What Garry means
A strong inner faith is `What Jesus Meant'

First published: Sunday, May 7, 2006

The popularity of "The Da Vinci Code" (47 million books sold and counting) and its upcoming film version have put controversies over faith, religion and Jesus on the front pages of many newspapers, including this one.

In an April 30 article, Ben Witherington III, a scholar from the Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., neatly sums up the attention given to "The Da Vinci Code" by saying that it shows "we are a Jesus-haunted culture that's biblically illiterate" and harbors general "disaffection from traditional answers."

Into this fray enters Pulitzer Prize-winner Garry Wills and his newest book, "What Jesus Meant" (Viking; 144 pages; $24.95) . Although far from a sexy thriller, it is a fascinating example of a clear-headed close reading, and a blistering indictment of contemporary religion and the political uses and abuses of Jesus.

One of Wills' main arguments is that what Jesus meant can only be understood by examining what he said and did, as stated in the New Testament. He strengthens his case by offering quotations of Scripture based on his own translations of the original Greek.

Other translations, he says, have used an archaic diction of thees and thous to produce a false sense of "biblical English" that is at odds with the "almost brutal linguistic earthiness" of the original pidgin Greek, the common written language used by speakers of various languages in territories once conquered by Alexander the Great.

The most startling translation in the book is the use of reign instead of kingdom . Wills has Jesus saying to elders and priests: "In truth I tell you, tax collectors and whores are entering God's reign before you" (Matthew 21:31). This change removes the temporal and physical connotations of kingdom in favor of a more abstract and mysterious process. Communion with God doesn't happen in a place, but is a constant state of being that can be attained through understanding of what Jesus meant.

Wills contends that most self-professed Christians have missed this point.

For example, he ridicules the slogan "What Would Jesus Do?" a guiding principle often marketed toward children for failing to grasp that Jesus at age 12 ditched his parents in a big city without telling them. And belief in Jesus' divinity would make doing what he did such as claiming to be "the light of the world" blasphemous.

Justifying bigotry

Among the things Jesus did do, as stated in the Gospels, was consort with the most reviled people of his day: lepers, women, prostitutes, Samaritans, tax collectors, Roman collaborators, the crazed and the possessed. Wills argues that some Christians are creating a new class of reviled people by shunning gays, an act that is in direct opposition to Jesus' teachings, even as they claim biblical (usually Old Testament) justifications for their bigotry.

Along those lines, Wills includes an anonymous essay that has often been sent by e-mail (usually in the guise of a letter to radio talk-show host Dr. Laura Schlessinger) that includes questions aimed to discredit arguments based on the Old Testament. Here's just one example: "I would like to sell my daughter into slavery, as sanctioned in Exodus 2:17. In this day and age, what do you think would be a fair price for her?"
The book's most provocative chapter, "Against Religion," shows Jesus to be asserting the primacy of an "inner religion" over the hypocrisy of established systems of belief.

To help explain "inner religion," Wills points to verses in Matthew about how praying alone is nearer to God than praying in public, and about how sin is possible through mere thought ("One looking at a woman with desire for her has already committed an adultery of the heart").


The established religion of Jesus' time, on the other hand, can be understood in terms of the Sabbath (a day when no work is to be done), the ritual of animal sacrifice, the priestly class that controls the religion and the primacy of the temple as the place where people (via the priests) encounter God.

Through Scripture, Wills shows how Jesus acts and speaks against established religion.

"Jesus repeatedly `breaks' the Sabbath by doing work on it the work of healing," Wills writes. For example, in John 9:6-7 Jesus heals a blind man on the Sabbath. Wills also quotes Matthew 12:11-12 that Jesus argued, "If one of you had only one sheep, and it fell into a pit on the Sabbath, would you not grapple and haul it out? How much more is a man worth than a sheep? The Sabbath does not forbid rescue."

In terms of animal sacrifice, Wills reminds readers that one way priests made money was in selling animals to be sacrificed. Thus, in the famous incident in which Jesus casts traders out of "my Father's house," he is actually thwarting the system of animal sacrifice. And in doing so, he is taking a stand against the power structure of religion and undermining the priests' livelihoods.

An incident like this doesn't make Jesus popular with priests, and allows Wills to assert, "Religion killed Jesus."

"Given the hostility between the priests and Jesus," Wills writes, "it is not surprising that there are no priests among his followers." By examining the earliest writings of the Christian faith the letters of Paul and the Gospels Wills finds that no Christian is ever called a priest. Instead, what he finds is a "primitive communism" in which duties "derive from the Spirit, not from human organization or any bureaucracy."

Against trappings

As for the temple, it is the physical embodiment of the hierarchical religious structure that Jesus rails against. Wills points to John 4:21-26 and John 2:21 as instances in which Jesus states that it is through him and not the temple that people can connect with God.

Wills' point of this chapter, though, isn't just to position Jesus against religion at that time; rather, his argument extends to today: "What is the kind of religion Jesus opposed? Any religion that is proud of its virtue, like the boastful Pharisee. Any that is self-righteous, quick to judge and condemn, ready to impose burdens rather than share or lift them. Any that exalts its own officers, proud of its trappings, building expensive monuments to itself. Any that neglects the poor and cultivates the rich, any that scorns outcasts and flatters the rulers of this world. If that sounds like just about every form of religion we know, then we can see how far off from religion Jesus stood."
This harsh indictment is only strengthened by the position Wills takes in his book. He is not only a critic, he is also a believer who finds the truth of his faith in the primary material. He writes, "This is not a scholarly book but a devotional one. It is a profession of faith a reasoning faith, I hope, and a reasonable one."

The clarity of his sharp intellect, however, defines a faith that is far from easy.

All you need is love

Few communities, he asserts, have lived up to the radical ideals of poverty, equality and faith that are inherent in what Jesus meant.

He mentions "worker priests" in France after World War II and "base communities" in Latin America, "where the life of the church was to be seen as the life of the poor." But Pope Pius XII stopped the worker priest movement, and Pope John Paul II closed the base communities.

We are a haunted culture, especially when the figure of Jesus is used for political, economic or religious gain. The point of Jesus' message of inner faith becomes lost when he is subsumed by larger social institutions. But returning to the Gospels allows Wills to state: "One enters the heavenly reign by only one avenue love. That avenue not only leads to Jesus. It is Jesus."

The clarity of "What Jesus Meant" its humor, anger and sadness make it a necessary read for believers and nonbelievers alike, as arguments over religion, faith and Jesus will certainly continue to shake and shape our culture.

Michael Janairo can be reached at 454-5629 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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Garry Wills
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