Garry Wills

On a listserv I follow, I have taken up a challenge to critique the work of Garry Wills as an historian. Not all his work, but his focus on religion. I had maintained on that list that while he was a very good historian at one time, when he decided to write about religion, he became a polemicist. I have begun with his ‘What Paul Meant’ in audio book form.

Here, slightly edited for this space, are my first thoughts:

I have finally found time to look
at Garry Wills’s work on religion ‘as an historian’ – and I emphasise this – I am not critiquing his thinking (for that is what writing is) for literary technique or for passion, but in how he uses his sources and how he presents the context within which evidence is analysed.

I decided to present little snippets in blog, or as we used to
say, journal form as I read. This is a purely practical need due to
personal circumstances which force me to do much of my thinking in the interstices which now and for the foreseeable future comprise my intellectual life.

I have begun reading Dr. Wills in that same necessary way by downloading an audio book of his from my local public library to listen to while multitasking. I had hoped to begin with one of his books that caused a furore, but the one available is less well known. ‘What Paul Meant’ will serve just as well, I think.

I have just begun listening and have already had my eyebrows raised – but perhaps only
temporarily as he may indeed do better as an historian when I get deeper into the book.

He refers to Paul’s ‘dark theology’. ( a nice phrase, BTW, skilfully setting his tone and establishing his thesis), his thesis being that Paul was worse than Judas. Judas merely caused the death of Jesus’s body through betrayal while Paul betrayed and killed our Lord’s spirit, Dr. Wills says.

At this point he has done quickly and easily what every undergraduate history student must learn: to state clearly and in your first paragraph your thesis or theme.

But, he gets a failing grade at this early point – or at least my red pen would be out (actually I
would be inserting comments in red font) for the first sources he quotes. He seems to think that Thomas Jefferson, George Bernard Shaw and Friedrich Nietzsche are good sources to understand the theology of Paul and Jesus in historical, or for that matter, ahistorical context. So immediately I began to appreciate Garry Wills’s skill as a polemicist, but not yet as an historian.

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