The Hard Stuff Is the Good News
An Interview with Peter J. Gomes
By Daniel Smith
Daniel Smith, senior minister at First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, sat down with Peter Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, to talk about his latest book and about the task of preaching the good news today.
Your latest book is The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus: What’s So Good About the Good News? Before we get to the good news, who would you say is your audience this time around?
The people in the pews. My audience is the people who still bother to come, those who haven’t been intimidated to stay away, those who are what Davie Napier, dean at Stanford Chapel, used to call “the unbelieving believers.” Churches are full of people who know they ought to believe, and who want to believe, but they don’t know what to believe or how to believe. But they want to come. There’s something that calls them there.
I really don’t care about the cultured despisers outside. If they read my books and get a little something out of them, that’s fine. But I’m not interested in taking on Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or any of that crowd. I’m interested in little old Mrs. McGillicuddy who has gone to church for 40 years, but who really doesn’t have a clue why. She really doesn’t get it. She likes the hymns. She gets great comfort from it. But the truths of the faith are a great mystery. My job is to try to introduce her to the faith.
And yet you make some claims about what the church is preaching these days. You seem to take on the church a little bit more in this book, claiming that the church is preaching Jesus instead of what Jesus preached.
Most churches are not doing the right job. They’re feeding Mrs. McGillicuddy empty calories.
So the book is for preachers as well?
It’s for Mrs. McGillicuddy and her preacher. I want the preacher to say, “Hey, what can I do to make the gospel stories more interesting and more compelling?” And I want Mrs. McGillicuddy to say, “What do I need to be a better believer?”
And you think church leaders and preachers are giving people fluff?
Yes. I think they’re afraid to give them the hard stuff. I make the point that every preacher I know who is a graduate of an accredited seminary has had to deal with the hard theological stuff. But it never makes it to the pulpit, which is why people by and large are so unprepared to deal with the standard issues, whether it is abortion or homosexuality, or war and peace, or whatever it is. They have nothing; there’s no guidance.
What are they getting?
I don’t know. They’re getting a kind of therapy. Maybe the closest thing they are getting is a gospel of success. But they’re not being given anything that says, “We live in a tough cruel, fallen world and this is how we should be thinking about things.”
You’re involved in theological education. You teach preaching. Who do you think is responsible for this failure?
Well, there’s a culture of caution that the church is built on that most preachers are unwilling to challenge. You can’t place blame on the teachers of preaching. They lay out the task, but once the preachers discover what the task is, they back off.
They never get to those things, partly because we live in a hiring society where 51 percent of the congregation are resident voters who can either do you in or do you out. And you don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you. So the result is, you don’t feed them very much. It’s almost a deal—”If you don’t disturb us, we won’t disturb you.” But preaching is essentially a disturbing act. It offers something that is not there. It criticizes something that is there. And it is based on something that is yet to come. Preachers are basically unwilling to make that kind of statement to people whom they either love or fear, and in some cases both.
Is there a reason why you are making these claims now? Are these perennial problems, or do you think it is especially acute now?
I think it’s especially acute now. The rest of the culture, the rest of modernity or postmodernity aspire to knock down anything that once stood. We are very critical, we are very picky and, somehow, we think either religion can’t withstand criticism, or we don’t know what criticism to offer, and as a result none of the hard issues are put before it. Most Roman Catholics, for example, can’t tell whether the pope is right or wrong on any of his moral pronouncements, and neither can most Protestants. They may disagree with the pope, but they can’t argue with him. They don’t have the theological or biblical muscle to make the case. It’s the same thing if you watch mainline liberal Protestants try to argue with a Jehovah’s Witness: they don’t know the text so they can’t do it. I’m not trying to prepare debaters, but I am trying to prepare people to take their faith seriously so they can see where faith works and where it doesn’t work, and ask the questions: How do I work, and what do I do? There was once a time when religion was a kind of cultural icon that held up everything with it so that it almost didn’t matter what people knew. But it does matter now because religion doesn’t hold anything. If people of faith and intelligence and good will don’t deal with this, it will either go to the secularists, on the one hand, or to the screaming fundamentalists, on the other, and I am opposed to both. So I’m dealing with this very large silent constituency that, in my mind, is getting a raw deal.
So the finger pointing goes to preachers. They’re not being bold enough.
In large part it does. Most of them tell me they know what to say, but they’re too afraid to say it, or they argue it’s too complicated for their people to understand.
How would you say your preaching and thinking has changed over the years?
I’m very much aware that I’m a different person today than I was in 1970. My preaching is much more confident now. You have to remember that when I came to Harvard Divinity School in the fall of 1970, I had graduated just two years before. The Harvard Divinity faculty was sitting in front of me examining me for my degree. If I said anything from the Old Testament, there was Frank Moore Cross and Charles P. Price; for the New Testament, there was Amos Wilder and Dietr Georgi; church history was George Williams; world religions was Wilfred Cantwell Smith. I mean, they were all there! For the first 10 years, my preaching involved a lot of explanation. The next 10 were more doctrinal. I would preach and teach the church calendar, trying to get down the basic concepts of the faith, offering some catechesis because most people didn’t know it. This last stretch has been much more about proclamation. I think I’m a lot simpler now than I used to be, a lot clearer, which is an odd thing because you’d think the older you get the more complicated you get, but that’s not true with me. I won’t say I’ve reached the stage of simple truths, but I think I see things clearer than I did. When I was a young man, I saw all the problems, all the why not’s, all the ambiguities, and I wanted to be honest. You often want to preach ambiguity when you’re honest. I’m beyond that now. Life is short. Time is short. We could all die tomorrow. I have to tell the good news the best I can.
Do you think you are more declarative now in the way you preach because you laid the groundwork 10 years ago by offering the formation and doctrine? So now you’re more free to say it?
For myself, yes. I’m not dealing with a static congregation, and there’s something to be said for that.
Some people have said you’re becoming more politically and socially conscious, maybe even radical. In reading this book especially, people might make that claim. Is there any truth to that?
Yes, I think there’s a lot of truth to that.
I think I’ve become more explicit in trying to connect the gospel to the here and now. I think the notion of political neutrality in theology doesn’t work. So I spent a lot of time on the social gospel.
Did you try political neutrality earlier in your career?
I just sort of rose above it all. I figured people could go to Harvard Kennedy School if they wanted to know for whom to vote; but that’s not true at all, so I now venture a bit more into those areas I stayed away from years ago.
I remember watching you and a small entourage come into Nurses’ Hall at the State House when the gay marriage issue was heating up.
Yes. That was not my scene.
And yet there you were, at a rally. I was surprised, even proud, to see you there.
That was an important thing to do because the Bible was being misused and history was being misread and I had to set the record straight—there was nobody else there to do it. The cardinal was behaving very badly. Mainline Protestants were all on the right side, but none were saying anything definitive. I could. There I was—an out gay man, a decent scholar, an establishmentarian of the first order, a Republican (at the time). Who better than me? If I couldn’t do it on that issue, I couldn’t do it on any issue. I did not want to go there, but I was persuaded that it was the right thing to do, so I said, “I’ll do it.”
Did your stepping out there pave the way for you stepping out on other issues?
Well, I don’t know. You can’t say that I am a born-again social activist. I don’t think I am. I think I’m a little too cynical. I don’t trust most of the social activists I know.
I’m not sure what their motives are. I don’t trust all the human emotion or the human reason. A useful but dangerous enterprise. Maybe that’s too careful. When I come to a view, for better or worse, I stick to it and go with it.
In your book, you mention that the question we should be asking is not “what would Jesus do?” but “what would Jesus have me do?” Given your current setting of such great wealth and power, how do you answer that question for yourself?
Jesus has me do what I’m doing.
Yes it is. It helps!
Let me push it a little further. How do you stay connected with the poor and the least of these? You talk about not just preaching Jesus, but the message that Jesus preaches.
I don’t always say that I can, but I try. I’m in a very privileged position. I minister to the great and good. There are relatively poor people among us, but not many. Since I’ve been called to this particular community, I need to be as faithful as I can. I don’t spend nights at soup kitchens or at the Pine Street Inn. I encourage those who wish to do so, but I think my work, dealing with the people I work with, is just as important. I wouldn’t have been given the talents or opportunities I have if they weren’t. What’s the old song? “Brighten the corner where you are. . . .” That’s what I try to do. And to many people this would appear to be a very nice corner, but in many ways it is not.
I noticed you quote a lot of hymns, gospels, and spirituals in this book. What resonance do you think that has with your readers, whether for Mrs. McGillicuddy or others?
She recognizes the hymns but the young people do not, though they might be curious about them, these neat little formulas of the faith. If you’ve grown up on nothing but praise choruses and sentence fragments, and a good Victorian hymn represents a complex theology, you might be interested. My job is to reacquaint a lot of people with what I regard as a lost treasure of the church, its hymnody.
Many of the hymns are filled with visions that most of us have given up. What I’d like to do is capture some of that energy. We give the Victorians a very hard time for their hypocrisy and their mercantilism and all that sort of stuff, but we’ve never been able to match their spiritual vocabulary.
Some of the newer hymns have lost the thrust of the good news. To lose poetry and to lose magic, to lose mystery is in my opinion to lose meaning. I want to recover some of that magic and mystery, and do whatever is in my power to do that. And preaching helps.
So what is your offhand definition of the “good news”?
You don’t have to be as you are.
Has that been a title of a sermon?
It could be but I haven’t used it. Jesus calls us to become what God intended us to be, the best we are able to be. Jesus calls everybody and anybody to that. Zaccheaus didn’t have to be just a tax collector. Peter didn’t just have to be a fisherman, and so on. He calls us to a noble calling. And it is good news if we can do it and if we can believe it.
Some of us believe that fate tells us who we are. Nothing can happen to us. It is what it is. It’s a form of double-predestination. I don’t believe that and I don’t believe that’s what the gospel says. What makes the good news so frightening is that it is destabilizing. We can’t rely on things always being the way they are.
I love that phrase Jesse Jackson used to use: God is not finished with us! “Finish then thy new creation, pure and spotless let us be.” That’s John Wesley. I believe this and I think it is exciting. I fully believe that I can be something other than what I am now. The older I get, the more I study God’s word, the more God gets close to me and I get close to God, this is it. It is a much better way of looking at life than saying I have a certain place in the world and it just keeps getting smaller and smaller and smaller. That’s not good news. That’s very bad news.
So is the Kingdom of God when we all realize that we don’t have to be who we think we are?
The Kingdom of God is when we are what God intended us to be, and we know it and God knows it, and we can all cry “Alleluia.” It takes a long time to get there but it’s worth aspiring to. It’s what makes me hopeful, not optimistic, but hopeful. It’s what keeps me going, just moving in that direction. We learn, we study, we correct, we amend. We learn, we study, we correct, we amend. And God is in it with us. I think the direction we are meant to grow is toward that perfect day. It is why I believe the book of Revelation is a good book, not a bad book.
So do you believe life is getting better and better through history, and for humanity?
Not better and better necessarily. The gospel message moves quite contrary to our human predicament. You look at our human predicament and you could say things are getting worse and worse. I’m saying that as our outward nature wastes away, the world in which we find ourselves becomes increasingly less satisfying. When we seek to develop our inward nature, as Paul points out, we might be surprised to discover that we are becoming holier and more spiritual beings. That should be our goal anyway. And the good news tells us that’s possible for us all.
Where do you need this good news most in your own life?
In my daily work, in my preaching and my teaching, I need to be reminded of it, that I don’t have to be what I appear to be. There are possibilities I have not yet imagined. There’s a wonderful collect that has always shaped my thinking on the subject. “O God who has prepared from them that loved thee such good things that surpass our understanding, pour into our hearts such love for thee that we loving thee above all things may obtain those promises which we can neither imagine nor desire.” I believe that.
What about outside of your role as Plummer Professor and Pusey Minister? Where do you need the good news in your personal life?
That is my personal life. I’ve never been able to make the distinction.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
I don’t know . . . between who I am and what I do. Maybe at some time I should have been able to draw a clear line. Here’s the Plummer Professor and here’s Peter Gomes. Sometimes it’s a source of pleasure. Sometimes it’s not. I don’t have an answer for that.