On the shoulders of giants: Part 2: Garry Wills

I had picked up Fulton Sheen’s The Eternal Galilean in 1986. It was about 20 years of so later that I picked up the second book in my picture stack
above, a delightful read by the prolific Historian and Catholic
liberal/apostate(?) Garry Wills. Professor Wills is a pretty hard core liberal and fearless iconoclast, but an honest scholar, and trustworthy and brilliant interpreter of U.S. and Classical History.  Formerly a teacher of Greek at Johns Hopkins University, he is now a Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern University. Wills has an extensive plethora of books and is always a good read. I have for years avidly devoured a number of his historical works on American history. He eventually turned his attention from Lincoln, Nixon, Reagan and MacBeth, to the Vatican, the Papacy, Saint Augustine, and eventually Jesus Himself. Wills is hard on our shared Mother Church, the Roman Catholic one. We have both our points of agreements and disagreements on church matters, as you will see should you continue reading. But sometimes it’s cruel to be kind, as some rocker once told me.

Sometimes his insights have a way of making life better when you acquire them. For example, if you have a difficult time figuring out Shakespeare’s great play MacBeth (and who doesn’t), I highly recommend Wills’ little book, Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s MacBeth.  In it, Wills points out that the play is confusing because it is misunderstood and wrongly taught and performed by too many English and drama departments. When great works of literature in light of the historical period are difficult to understand, Wills is always available to offer his remarkable insight and knowledge. I had the opportunity to watch a performance of MacBeth in the restored Globe theatre on the south bank of the Thames a few years ago and Wills’ insights made the experience far more enjoyable.

Wills does a remarkable job cutting through clutter to offer a well written perspective to whatever subject he tackles, whether it be a Shakespearean tragedy, the Gettysburg Address, or the Gospel of Jesus’ Kingdom. A liberal, Wills nevertheless can be trusted, for the most part, to get his facts right. But he is fallible, and lately he is losing an argument he made in a recent book accusing the Papacy of giving aid and comfort to the holocaust perpetrators during World War 2. But no scholar is perfect, and even if you disagree with his conclusions, you will be better able to understand how and why you will continue to hold your own. His book on the Reagan Presidency: Reagan’s America: Innocents At Home is naturally anti-Reagan in tone. But Wills portrays his background in a few short chapters beautifully.  Wills takes Reagan from a hard working lifesaver to Hollywood B star to President in a way that, love him or hate him, will likely endear you to him. Bottom line: it is ok to detest one’s politics or religion, and still learn quite a bit from such a person, if that person is honest, fair, and knowledgeable. I liked Reagan more after reading Wills’ portrayal, because while I disagreed with his major points of contention, I appreciated his research and writing as a valuable addition to my own. This is an aspect of communication between opposing viewpoints sorely missed these days: honest debate with a shared common interest to reach the truth, even if we don’t like it.  

Wills is a liberal Catholic who viciously criticizes the Papacy yet defends the institution as a worldwide unifying institution vital for Christianity.  It is the institution of the Papacy that is the reason, he says, that he remains a Catholic despite vociferous disagreements with some of its most vital institutions. Perhaps it is because he has such respect for the office, and sees it as vital for the church universal, that he is most outspoken in his criticism for when he believes it falls short, as most Catholics believe it does. In his book Why I am a Catholic, Wills spends the entire book making a case against faith in the Papacy as an institution, and then in the end says it is the institution itself that keeps him in the faith. I watched him try to defend this position in a room full of non-Catholics once. I am not sure he made the case persuasively to his detractors, who agreed with 99 percent of his assessment. Such is the strength of faith in Mother Church, and faith, after all, is our currency as believers. Wills is a defender of the basic fundamental creed of Christianity, and sees the papacy as an indispensable institution for the unity of the church universal. He does so much in the way I argue in my book that whether or not one wants to claim Peter as the first Pope, it would be almost impossible to envision the growth of the Christian faith without the courage and leadership of Peter. Wills takes it to the modern era. Personally, I’m not sure we need a man at the top anymore. But we found a point of agreement.  

Most recently, Wills has done his best to burn bridges in that very community he identies with, even scandalizing fellow Catholic and talk show host Stephen Colbert on cable TV. As a guest, Wills was promoting his latest book at the time: Why Priests: A Failed Tradition. When the topic turned to the Eucharist, Wills attacked the concept of Transubstantiation. In discussing how it was possible that bread and wine turns into the body and blood of Christ at the signal of a priest, Colbert tried to keep the discussion cordial, and helpfully called it a “mystery.” Wills replied tactlessly, “No. It’s a fake.” The Catholic press went apoplectic of course, as the Eucharist is a defining part of their doctrine.  But Wills – the apostate – is not easy to categorize, as he is also a devoted prayer of the Rosary, and yes, has naturally written a book on that subject as well. 

Wills counts GK Chesterton as a hero of his. Now, if you feel a tremor in the earth while hearing this, it may be the very rotund Catholic writer/philosopher himself spinning in his grave at the idea. But perhaps not, as Chesterton himself cannot be easily labelled and was a generous soul. In Why I am a Catholic, Wills shares his misery as a young adolescent studying to become a Jesuit in a very strict and life sucking seminary program (my own experience in Seminary life was much more tolerable, but the 1950’s were tough and I entered in the era of the guitar mass). Spending long periods in isolation (training meant to separate the novitiate from “the world”), Wills found himself in “the morbidity of being isolated with one’s thoughts for most of the day and all of the night, feeding on doubts –  not only about God’s existence” but of existence itself.  In his misery, Wills says, he found himself in a mental cul-de-sac of thoughts of meaninglessness. His confessor gave him Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy.  “it was Chesterton,” Wills said “…who came to my rescue.” Chesterton wrote of himself being stuck in a similar dream like state of wondering what, if anything was real: be it God, or existence itself. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote of his escape through what he called “the mystical minimum.” Wills explained how this Rene Descartes-like (I think, therefore I am) breakthrough through doubting absolutely everything got him out of his funk:

“If there is nothing but one’s own dream of a senseless world, the dream itself exists, and that is an inexplicable miracle. The dream of a void is outside the void. Even if it is a vision of evil, the evil is there only because it has attached itself to something good, to existence. Pure evil, since it would be purely destructive, mus (in its purity) annihilate itself. I soon learned that Augustine used a similar argument in his struggle to free himself from Manichaeism.”

I found that while this brilliant yet liberal scholar disagreed with me on so much culturally and politically, he understood Saint Paul much the same way I understood him. Saint Paul is my compass in times of confusion on how one must live as a Christian. It is not possible, according to the great Apostle Paul himself, to even understand his writings without the Holy Spirit because they are spiritual things and therefore inaccessible to the “carnal” mind. It was a godsend to realize this brilliant scholar was coming out of a liberal point of view to reach similar conclusions to mine regarding how we understood Paul and how it contrasted so wildly from officially sanctioned teachings (I would not, however, go so far as to call the Eucharist a fake. My own views are in my book, and I think it is admirable of Mother Church to take Jesus at his word here, and although I tend to fall into the consubstantiation camp.  The bottom line is, regarding Colbert’s mystery, is that we are commanded by Jesus to do this in remembrance of me, not to believe this in remembrance of me. My job is clear, and I am furthermore told by Paul that it would do me well to examine my conscience before engaging in the ritual. “If you love me, keep my commandments,” Jesus said. Therefore, let us all partake in obedience, and leave each man to his own mental faculties on the matter). 

Wills’ scholarly yet spiritual books confirmed through faith and history the basic facts of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. These came to me at a time in which I struggled to defend my beliefs opposite a very aggressive and confident sounding atheism against which my church body was not preparing me adequately in the area of reason.  On my left, I was defending basic Christianity: Jesus is the Son of God, the actual God, who died and rose from the dead and will come again. In response, an atheist friend once powerfully retorted, “The early church believed Jesus was coming soon. Now, if you ordered a pizza, and it hadn’t arrived in 2,000 years, wouldn’t you conclude by now, if not much earlier, that it simply isn’t going to show up?” Meanwhile, on my right, I defended the belief in an expansive catholic Church, in which the Holy Spirit is operational through faith in Him in accordance to adherence to (at a bare yet essential minimum) the Nicene creed. This work by the Spirit was in operation regardless of denominational affiliation, which I saw first hand, because the Body of Christ and the fellowship of believers is indeed, and above all, mystical. I had a strong need to walk my walk to reconcile my indispensable upbringing of a Catholic education with the excitement and reality of a deeper faith and insights gained from a the born again experience and fellowship among what Vatican II called the “separated brethren,”  I felt confident, as I studied, argued, counter argued, challenged and was challenged, showed charity and was shown charity. But I found myself needing some additional firepower. In my own Descartes-like doubt, I questioned my own faith in the wee hours of the night, as the challenges came hard and heavy from my atheist friends. I wondered whether I was as honest as I believed. I wondered if I truly knew that I was not under my own spell cast by a great deceiver. I wondered if I myself was not the great deceiver. I wondered if I were only believing out of sheer stubborness and an unwillingness to admit true motives. How did I know I was not merely trading one form of brainwashing for another?

My own breakthrough, my own “mystical minimalist” moment came when I decided the best way to go about deciding whether I was deceiving myself was to give it a go and let go. I gave myself permission to live as an atheist. In doing so, I found the idea to be somewhat freeing: free from the constraints of obedience, of the burden of denying the pleasures of the flesh, so to speak. It lasted a couple days at best. Very soon I realized that I was incapable of the endeavor. I was not up to the task of unbelief. At one time I found myself actually asking God for the power to not believe in Him. At that point, in the absurdity of such a request, I decided I was irrevocably “saved” and should just humbly thank Him for the privilege of not having to endure the existential angst of wondering if He were real, or concluding that He wasn’t. From there, the existential proofs for God were not proofs, but mere confirmation of a reality I was not free to break from. I felt a new kinship to Martin Luther: saved through a faith that I couldn’t even take credit for.

The context of my life as a Pentecostal evangelical who hates any label outside of  “Christian” (and even that has me scratching for something better), poised me between two camps. It thus matched me up well with this leftist scholar and fellow traveller Garry Wills. We disagreed on just about everything politically in that day: gay marriage, Iraq, government spending. Wills himself was once a darling protegee of the great conservative William F. Buckley, and he was leaving the famous conservative around the same time I was discovering him as a teen. Wills left conservatism in the 1960s, inspired by the radical Christianity lived out by the anti-war Berrigan Priests (there’s a book on that as well, a pretty good read, actually).  By the 2000’s Wills was turning his attention from U.S. to Church history, and soon I learned I had a off-fitted soulmate who struggled earnestly while desiring to maintain intellectual integrity to find a place in the Church. But more importantly, Wills was a man of intellectual heft who knew the arguments I was floundering with when it came to the real fight of faith as I saw it: the fight for the historicity of Jesus and his movement against the attacks by Liberal New Testament scholars, who were taking aim at every orthodox New Testament view. These scholars easily dismissed anyone coming forward with a “Jesus said it, I believe it, that settles it” response.  A typical retort was that “Jesus most certainly did not say that,” with a long involved explaination as to why “we” know that. 

Now, in evangelical circles, these “Jesus Seminar” apostates were laughed at. They are dismissed without an effective examination of their argument. And that serves a lot of people just fine. But take a good look at their arguments, and one can soon enough see a lot of study and thought went into their conclusions.  Take another look, and the errors in their reasoning can also be seen. Still, scholarship and the consensus of the learned crowd trumped faith. Not only did these liberal New Testament scholars wish to construct a new Jesus: separating a “historical” Jesus from the “imaginary” one, they worked to even place separation from the faith of the primitive New Testament church from the faith we believed we inherited from their own testimony. Jesus, these liberal scholars maintained, may not have even existed, and if he had, those who followed him never believed in his resurrection. Such a belief came later, as myths do. Just as the actual Robin Hood is nothing like the legend, and larger than life figure of song and screen we have today. We all know the stuff of Robin Hood is mostly legend. Why do we not admit the same regarding Jesus? After all, have you ever seen a man walk on water?

What Wills pointed out with effectiveness was that while much of the scholarship was useful, too many of the proponents were pushing toward an unsustainable conclusion. It was indeed an historical folly for his fellow Classical and New Testament scholars to assert that the earliest church did not believe in the resurrection. Wills did so largely by pointing out the validity of Paul’s letters as the earliest and most reliable writing by the first church of what they believed and why they met. Wills demonstrated to me how these letters accurately portrayed that the first generation Church most definitely believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. This wasn’t simply an invention by a clever deceiver who once went by the name Saul, or a cabal of clever second and third generation Christians busily inventing a larger than life legend.  This truth would seem to be indisputable today, but when a influential group of scholars argue otherwise – well, it’s difficult to stand toe to toe with an expert, much more so a brilliant one.

Eventually I came to Wills’ book, What Jesus Meant.  Like Sheen’s Eternal
, it is a short little book (shorter actually), tightly written, and original. Yet while coming from a vantage point much different than mine: liberal Catholicism/Christianity, I found it matched in most ways the context of my own understanding as I read and studied the gospel accounts. This little book that chronicled the life of Jesus as Wills renewed my spirit, much as Bishop Sheen’s book did. Wills deftly uses his deep knowledge of ancient Greek to bring out the simplicity and power of the words of Jesus.

As a Greek scholar, Wills uses his own English translations. One translation of his that I found refreshing is his use of “Messiah” for the Greek “Christ.” Will explains that:

“Christos, which means ‘Anointed’…is a title, not a proper name. More important, it is the title of the Messiah. As scholars now emphasize, the word should be translated “Messiah” in Saint Paul’s letters, which are the earliest texts in the New Testament, setting many patterns. When Paul says ‘Christ Jesus,’ it should be translated ‘Messiah-Jesus.’ When he says ‘Jesus Christ,’ it is “Jesus-Messiah.”

From this came the title of my own book, Messianic Men. I believe the term Messianic should be allowed to encompass the entire Church, and not merely relegated to Jewish believers. We all worship and looking for the return of the same Messiah, or Christ. There is no Wills translation of the New Testament, but if there were, I would have made the determination to use it almost exclusively in Messianic Men.

Here is an except from What Jesus Meant. Notice the beauty of his translation of John 3:16 (emphasis mine):

“However we understand the mysterious sacrifice of the cross, one thing is certain – it is a proof of God’s love, not his anger. “Such was God’s love for his creation that he gave his only-begotten Son to keep anyone believing in him from perishing, to have life eternal.”(Jn 3:16). Jesus was sent to express, vindicate, and extend the Father’s love. That is why the completion of his rescue raid into history is the descent into hell. This is not mentioned in the New Testament – save for a highly dubious reference in a notoriously obscure verse (1 Pet. 3:19). But it is contained in the early creeds and baptismal oaths, showing that it is original to the revelation that was preached. For the Greek Orthodox Church, it is at the center of Jesus’ mission – indeed it is the Resurrection (Anakatastasis). This is part of the whole conception of Jesus as the summation and climax of creation. He reaches back with his redeeming power to rescue mankind from the very beginning. Early poems and plays (especially in medieval treatments of it under the title of “The Harrowing of Hell”), along with endless paintings afterward, show Jesus breaking open the prison of the past to free those not previously vindicated in his blood. The normal depiction highlights the emergence, first, of Adam and Eve. Some pictures show him accompanied by the bandit who died with him. The comprehensiveness of God’s salvific plan is emphasized – how

     Through black clouds the black sheep runs,

     And through black clouds the Shepherd follows him.

Though most depictions give the starring roles in this event to Adam and Eve, I believe the Shepherd was first seeking out his special lost one, Judas.”

An iconoclast with regards to the folly of man, one cannot read this book without recognizing a fellow believer/traveller in the Messianic man of faith (although I appreciate his desire and great charity in the above passage, wanting to believe Jesus first went into hell to save Judas. Still, I can’t help but disagree: Jesus wouldn’t say “better for the betrayer to have never be born” without meaning it.)

The words and life of Jesus, liberal toward the poor and marginalized, harsh toward the self righteous rich, resonated powerfully and refreshed and challenged my soul. After reading it, I decided that I wanted to someday do the same: like Sheen and Wills, write a little book of my own on the life of Jesus – a book that might jump start or re-fire another young man’s faith and interest in the man from Galilee. It really is the greatest story ever told.  But it’s also the most told story ever told. And so, that was my challenge – to offer something that might resonate with the current age: a jaded one with reasons to doubt only a YouTube keystroke away. Still, it is a world filled with young men, like I once was, looking for someone real and eternal to hitch their lives to. Now, the world, especially the church world, is not exactly looking for a book on Jesus by an un-credentialed nobody like myself. Lord knows there are thousands of those out there already. Therefore, if I were to do this, it better be good. It better have something worthwhile to say.

The story of Jesus is not merely the tale of a prophet, a teacher, a guru, philosopher, miracle worker/magician. It is first and foremost the story of a King of an eternal kingdom. It is the entry point in history of a new and radical kingdom: the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is the message of the Church these days. It is a message that is easy to misconstrue, and in doing so, once can easily miss the radical nature of what it means to profess allegiance to this Kingdom and in doing so break allegiance with all others in this world. But is this Kingdom a mere metaphor for living good lives, or is it a powerful new reality that offers liberty to humans as it claims (setting the captives free)? Frank Viola’s new book, Insurgence, inspired me – not to write the book – to seek to infuse it with that purpose and direction. We’ll look at Viola’s inspiration that put the book over the finish line in my next post. 


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