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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:

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. 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.

  3. 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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