Bookstore browsers may do a double-take on seeing the title "When Jesus Came to Harvard." If you imagined Jesus coming to an American university, wouldn't Harvard be the last place you'd think of Him appearing? Wouldn't He be more likely to show up at an institution like Bob Jones University, known for its all-out Christian emphasis, rather than a school regarded as a secular, intellectual stronghold?

The new book by Harvard theologian Harvey Cox is not the report of a full-fledged miracle - Jesus didn't appear in Harvard Yard trailing clouds of glory - but rather in the form of a course called "Jesus and the Moral Life." It almost seemed like a miracle, though, when "Jesus" became the most popular course at Harvard in the `80s and `90s, drawing an overflow crowd of eight hundred students that had to be moved from a classroom to Memorial Hall, a venue usually reserved for rock bands and symphony concerts.

The last professor who had made Jesus the subject of a course at Harvard had retired in 1912, and the professor who brought Him back to the curriculum had originally gained fame for proclaiming "God Is Dead" in the 1960s, along with a group of other young rebellious theologians. Cox wrote a bestseller back then called "The Secular City" that foresaw a "post-religious" age, but came full circle three decades later with his "Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and The Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century." In that book he wrote that "Today it is secularity, not spirituality, that may be headed for extinction" - an analysis that seemed to be confirmed in the recent presidential election.

Cox explains in "When Jesus Came to Harvard" that the faculty realized in the early `80s that students were being well educated in the humanities and sciences, but "we began to see that we were giving them virtually no preparation for how to apply their educations in a morally responsible manner." The university introduced a "division of moral reasoning" into the undergraduate curriculum, and Cox was asked to give a course using Jesus' teachings as a way of thinking about morality. He did it with a flourish, enlivening classes with a "multi-media" approach, playing Gospel music and Gregorian chants, projecting images of Jesus in art through the ages, and staging debates and dramatic readings.

Informal in manner and casually dressed, Cox has white hair and a white beard, but his lively eyes and spirited talk project a youthful energy. Over coffee at a bookstore in Harvard Square this fall, he spoke with warmth and affection about teaching "Jesus and The Moral Life," explaining that the course was "for anyone dissatisfied with moralistic fundamentalism as well as `do your own thing' relativism. There were Jewish and Muslim students as well as Christians, even agnostics and atheists who were able to see how ethical and moral issues raised in the Gospels could apply to their own lives."

"Undergraduates welcomed a chance to discuss issues that were alive to them," Cox said. "Instead of principles and theories we used the stories of the Bible with actual moral choices confronting students as raw material. The Bible stories hook into peoples' lives, and we related them to issues like money, paying off students loans, choices in relationship and marriage, sexual intimacy, peer pressure, and the use of drugs. Word got out you could discuss things in this class you couldn't talk about in other classes."

"Money is a sensitive issue for students, and I was afraid nobody would come to the class when we discussed it, but it turned out to be the best attendance of the year. A lot of students have a feeling of embarrassment or resentment about money. Rich kids are embarrassed, middle class kids envious, the poor are ticked off at everyone."

"Scholarships here are very generous, so it's not just a rich kid's school any more. The richer kids dress down. They often spend more to buy clothes that are made to look used and shabby. They don't want to flaunt their money, but in spring they fly off to ski in Switzerland. Middle or lower income students take the bus home and work for the summer. Students from privileged families or ones who want riches justify wealth by saying they can do good things with their money: `Look at all the good Bill Gates has done for charity!'"

"Jesus warns of the spiritual dangers of wealth, and tells others to sell all they have to the poor, but he enjoyed it when rich people had him for dinner. We debated whether his warnings and advice were dependent on the situation. These questions raise doubts about what you should do if you have money, and what you have to do to make it. Can you `serve God and mammon at the same time?'"

"When people come to Jesus he tells them a story - what he's doing is pushing them to broaden their horizons, think from the perspectives of others. There's a parable about a dishonest steward who cheats his employer and yet is praised by Jesus. I called this `The Story of the Crooked CEO." He's feathering his own nest, yet Jesus commends him, and students asked why. They wanted me to give an answer, but I wanted them to wrestle with it. Jesus doesn't give unambiguous signals - he has confidence that by pushing the imagination, enriching its power through stories, you enrich the context of the decision. You see that you are making decisions in a network of other people who will also be affected. The moral life is not a solo flight."

No Ivory Tower professor, Cox has always linked his work to current events, going to Latin America to write about the Liberation Theology movement, traveling around the world to research the growth of Pentecostalism, interviewing Buddhists and Hindus to study the appeal of those religions for Westerners "in Turning East." In the '60s he went south to support the civil rights movement, going on Freedom Rides, later taking part in protests against the Vietnam War and working for nuclear disarmament.

"The worrisome thing today," Cox said, "is the cynicism and resignation of students - but what can be done when our leaders are self-serving and corrupt? Students now are not like they were in the `60s. Sometimes I get angry. I tell them it's unacceptable to say you can't do anything to help the poor and oppressed - it's like turning things over to the serpent."

"The students today are good kids, they're not the curled-lip kind of cynics, but the fire in the belly is missing. The new spirituality doesn't do a good a job of linking the spirit to action, it doesn't produce activists. There's no one now like the Christian activists of the '60s - Daniel Berrigan, William Sloane Coffin, Martin Luther King. There was a tone in religion then, an idealism in Christianity that linked Jesus' concerns for the poor and the outcasts of society to social action. Today Christianity has been taken over by the right wing. No wonder kids aren't interested in mining the Christian tradition."

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