Freeing the Bible From the Land of Absolutes

TIMES STAFF WRITER

His gray cardigan and silver rimmed glasses should be the giveaway. But finally, his choice of a particular word tips his hand. "I am a pa-a-ah-son," the Rev. Peter Gomes tells an audience of bookstore shoppers in Santa Monica.

With one antiquated and genteel term, spoken in a Boston accent, Gomes suggests what he is all about. In his words, "a combination of oddities and peculiarities." That, and more. He is also the author of "The Good Book: Reading the Bible With Mind and Heart" (William Morrow), a scholarly but impassioned new book Gomes wrote in an effort to wrestle the Bible from the jaws of the complacent and the narrow-minded.

An African American and a son of the aristocracy, a conservative Republican and a Harvard professor, a Baptist minister who could easily pass for a "high church" Anglican priest, a gay man by nature but a celibate by choice, he seems well up to the task of his book.

"The liberals gave the Bible away to the fundamentalists and took up the New York Times," he says to explain his basic position. In his view, American society is paying the price for embracing a liberal secularism about the modern world and rejecting its religious tradition. "Walk away from the Bible and you walk away from all of Western culture," Gomes argues. "Particularly American culture."

From this premise, though, he doesn't launch into the expected line of attack. Instead he bashes the right too for its inflexibility. "What I want to do is raise the level of discourse," Gomes, a short man of 54 with a preacher's expansive chest, explains over lunch. "I want the liberals who despise the Bible to take it more seriously. And the conservatives to do more than massage it for their own interests."

He is certain that general readers need to know what he has to tell them. "Try listening to a political speech without some reference to the Bible," he says. "Try engaging in a religious debate without it. Someone invariably claims, 'the Bible says. . .' And with that they claim the moral high ground."

The rich tone of his voice gives even this informal speech the ring of a Sunday sermon. As minister at Harvard University's Memorial Church, Gomes was once named among the best black preachers in the country by Time magazine. His credentials go beyond that: He is also a professor of Christian morals at Harvard Divinity School. It isn't hellfire he evokes, it is moral accountability.

"Biblical literacy is enough to make everybody uncomfortable," Gomes says. "It's not driven by personal pleasure or reckless individualism. It's not a blessing on the American status quo."

And it's not what they teach in most Bible study classes. "So much of what passes as Bible study is nonsense," he says. "It might be therapeutic or community building. But the real study of the Bible is hard work. It's not a question of you and the text, of running your finger down the page and landing on the answer."

His own passion for Scripture study is fired by none less than the country's founding families. Gomes is president of the Pilgrim Society in Plymouth, and notes that the early settlers filled their libraries not only with the Bible but with shelves of scholarly interpretations of it.

"The pilgrims called themselves the people of the Book," he says. "But they recognized [that] to rely on the Bible alone without context or commentary is not the thing to do. They loved the Bible but they also loved books about the Bible."

Gomes' own interpretations of key Scriptural texts show how they get twisted or locked into cultural values and customs long since past, during the most heated debates of our time--over racism, anti-Semitism, women's rights, homosexuality. This most traditional of religious scholars, it turns out, is a cultural liberal.

"The Bible alone is the most dangerous thing I can think of," Gomes says. "You need an ongoing context and a community of interpretation to keep the Bible current and keep yourself honest. Forget the thought that the Bible is an absolute pronouncement. It is a tool we need to call back into play. But it is not a proof text."

Every social upheaval he explores was eventually worked out by placing biblical texts into a modern cultural context. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous letter from the Birmingham, Ala., jail to refute charges by fellow clergy that his campaign against segregation couldn't be backed up by Scripture. The late scholar John Boswell brought modern understanding of sexuality to bear in reevaluating biblical passages that had long been used to condemn gays.

"Every one of those cultural changes departed from orthodoxy," Gomes says. "Face that fact and you cannot hold to a static view of orthodoxy. We are always disrupted by such changes. We are never prepared, but we have to deal with them. And once we incorporate the change into our worldview we are never the same."

Gomes' own life story reflects a dramatic departure from the status quo. His mother was born into a wealthy black family and raised on Beacon Hill, the heart of Boston's blueblood territory. She met her husband during a drive in the country. He was a laborer who worked in the cranberry bogs of Plymouth.

Peter, their only child, attended Bates College and Harvard Divinity School. He taught at Tuskegee Institute before he returned to Harvard in 1970 as assistant minister in Harvard's Memorial Church. He was named minister there in 1974 and, according to such campus luminaries as John Kenneth Galbraith, is one of the most popular teachers at the school.

His life shows the influence of both his parents. Gomes lives in Cambridge and in Plymouth and cultivates his own gardens. He considers his single status his vocation and says he has not had to struggle with it.

He declared himself a homosexual in 1991, in a sermon he delivered after a series of gay-bashing episodes on campus. "I did it as an outraged Christian, not an outraged homosexual," he says. "It's put me in the middle of one of the most vital social discussions of our country. I can't duck it."

Since then, he has been increasingly outspoken on social issues. He wrote one chapter in his book, it seems, to straighten out members of his own political party who have been misusing Scripture in his opinion. A chapter titled "The Bible and Wealth" reads like a response to conservative Republicans who live what Gomes refers to as the good life but oppose social programs that help the poor, the unemployed, the old, the disabled, the immigrants.

In the past, Gomes helped officiate during the inaugurations of presidents Reagan and Bush. But the loudest voices in the Republican party today do not belong to his kind of conservatives.

"Do I sign on with Newt Gingrich and company? Absolutely not," he says. "They're not conservatives, they're angry populists. They feel that life has cheated them. It gives conservatism a mean spirituality."

Subheadings under the book's chapter on wealth give an idea of how Gomes blends Scripture and current scholarship to open up the debate. "Wealth is a Gift and Not a Reward," leads one section. "Wealth Is an Obligation to the Law" starts another. (In this case the term "law" refers to the law that Jesus summarized in the New Testament: Love God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself).

"The economic gospel of the conservative wing says it's not right of us to give money to those who God did not give it to," Gomes says. "Those same conservatives argue that feminist values are not biblical, and that sex is not OK. But don't mess with their money."

How the Bible got frozen in time is no mystery to Gomes.

"It's the scary part of religion in America," he says. "People want to give everything over in return for certainty. But the fact is, the Bible is filled with un-absolute guarantees."

He gives his thumbnail account of Abraham's beginnings as the father of the Israelites:

"God calls Abraham.

"Where to?

"We'll see."

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