Friday, October 24, 2008

The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus -- Review


THE SCANDALOUS GOSPEL OF JESUS: What’s So Good About the Good News? By Peter J. Gomes. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2007. pb. 264 pp.

With a title like this, it’s not surprising that Harvard’s renowned chaplain, has caught the attention of many a reader. The title reminds us that the one we so often seek to domesticate and manipulate for our own purposes, resists our best efforts. Should we choose to read the words of the gospels and consider them, then perhaps our sensibilities will be challenged. Jesus does not do well the status quo, and yet centuries of Constantinian efforts have inoculated us to his message.

The book is divided into three parts – “The Trouble With Scripture,” “The Gospel and Conventional Wisdom,” and finally “Where Do We Go from Here?” He begins with the Bible, a text he has looked at in a previous book, for obvious reasons. If we are to understand the foundational figure of the Christian faith, we have to understand the book that bears witness to his life. Thus, we must understand that to read the Bible is to interpret it. We must recognize that we don’t read the text in a vacuum, but rather bring our own experiences and perspectives to the task. Gomes writes for the general reader, not the scholar, so there is nothing radically new here, but it’s an important warning to the general reader, many of whom have limited experience with the Bible. Once one has a basic understanding of the need to interpret, then one is ready to consider the person of Jesus.

It is important, in Gomes’ estimation that we distinguish between the Gospel or Good News and the Biblical witness as a whole.

“Those who heard Jesus preaching and teaching heard him give specific utterance to a point of view that he himself called the glad tidings. He came preaching not himself but something to which he himself pointed, and in our zeal to crown him as the content of our preaching, most of us have failed to give due deference to the content of his preaching” (p. 17).


If we pay attention to the actual teachings of Jesus, then what we find is a rather “scandalous gospel.” It was, in fact, a very eschatological message, one that announced the coming kingdom in very profound and challenging ways. That his message was considered scandalous and radical can be seen in the resistance and opposition that it garnered. He was, after all, rejected in his own hometown. In part that’s because he announced a God who was bigger than their expectations. This is a generous God, one, who as we will see as we progress, is inclusive and merciful.

The Jesus we meet here is a nonconformist. Gomes suggests that Romans 12:2 is the Bible’s most dangerous verse, for it commands us to not be “conformed to the world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, . . .” Thus, “in a culture in which conformity is valued, nonconformity is likely to get one in trouble” (p. 45). To American Christians who have been in the majority for so long, Gomes reminds us that at its founding, the church was on the margins and composed of those who lived on the margins. In time, however, expedience caused the church to modify itself to fit in. But what does it mean to be a Christian in light of Jesus’ teachings? In answer to this question raises the issue of inclusion.

“Thus, when Christians state categorically that Jews, or Muslims, or believers in other faith systems are outside the provisions of God, they utter arrogant nonsense. A respected agnosticism is called for when often there is offered in its place a self-interested certainty. If God is the God of all, and not just a tribal deity, then God has made provision, not necessarily known to us, for the healing and care of all his creation, and not simply our little part of it” (pp. 62-63)


The words are blunt, but they call on the reader to consider a larger vision of God. The Good News, he suggests is that “God is greater and more generous than the best of those who profess to know and serve him” (p. 63).

If the message of Jesus is radical and scandalous, then what would Jesus have us do? In asking this question, Gomes rejects an earlier construct, one that asks “What Would Jesus Do?” That construct fails, because we don’t know what Jesus would do if he were living in the modern age. To simply follow an example allows for no growth in understanding. Thus, in asking “what would Jesus have us do,” he suggests that the “onus is not on Jesus, but on us.” We’re not simply to imitate, but to consider how we should live in the modern world in light of Jesus’ radical message of inclusion. We’re called to love our enemies and do good to those who despise us. We’re called to care for the poor. Indeed, we’re called to engage in a life that transforms our neighbors. Our calling is to live lives full of compassion and love for “the works that proceed from them are all that one needs in order to do what Jesus would have us do, and become what Jesus would have us become” (p. 86).

As we consider the good news, we must confront the challenges to the gospel, challenges that include fear. When fear strikes, the question is, how do we respond. His example is the response to 9-11. In the aftermath, some asked – where was God? That is, why didn’t God prevent this? But others responded by finding inner strength to live lives of grace in spite of the tragedy. Too often we live lives defined by fear and that fear leads down dangerous paths. The opposite of fear, however, isn’t courage, it’s compassion. And Jesus, he suggests when in the cross, isn’t defined by fear but by his compassion for others.

Fear isn’t the only challenge, for the Gospel must take into consideration the reality of conflict. Conflict is unavoidable, so how do we participate conscientiously. Peace is the ideal, but the New Earth has yet to arrive. Conflict comes in many forms, including the internal kind. There are the choices we must make. There is the sin that is part of who we are, and ultimately that sin is our refusal to admit and acknowledge our finiteness.

If fear and conflict must be dealt with, so must the future. By the future, Gomes points us beyond the apocalyptic messages of rapture theology. It isn’t an issue of when the end will come, but rather how we might live in hope as we go forward in life. In this, Gomes taps into Jurgen Moltmann’s theology. To live in such hope is to live beyond conventional wisdom. To live in hope is not to trust in a God who gets revenge or sustains until we can escape to heaven. Instead, it is a forward-looking view that embraces God’s gracious and merciful vision.

The gospel, the one that Jesus preaches, the one that is scandalous, calls for a social gospel. It is a gospel that transforms society. It is a gospel that’s not simply optimistic, one that simply confesses positive things. Instead, it is a message that calls for patience and perseverance. It is one that doesn’t distinguish between the “social” and the “spiritual,” but offers a whole gospel. It is one that offers true hope. It is a gospel that is inclusive. Gomes remembers the plague of anti-Semitism that has infected the church and its witness. He remembers as a Protestant the anti-Catholicism of an earlier age. There is the issue of the role of women in church and society. Indeed, there is the broader question of who is in and who is out – including gays and lesbians. Pointing to Cornelius, Gomes asks: where is the Spirit at work today? Finally there is that Gospel of Hope.

Hope is different from optimism – quoting Voltaire, Gomes notes that optimism simply thinking that everything is okay when everything is not okay. The kind of hope that emerges from the Gospel is a muscular sort. It’s a hope that produces character and emerges from suffering. It is hope that gives strength to change. That the world might be different.

So, what is the scandalous Gospel of Jesus? It is one that is focused on the future, it is one that stops being part of the problem and becomes part of the solution. It is a message that upsets the status quo and the conventional wisdom. It is a message focused on the future and not the past. Our job isn’t to restore a golden age, but to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” In this there is abundance.

Gomes is a wonderful story teller and preacher, who has a penchant for the cadences of the King James Version and obscure and forgotten hymns. It is an eloquent statement that should cause us to rethink what it means to be a follower of Jesus in the modern world. As we do so, then perhaps we can live in hope and not in fear, resting and working in the midst of the wideness of God’s mercy.

1 comment:

Sarko Sightings said...

You mean Jesus isnt' that fun loving suburb dad with the white picket fence! Can you hear the sarcasm in my voice! Interesting Read!