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…

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