During the early decades of the 20th century, a newspaper called The Avery Boomer served the 200 or so citizens of Avery, Iowa. It was irregular in frequency, and in other ways as well. Each issue was written and typeset by one Axel Peterson, a Swedish immigrant who described himself as "lame and crippled up," and who had to make time for his journalistic labors while growing potatoes. A member of the Socialist Party, he had once gained some notoriety within it for proposing that America’s radicals take over Mexico to show how they would run things. Peterson was well-read. He developed a number of interesting and unusual scientific theories -- also, it appears, certain distinctive ideas about punctuation.
Peterson regarded himself, as he put it, as "a Social Scientist ... developing Avery as a Social Experiment Station" through his newspaper. He sought to improve the minds and morals of the townspeople. This was not pure altruism. Several of them owed Petersen money; by reforming the town, he hoped to get it back.
But he also wanted citizens to understand that Darwin's theory of evolution was a continuation of Christ's work. He encouraged readers to accelerate the cause of social progress by constantly asking themselves a simple question: "What would Jesus do?"
I discovered the incomparable Peterson recently while doing research among some obscure pamphlets published around 1925. So it was a jolt to find that staple bit of contemporary evangelical Christian pop-culture -- sometimes reduced to an acronym and printed on bracelets -- in such an unusual context. But no accident, as it turns out: Peterson was a fan of the Rev. Charles M. Sheldon’s novel In His Steps (1896), which is credited as the source of the whole phenomenon, although he cannot have anticipated its mass-marketing a century later.
Like my wild potato-growing Darwinian socialist editor, Sheldon thought that asking WWJD? would have social consequences. It would make the person asking it “identify himself with the great causes of Humanity in some personal way that would call for self-denial and suffering,” as one character in the novel puts it.
Not so coincidentally, 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.”
That’s a pretty stark range of alternatives. For now I’ll just dodge the question and run the risk of an eternity in weasel hell. Taking it as a given that Jesus is what the Christian scriptures say he claimed to be -- “the only-begotten Son of the Father” -- Wills somehow never succumbs to the dullest consequence of piety, the idea that Jesus is easy to understand. “What he signified is always more challenging than we expect,” he writes, “more outrageous, more egregious.”
He was, as the expression goes, transgressive. He “preferred the company of the lowly and despised the rich and powerful. He crossed lines of ritual purity to deal with the unclean – with lepers, the possessed, the insane, with prostitutes and adulterers and collaborators with Rome. (Was he subtly mocking ritual purification when he filled the waters with wine?) He was called a bastard and was rejected by his own brothers and the rest of his family.”
Some of that alienation had come following his encounter with John the Baptist -- as strange a figure as any in ancient literature: “a wild man, raggedly clad in animal skins, who denounces those coming near to him as ‘vipers offspring.’” Wills writes that the effect on his family must have been dismaying: “They would have felt what families feel today when their sons or daughters join a ‘cult.’”
What emerges from the gospels, as Wills tell it, is a figure so abject as to embody a kind of permanent challenge to any established authority or code of propriety. (What would Jesus do? Hang out on skid row, that’s what.) His last action on earth is to tell a criminal being executed next to him that they will be together in paradise.
Wills says that he intends his book to be a work of devotion, not of scholarship. But the latter is not lacking. He just keeps it subdued. Irritated by the tendency for renderings of Christian scripture to have an elevated and elegant tone, Wills, a classicist by training, makes his own translations. He conveys the crude vigor of New Testament Greek, which has about as much in common with that of Plato as the prose of Mickey Spillane does with James Joyce. (As Nietzsche once put it: “It was cunning of God to learn Greek when He wished to speak to man, and not to learn it better.”)
Stripping away any trace of King James Version brocade, Wills leaves the reader with Jesus’s words in something close to the rough eloquence of the public square. “I say to all you can hear me: Love your foes, help those who hate you, praise those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who punches your cheek, offer the other cheek. To one seizing your cloak, do not refuse the tunic under it. Whoever asks, give to him. Whoever seizes, do not resist. Exactly how you wish to be treated, in that way treat others.... Your great reward will be that you are the children of the Highest One, who also favors ingrates and scoundrels.”
A bit of sarcasm, perhaps, there at the end -- which is something I don’t remember from Sunday school, though admittedly it has been a while. The strangeness of Jesus comes through clearly; it is a message that stands all “normal” values on their head. And it gives added force to another remark by Nietzsche: “In truth, there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.”