The Rev. Peter Gomes has a verifiable big mouth. Ten years ago, he was featured in a “Talk” magazine article titled “The Best Talkers in America: Fifty Big Mouths We Hope Will Never Shut Up.”
He’s still talking, and talking and talking, and this weekend he’ll lend that famous voice box to Kansas University as the school’s visiting scholar in religion. The Harvard preacher and professor will give two talks Sunday for the public — a lecture at 2 p.m. at the Lied Center and an informal dialogue with the public at 7 p.m. at Plymouth Congregational Church.
And what’s he talking about these days? Mostly, it’s one word.
As in “The Scandalous Gospel of Jesus,” his recent book.
He didn’t pick the wording — an editor did that — although Gomes has the type of vocabulary one would expect from a man with a Harvard education and 38 honorary degrees. In the two years since the book was published, he’s been around the country and on shows such as “The Colbert Report” discussing that single word.
“I think in America, scandalous means sex. And they think that I had some insight into the sex life of Jesus, of course I have no insight into such a thing,” says Gomes of the curious folks at his talks. “If he ever had a sex life, I don’t know about it. And if I did, I’m not sure I’d write a book about it.”
That editor may have wanted to sell books, but Gomes has been able to do that pretty well himself without sexy wording in the title. His first book, “The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart” was a “The New York Times” bestseller when it was printed in 1996 and his other books, “Sermons: Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living” (2002) and “The Good Life: Truths That Last in Times of Need” (2003) and “The Backward Glance and the Forward Look” (2005) did fine in their own right.
In fact, Gomes has made a career recently of putting the Bible and Jesus in a different light. It’s this educational quality that had him long on the “wish list” to be the visiting scholar says Curtis Marsh, the director of KU Info and the man responsible for facilitating the visiting scholar program.
“He has a very strong reputation for being not just a preacher, but a fantastic scholar in his field. Which is of course the primary factor that attracts people like that to us. He is widely regarded as one of America’s most distinguished preachers,” Marsh says. “So he’s just going to really just knock people out with some his lectures that he will be giving while he is here. Plus, he will challenge our thinking and give us some very unique perspectives on the world of religious studies.”
Gomes also has been known to challenge thinking by just being himself. A Baptist and longtime Republican, he spoke at the inaugurations of both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush in the 1980s. A few years later, in 1991, upset over a critique of pro-homosexual politics by a conservative Harvard student journal called “Peninsula,” he came out as a gay man, proclaiming on the steps of The Memorial Church where he preaches, “I am a Christian who happens as well to be gay.” Conservative students at the school demanded his resignation, but Gomes stayed put as the Harvard Divinity School’s Plummer Professor of Christian Morals.
Some would call that scandalous, but Marsh, for one, would not. Of course, he says that if anyone does find Gomes scandalous — say, maybe the Rev. Fred Phelps of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church — and decides to protest any of Gomes’ events, visit organizers will be prepared. Though Gomes himself is hardly concerned.
“Oh, Fred Phelps! What a hooey he is. He was supposed to come picket me at Baker University, and he didn’t show up,” says Gomes, referencing his last trip to Kansas, the 2002 convocation at Baker in Baldwin. “And he’s come to Cambridge a couple of times. No, I think I can deal with Fred Phelps and his family. I’m not worried about that.”
No scandal there.
That leaves the title of his book to be the most scandalous thing he has to worry about.
“Most people want to know what’s so scandalous about what Jesus had to say,” he says. “They seem to be surprised when I say that it was scandalous then and scandalous now that you’re supposed to be nice to people. People still find that a bit surprising in that it is that it’s high-risk behavior and so on and so forth. But that is what he did talk about a lot and so I thought I’d talk about it too.”
Yes, niceness. Gomes plans on addressing this scandalous material during his lecture at the Lied Center, titled “Being Who You Are.”
“I think I’m supposed to be talking out of the basis of my book about Christian identity and how to cope in a crazy world — how do religious people manage to identify themselves in this kind of world?” he says.
Ironically, it’s the most asked question he gets from his students at the Harvard Divinity School.
“Well, my divinity students all want to know what should they do with their lives,” he says. “They’re all so confused about vocation and ministry and so on and so forth. I tell them to go with their best guess. I have a phrase that I often use which is, ‘When in doubt, believe.’ And so I tell them that, and they often thank me for it.”
Marsh says he expects those who go to Gomes’ seminar to be thankful for the chance to see the celebrated minister.
“I think there are two primary reasons that he attracts people all over the world to his programs,” Marsh says. “One is that he has a very unique perspective on the world of religion, whether it be Christian morals or world religion and the other is that he is ... an extraordinary communicator. So not only does he have an amazing message, but he presents it in a very unique way as well. So an evening or time spent at a program with Peter Gomes is both highly educational and entertaining.”