March 03, 1997 12:00 PM

Though the Bible itself is a perennial seller, scholarly books about it seldom fly off the shelves. So what accounts for the success of Rev. Peter J. Gomes’s The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart, a national bestseller since November? “Gomes blends the passion and reason of the humanist to open the sacred even to the most secular and skeptical mind, “says colleague Henry Louis Gates Jr. A witty and engaging Bostonian, the author, 54, is a study in contrasts: A black conservative who graduated from Harvard Divinity School, Gomes is a minister in the Memorial Church at Harvard, where he is also Plummer Professor of Christian Morals. “One of the great preachers of our generation,” in the words of Lord Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Gomes is courtly, eloquent and, sometimes, confrontational; in 1991 he sparked a tempest when, in reply to campus conservatives who claimed that the Bible condemns homosexuality, he attacked the notion and declared himself—for the first time publicly—”a Christian who happens as well to be gay.”

In his study at Memorial Church, Gomes talked with associate editor Michelle Green about America’s “collective ignorance ” about the Scriptures—and about his mission to introduce thoughtful readers to the Bible.

Why is it important to understand the Bible?

Because it offers profound human and divine insights about the nature of human experience, about the nature of life and a relationship between this realm and another realm. We live in a culture that has been defined by biblical ideals, ideas and images. We can’t ignore it, even if we wanted to. If you are not informed biblically, you’re out of the loop.

Why aren’t Americans more familiar with the Bible?

I think it’s part of the general decline in cultural literacy. We’re a fast-food culture, and one of the things that has been lost is the perpetuating of the thoughtful, meditative, religious tradition in which the Bible played a very important role. Also, once upon a time it could be assumed that everybody who went to college had been exposed to at least one course in the Bible. Well, that’s virtually disappeared.

Have fundamentalists made the Bible seem less appealing to mainstream readers?

I have a nuanced view on this—I don’t criticize these people; I look upon evangelical Christianity in much the same way that historians looked upon the monks who, during the Dark Ages, kept the flame of learning alive, even though the great pagan culture around them was ignoring it. I appreciate their rigor, but I don’t agree with the kind of intellectual straitjacket they put around the Bible. [My goal is to] try to reclaim access to the Bible for the people who are caught between arrogant religion, which says, “Ours is the only way,” and arrogant secularism, which tosses people’s spiritual needs out the window.

What sort of mistaken notions about the Bible have you encountered?

In the beginning of my course The Christian Bible and Its Interpretation, I give my very eager, bright undergraduates a time line of names to be put in chronological order—Jesus, Moses, Ruth, Paul and so on. Most of them can’t do it. And the notion of whether Jesus is before or after Moses is a pretty big concept.

Also, the idea that the Bible is not a unitary work, like a Russian novel, is foreign to most people. It’s not a question of [just] the Old and New Testaments—it’s a question of 66 books, written over two-or three-thousand years in remarkably different genres, from different points of view, that’s arresting news to most people.

Where do you stand on the issue of literal interpretation of the Bible?

A lot of people seem to believe that they must read the Bible differently than they read Shakespeare because it’s “holy.” Ironically our most primitive ancestors understood the power of metaphor, whereas our contemporary sophisticates are terrified of it. Having to argue what William Jennings Bryan did—that the sun really did stand still when Joshua fought the battle of Jericho—means that you’re stuck with imposing a scientific reality of fact upon stories meant to point to the truth.

Remember, the Bible was written thousands of years ago by hundreds of people in languages far removed from ours. One always has to ask not simply “What does it say?” but “What does it mean—what did it mean then and what does it mean now?” These are not questions that should be restricted to the seminary—every reader has to ask those kinds of questions.

What is the Bible’s most important message?

Jesus answers that question in this way: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, your soul and your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” Love of God, love of neighbor—everything else stems from that.

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