Monday, March 5, 2007


As I’ve said elsewhere, I read many books. I read for many reasons, but usually I read to learn new facts, or to clarify my thinking, or to find out the thinking of others, with whom I may agree or disagree. But every once in a while I read a book that causes me to ask myself why I didn’t write it.

I just finished ready Garry Wills’, WHAT JESUS MEANT (Penguin Books, 2006) and it’s one of those books.

It’s a great book! The fact that it was a New York Times’ bestseller makes it even more significant. It means people have read and are reading this book. Even our local public library featured a review of it in one of their monthly readers’ meetings.

Why would a book about Jesus be a best-seller? Usually those that are introduce some heresy, denying Christ’s deity, or sinlessness or resurrection, the latest being THE FAMILY TOMB OF JESUS by Simcha Jacobovici, which of course follows THE DaVINCI CODE, THE GOSPEL OF JUDAS, etc., etc. Many, I suppose would place Wills' book in the same category.

But it’s not! Though Wills is an iconoclast, he speaks from (I believe) the standpoint of faith. He doesn’t attempt to deny or disprove the person of Jesus. His goal is nobler. He wants his readers to see Jesus as He is presented in the Bible. Wills seems to believe that most Christians have a skewed view of Jesus because they don’t take the reports about Him in the Gospels seriously.

A few things about the author. Garry Wills, the blurb tells us, is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern University. The blurb also tells us he studied for the (Roman Catholic) priesthood, holds a doctorate in classics and taught Greek for many years. Pretty impressive. It is clear that he is a practicing Catholic and writes from within that faith perspective. Even though he slams some basic Catholic beliefs such as the Mass, the Papacy, apostolic succession, he does this as a devout Catholic. His comments made this protestant chuckle and say amen, but he could say things that I probably wouldn’t. He is a prolific writer. Looking at my bookshelves I find I own and have read at least a half dozen of his books.

Before I get too far, I better give a few caveats. He seems to accept some of the views of “historical criticism” – a late date for the composition of the gospels, the pseudonymous authorship of the pastoral epistles and the epistles of Peter. He seems a bit too “politically correct” in his view of homosexual behavior as a mere violation of ritual purity laws (pages 52ff). His calling the koine Greek of the New Testament a “pidgin language,” shows (I believe) a snobbery that ill-fits his other claims. He attacks the language from his point of view as a classical scholar and fails to appreciate the colloquialisms and conversational grammar of a very beautiful language. Worst of all is his view that Jesus was some sort of a frail, contemplative person.

But, enough of that. Skip “A Note on Translation,” but definitely read the Foreword. In fact, read the 17 page Foreword even if you don’t read the rest of this very brief book. He states his thesis well.

He begins by attacking the WWJD fad. He asks the question, “ … can we really aspire to do what Jesus did?” and goes on to point out a few things that Jesus did that we would not praise in anyone else – His seeming rejection of His own family, the destruction of someone else’s pigs, His chasing people out of the temple with whips, His claims of authority, even of deity. This is not the behavior of a “normal” person. Wills quotes Romano Guardini that a person such as this would be more than evil, he would be either “deranged” or “quite different, deeply and essentially different, from what we are.”

Jesus is described in this book as “subversive,” a “radical.” I love page xxi: “If He was not God, He was a standing blasphemy against God. The last thing He can be considered is a ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild.’”

But Wills is concerned that we understand Jesus. “To read the gospels in the spirit with which they were written, it is not enough to ask what Jesus did or said. We must ask what Jesus MEANT by His strange deeds and words. He intended to reveal the Father to us, and to show that He is the only-begotten Son of that Father” (page xviii).

For many years, I taught a college class on the Gospels as well as Christology (the doctrine of Christ) in a theology class. I have found that many of my students, even those with a reasonable Bible knowledge, even those brought up in church and Sunday school, have a pretty vague idea of who Jesus was and is. Perhaps this is partly because the incarnation is not that easy to grasp. After all, He is completely God and completely man.

I also believe that all the popular books and TV specials that attempt to deny His diety have brought a reaction among those who accept His deity. We are so afraid of falling off one side of the horse that we lean too far toward the other side until we fall off that side. I believe that for many Evangelicals and Catholics, the emphasis is so strong on His deity that we almost deny (or at least ignore) His humanity. We want a “nice” Jesus, who never does anything to offend, a conformist Jesus. Or maybe we have a Jesus who is sort of ethereal, in white robes, with a glow on His head or face, who talks in red letters.

But the Jesus presented to us in the Gospels (the only source of information we have) is, as one writer says, “robust Jesus.” He is a real man. He was a middle-eastern Jew, a working man – and He undoubtedly looked it. He observed the Mosaic Law, but flaunted the nit-picking rules of the Rabbis. He associated with people that “nice people” wouldn’t associate with. He showed compassion and love, even toward His enemies, and expected His followers to do the same. He was considered by the religious people of His day as a nonconformist and a radical. So they got rid of Him!

He was God, but He lived on this earth as a man, not a theophany. “Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, …” (Hebrews 2:17a). “ … One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15b). “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).

So why are we, the followers of this God-man so different from what He was? Paul tells us in Philippians 2:5, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” The imitation of Christ is not impossible.

Wills’ book should draw us back to this, I believe. We need to take our blinders off and take a fresh look at the Jesus of the Gospels, to do what the old corn flakes’ commercial asked us to do, to “taste (HIM) again for the first time.” We need to spend time reading the Gospels, meditating on the Person they picture to us. To contemplate what Jesus did, what He said and what He meant.

Bill Ball

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