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Taking the Gospels Seriously

In the 1960s, at Harvard Divinity School, the future seemed orderly and ordained. Mainline Protestantism was at the height of its power; the theologian Paul Tillich had made the cover of Time less than a decade before, and Reinhold Niebuhr was widely known for his writings and political views. Evangelicalism was represented by the moderate and polite Billy Graham. For the young men studying at the Divinity School, even most of the gathering political protest a quarter-mile away in Harvard Yard seemed remote. “Columbia had burst into flames the year before,” recalled Peter Gomes when I interviewed him a few years ago. Now a teacher at the school, Gomes said, “The general reaction was ‘thank God that’s down there.’ There was Mario Savio in Berkeley, but that was what they did in California.”

What they did at the Divinity School was, among other things, study elocution under Frederick Clifton Packard, who had been preparing orators at Harvard since the 1920s (he’d taught JFK):

For divinity students, his object was to get you to compete in the Billings Prize in Pulpit Improvement. There was a significant cash prize, for those days—$150 if I recall. It always created a great buzz as you came toward May. In my first year I didn’t participate; I just watched. In my second year I came in second or third. And I won it in my third year. In a less-diverting day, it was a big event.

Of course, that was a few weeks after Dr. King was assassinated, and a few weeks before Bobby Kennedy was shot. “There was a sense of unease, like Louis XVI before his predicament. But we had degrees to finish,” Gomes said.

Before the storms unleashed in those days had fully abated, they had blown away almost the entire world that Gomes was preparing to inhabit. The staid, complacent church of the postwar years was no match for the sudden gust of experimental aspiration, with its disapproval of hypocrisy and judgment. Though individual congregations continue to thrive in many places, the mainline Protestant denominations have gone into a steady decline: the average age of an American Lutheran is now fifty-three, and of a Methodist fifty-seven. These are legacy churches; as GM and Ford bear the weight of old union contracts, the mainline churches bow under the weight of big brick edifices built in an earlier day, and find it hard to readjust to a world where they are not a dominant force. Meanwhile, of course, the religious momentum is elsewhere—mostly in the vast suburban megachurches offering a newer, more consumer-minded Christianity, and one less grounded in traditional doctrine and ritual. (Meanwhile, Christian belief of any type faces a more aggresive atheism espoused in books like Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great.1)

The men who should have been the princes of the older, declining Protestantism found redoubts of one kind or another. William Sloane Coffin, for instance, whose uncle had been president of Union Theological Seminary, and who had turned the Yale pulpit into a voice of political action, became pastor at Riverside Church on the Upper West Side, a few blocks from Union and next door to the headquarters of the National Council of Churches. Gomes was a generation younger, and he ended up in his late twenties as the pastor of Harvard’s Memorial Church, where he has served ever since both as university preacher and as the wonderfully named Plummer Professor of Christian Morals.

Though both Coffin, until his death in 2006, and Gomes are superb pulpit preachers, and alike in their affection for the traditional hymns of the church, in other ways they could not be more different. Gomes is both black and conservative (the first probably allowed him to get away with the second at Harvard). By conservative, I mean in a slightly older style: he was a registered Republican, on the theory that Lincoln had freed the slaves, and on the belief that quality in his native Massachusetts was represented by the Cabots, Lodges, Sargents, and so on who ruled the Massachusetts GOP in the days before Mitt Romney. And he was and is a social conservative, again in the slightly older sense: he is unlikely to appear in jeans and a T-shirt; he serves tea once a week at the ornately furnished parsonage that Harvard provides as his home; his services all begin with a singing of Old Hundredth; and he is a pronounced Anglophile.

Indeed, his new book begins with an extended anecdote that involves cocktails with the Queen Mother at the age of 101 in her residence, Royal Lodge, and it is easy to believe that he felt “great delight” at the scene. All of this is to say that it would be easy to dismiss him as an anachronism, polishing the fine instrument of his voice (“I would say I don’t have a silver voice—I have a pewter voice,” he once said. “It has a good shape. I’m able to shape sounds and phrases to my satisfaction”) for the well-to-do local alumni and faculty who form the base of his congregation.

But Gomes is far from being an anachronism: that idea founders on several counts. He is not just a good preacher but a great one. He draws standing-room-only crowds on the Sundays when he is in the pulpit (he’s also in demand as a guest preacher at many of the world’s high-profile pulpits); as Henry Louis Gates notes in the foreword to an earlier collection of his sermons, he offers “an uncanny blend of high-toned old New England with the biblical cadence of the King James version of the Bible filtered through the black Baptist tradition,” all aimed at the question, as Gates puts it, of

how thoughtful and intelligent people, determined to be citizens of a multicultural, cosmopolitan, secular world, maintain a sense of deep spirituality and social justice within a highly competitive, often brutally irrational and grossly unfair existence…. How does one abide, how keep the faith, without throwing one’s reason to the wind and embracing keepers of promises, evangelical zealots, or born-again literalists…?2

Readers wishing to get a sense of his homiletical power may listen to sermons on the Memorial Church Web site, or hear them at 11 AM on Sunday mornings via college radio station WHRB, which streams live on the Internet.

But it’s not just his Cambridge congregation. The second argument for his relevance is that he’s emerged, with several recent books, as the foremost modern American interpreter of the Bible for a wide and sometimes unchristian audience. To be sure, he does not appeal to evangelical enthusiasts—there are many writers with far greater sales figures on the religious best-seller lists. But for those people who come from the old Protestant tradition but have wandered away, or who are hunkered down in slowly declining churches, or who are simply curious what it’s all about, he is the heir to the Christian writers of an earlier day—G.K. Chesterton, perhaps, whom he quotes regularly, or even the C.S. Lewis of the many apologetics. The Good Book (1996) in particular established Gomes as the pastor of our time, able to read the Bible with common sense and wisdom, as more than a political checklist, a guide to riches, or a calendar of end-times prophecy.

His new book, The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, is his most important yet. It marks a new stage in his evolution as a Christian—and although it begins with a nod to the Queen Mother, it is a daring and subversive book, taking Gomes and his readers further out on a limb than they’ve been before. There’s nothing conventional about it, mostly because of its intense concentration on those most hazardous of texts, the four gospels. The gospels have always been a difficult foundation on which to build a movement, in that they call on Christians to do things they might rather not: voluntarily right the balance between rich and poor, for instance, or turn the other cheek. “It is very difficult to preach the gospel as Jesus did without giving offense,” Gomes writes, adding ruefully however that “the world has been filled with people perfectly capable of being offended.”

Their usual methods for covering over the radicalness of the gospel message have been to concentrate on the rest of the Bible, which offers many diversions in the place of the more straightforward gospel paths, or on the person of Jesus himself, and the story of his passion, apart from his message. Gomes is having none of it. Though a scholar of the whole Bible, he says that for Christians “what we call ‘the Bible’ is only the means to a deepened understanding of what Jesus called the gospel, or glad tidings.” And though a devoted follower of Christ, Gomes insistently reminds us that Jesus

came preaching not himself but something to which he himself pointed, and in our zeal to crown him as the content of our preaching, most of us have failed to give due deference to the content of his preaching.

That preaching, in Gomes’s telling, has several important dimensions. First, it is a doctrine of reversal—of the poor lifted up and the rich laid low. It’s not just that the meek will inherit the earth, a sweet enough sentiment, but that the powerful will lose it. In Jesus’ words, “How terrible for you who are rich now; you have had your easy life; How terrible for you who are full now; you will go hungry!” Jesus takes sides, and usually he is found on the side of the oppressed and unlucky: “The good news was for those who had no good news,” writes Gomes, sounding much like the Catholic liberation theologians of late-twentieth-century South America, now largely suppressed by Rome, who spoke often of Jesus’ “preferential option for the poor.” For the rest of us, we are instructed to love our enemies, to practice the Golden Rule, “love those beyond our comfort zone, and be merciful to others as we hope God will be merciful to us.”

It is easy to understand why the church, once it became an important social force, chose to deemphasize this core idea—“it is no accident that although Jesus came preaching a disturbing and redistributive gospel, we do not preach what Jesus preached. Instead, we preach Jesus.” And it is no accident that an American black man, albeit one who has spent forty years pouring tea at Harvard, can see that message more clearly, understand more intuitively the real possibilities of such reversal and upheaval.

The gospel is radical in other ways as well, particularly in the constantly repeated call to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Usually, as Gomes points out, we take “neighbor” to mean “somebody very much like ourselves, bound by the same experiences and expectations, and living in proximity.” Jesus, however, clearly had something different in mind. Challenged by a lawyer to define “neighbor,” Jesus answers with the story of the Good Samaritan, by now the most familiar and most domesticated of parables, “Samaritan” itself having become a synonym for do-gooder. But of course the Samaritan was not a neighbor by any conventional definition, religious or ethnic; he is “under no legal or ritual obligation” to help a Jewish stranger:

  1. 1

    God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Twelve Books, 2007).

  2. 2

    See Peter J. Gomes, Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living (Morrow, 1998), p. ix.

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