as a political threat as Mark's gospel makes clear in its account of the crucifixion. The most that can be said about Wills' book is that it shows that contemporary Roman Catholic interpretations of Jesus by Republicans are by no means monolithic.

1 comment:

Rev Dr Mom said...

Some of my parishioners are reading this book and like it very much. I've been thinking that I need to read it to respond to them. Thanks for your comments; they are very helpful.