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Bookmarks Issue: 
15-Mar-Apr-2005
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Making Moral Choices Today

A-JesusHarvardWhen Cox started teaching a Harvard undergraduate class called "Jesus and the Moral Life" in the early 1980s, students came in droves. It’s claimed that they were searching for some moral framework that the modern world failed to provide (the course was also known for having a light workload). In relating his teaching experience, Cox focuses on New Testament stories about Jesus that show how the "historical Jesus" can inform today’s ethical dilemmas, from drug use to abortion and family issues. While Cox asks hard questions, he provides no easy answers. "I am convinced Jesus often left his hearers with their brows knitted and their heads shaking. It was basic to his teaching method," he writes. Yet through biblical stories, Cox illustrates the importance of examining the moral life.
Houghton Mifflin. 352 pages. $26. ISBN: 0618067442

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Cox breaks another academic custom by doing much of his research outside the library, interviewing real live people …. Cox’s courses, like this stimulating new book, make religious teachings relevant to people of all faiths and of no faith at all, in the daunting context of today’s world." Dan Wakefield

Boston Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Just as Jesus’ stock in trade is the parable, Cox’s currency is modernizing those stories for his 21st century audience." Rob Mitchell

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"He covers a dazzling array of subjects—rabbinical tales, the apocalyptic series of Left Behind books, Zen koans, ads for Harvard egg donors, jazz, Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s theology, the ethics of torture, the Jesus Seminar, baseball, the Stations of the Cross and much more—to show how biblical stories can help us examine what constitutes a moral life. … If When Jesus Came to Harvard is a somewhat different book than the title suggests, it is still rich, intriguing and provocative." Jean E. Barker

South FL Sun-Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"[T]he reader may sense that Cox fails to see the full danger of the ability of some of these extreme right-wing groups to morph Jesus’ message into their own. … Cox’s beautifully written book should be shared by thoughtful people of all religious and nonreligious persuasions." Elaine Margolin

Critical Summary

Cox (The Secular City, Fire from Heaven) links a rabbi’s 2,000-year-old teachings to today’s vast ethical issues to illuminate how we can apply Jesus’s philosophy to our own times. In Cox’s eyes, for example, the Prodigal Son becomes a rebellious dropout. If this situation doesn’t exactly ring true in your view, you may still find inspiration in this provocative, wise, and often humorous book, no matter your religious bent. As one critic points out, When Jesus Came to Harvard does not provide guidance on making moral choices, nor does it take readers step-by-step through Harvard students’ dilemmas. Instead, Cox considers different interpretations of the Bible and cautions against various fundamentalist movements. When in doubt, he writes, just ask yourself, "What would Jesus have done?"

Supplemental Reading

Sermons Biblical Wisdom for Daily Living | Peter J. Gomes (1998): Here is another, more directly Christian voice from Harvard: Gomes has served as pastor in The Memorial Church at Harvard University for almost 35 years. This is a collection of 40 of his sermons.