Bellarmine has an Easter Break, which allows me a little time to post reviews of books I’ve read this winter. The first is What Paul Meant, by Garry Wills. Dr. Wills doesn’t appear to have a Web page, because he’s of an older generation. This is part of his series that look at the early Church from a different perspective, which also includes perspectives on Jesus and the Gospels. This book is average on my scale, and receives a 2 out of 5. This book, and many books, would benefit by better use of white space, chapter sub-headings, and such. The other person I knew who read this book agreed. In parts, it’s too easy to get lost. The points look all the same, and just go on and on and on. Isn’t that weird for me to say? I’ve been changed by the visual generation, too.
In those long plain chapters, there are plenty of interesting things. Dr. Wills properly points out that we see Paul through the lens of 20 centuries of Church history. Paul’s viewpoint of the early Church had different context, and the words we use are not correct. In our context, there are better translations. With no fixed, written Gospel, Revelation is a better, less loaded term. Similarly, for ekklesia, “Church” brings to mind pews and big buildings, thus “Gathering” runs closer to what really happened. Reading this book forced me to consider what Paul was thinking when he wrote his notes, and what the early communities were thinking, and that Luke in Acts did not have the same first-person perspective. Historical perspective is good for a historical-psychological theologian.
Nevertheless, this book fails, and it fails because the author is still not fully detached from modern perspective. Many conservatives have this idea of “Founders’ Intent”, whether in the first-century Church or the first-decade US Constitution. I’ve long felt that determining true intent from short documents like letters or declarations is impossible; there just isn’t enough context. Invariably, one’s reading of intent is contaminated by one’s own perspective. For instance, a Justice that invokes “originalism” usually winds up serving modern interests, like those of corporations which did not exist during the “original” period. It’s amazing how often “originalism” looks new, and fails to see the multiple opinions that formed compromises for a document. It’s biased unbiasness.
Dr. Wills does that here. His anger at the Institutional Catholic Church, documented in earlier books like Papal Sin and Why I am a Catholic, comes forward here. The hierarchy in Jerusalem (as in today’s Vatican City) is almost never right. The key quote, from the end, I read as “Religion took over the legacy of Paul as it did that of Jesus – because they both opposed it.” Well then, why was Paul trying to assist the leaders of city communities? Why organize? Why standardize? The writer has his own biased unbiasness. That’s not an evil thing; it’s very difficult to remove personal feelings. I can’t all the time. Plus, exposing other biases is a great help. Nevertheless, what makes this book only average, besides the droning, is the reality of unclear founders’ intent.