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Harvard Theologian Discusses “Scandalous” New Take on Jesus

December 25, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Harvard professor and pastor Peter Gomes recently published a book re-evaluating Jesus's life and teachings. The NewsHour talks to Gomes about his different take on the founder of Christianity.

RAY SUAREZ: As millions of Americans celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth this holiday season, an old debate continues over how literally to read the Bible and how to incorporate 1st-century teachings into a 21st-century life.

In his new book, “The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus,” the Reverend Peter Gomes proposes a re-acquaintance with a message as challenging as it is comforting. Peter Gomes is an American Baptist minister, a professor of Christian morals, and minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard University.

And welcome to the program.

REV. PETER GOMES, Author, “The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus”: Thank you.

RAY SUAREZ: Why “The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus”? This is a person who’s held up as a moral yardstick. What’s so scandalous about that?

PETER GOMES: Well, I’m afraid my publicist thought that the word “scandal” would attract attention, which clearly it has. The scandal is the fact that we seem to pay so little attention to the content of Jesus’ teaching and a great deal of attention to Jesus.

So I am proposing here that we might, in fact, look at what Jesus says, rather than who it is that says it, and that might be exciting, and we might find something, by our modern standards, which is rather scandalous.

The Gospel's place in modern times

RAY SUAREZ: In several passages in the book, you take what is in the gospels and compare it to the way we popularly talk about Jesus in the 21st century, and find this is a much more radical person, a much less comfortable person than we seem to remember today, all these years later.

PETER GOMES: Well, I think that's true. I mean, if you look at Jesus in the New Testament, you will discover that he spends almost a disproportionate amount of time with the people who were on the fringes of his society.

And so, if he came back today, we might wonder, who are the people on the fringes of our society with whom he would be spending time? And my guess is he wouldn't be spending time with most of us who are at church all of the time. I don't think he'd be spending time with most of the theologians or the radio or TV evangelists.

I think he'd be spending time with those people whom we tend to marginalize. He'd still be spending time with the prostitutes. I think he'd be spending time with minorities of every kind -- racial and sexual and others -- and I think we might be surprised to discover that nothing on that point has changed, as far as Jesus is concerned.

RAY SUAREZ: So how would America be a different place, if this scandalous gospel was remembered, re-embraced, if we incorporated it into the way we run our country, which it's often boasted "this is a Christian nation"?

PETER GOMES: Well, I think among the things we would find ourselves doing is, instead of demonizing people who are different, we would try to find out who they were, what we could learn from them, and what God's plan for them and us is.

Demonization occurs at the basic level between religious communities, and between communities that are religious and communities that are not, and between people whom we push to the sides of our society. We tend to do that in terms of ideology and cultural differences.

But I would think that, if Jesus came today, the people he would be most interested in dealing with would be homosexuals, racial minorities, people who would be thought to be less than the most upright and righteous people in the contemporary community. If the New Testament is any model, that's where he would hang out.

Worshipping a more universal God

RAY SUAREZ: Why is that? Because Jesus in the parables, in many of the times where he's quizzed by people in the gospel's stories, he delivers what outwardly seems to be a fairly conventional model of morality: Take care of your responsibilities. Love your neighbor, a lot of words to live by that I think people of all faiths and no faith would find comforting.

PETER GOMES: Well, in theory that's true. And the comfort level is very high because of that. But the issue becomes clear when Jesus defines or forces us to define to whom or among whom do we practice these words to live by?

Do we practice these things among people who are very much like ourselves, which tends to be what the church does? Or are we meant to practice them among everybody? And that means people who don't vote as we do, or who don't look as we do, or who don't live where we do, who don't share all of our values.

It's Jesus who redefines who the "other" is. There is no other, as far as Jesus is concerned.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, that's a theme you return to time and again in the book, that when people in the contemporary culture wars and political debates invoke God that this is a god, in your view, that's almost too puny, bound up in the trivial concerns of day-to-day battles in contemporary life.

PETER GOMES: Well, someone once said to me they just didn't see how God could be concerned with anybody other than Christian believers. And it seemed to that person a shock when I said, well, I just didn't believe that God was just the god of the Christians.

What about all these other people? Are they sort of accidents of creation? Do they exist outside of the purview of God? Of course not.

God has an interest in everybody, if he's created everybody, which I believe he did. He has an interest in the whole world for which he is responsible and which I have to be interested and for which I have to be responsible.

So it can't be just my kind of person or just my neighborhood in which God has an interest.

When I said to somebody that Jesus wasn't a Christian, well, they nearly blew a fuse. And I realized that, you know, they thought that Jesus was just a big version of whatever the most pleasant version of your own local religion is. And that's not so.

RAY SUAREZ: You talk about preaching a sermon in which you mention some of these hard ideas about who Jesus, who God is and was in history. And you say, "Surprisingly enough, nobody walked out of church, but I did receive quite a few letters from people who were listening and didn't like what they heard. This reaction suggested to me that I was doing my job."

Is that your job as a preacher?

PETER GOMES: My job is, to coin a phrase used in the 19th century and adopted much by my old friend, Bill Coffin, "to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." So, in some sense, if the one thing the sermon does is wake you up so that you discover that you don't agree, it's done a good thing, in that respect.

But most people stop there. They say, "I don't agree with that guy," and they click him off, and they'll never turn to him again, instead of pressing the matter. Why don't I agree? Where does this lead us? Opening rather than closing conversations.

Renewing an age-old story

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we're in the weeks of the year where from every single pop cultural channel that familiar story will be retold, re-enacted, reheard. What should people be taking away from it now, the decree coming forth from Caesar Augustus and all of that?

PETER GOMES: Oh, everybody will hear all those familiar words over and over again. It will descend upon us a bit like white sound. I'm quite used to that.

No one seems to ask, OK, what are the consequences now of Jesus entering into our world and, in many ways, on our terms, being born of a woman, being born of a virgin, born in a stable, dealing with a world of unjust taxation, dealing with all of the other ideologies that are out there, what does that have to do with us?

Is there anything there that transcends into where we are now? Is it just a wonderful story locked in a couple thousand years ago?

RAY SUAREZ: And the answer, quickly?

PETER GOMES: The answer to me is that the whole point of that birth is to say that Jesus cares, God cares about this world, and is determined to help us do something about it.

RAY SUAREZ: "The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus," Peter Gomes, good to talk to you.

PETER GOMES: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow night, Ray gets a different view of how to read the Bible in modern times from Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Seminary.