Friday, February 8, 2013

Book Snap: Peter Gomes' "The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus"


From the November 2009 E-Block. Note: Gomes died in 2011.

**

Peter Gomes' The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus (SGJ) doesn't offer a lot to critique or comment on, in terms of our work here. Gomes is a Christian of the liberal variety, but unlike John Shelby Spong, he does not devote a lot of time to historical or exegetical concerns. Indeed one would be hard pressed to determine if Gomes even believed that Jesus rose from the dead, historically speaking. 

But what I found most curious about this book is how closely Gomes' presentation (and I take it, certain forms of liberal Christianity) resembles what is being taught today by those who are in the emergent church movement. In essence, there is the same indifference to the foundational historical matters of Christianity; in its place, we are constantly told to direct our attention to the moral and social prescriptions of the Gospel (this, in essence, is what Gomes means by the "scandalous gospel"), such that we will be kept too busy to think about whether that moral and social gospel has an epistemic basis, eg, the historical Resurrection). 

Gomes does represent, I daresay, the far end of a pendulum that is represented on the furthest other end by persons like, say, Jerry Falwell: One end is too concerned with the social and moral gospel to care about the historical gospel; the other end is reversed. And admittedly this can be legitimate, to the extent that the different parts of the Body of Christ can have different roles: I would not care to have William Lane Craig, for example, dishing out soup in a kitchen for the homeless. But gifting is one thing; indifference is another. Gomes' non-concern for history and meaning is such that, like many of liberal persuasion, he ends up badly decontextualizing his proof texts in service of some already-decided social move. His stance on homosexuality (more frequently seen in his prior Good Book) is an example of this; there's nothing of an argument against the idea of homosexuality as sin: Gomes has already decided that it isn't, and the texts serve him in whatever way he needs them to. 

His other great hobby horse is inclusivism, which he defends with no more adequacy; it is seen as sufficient to insinuate that a God of exclusive salvation privileges is "too small" -- as though merely saying so casts the soteriological net wider by implication. His only text for inclusivism is the parable of Matthew 20, in which even late-coming workers are paid the same wage as those who work the full day. [155f] Inclusivist? Really? What about those who never even showed up for work at all? 

At least one example of exegetical fancy from Gomes is naturally in order. Perhaps the most ironic is his attempt to read Jesus' reception in Nazareth (Luke 4) in terms of the home congregation reacting as they did because it "disconfirmed rather than affirmed their sense of themselves." [38] That one's entirely wrong, and the application of modern individualism and concepts of self-identity onto the text; Gomes sees the correct interpretation as an option (the reaction was because Jesus seemed to be trying to rise above himself -- 39) but says, without any explanation or refutation, that "another view is in order" -- one in which he supposes Jesus to be teaching that God is also interested in non-Jews, which isn't even mentioned in anything Jesus is recorded as saying. This is all the more ironic because Gomes is aware that "most Christians read scripture within the context of their own circles of faith and interpretation." [46] There are a few other examples of exegetical fancy that could be cited as well, but truthfully, exegesis is not a large part of SGJ anyway. 

In fairness, Gomes is certainly to be preferred to someone like Spong and does not make anything like the scale of errors (or radical claims) that Spong does. But where Spong is frequently obnoxious, Gomes is frequently naive. He supposes, after the manner of John Loftus, that if the Bible were more clear, sin would be less frequent. [2] He also supposes, after the manner of Henrik Ibsen thinking that the majority is always wrong, that the Gospel is marked solely by teaching against the "status quo" [3] (which is untrue: Jesus frequently reaffirmed traditional teachings, even as he denied some of the validity of others). On the other hand, he laments the problem of widespread Biblical ignorance [15], and disdains versions of the gospel message that promise a stress-free existence and focus too intently on positive thinking [94, 211] -- while also, ironically, propping for Tillich's highly individualist and modern message that "accepting the fact that God has accepted us" is the best way to cope with an "inhospitable world." [239] 

In the final analysis, it is well to classify Gomes as a dinosaur, a remnant of a type of Christianity that occupies Thomas Reeves' "empty church." Mainline liberal Christianity is a dying breed because it gives us little to believe in while demanding that we act as though we believed in whatever it is.

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