Garry Wills: His New Take on Jesus





... Garry Wills takes a skeptical look at WWJD in the opening pages of his new book, What Jesus Meant, published by Viking. He takes it as a variety of spiritual kitsch — an aspect of the fundamentalist and Republican counterculture, cemtered around suburban mega-churches offering a premium on individual salvation.

In any case, says Wills, the question is misleading and perhaps dangerous. The gospels aren’t a record of exemplary moments; the actions of Jesus are not meant as a template. “He is a divine mystery walking among men,” writes Wills. “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.”

Wills, a professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University, was on the way to becoming a Jesuit when he left the seminary, almost 50 years ago, to begin writing for William F. Buckley at The National Review. At the time, that opinion magazine had a very impressive roster of conservative literary talent; its contributors included Joan Didion, Hugh Kenner, John Leonard, and Evelyn Waugh. (The mental firepower there has fallen off a good bit in the meantime.) Wills came to support the civil rights movement and oppose the Vietnam war, which made for a certain amount of tension; he parted ways with Buckley’s journal in the early 1970s. The story is told in his Confessions of a Conservative (1979) – a fascinating memoir, intercalated with what is, for the nonspecialist anyway, an alarmingly close analysis of St. Augustine’s City of God.

Today — many books and countless articles later — Wills is usually described as a liberal in both politics and theology, though that characterization might not hold up under scrutiny. His outlook is sui generis, like that of some vastly more learned Axel Peterson.

His short book on Jesus is a case in point. You pick it up expecting (well, I did, anyway) that Wills might be at least somewhat sympathetic to the efforts of the Jesus Seminar to identify the core teachings of the historical Jesus. Over the years, scholars associated with the seminar cut away more and more of the events and sayings attributed to Jesus in the four gospels, arguing that they were additions, superimposed on the record later.

After all this winnowing, there remained a handful of teachings — turn the other cheek, be a good Samaritan, love your enemies, have faith in God — that seemed anodyne, if not actually bland. This is Jesus as groovy rabbi, urging everybody to just be nice. Which, under the circumstances, often seems to the limit of moral ambition available to the liberal imagination.

Wills draws a firm line between his approach and that of the Jesus Seminar. He has no interest in the scholarly quest for “the historical Jesus,” which he calls a variation of fundamentalism: “It believes in the literal sense of the Bible,” writes Wills, “it just reduces the Bible to what it can take as literal quotations from Jesus.” Picking and choosing among the parts of the textual record is anathema to him: “The only Jesus we have,” writes Wills, “is the Jesus of faith. If you reject the faith, there is no reason to trust anything the Gospels say.

He comes very close to the position put forward by C.S. Lewis, that evangelical-Christian favorite. “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said,” as Lewis put it, “would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God; or else a madman or something worse.”...



comments powered by Disqus

Subscribe to our mailing list