Garry Wills: What Jesus Meant
By Eric Mader
Garry Wills' What Jesus Meant shows many of the strengths that animate his excellent book on Paul. Here the author relies mainly on the four Gospels to underline the striking radicalism of Jesus' message, a message that is not, he argues, the same as that presented by historicizing scholars who would make of Jesus merely a great ancient teacher. Though he rejects the work of the Jesus Seminar, Wills does not consider Jesus the founder of any authoritative church edifice: i.e., this is not the "conservative" Jesus of the traditional Church or the culture wars. Rather, as Wills repeatedly demonstrates, the Messiah spoke and acted "against religion," not merely the religion of the Temple elite and Pharisees either, but against any religion that would hierarchize or exclude, including, by implication, the churches themselves, whenever these have strayed from the Gospel. Wills' vision of the Messiah is uncompromising without being dogmatic, and this is finally what makes his faith so compelling. A Catholic, he nonetheless doesn't shrink from pointing out in the starkest terms where, based on the evidence of the Gospels themselves, the Church has fallen short of it mission.
What Jesus Meant reads as an extended essay circling round the theological themes the writer sees as most important. It is a concise and challenging portrayal of the meaning of the Messiah's coming, one that cuts straight through the institutional doublespeak that, in Wills' view, would separate the Messiah from His faithful.
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