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Taking the Gospels Seriously

Jesus makes a new and transforming definition of neighbor. Proximity and kinship no longer sufficiently define who the neighbor is, and thus they no longer define those to whom obligations are due. The neighbor is the one who has opportunity to do good to one in need.

There is, if one takes any of this seriously, an obvious political message, and it appears to be one that Gomes has heeded. As with many other traditional Republicans, the Bush administration was enough to push him in a new direction. Gomes, who gave the benediction at Ronald Reagan’s second inauguration, recently wrote an Op-Ed piece for The Boston Globe describing his decision to switch his registration to Democratic, in part to support Deval Patrick, an impressive young candidate for governor, but more significantly because he felt that the Republicans, with their appeal to fear and insularity, had “left him.” As a nation, he said in that article,

we have been starving for words that move and inspire us, instill hope and not fear, and suggest the highest purposes for the common good.

In a deeper sense, his new book suggests that his years of reflecting on the gospels—and perhaps the contrast between those imperatives and the comfortable milieu of Harvard Yard—have in some sense radicalized him. Always the traditionalist, however, his radicalism has a historical flavor—he appeals in the final third of his book to the social gospel espoused at the turn of the last century by theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch, who, in Christianity and the Social Crisis, argued that

whoever sets any bounds for the reconstructive power of the religious life over the social relations and institutions of men, to that extent denies the faith of the Master.”3

When we hear the term “social gospel” we may tend to think of left-wing preachers and folk songs and mostly empty sanctuaries—the post-Sixties church “all too ready,” Gomes writes, “to substitute The New York Times and the latest policy journal for the Bible.” But that was just a faint echo of the original. Rauschenbusch was at the forefront of Protestantism when Protestantism was at its zenith—when the YMCA was a movement, for instance, not just a place with a basketball court, and the Salvation Army on the offensive. Still, says Gomes, it was a moment of peril for the church, which faced a choice between

an oppressive orthodoxy grounded in personal piety and a Bible protected from the acids of modernity, or a modernism in which the values of the scientific method, and the progress of an age in rapid retreat from the claims of orthodoxy, meant that the church would either adapt or, in Darwinian inevitability, die.

The vision of the social gospel wasn’t enough to hold the faith—instead, many people headed in a modern secular direction or toward evangelical fervor. Now, Gomes suggests, we may be at another such juncture—and this time it is the evangelicals, even at their moment of seeming triumph, who may need the social gospel most.

The idea that evangelicalism is in some peril may seem fanciful—we’ve gotten used to the idea that the Sun Belt megachurch suburbs are among the new power centers of America, shaping our political destiny. But the Bush years may prove their zenith—indeed social scientists have reported recently that the number of Americans who identify as Christians has begun to drop sharply, from four fifths of the population to someplace between two thirds and three quarters, largely as a reaction to what is seen as the overreaching aggressiveness of much of the religious right.

Evangelicals themselves are beginning to notice, to judge from unChristian, an interesting new book based on research by the Barna Group, a kind of Gallup for that movement. What they find is that 40 percent of Americans aged between sixteen and twenty-nine are outside Christianity and that, what’s more, they have an overwhelmingly negative perception of it. Eighty-seven percent find it “judgmental,” 85 percent “hypocritical,” 78 percent “old-fashioned,” 70 percent “insensitive to others.” They dislike its single-minded focus on conversion—only 30 percent of those outsiders consider it “relevant to your life.” And the really bad news for evangelicals is that this doesn’t reflect ignorance or lack of information—the great majority have been to church, often for months, and found it wanting.

This shouldn’t be a great surprise. So much of the modern evangelical phenomenon lacks real content—to judge by many of its books and star preachers, the faith is mostly about bringing people to Christ and then, when they’ve arrived, making them feel good about the decision, with a consumerist faith that bears little resemblance to the gospels. (An earlier Barna poll found that three quarters of American Christians believed that the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” could be found in the Bible, even though it’s pretty much the opposite of “love your neighbor as yourself.”) It’s not clear what you’re supposed to do once you’ve heeded the altar call, other than tithe and evangelize (and attend the fitness classes, financial success courses, and the like which are standard at any self-respecting megachurch). What substance there is has often come in the form of opposition to “immorality”—and it’s this ceaseless judgmentalism that young people in particular are noticing and disliking. This is a brand of religion that, for all its market share, seems at the beginnings of a crisis.

Its most admirable practitioners, some of whom have offered short essays in unChristian, have begun to sense this, and to move, sometimes tentatively, in new directions. Rick Warren, for instance, “America’s pastor” and the author of the off-the-charts best-seller The Purpose Driven Life, has turned his suburban, gated-community ministry more and more toward confronting the problems of the very poor. “My dream is that thirty years from now, the church will be known more by what it is for than what it is against,” he writes here.

For some time now, the hands and feet of the body of Christ have been amputated, and we’ve been pretty much reduced to a big mouth. We talk far more than we do. It’s time to reattach the limbs and let the church be the church in the twenty-first century.

He’s setting up a network of churches around the world to take on “extreme poverty, pandemic disease, and rampant illiteracy.”

Meanwhile, the National Association of Evangelicals has actually broken with the Bush administration on at least one important issue—global warming—in a letter signed by Warren and most of its seminary heads, and against the wishes of prominent right-wingers like Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell. Jim Wallis, author of God’s Politics and a veteran campaigner for peace and social justice, draws huge crowds when he speaks around the country. There are signs that the social gospel may be reemerging.

Gomes has a great deal to offer to that emerging tendency in the evangelical church—in particular, one gift that seems more like a challenge, perhaps too great a challenge, in that he is gay. This came to light in the 1990s, when a conservative campus publication put out a special issue attacking the gay rights movement. Many students protested, and chose the steps of Memorial Church for a rally; they asked Gomes if he would speak, anticipating a general call for civility and tolerance. Instead, he announced that he could speak with some authority on the question of homosexuals and the Bible, both because he was the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and because “I am a Christian who happens as well to be gay.” It was a daring thing to admit, though its effect at Harvard has probably been to make church seem more relevant; among alumni, Gomes (a droll public speaker) remains one of the most popular of all faculty members for fund-raising appearances and the like.

In any event, his sexuality has become part of his ministry. In The Good Book he showed, with the benefit of the latest biblical scholarship, that the texts usually adduced to show that gay sex was sinful were in fact commentaries on sexual violence and prostitution, that they came against a backdrop of biblical prohibitions on everything from hair-cutting to shrimp-eating, and that in general they had nothing to do with what people of that era couldn’t easily have conceived of: committed, caring relationships between people of the same sex.

We can conceive of them now—and it turns out that the antipathy of the evangelical churches toward homosexuals is the single biggest reason that young people are starting to turn away from them. An astonishing 91 percent in the Barna surveys felt that the church was “antihomosexual,” and of course they were accurate in their feelings. “Because of our opposition to homosexuals, outsiders cannot picture the church as the loving community of believers Jesus envisioned,” write David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons in unChristian. Indeed, it’s hard for outsiders—and even many insiders, as their research also shows—to see it as anything other than hateful. It’s not just evangelicals, either. What remains of the mainline denominations spend huge percentages of their time engaged in internal struggles about whether to ordain gays, whether to bless their unions, and so on.

Gomes, in his writing and in his person, therefore, poses an interesting predicament—the kind of mirror opposite to evangelist Ted Haggard, who consorted with a male prostitute and then declared that he needed to be “cured.” In The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus, Gomes says that the attack on homosexuality within the church is nothing less than a refusal to “allow the gospel to expand beyond the boundaries of our own limited comfort zone.” In the bluntest language in the book (and from a man whose urbanity usually precludes such phrasing), he says that those who attempt to use “biblical standards” to read gays out of full participation in the church make

the Bible a tool of oppression, the church an exclusive fellowship of shared prejudice, and the glad tidings—the gospel that Jesus came to proclaim—a mockery.

Gomes’s concentration on the gospels makes his case particularly sharp. Those four books don’t mention homosexuality; it seems to have been a topic of little interest to Jesus. (Divorce, by contrast, he condemns out of hand and repeatedly; the number of Republican presidential candidates debating family values would be considerably smaller if a gospel test were actually applied.) It won’t be easy, of course, for churches to get past the issue: most of the leaders writing about gay people in unChristian offer wan and patronizing takes on the “hate-the-sin/love-the-sinner” theme. But until they do get past it, the question will drain much of the vitality out of American Christendom.

In the meantime, life continues in Memorial Church much as it has since Harvard’s founding: morning prayers begin each day at 8:45 sharp, with a robed choir of slightly sleepy undergraduates. The Billings Prize in Pulpit Improvement may be a less prestigious prize, but Gomes still teaches the art of preaching to divinity school students, and in somewhat the same tones as his predecessors.

When I attended his opening class not long ago, he was trying to inspire, and terrify, his small flock of students. “If you are tender-hearted and thin-skinned, this is not the course for you,” he told them. “I will provide the sermon texts. There will be no 23rd Psalms, no Prodigal Sons this term. You are free to consult with anyone, but finally, like being born and dying, you must preach alone.”

Most preachers, he added, “look for the easiest way through a text—they want to preach solutions, not problems. But since most texts are problematic, you’re losing a lot if you ignore the stones in the road. The stone in the road is usually there to get your attention.”

  1. 3

    Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21st Century: The Classic That Woke Up the Church (HarperOne, republished with commentary, 2007), p. 42.

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