BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Peter J. Gomes, preacher to Harvard University, what's "The Good
REVEREND PETER GOMES, AUTHOR, "THE GOOD BOOK: READING THE BIBLE WITH MIND AND HEART" Well, there are two of them. The really Good Book
is the Bible and the second one is the one I wrote about the Bible.
Someone asked me, `Well, where's the--where does the term Good Book
come from?' I was brought up when people referred to the Bible
as--`Better check it out in the Good Book.' Everybody knew it meant
the Bible. But it's a corruption of an old Anglo-Saxon term which
really means `God's book,' and `God' becomes `good,' like Good Friday.
And so the Good Book is the book everybody is supposed to know
something about and everybody needs, and my book is about that book.
LAMB: Can you remember the first time you ever picked up the Bible?
REV. GOMES: Oh, I can. I can. It was long before I read it. I was
brought up in a very churchy household, very pious Baptist upbringing
and the Bible was something of an icon. I mean, in our church, where
you didn't have crucifixes or saint statues or stained-glass windows,
the one thing that had attached to it the feeling of holiness and
sanctity was the Bible, the Good Book. And so I can remember holding
it before I could make any sense of it.
And then when we began to learn how to read in Sunday school, about
the third grade, every third-grader in the Sunday school was given his
or her own copy of the Bible, inscribed by the minister with a life
verse, Red Letter Edition. I still have that Bible, and that meant
you had graduated into sort of a knowledgeable acquaintance of the
LAMB: Where'd you grow up?
REV. GOMES: Plymouth, Massachusetts, land of the Pilgrims' pride. I
was--I lived all my life there, still live there and maintain
associations now that are 55 years old, as old as I am.
LAMB: Your parents--are they still there?
REV. GOMES: No, both my parents are now dead. My father died in
1968 and my mother in 1982. But I still live in the house I was
brought up in and surrounded by neighbors and friends that go back for
many, many years. It's one of--it's a sense of deep-rootedness
in--in--in Plymouth for me, and that's where I expect to end my days
and where I expect to be buried.
LAMB: What were your parents like? What'd they do?
REV. GOMES: Well, my father was a cranberry grower. He was an
immigrant. He came from the Cape Verde islands with his father just
after the first war, and they followed first the sea and then the
cranberry business. And he ended up as superintendent of Ocean Spray
Cranberry Company, one of their very big bogs in--in Plymouth.
And my mother came from an old African-American family in Boston, and
that's where she was born. And her father was a minister. And these
two met, fell in love and married and settled in Plymouth and produced
me. I was all that they produced, so they lavished all their
energy and their attention on me.
LAMB: Where is Plymouth?
REV. GOMES: Well, southeastern Massachusetts. To be very
simple-minded, it's the sensible middle between Boston and
Provincetown. If you look at that big hook of Massachusetts and Cape
Cod, Plymouth would be just about in the center of it.
LAMB: Do you ever go out to this Plymouth Rock?
REV. GOMES: Oh, yes, yes. I was, as a child, fascinated by all this
Pilgrim stuff and, for many years, was involved with the historical
society, the Pilgrim Society. I was librarian and then secretary for
many years and then ended up as president, and I kept 32 years of
association with that outfit. So I've seen a lot of Plymouth Rock and
talked a lot about it.
LAMB: How did you get to be the preacher to Harvard University?
REV. GOMES: Well, I'm a Harvard graduate--Harvard Divinity
School--and when I graduated in 1968, that I felt was the end of my
happy and loyal association with Harvard. I would go off and do my
life's work and be a loyal alumnus, but that was it.
In the fall of 1969 the then-preacher to the university wrote to me--I
had been his student, and he wrote to me and said he had an
opportunity to hire a new assistant an--and would I like the job. And
I replied, `No, I wouldn't.' I was very happy with what I was doing,
and I had just got used to being out of New England for the first time
and I was quite content where I was, teaching at Tuskegee Institute
in Alabama. But he persisted and my mother living in Plymouth
thought it would be a good idea to have me nearer than Alabama.
And so something of a conspiracy took place, and he finally made me an
offer that was impossible to refuse. So I came back to Harvard in
the fall of 1970 as the assistant in Memorial Church. In 1972, my
senior resigned and went back to teaching in a Virginia seminary. I
became acting minister, and two years after that, in 1974, I was
appointed his successor. So I'm the eighth Plummer professor of
Christian morals and preacher to the university.
LAMB: Who's Plummer?
REV. GOMES: There was a woman in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1855, Miss
Caroline Plummer, and she had more money than she knew what to do with
and decided to create a professorship at Harvard in honor of her late
brother. And she was inspired by John Henry Newman at Oxford. And so
she wanted a professor who would be a professor of the heart, as she
called it, the experience of religion and who would have charge of the
And so she gave this money in 1855 to establish the Plummer professors
of Christian morals, and seven people prior to me served on it. I'm
the eighth incumbent. She--herself was not actively involved
in the affairs of the university, but it's believed that she is the
first establisher--first woman establisher of an academic chair
anywhere in the United States. And I'd like to think there's a little
bit of justice here because her family had earned their money in Salem
in the 17th and 18th century, doubtless in the sale of my ancestors.
So I feel I got a little of my own back on her platform.
LAMB: How many copies of this book have sold?
REV. GOMES: About a quarter of a million now, I'm happy to report.
LAMB: Two hundred and fifty thousand.
REV. GOMES: That's--yes.
LAMB: When did it first come out?
REV. GOMES: November 1st, 199--'96.
LAMB: Still in the stores?
REV. GOMES: Still in the stores. I still get letters from people
about it. Every once in a while now, even after this long a
period, somebody discovers it for the first time and reviews it. I
was just in England--got back from England and I found it in the
stores there. I was in Switzerland, I found it in Zurich, which was
wonderful, to find your name in a Zurich bookstore. So I've
been very happy with its reception.
LAMB: How long was it on the best-seller list?
REV. GOMES: Well, it's been on several. It was on The New York
Times' just about a week, which was fine as far as I was concerned.
I'm not "Angela's Ashes" and envy is not a Christian virtue. But
it got--it made it there. It was on the Boston best-seller list,
which one might understand because I'm from there. It was on there
about 16 weeks. And it's been on the Short List of The New York
Times, their additional list, the five that they print on the Internet
but not in the paper--it's been on that list for about five months.
LAMB: Now if I gathered the information on you in here, I would
come up with this profile, and tell me if all this is right, and
then I want to ask you what it's like to be unique. African-American.
REV. GOMES: Yes.
REV. GOMES: Yes.
LAMB: And a preacher at Harvard.
REV. GOMES: Yes.
LAMB: Now how many others have you met in your life with...
REV. GOMES: Not very many. Not very many. I'm my own Guinness Book
of Records, I guess, and--but since I've always been something of
an oddity--I think only children aren't, by definition,
oddities--I'm not unused to this collection of identities that tends
to confuse people. And that makes it interesting, I find. But it is
an odd assortment if you're not used to it. But I am perfectly used
to it. I've been this way all of my life, so I have had plenty of
chance to get used to it.
LAMB: You were visible in two inaugurals. How did that come about?
REV. GOMES: Well, both quite by flukes, interesting flukes. The
first one was Mr. Reagan's second inaugural. I am not--I was not
then, nor am I now, an overtly political person. I mean, I'm a
Republican because that's, by and large, how I was brought up, and in
Massachusetts, to be a Republican is a perfectly honorable thing. And
so, by and large, that's where I start from. I don't always stay
there, but that's where I start.
So I had not had any sort of political credentials. I hadn't pounded
the pavement for anybody or worn as much as a sticker for a
candidate. But, ironically, in the fall of 19--whatever that election
was--I can't remember when it was, Mr. Reagan's second--I got a call
from--about Columbus Day, just about a month before the election. I
got a call from the then-senior senator from Maryland, Charles
Mathias, and I knew him only because I knew his mother-in-law, a great
Boston woman, a great Harvard figure.
And that's how he introduced himself. He didn't say, `This is the
senior senator from Maryland.' He said, `I'm Rebecca Bradford's
son-in-law,' and that opened--that was sufficient to open the door for
me. And he said something like this. He said, `If things go as we
expect them to go, in a month my party will be inaugurating the
president again. And I am chairman designate of the committee if we
win this election. And we now are anxious to orchestrate the
religious elements of the inauguration.'
And you may remember there had been a very evangelistic flavor to the
Republican Convention of that summer. And I think Charlie Mathias and
some others didn't want a repeat of that particular tone at the
inauguration. They wanted to be embracing and inclusive.
So he called me because I preside over a great ecumenical chapel and,
in theory, knew lots of people and it was for advice. He said, `Can
you name four people who could participate in the president's
inaugural, very much like Mr. Kennedy's inauguration with four
religious traditions, from your acquaintance and send those names down
to us and--and help us in making these selections?' I said, `Oh,
that's an easy task.' So I set about--I came up with a
wonderful list, so it seemed to me, of Orthodox rabbi--Orthodox
Christians, rabbis, Protestants, Evangelicals, Roman Catholics. I did
the whole lot, sent it on down.
And just after Thanksgiving--the election had been won, as
predicted--I got a call back from him, saying, `Well, we've got some
good news and some bad news. The bad news is that for a lot of
reasons which we can't go into, nobody on your list survived the cut.'
For all sorts of reasons, there was something against them all. `The
good news is the committee would be honored if you would do it.' And I
said, `You must be kidding.' I said, `I live in Cambridge. If I went
down to Washington to pray for Ronald Reagan, I would have to take a
sabbatical or whatnot. My liberal friends in Cambridge would be
just outraged by this.' He said, `This is the call of your country.'
And so--well, anyway, the long and the short of it was I thought about
it for about 30 seconds and said, `I think I could manage to do it,'
and so I did. And that was tremendous--that was tremendous fun. I
was there with Tim Healy, who was then the president of Georgetown;
President Gottschalk, who was president of the Hebrew Union, a
theological college in Cincinnati, and Donald--Ronald Wuma, who was
President Reagan's pastor in Pasadena. So the four of us did the
Second time around, Mr. Bush's inaugural, the call came from the
bishop of Washington, John Walker. He was, in some sense,
father-confessor as the dean and the bishop to George Bush, a very
good Episcopalian. And it was he who proposed that I take one of the
roles at George Bush's service, which he had in the National
Cathedral. So I was the preacher on that occasion, so that's how that
came about. So those are my two moments in the Washington firmament.
LAMB: Who was Republican in your family?
REV. GOMES: My mother. My family is one of those black families
that never forgot that Abraham Lincoln was a Republican. And as--old
Yankee black people felt this historic allegiance to the party of
Lincoln, which was true for most black people up until 1932. It's
forgotten now, but the phenomenon of black people in the Democratic
Party as a given block is a fairly modern phenomenon. Most
black people, once Emancipation had taken place and had begun to
participate in the voting process, were, by nature, Republicans. The
Democratic Party was the party of the South, of slavery and secession,
and no sensible black person would want to give aid and comfort to
them. And so I sort of inherited this in my bones.
And in Massachusetts, as I say, the Republican Party was always the
party of enlightenment and the party of honorable discourse.
They weren't engaged in graft or fraud or corruption, so we liked to
believe. And they were the party of the establishment of which we
thoroughly approved. So all of those factors meant that this was
natural for me.
LAMB: Where is Memorial Church?
REV. GOMES: Right in the center of Harvard Yard. If you can find
Harvard Yard, you cannot fail to find Memorial Church. It's the
biggest thing in the middle of the yard--a great steeple, huge
pillars. It's an unmistakable religious symbol in the middle of that
LAMB: When do you preach?
REV. GOMES: Most Sundays from September to the first week in June at
11:00. We have what we call stated preachers--10 a year, five each
term. But I do most of the preaching when we don't have stated
visitors, so I preach probably 25 Sundays of the academic year.
LAMB: Is the church filled when you preach?
REV. GOMES: I'm happy to say it is.
LAMB: Standing room only?
REV. GOMES: Well, I won't go so far as to say that. That would be
boasting, but it is very, well-filled. We're delighted with
LAMB: How do you approach that moment? How much preparation do you
do? What kind of a message are you trying to give out?
REV. GOMES: Well, I do two things. There are two levels of
preparation for me. I spend the month of August, for example,
preparing the outlines for the 22, 25 sermons that I'm going to give
during the year. And so when I begin in September, I have a pretty
clear idea of how the year is going to go and what I want to deal
Then there's the immediate preparation, which is the week in which I'm
preaching, and I go over my notes and I prepare my manuscript. I
make sure that I have clear in my mind what the principal points I
need to address are. And then, come Saturday, I do what every
minister does. I go into a sort of a white heat of anticipation and
frenzy. I still wake up Sunday morning both excited and terrified at
the prospect that I'm going to be on in a few minutes and, for 30
minutes, I hope, have the undivided attention of 800 or 900 people and
not do any harm or disgrace myself.
So it's a bit like acting. I know this sounds dangerous to say, but
it's a bit like, I imagine, any opera singer or Broadway star or
even rock musicians, something I know next to nothing about. Just
before you go on, it seems to be all your forces, all your psychic
energy, is concentrated on the job ahead. And as one great musician
said, `If you're not nervous and terrified by that, you've been at it
too long and you should get out of the business.' So I'm still
terrified every Sunday morning and I still have this rush of
adrenaline when the service begins.
LAMB: Do you talk about the Bible often?
REV. GOMES: I--all the time. I talk about the Bible almost
exclusively in my preaching because I'm convinced nobody else will. I
mean, you--anybody can talk to you about the crisis in Bosnia or
the state of the economy or the cultural revolution or Arab-Israeli
relations. There are hundreds of forums for that kind of
conversation--radio, television, the newspapers--anything. The Bible
is almost exclusively left in the hands of the churches and in the
clergy, and if I don't address that and deal with that, there's no
other place nowadays where that's going to be dealt with. That is my
subject. That's the field and, therefore, I feel I've got to deal
with that because no one else will.
LAMB: What's the difference between the Old and the New Testament?
REV. GOMES: The Old Testament--the very term `Old Testament' is a
Christian term referring to the books of the Jewish Bible. For
Christians, the Bible consists of two witnesses, two revelations: the
Old Testament, which is the Christian appropriation of Jewish
Scripture, and the New Testament, which is exclusively Christian,
reflecting both upon the Old Testament and upon things the Old
Testament itself could not have really anticipated. So for
Christians, Hebrew Scripture and their own writings are combined
together in the book called the Bible in two major chapters, the Old
and the New.
LAMB: Pick a person in the Bible that you enjoy talking about the most.
REV. GOMES: I enjoy talking about Paul, interestingly enough. Paul
is a lightning-rod figure, and there are very few neutral opinions
about Paul. Either you like him or you can't stand him. You know, he
just has this kind of edge to him. He was a perfect Jew, then he
became a perfect Christian. He was a model Roman citizen, and he
was an aggressive Greek intellectual. He was the first
instance, I would argue, of multiculturalism in one person. He
had all of these worlds, all of these languages and all of these ideas
conflicting in him. And his zealousness for goodness sometimes got in
the way, made him a very difficult and testy person. And yet, he
rises, I think, above even his own ambitions--sometimes those
ambitions are destructive--and becomes a man, in my opinion, who is
constantly wrestling--and wrestling for good both with himself and
with his idea of what God has in store for him through Jesus Christ.
So he is a kind of model, in a way, for aggressive, ambitious, driven
and slightly confused people, many of whom I know and much of which
LAMB: How religious is Harvard?
REV. GOMES: More religious than you think, but not as religious as
it ought to be. The--when Harvard gave up chapel as a requirement in
1886, the first college in the country to do away with mandatory
attenc--attendance at daily chapel, people at Yale termed the phrase
`Godless Harvard,' and we've been stuck with that reputation ever
since. So no one expects much of religion at Harvard, and thus, from
where I sit, it's always a bonus or surprise when we're able to tell
people that, one, we have a service every day; two, it's--about 40
people come, Monday through Saturday at 8:45 in the morning. We have
a large service on Sunday morning and we fill a chapel that seats
close to 900 people. And, in addition to those who come to Memorial
Church, there are literally thousands of our students and faculty and
staff who are engaged in well over 39 different religious communities
connected with the university in one form or another.
So it's--it's quite remarkably religious in the sense that there are
people who both study and practice religion and people who discover
religion, and not just Christian religion these days. But we have a
very large Muslim community, for example; a very lively, dynamic, very
diverse Jewish community, everything from Egalitarian to ultra
Orthodox. The Roman Catholic Mass on Fri--on Saturday evening in St.
Paul's Church is consistently standing room only. And every variety
of Protestant you can shake a stick at, they're all there and they're
all practicing their faith within the context of this very large,
secular and, some would even argue, hostile community to the practice
of religion. That has not been my experience in 28 years. Harvard is
not hostile to religion, but you have to discover it and make it work
for yourself in that setting.
LAMB: Time magazine--and this is in the literature they sent out with
your book; I know you didn't send it out--names--supposedly named
you--or, obviously, named you one of the seven best preachers in the
REV. GOMES: And it--so they did, but I...
LAMB: My first question is: Why seven? Why...
REV. GOMES: Well, it's a great dominical number.
LAMB: I mean, were you first or you were second or...
REV. GOMES: Well, I can't remember how that list quite worked.
It was so long ago now--1979, 1980, something like that. But I think
they picked seven because seven is a magical number. It sounds
theological, sounds important. It's the equivalent of 40 days or
something around--it's a big number. And I think it --also was a
gimmick. I think Time and other news magazines, every once in a while
to boost circulation, you'll discover they devote an unusual amount of
attention to religion because they discover that religious issues
still sell magazines. So in Holy Week every year, Time and Newsweek
compete with some new theory of the Crucifixion, and around
Christmastime they've all got Virgin Mary stories or Holy Ghost
stories or angel stories.
So I think I came as part of one of their periodic attempts to
generate trade and discover interest in religion, and so they looked
at preaching. And, again, they did it, I remember, very well. It's
in this guise of taking a poll. And they called various preachers and
they called me and said would I list for them my seven favorite
preachers. Well, that was easy to do because I appoint my seven
favorite preachers to preach at Harvard whenever I can get them. So I
came up with my list. And what they did was take the list from about
a dozen people that they'd asked this question of, and if any names
appeared two or three times on them, they began to do some background
work, and I think that's how they came up with their list.
I was, by far, the youngest there and I was the only one on that list
connected with a university, so it was a very curious process, I
thought. I don't disavow it, but it was simply curious.
LAMB: You can read names like Jesse Jackson and Pat Buchanan and Pat
Robertson in your book around the issue of politics. How is the Bible
used in politics?
REV. GOMES: Well, I think the Bible remains the most potent symbol
our culture has. We may want to deny that or we may find it curious,
but nevertheless, it remains a very powerful symbol in American public
life and has been since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.
So anybody who wants to speak to this culture or have a role to play
in this culture, at some level or other, if they're interested in
affecting people's ideas and their behaviors, have to, in some way,
deal with the Bible.
So the Bible has always been a part of our political discourse. Even
though people argue on the principle of the separation of
church and state, that's a neat principle but doesn't at all reflect
the reality of the centrality of the Bible as part of our cultural
inheritance. So if you're going to try to rouse people's consciences
or get them to behave in a certain way or to motivate their forces for
positions you wish to take, historically, we've always tried to find a
way to do that, and the Bible playing a part in that process.
It's not from any accident at all that our presidents, invariably and
very conspicuously, are sworn into office on a Bible. The
Constitution doesn't provide for that, doesn't require it and
certainly doesn't prohibit it, but there it is, and everybody
understands the symbolism of that. So that if you can find your
political program or your social program justified or mandated or
vindicated by the Bible, you have a big moral leg up in the political
discourse, and our leaders and our would-be leaders have always known
LAMB: Who wrote the Bible?
REV. GOMES: Well, many people wrote the Bible. When we talk
about--refer to the Bible as the Word of God, by that we mean that--an
understanding of God and the will and power of God is available to
inspire the authors. But the authors are human beings, and all you
have to do is look at the books to see that they are written by a
variety of human hands over a long period of time.
The first five books of the Bible, the Hebrew Bible, historically
were attributed to Moses because the notion that anonymous writers
put this stuff together simply didn't carry the same weight as the
implication that a very famous and very distinguished, very holy
person did. And so Moses becomes the sort of generic name for the
authors of this book. But they never said that God wrote these
books or that a committee wrote these books. These books are the
result of compilations, collections, additions over a long period of
There is somebody named Isaiah who's written a portion of the book
that bears his name, and there are other books that are--sound like
Isaiah and there are--and that people who wish to be connected to
Isaiah are part of his book.
In the New Testament, the same process applied. The
evangelists--Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, people close to Jesus--are
credited with writing memoirs which bear their names and give
authority because these are by people who knew Jesus. Paul writes a
lot of letters and then there are a lot of letters written in the name
of Paul. These are human people--some of whom we know, some of whom
we don't know--all of whom the church believes have been ex--inspired
and have things to say that are important to be collected, preserved
LAMB: The Gospels--and by the way, on the cover here you have the
Gospel according to St. John.
REV. GOMES: Yes.
LAMB: That's the one that they actually show--the open Bible there.
Actually, he's mentioned the least in your book.
REV. GOMES: Yes, yes. Well, I didn't design the cover, but I happen
to like the Gospel of John. Of the four Gospels--Matthew, Mark, Luke
and John--the first three--Matthew, Mark and Luke--are described as
synoptic Gospels because they provide a synopsis of the life of Jesus.
They have variations, but by and large, they tell essentially the same
story, sort of biographical memoirs, whereas the Gospel of John, the
fourth Gospel, is distinct from those other three because it tends to
be much more theological and philosophical, is of a somewhat different
style, has a different agenda, is not a biographical memoir as such
of Jesus, and in many ways is a bit more theologically sophisticated.
I'm not sure why they picked John, but I'm glad they did because I
think it's perhaps, in many ways, the most beautiful, from a
literary point of view, of all four of the Gospels.
LAMB: When were the Gospels actually written?
REV. GOMES: Well, many years after the death of Christ and over,
probably, a span of 200 years. The four Gospels that we have are what
is left of a much larger collection of books called Gospels written by
a whole host of people. By the end of the present era, the Christian
era, by the end of the second century in the Christian era, the
Christian communities, of which there were many, had come to some
consensus about--of the many books called Gospels which were the ones
they regarded as most authoritative and that came down to the four
that we have now in our Bible.
It was an editorial process, and an editorial process that
resulted--that was the result of concensus, custom, local usage and
over a long period of time. No one person sat down and said, `These
shall be the Gospels.' This was the result of a long process.
LAMB: How many Americans read the Bible?
REV. GOMES: Well, many Americans say they read the Bible all the
time, every day, every week, and many, many, many Americans own copies
of the Bible, and even more, I think, would like to read the Bible.
But I suspect not a great many read it with any regularity or any
avidity. And that is slightly out of sync with our public profession
and our cultural reputation as being Bible-toters???, Bible-thumpers
and Bible readers.
LAMB: What do you say to people that criticize the Bible as being a
book that has anything in it you want? In other words, take the
REV. GOMES: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: And before we do that, when did you announce publicly that you were a
REV. GOMES: 1991.
LAMB: And why'd you do that?
REV. GOMES: I did that because there were--there was a group of
conservative Christians at Harvard who made a great deal of the fact
that they believed that homosexuality and Christianity, not to mention
the Bible, were utterly incompatible and felt that if one were a
homosexual, one couldn't be a Christian and vice versa. And they made
that argument in a particularly thuggish way, as far as I was
concerned, with regard to the general homosexual community at Harvard.
And I felt that, one, it was not true, the assertions that they were
making, that there was a wide variety of ways in reading that
material. And secondly, I knew it wasn't true because, one, I was a
homosexual and, two, I was and am a Christian. And, therefore, I felt
I had both a responsibility and an opportunity to correct what I
felt was a rather egregious misreading of those relationships.
So that's why I did it.
LAMB: Where'd you do it? Where did you do it?
REV. GOMES: Well, there was a--there was a student rally outside
in the college yard sort of in protest of this particular point of
view that had been published in a conservative student magazine. And
so while I had never made any particular secret of my homosexuality,
it was not by any means at the center of my being and it is not now.
So I was not, in some sense, a sort of conspicuous homosexual
leader of any sort. I was asked by the homosexual student group, whom
I think knew next to nothing about my sexuality, if I, as the
preacher, would say a word of solidarity in support of them, and they
felt they had been abused by people who were calling themselves
So it was in that capacity that I was asked to take part in this
and I did, and I choose my rallies very carefully. I mean, it
was a rally an hour and one could be out there all day. So I rarely
participated in these things. But this seemed to be pretty close to
the bone, and if I couldn't speak to this issue, it seemed to me there
were very few issues that I could speak. So I accepted their
invitation and decided that the best case to make for the principal
case I was trying to make was the example of my own life. And as
St. Paul himself argued in theological debates, that, `I am
evidence of that of which I speak,' and so that was the position I
took on that occasion.
LAMB: And that was six years ago. What's been the reaction? Has
your life changed at all because you became public with this?
REV. GOMES: Well, to some degree, yes. The downside of it was that,
from my point of view--I think I'm a very interesting person and I
have lots of complex views to offer on all sorts of things. And the
thing I worried most about all of this was now that I would be forever
`the gay preacher' at Harvard. Happily, that hasn't worked in quite
that way. But one's sexuality is a rather intimate thing, I've
always felt, which is one reason why I don't define myself exclusively
by my sexuality. And so I, in a sense, resented the fact that this is
what people fastened on, 'cause it's easy to do. That was part of
the liability of such a thing. And essentially, since I--though I
have a very public position, I'm essentially a private person. To be
dealt with at the most intimate level of one's sexual identity all of
the time is sort of mildly annoying to me, and I--that I don't
particularly relish. But I started it, so I must now live with it.
The upside of it is here I am talking to you and that wouldn't have
happened, I think, had I been quietly reticent. I've gained a new
pulpit in a sense. I've gained a new opportunity to speak beyond the
confines of Memorial Church in Harvard Yard and not just on questions
of sexuality, so that in a way, the coming out thing was much more
a win than loss, much more plus than negative.
And perhaps the very best thing that it has done is to be a source of
some encouragement. I have reason to believe, from correspondence and
letters I've received over these years, too many other people who
struggled with the question of their relationship of their faith to
their sexuality and the degree to which they should or should not come
out, as it were, and confront the forces that really thrive on silence
LAMB: You have a chapter in there about the Bible and homosexuality,
and I started to ask--you know, people criticize from time to time,
they say, `Anybody can find anything they want in the Bible
that'll serve them.' What do you say to that charge?
REV. GOMES: Well, it's true. You can. I mean, the Bible is a
library and it's like saying you can go to the New York Public Library
and find anything you want on any subject. You certainly can,
contrary to, I think, a rather simpleminded view of the Bible which
often obtains in this country in particular. The Bible is not a
work of systematic theology, nor is it a work of philosophy. It is a
collection of experiences, opinions, points of view, life tales in
66 different books by as many, if not more, authors over a
p--collected together over a period of a thousand-plus years.
You're going to find in this combination of history poetry,
philosophy, theology, erotic verse, the sorts of things such as
Proverbs and Ecclesiastes--you're going to find the whole range of
human experience. And if your interest is in finding something
that reflects your particular view of things or your corner of the
world, the chances are fairly likely, because this is such a
comprehensive book, that you will.
The real task in dealing with a vast collection like this is to find:
What are the large, overarching principles that may hold this
together? How do we distinguish between what is, in a sense,
universally and always true, and what is locked and located in a
particular social and cultural circumstance which no longer exists?
Which means that the Bible is a book that demands constant
interpretation. You simply cannot accept it as the--the telephone
directory of life or as a kind of invarying--unvarying road map that
is the same today as it was 200 years ago or 2,000 years ago. It's
simply not so.
LAMB: How many different versions of the Bible are there?
REV. GOMES: Oh, hundreds. Hundreds. I mean, there--the Bible is
the most published book yet in the world, and translators and editors
and religious constituencies have always been ingenious in coming
up with a version that is particularly suited to their particular
point of view. There are women's Bibles, for example, that highlight
the presence of women and the perspective of women. There
are Bibles for people of color these days that
bring up from the depths of the text and the history the
multicultural perspective, which is not always them. Evangelicals
have their particular versions of the Bible in which they are keenly
interested. And there are Bibles for scientists. There are Bibles
for ethical culturists and so on and so forth. Same text,
but the emphasis is placed in different places for these various
This all began at the point where the Bible began to be translated out
of its original tongues, first Hebrew for the Old Testament and Greek
for the New Testament, and then Latin in the early eras of medieval
Christianity. When the Bible began to be translated into the
particular cultural languages of people, when Luther translated the
Bible into German--and the German Bible is understood to be the
Shakespeare--the equivalent of Shakespeare for German--for the German
language, he took these biblical idioms, these Jewish and Greek
idioms, and turned them into German idioms that the German people
would understand, so that the Germans had their own version of the
When the English began to do this with Tyndale and various other
translators, they did the same thing and cast their own particular
reading upon that. Everybody has done that. And the great test, the
great question is: What is the relationship between our particular
reading of this book through our language and lens and the truths that
the book contains that transcend, that go beyond our particular
language and lens? That's the task of interpretation.
LAMB: Do you also teach some classes?
REV. GOMES: I do. I teach...
LAMB: How much?
REV. GOMES: Well, I teach half-time. I teach--half my duties
consist of sort of running the church, and the other half consist of
teaching both in the divinity faculty, where I teach preaching,
homiletics, and in the college faculty, where I teach the history of
the interpretation of the Bible. So in the fall term I'm in the
divinity school with my preaching seminar and in the spring I'm in
college with my lecture course on the Bible.
LAMB: Did you ever think about running in politics anywhere?
REV. GOMES: No, no. I had--once thought it would be wonderful to be
the first appointed president of the United States, but that was in
high school. I was very politically active in high school
politics and whatnot. Always--my father said I always liked to run
everything and I--and I did. I liked to run things, but I
didn't like to run for things and so--the hurly-burly of politics and
suffering that process as well as fools gladly is not something that
would necessarily appeal to me.
LAMB: What do you tell your students about preaching? And how
do you know, when you think about your congregation on Sunday and
keeping their attention, what little tricks do you use to keep people
REV. GOMES: Well, I tell my students that every sermon must have at
least one point. I don't care how many more, but there ought to be at
least one point that you know is what you wish to communicate, and
that you use every trick in the trade, every tool at your command to
advance that one point. Now ideally, that one point has something to
do with the text--the biblical text that you're using. And one hopes
that it does. You don't want to be accused of the old preacher's
trick, which says take your text, depart from your text, never return
to your text. I say don't get caught in that. But remember, you have
only one task. That is to persuade the people who are listening to
LAMB: Let me just stop you to ask you--in this hour
interview, what would be your one task? As you walked in to sit down
today, did you have a task?
REV. GOMES: No. I wasn't quite sure what was before me, unlike on
Sunday morning, when I'm in charge. I know exactly what's going on.
But I'm at your mercy, so my job here is to be as articulate as I can
without losing complete control of the situation. But I
had some sense that you were going to ask me about my book and that
there might be far-ranging questions and that my job was to be as
articulate as I could within the range of the questions that you ask.
LAMB: What do you want people to know about this book--one point that
you want them to know?
REV. GOMES: I--b--about my book?
REV. GOMES: I want them to know that my book is designed to help
them come better to terms with the Bible and to appreciate the fact
that the Bible and the complex life that they lead today have
something to do one with the other.
LAMB: What would you want a politician to know about using the Bible
REV. GOMES: A politician must be very careful about using the Bible.
The Bible is not a cultural prop, and it must not be used as just part
of the arsenal of winning votes and selling one's own program.
To some degree, if a politician's going to use the Bible, the
politician's going to have to submit himself or herself to both some
of the demands and some of the ambiguities that the Bible represents.
LAMB: Anybody in particular that you've seen in politics that uses--I
don't know how say--the "Bible" or "God" the best in their politicking?
REV. GOMES: I have always been as a strong admirer of Billy
Graham, which is strange to say, given the setting in which I do my
work. But I'm proud to say I invited Billy Graham to Harvard and
he came in 1981 and preached for us. And I hope he'll--I hope
he'll come again before he retires.
What I've always admired about Billy Graham, even though he himself
will concede to having had various flirtations with political power
and being chaplain to the White House, as it were, that he has never
tried to push the Bible as a social program. He has tried to get
individuals to come to terms with their own spiritual needs and to see
the Bible as part of that process, and he's been consistent in that
for now nearly 50 years. And I admire that and I think there'll never
be another one--a person quite capable of that particular role and
function in this culture that takes the Bible so seriously.
LAMB: Go back to your Sunday sermons, homilies. Again, one
message, but do you tell stories or...
REV. GOMES: Oh, I do everything that I can to amplify that message,
and I say to my students, `You need to understand that an audience
comes and goes in listening to a sermon or a talk like this. They're
never with you all of the time or all of them. So you have to have
sort of a mini cycle within your Sunday sermon to catch people on the
way in and on the way out.' I divide my congregation up into sort of
psychic thirds: A third of them at the very moment I'm speaking are
with me, another third have just left me, and another third are ready
to come in. So I have to be able to sort of recycle within the course
of my discourse the subject, the language, the illustrations in
such a way as to deal with all of those groups at whatever stage they
happen to be.
That's one reason why preachers tell stories, because stories repeat
themselves. They drive home the theme. They leave you with one thing
to hang onto. And then between the --stories, you have the
development of the point, and then you might have a --an
illustration in opposition to what you have just said. You're getting
people at many different levels of listening. It's just like
listening to music. It's just like listening to the symphony.
There are different movements and people are listening at those
different movements at different rates--speech is the same thing--and
you have to orchestrate that.
A sermon is very much an artistic creation. It's not just beginning
at the beginning and boring through all the way. It's setting out a
theme. It's providing some variation. It's providing some contrast,
some recapitulation, stating the theme again, moving on.
LAMB: Do you write it down?
REV. GOMES: I do.
LAMB: Every word of it?
REV. GOMES: I write out every word that I preach. Now the
sermon that I give is not necessarily verbatim--the--
manuscript that I have in front of me. The manuscript for me is
something of a security blanket. I want to get it out once, but then
in the pulpit other forces take over--literally take over. And I
often just abandon the manuscript because I've dealt with that. I
know what I have to do, and I want to respond to what's happening with
the dynamic of the audience.
A speaker can tell--a speaker can listen to a congregation just the
same way that a congregation listens to the speaker. Congregations
move. They breathe. They heave. They sigh. They rock. They
move about. And you can tell exactly where the various bits of that
congregation are and you respond to that as you go along. If you've
just got a written manuscript and you just start at the beginning and
read all the way through, you're oblivious to that chemistry that's
going on out in front of you.
LAMB: By the way, the name Gomes--what is that?
REV. GOMES: Portuguese, not Spanish. With all due respect to the
Spanish, my father always resented the fact that people just assumed
the name Gomes was Spanish. It is not. It's Gomesch with an E-S-C-H,
and it's Portuguese. My father was born in the Cape Verda islands, a
fact of which he was enormously proud.
LAMB: Back to politics for a moment. In the Bible, what's the
message about where this country is right now?
REV. GOMES: Where this country is? Contrary to what many preachers
would say, the Bible is not about the American political system. No
writer of the Bible conceived of the United States of America. It is
not God's Constitution for the USA. So the strict answer to the
question is it's nowhere. The Bible is not concerned about the
American social, political or even moral situation at this point.
The larger question ought to really be: In what way does the
American experience relate to those larger, overarching truths of
which the Bible speaks and which it spoke to ancient Rome, to ancient
Israel, to medieval Europe, to the British Empire, to anybody over the
course of the last 2,000--2,000 years? And I think the answer to that
question is America, like any other collection of people under God's
heaven, sits under judgment. And that judgment is between what it
aspires to do as a collection of pious people and what it, in fact,
does as a collection of very fallible and fallen human beings. That's
the perpetual judgment.
And there'll be no building of the kingdom of God on Earth in a
political, a social sense because that is not where the kingdom of God
ultimately is meant to be. So we stand always between what we aspire
to and profess on the one hand and what we actually are and actually
do on the other.
LAMB: But how does the country do, if you delve into the Bible and
you look for tips as to which direction we're headed in, what
the--whether it be money or politics or the way we treat our fellow
REV. GOMES: Well, I think it would be very clear that there is a
biblical ideal to which if we --regard ourselves -- as Christian
people and religious people, we are meant to conform, we are meant
to love God and our neighbors as ourselves; that is, we are meant
to show reverence and deference to God and all of God's work--the
creation, the environment and our fellow human beings. And we are
meant to treat our neighbors, universally defined--not just as our
constituents, but defined the world over--as we would wish to be
So there's an ethical imperative that comes from the
Bible--inescapable ethical comparative. It means that the rich must
take care of the poor. It means that we're supposed to look after
those who are marginalized or neglected. It means that we are to
share our wealth. It means that we must not be rampant and rabid
individualists, that we must not be obsessed by material gain
or sort of social position. It means, in a way, we must do
all the things that are very discomforting for us to do, particularly
as a culture. And so in that sense the Bible ought to make American
society like every other society: nervous and uncomfortable. And it
reminds us of how far short we have all fallen of the glory of God.
LAMB: Are you going to write another book?
REV. GOMES: I hope to, yes.
REV. GOMES: Well, this was so much fun, in one sense, that I'm
going--my--the book I'm working on now is called "The Virtuous
Life." It could be called "The Good Life," but there's an
ambiguous term about `the good life.' And so I decided that I
wanted--that--ask--the question that I am asked almost more
than anything else by both parents of undergraduates and parents of
young children who were once undergraduates, `What can I do, what
ought I do for both myself and my children to be virtuous people?'
The search for virtue is a real and powerful factor, I think greater
than the search for riches or power or fame. And how do we define
what good is, and how do we go about finding it for ourselves and
transmitting it to our posterity? That's an enormous sort of subject.
I'm going to try to find a reasonably packaged way in which to at
least formulate the questions, because I think that's the question of
the rising generation.
LAMB: Of all the things you are--a minister, a Republican, an
African-American, a homosexual, and I'm sure there are others--which
one of all those do you find tugs at you the most, people talk about
the most, that you find yourself thinking about the most?
REV. GOMES: Well, that's the--there are two answers to that
question. If part of the question is, `What of all the
characteristics that people ascribe to me, is the characteristic that
I accept as my ultimate and defining experience?' it's none of
the above. I am first and foremost--above everything else, I am a
Christian. That is my identity. That is how I was formed. That is
how I live. That is how I expect to --conform to my eternal destiny
as a Christian. All the others are adjectives to that noun, as far as
I am concerned.
But if the other question is, `Which of those categories is the one
with which I sort of resonate most?' given that they choose these
categories, I'd have to add one that you didn't use by which I
find--find also useful. I'm a preacher. That's what I do. That is
my profession. You know, I am a Republican, I am a homosexual, I am
an African-American, I am a New Englander, I'm a historian, I'm a
pastor. I'm all these things. But I am a preacher, and I'm
passionately concerned about communicating ultimate things to people.
LAMB: And this is the cover of the book by Peter J. Gomes, preacher
to Harvard University, and it's called "The Good Book: Reading the
Bible With Mind and Heart." Thank you very much, sir.
REV. GOMES: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1997. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.