The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart,by Peter J. Gomes (Morrow, 383 pp.; $25, hardcover). Reviewed by Douglas D. Webster, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of San Diego.
There may be no one better suited to interpret the Bible for the children of modernity than Peter Gomes, minister in the Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard College. His qualifications are impressive. At 54, Peter Gomes has been preaching at Harvard University for two-and-a-half decades. He is an irenic intellectual and a winsome, articulate spokesperson for a form of Christianity palatable to one of America's centers of secular authority. Gomes is African American, a Bostonian by heritage, and he is gay.
If you want to know where mainstream cultural Christianity is headed, Peter Gomes will show you in The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. The former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Runcie, calls Gomes "one of the great preachers of our generation" and commends his book as "a triumph of scholarship and devotion … easily the best contemporary book on the Bible for thoughtful people." Thomas Long of Princeton Seminary calls it "superb," "an oasis for the mind and heart where 'unbelieving believers' can find themselves enchanted and provoked once again by the treasures of Scripture." William Willimon, dean of the chapel at Duke University, writes, "Anyone who loves the Bible, or who is trying to love the Bible, will love this book."
Gomes's work deserves serious attention for several reasons. First, Harvard's preacher offers an apologia "in favor of taking the Bible seriously." His lifelong goal remains to "rehabilitate the scriptures for general use." In this respect The Good Book is reminiscent of Friedrich Schleiermacher's On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799) and Adolf Harnack's What Is Christianity? (1901).
Second, Gomes purports to represent the middle ground between precritical fundamentalists who idolize the Bible and modern biblical critics who unwittingly reduce the Bible to an object of technical scrutiny. "To read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, to listen to and for the word of God, is to take seriously the invitation and the command of Hebrews 12:25, 'See that you do not refuse him who is speaking.' "
Third, Gomes lays out the agenda for "reeducation" to update and reformulate our understanding of the Bible. He argues that the conventional wisdom of biblical interpretation needs to be corrected and transformed in order to make sense of the text in "our climate of interpretation."
Fourth, Peter Gomes is not only a captivating preacher but also, as Harvey Cox observes, a writer "with flair and eloquence." He blends Harvard acuity, personal anecdotes, and New England aphorisms into a very readable theological treatise.
The Good Book's bad handlers
Gomes implies that the problem with the Bible is not so much the Bible but the Christians who read it. Before we get to the positive message of the Bible, Gomes exposes the hermeneutical malpractice of bibliolatry, literalism, and culturism. According to Gomes, Martin Luther set the stage with his dangerous, even idolatrous, notion of sola scriptura, "by scripture alone." Luther subverted the teaching authority of the church by giving to the Good Book reverence due God and submitting the Bible "to the sovereignty of one's own reading of it," with the result that many "Bible-believing" Christians, say Gomes, have fallen into the trap of literalism.
Gomes's prime example of this fallacy is the attempt to use the Bible against abortion. The Bible, he insists, is silent on the subject of abortion; thus the use of Exodus 20:13, "Thou shalt not kill" (Gomes notes that "Thou shalt do no murder" is more accurate, adding that "murder, in the Hebrew language and culture, refers to the premeditated taking of a life outside the womb"), to justify opposition to abortion is an illegitimate reading, which, in its arrogant literalism, fuels the kind of zealotry that leads to abortion-clinic murders.
The third common temptation of misinterpretation is culturism, the sin of using the Bible to defend the cultural status quo. Instead of the Bible shaping culture, the culture shapes biblical interpretation and uses the Bible to defend social injustice. Gomes points to American slavery and South African apartheid to make his point.
One may detect a certain ideological bent in Gomes's examples. He faults Luther for paving the way to bibliolatry, but Luther could serve equally well as a prime exemplar of faithfulness to biblical authority against culturism. Similarly, in America in the 1990s, isn't abortion on demand the "cultural status quo" that a genuinely biblical witness must call into question?
Could we have got it wrong?
Much of The Good Book is given to case studies of misinterpretation and misreading. The terrible legacy of Christian anti-Semitism is the most egregious example of the abuse of Scripture. After Auschwitz, Gomes argues, Christians have been forced to reassess "old texts" and "old truths" and "unmask the demon."
Following the ecumenical concerns of Hans Kung and the scholarship of Sidney G. Hill in Christian Anti-Semitism and Paul's Theology, Gomes announces that most Christians have been reading Paul's letter to the Romans wrong, that Augustine, Luther, and Barth and countless other Christians through the centuries have misinterpreted what Paul meant to say. Paul never intended for Jews to depend upon the cross of Jesus for their salvation. Jews have the Torah and Gentiles have the Cross. "Jews need not become Christians to obtain the promises—in the Torah they already have the promises as Jews. By the same token," Gomes continues, "Gentiles need not become Jews and subscribe to the law, for Gentiles cannot do so and because of the cross of Jesus do not need to do so."
If anti-Semitism is Christianity's "original sin," then homosexuality, Gomes argues, is its "last prejudice." Indeed, "more than any other social or theological issue of our day, this one engages us at our most fundamental level of existence and raises disturbing questions about our own sense of identity, of morality, and of the nature of settled truth."
Gomes would have the reader believe that the Bible says very little on the subject of homosexuality and what it does say pertains only to the cultural context of the biblical world. Following John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, Gomes contends that Paul's strictures simply cannot be applied to permanent, monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships. All Paul knew, argues Gomes, was a homosexuality that consisted of prostitution, pederasty, lasciviousness, and exploitation. Not unlike, it could be argued, the kind we have today.
Gomes wants to reconcile what the children of modernity know about the Bible with what they know of themselves and of the world. He makes it possible to accept what one wants to in the Bible and discard the rest as being either irrelevant or wrong. Perhaps the most intriguing and disconcerting aspect of Gomes's work is not what he says, but what he does not say. His effort to reeducate appears to ignore the central message of biblical revelation, namely, God in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
In The Good Book, Jesus is "the successor to Moses," the "ultimate apologist for the faith," and the pioneer of the new age, but is he the one and only Son of God, the Incarnate One, the one before whom every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord? Jesus is the ultimate sufferer, but is he the Savior of the world? Gomes is unclear as to the significance of the atoning sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. "For the Christian," Gomes says, "suffering is manifested, redeemed, and transcended" in Jesus Christ. Does this mean that other religions, such as Judaism and Buddhism, have their own ways to effectively redeem suffering? I believe Gomes would say yes.
Gomes laments the misplaced effort of preachers at Christmas and Easter who try to explain the faith when they should be helping thirsty worshipers drink in the wonders of the faith. "The Westminster Confession and the Shorter Catechism take the prize for theological immodesty," he adds, adducing in contrast Zophar's rebuke of Job: "Can you find out the deep things of God? Can you find out the limit of the Almighty? It is higher than heaven—what can you do? Deeper than Sheol—what can you know?" (Job 11:7-8).
One wonders if Gomes—who stresses the importance of reading Scripture in context—considered how this passage might cast judgment on his own project. Isn't the point precisely that Job did know God and that, despite the withering scorn of his "comforters," he did not retreat from his reliance upon God's own self-disclosure? "I will teach you about the power of God; the ways of the Almighty I will not conceal" (Job 27:11). There is something to be said for being confident, not in ourselves, but in the revelation of God. "For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Heb. 4:12, NIV).
The one and only Good Book needs no defense, nor does it need Peter Gomes's reinterpretation. Gomes is right to raise the question of modesty. Are we willing humbly to submit to the Word of God, or do we insist on transforming the Bible into our image? "What we suffer from today," G. K. Chesterton observed, "is humility in the wrong place." We were meant to be doubtful about ourselves and confident in God's revelation, but in Gomes's The Good Book this is exactly reversed.
What On Earth Are We Doing? Finding Our Place As Christians in the World
By John Fischer
194 pp.; $12.99, paper
"Our confusion about the world and our place in it begins with how we think about the world and our place in it. Since we are products of our culture as well as of our faith, we must be prepared to look in both directions for the major influences on the current Christian mind." That is precisely what recording artist and author John Fischer does in this pithy but wide-ranging book.
The word Christian, he notes, is used as an adjective for "a host of things from the secular culture" now available in a "Christian version." But how has "all this 'Christian stuff' helped us relate to the non-Christian world around us?"
In the Presence of His Majesty
By Oswald Chambers
72 pp.; $17.99, hardcover
This handsomely produced gift book features brief passages from Oswald Chambers, accompanied by high-quality photographs of natural settings. The selections (taken from Run Today's Race ) are grouped in three thematic sections: Faith, Hope, and Love, with introductory comments by John Van Diest. "God is never away off somewhere else," Chambers writes; "He is always there. "
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