Thursday, May 22, 2008

Response to Luke Timothy Johnson’s Review of Garry Wills’ Recent Books

The current issue of Commonweal gives us "What Wills Misunderstood," a review, at:

Luke Timothy Johnson ends this review of Garry Wills' three books on what Jesus, Paul and the Gospels meant with this:

To write simply and truly about complex subjects - and the subjects of all three books are extraordinarily complex - one must know enough to cut through the complexity and isolate what is deepest and most important in the subject. In these three books, Wills simply did not know enough to do the job.

May I respectfully borrow such words?

To write a review simply and truly about Garry Wills' work on complex subjects - and the subjects of his three books are extraordinarily complex - one must know enough to cut through the complexity and isolate what is deepest and most important in the subject. In this review, Johnson simply did not know enough to do the job.

Unable myself to orbit in Johnson's outer space of exegesis, I'm not the first to treat him the way he treats Wills. Christopher West wrote a review of Luke Timothy Johnson's critique of Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body (TB) for the Catholic Education Resource Center, at Eerily, Christopher wrote this about Luke Timothy:

The first thing I recognized in reading Johnson's article is that he simply hasn't penetrated the Pope's project. For anyone familiar with the content of the TB, Johnson's comments are like a slick stone skipping over the surface of a deep lake but never "sinking in."

Luke Timothy Johnson shows at times, a disturbing use of put-downs of others in similar disciplines, with supercilious downgrading of their well-earned reputations for scholarship. In Garry Wills' case, a lifetime of scholarship, which cannot be denigrated. Superciliousness is often tinged with jealousy, I think so. Maybe envy, perhaps?

Reading a Luke Timothy review – or his often peculiar insights into hermeneutics -- evokes a knee-jerk response to review his review in kind, but that would make me a Luke Timothy rather than an Emanuel Paul, a/k/a E. Paul, and I really don't know enough to put a Johnson down. He is a scholar. I'm just an old, retired lawyer, trying to learn how to write instead of spout. It's enough to remember the old saying: What Peter says about Paul says more about Peter than it does about Paul. In the case at hand, a Timothy and a Garry. The review sure does expose Luke Timothy Johnson, doesn't it? Wills comes out unscathed.

Disclosure, to unleash my antipathy, disguised Johnson-like in a "review" of a review. Like Wills, I'm a former Jesuit. Like him, I went on to another specialty, the law, and practiced how to do it for the next 40 years. Like him, I've been put down many times by those who "simply did not know enough to do the job." And I bounced right back up, laughing all the way at the silliness of a professional pouting like the lonely kid on the playground, who burns as a gifted classmate is installed as King of the Hill. The little boy in the fourth grade is father to the scholar, who claims he's good at explaining complex subjects, but the King is not.

I've read almost every book Garry Wills has written and thank him for helping to save my faith, love and hope for being a Catholic. I have read no books by Luke Timothy Johnson, but have seen articles and snippets of his sniping at others, and have no "Thanks" to say. Garry is my kind of gifted writers who simply do know enough to do the job. And with integrity.

One last pejorative and silly shot at Johnson? Unlike him, I don't use all three of my names, just plain, old, simple E. Paul Kelly, which, on reconsideration, does have a tinge of superciliousness to it, after all. We so like to set ourselves apart from the common herd by little touches of individuality.

The above is "What E. Paul Meant." Not much, I grant you, but it's mine. Simple, too. Not complex at all. Luke Timothy ticked me off the way Garry did him.

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