Book of the Fortnight: What Jesus Meant


A friend of William F. Buckley, Garry Wills is one of the more respected authors on Catholicism and religion. I first read a book by him concerning the Rosary, which I found very informative, insightful and thought provoking. So when I discovered this title by Wills I was very interested to read it. Not what one would consider a “typical” Catholic, Wills not only probes the depths of Jesus’ words and deeds, he does not shy away from criticizing the Church.

Wills opens the book discussing translations. Being a scholar of Greek, he uses his own ability to translate from Greek to English. From there he discusses the various forms of fundamentalism he sees in the debate over Jesus – not just Biblical Literalists but also those striving to make Jesus a secular figure. Wills argues against both these extremes and calls for more nuance between the two dichotomies before moving on to the heart of the matter – what Jesus meant.

A large amount of Jesus’ deeds involve his interactions with the “unclean” – those the law states are on the outside of acceptable society. This is the central theme Wills works with throughout the book. He not only discusses the “unclean” of Jesus’ time but who represents the “unclean” in today’s society. The first indication that Wills is not your “typical” Catholic comes when he discusses homosexuality. He reprints a letter to a Protestant evangelical literalist (rumored to have been sent to Dr. Laura) that eviscerates a literal reading of the Bible today. In case there is any misunderstanding of Wills position, he makes it very clear in a later passage:

What exactly does that mean? “Whenever you did these things to the lowliest of my brothers, you were doing it to me.” It meant that priests who sexually molest boys are molesting Jesus. Televangelists who cheat old women of their savings are cheating Jesus. Those killing members of other religions because of their religion are killing Jesus. Those who despise the poor are despising Jesus. Those neglecting the homeless are neglecting Jesus. Those persecuting gays are persecuting Jesus.

There is so much more, and yet Wills manages to cram a surprising amount of material into a mere 142 pages. He concludes by pointing out that any claims to a “faith-based politics” is a false claim and a form of idolitry, once again making it clear that Jesus meant something much more. Regardless of one’s personal views on religion or Christianity, What Jesus Meant provides a compact yet in depth analysis of the Gospel. Thought provoking and touching, Garry Wills proves in this book exactly why he is considered among the foremost in Catholic writers.

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