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God: A Biography

God: A Biography


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"God saves us from our sins by saving himself from his."

In 1996, Jack Miles won a Pulitzer Prize for his book God: A Biography, a work that dealt with the protagonist of the Old Testament purely as a literary character. His new book, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, deals with the same character again, this time as God Incarnate continuing his life as the protagonist of the New Testament.

Q: Can you tell us briefly how your new book relates to its predecessor? What is the crisis of the subtitle?

A: The crisis is the fact that God has failed the Jews. After the children of Israel were carried into exile in Babylonia, God promised to restore their national sovereignty and glory, but as Christ is born he has not kept his promise. One empire has followed another in the Land of Israel, and God knows that he will not intervene to stop a Roman holocaust as ghastly as the Nazi holocaust of the 20th century. God’s knowledge that he will fail the Jews is the supreme crisis of his life. Christ is the resolution of the crisis.

Q: Before we get further into the story, can you say a word about how you came to write these two books?

A: Yes, I can, and I will, but let me point out first that until the epilogue of the second book, which is really a retrospective look at both books, I deliberately abstained from making any statement in the first person. There are some first-person comments in the endnotes but none in the main text. The character I wanted readers to think about was God. I took John the Baptist’s line about Jesus as my motto: "He must increase, I must decrease" (John 3:30).

But to answer your question, the deepest personal root of this pair of books lies in a chronic anxiety about warfare and violence that goes back beyond my earliest memories. I was an early reader, it seems, and my mother says that at the age of about five–I have no memory of this myself–I grew hysterical as I read a grisly newspaper account of the Bataan Death March. I was able to decode the words, but evidently I lacked anything like an insulating adult sense of time and place. I thought Japanese soldiers might show up at our front door in Chicago. Moreover, violence in the real world and violence in the Bible seem to have fused in my mind. I thought that Roman soldiers, King Herod’s soldiers, the ones who slaughtered the innocents in Matthew 2:16, might show up at our front door as well and demand that we turn over my baby brother. These and other similar, very early experiences seem to have left me hyper-aware of the violence that God inflicts in the Old Testament and of the suggestively matching violence that he suffers in the New Testament.

Q: In a more proximate way, though, how did these books come out of your teaching or research? How did you actually get started?

A: As you may know, I am an ex-Jesuit. I earned a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible at Harvard University largely because the Society of Jesus asked me to do so. Though I successfully completed my degree, I was out of sorts from the first moment with the historical approach taken at Harvard (and generally in our era). Impressive and altogether admirable as it was (and is), I craved the more aesthetic, more literary response that, as it seemed to me, the texts invited. When I left the Jesuits, shortly after completing my doctorate, I thought of leaving academe as well and did leave it barely three years later for a twenty-year career in book publishing and literary journalism. (Journalism had been the career I envisioned for myself before I joined the Jesuits.) What provoked my return–not to academe or to the Jesuits but to the Bible as a subject–was a recording of Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion." The opening chorus of that oratorio is an immensely moving lamentation for the divine bridegroom who is also the divine lamb. Hearing it, I was struck–emotionally struck, not intellectually struck–by the enormity of the change that befalls God in the Christian myth. The great warrior who drowned Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea becomes a helpless baby animal, pathetically unable to defend even itself, much less anyone else, from the butcher. In the conventional terms of literary character development, this seemed an unimaginable transformation. Obviously, the radical Jewish writers who created the Christian scriptures and, for that matter, Christianity itself did somehow imagine it. Still, thinking of the character himself rather than of the authors who invented him–thinking of God, in short–one could only ask, in amazement, "What came over him?"

So, there is where it all began. With this as motive, I found my way back into Bible studies. Only very late did I begin to realize that the depth of my reaction to the music was connected with the early terrors of a child born during a world war. And there is a special poignancy for me in the fact that the book is being published at a moment when my country is in the grip of a suppressed terror, a moment when even adults feel the same confusion and helplessness that I felt in the mid-1940s.

Q: Now that these books are written, do you believe that you have an answer to your own originating question? What did come over God?

A: Yes, I do have an answer, though I do not expect that everyone will accept it. My answer is that God repented. He underwent a change of mind and heart as he recognized that it was he himself who had brought suffering and death into the world. When Jesus submitted to baptism–a ritual of repentance–in the Jordan River, it was God Incarnate who repented.

Q: Repented of what?

A: Back in the Garden of Eden, God allowed his anger to betray him into marring his own creation and sentencing his own image and likeness, the first couple and all their offspring for all time, to lifelong suffering and to death. The fall of man was thus the fall of God as well, and the fall of both signaled the rise of Satan, who had defeated both by luring them into mutual estrangement. Past that point, God could no longer look at the world he had made and say "It is good."

Q: But what does this divine original sin and God’s late repentance have to do with his failure to rescue the Jews? You seem to have relocated the crisis.

A: In fact, this is just what the Gospel story does: It relocates the crisis. The late-life crisis that God faces over his failure to defeat Caesar and rescue Israel is resolved when God reverses his earlier, primeval defeat and corrects the fatal mistake he made at that time. He astounds the Devil by becoming a Jew himself, choosing to suffer in advance the same crucifixion that his people will suffer at the hands of the Romans. Then, by rising from the dead, he defeats the Devil and restores to mankind the original gift of immortality that he had taken away. Repentance requires amendment of life, to be sure, but if God had merely defeated Caesar as of old he defeated Pharaoh, what would have been gained? The Jewish victors would all have gone on to die eventually anyway. God mends his ways far more profoundly by ceasing to be an earthly warrior at all and–lest there be any doubt on this point–paying the full price of that change in his own person.

Milton was right. The plot of the Bible is "paradise lost, paradise regained." The difference is that in my reading of this divine comedy, this divine epic, God saves us from our sins by saving himself from his.

Q: What do you think will attract most attention in your new book?

A: This is the sort of thing an author can rarely predict. The most quoted line in God: A Biography was "God is no saint." My German publisher surprised me by dispensing with blurbs and the like and putting on the back of the dust jacket a single stark quote from the prologue: "The world is a great crime, and someone must be made to pay for it. Mythologically read, the New Testament is the story of how someone, the right someone, does pay for it." Perhaps this will be the "signature line" of the new book. I don’t know.

We are accustomed to see God as innocence and justice personified. But this view can only be sustained by skipping over a great deal of deeply shocking divine behavior that the Bible does not flinch to report. In God: A Biography, I saw fit to include and even linger over the parts of the Bible that are so often skipped. But I insisted that if God was no saint, neither he was a common criminal. His power as a character on the page lay precisely in his unresolved inner conflict.

The new book brings that conflict to resolution by adding a shockingly violent act of atonement to God’s already shocking record of violence. I am still staggerered by the literary daring of the writer who first thought of turning the creator of the universe into a sacrificial animal, the Lamb of God, and creating a myth in which the creator puts himself to death by crucifixion. This is, as it were, a truly godlike desecration. I can have no larger hope for my new book than that it will bring readers face-to-face with the daring of the writers who had that heart-stopping idea and who produced works that half the world is still reading.

Q: What do you mean when you say that God "puts himself to death"? No one has ever claimed that Jesus was a suicide.

A: In a way, they have, though without using the word suicide, which is a seventeenth-century English coinage. In the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus says that no one is taking his life from him. "I lay it down of my own accord," he says, defiantly; "I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to take it up again." Whatever the historical complicity of certain Jews in the execution of Jesus of Nazareth by the Romans, God Incarnate, the literary character who is the protagonist of the Gospel of John, sacrifices himself. Neither the Romans nor the Jews are finally responsible. He does this to himself.

This is by no means a bizarre 21st-century innovation. You see it in the Letter to the Hebrews. You see it in the earliest Christian theology. It comes and goes through the whole history of Christian thought.

Obviously, God himself cannot die; but precisely because he cannot, he can turn his own experience of the agony of human dying into a ritual that no mere human being–no mere messiah, for that matter–could ever create. In this ritual, created at the Last Supper, God gives his human followers wine to drink, telling them that this wine is his blood. The most obscene and blasphemous act imaginable–drinking God’s blood!–becomes an act that symbolizes God’s penitent mercy in revoking the death-curse he had placed on his creatures. Obviously, we are very far here from the historicism of "what really happened," but we are deep, I believe, into the realm of "what was really written." Victory over death is the core subject and ultimate prize of the Bible.

Q: You claim that yours is a literary approach to the New Testament, yet you completely disregard the literary intentions of the several authors. Most contemporary Gospel criticism is at pains to respect these intentions. How can you disregard them and then call the results literary?

A: Not all literary criticism is author-centered. Literary criticism can be reader-centered as well, focusing synthetically on the effect rather than analytically on different authors’ different intentions. When we read four separate accounts of Jesus bound together in a single work, each irradiates the others. Figuratively, we may place lead sheathing around each. Modern critical scholarship has tended to be very good at putting such sheathing in place and so fostering author-centered responses to the Gospels. But pre-critical responses to the Gospels tended always toward the creation of a Gospel harmony. I regard harmonization as a spontaneous and legitimate form of literary response to the four Gospels, and I submit that each reader harmonizes in a slightly different way.

Q: But this immediately raises another difficulty. I take it that you have no positive objection to the separate consideration of separate works of scripture for those of us who want to continue in that vein. But when the separate works are not considered separately but combined in some way, the question that then arises is: On what basis are they combined? And how do you decide what to keep in and what to drop out?

A: I might point to the lectionary of the church as a selection of sometimes severely edited texts drawn from widely separated parts of the Bible and then artfully recombined for the purpose of teaching the faith. Different secular groups may have different criteria of selection, or inclusion, and every individual will bring some kind of a priori need or preference to even the most open and unconditioned of private readings. I have already located my own predilections in a background obsession with violence and war and a foreground concern with the transformation of God from lion into lamb. Others will have other biases, but not every bias is disabling. Some are powerfully enabling and even revelatory.

In an endnote to Christ: A Crisis, I write that what I offer is "the close reading of a modest set of Gospel passages selected to bring a particular interpretive option into high relief." I claim no more, but no less. After finishing my new book, I stumbled across something I quite like in A.N. Wilson’s Jesus. Wilson writes: "A patient and conscientious reading of the Gospels will always destroy any explanation which we devise. If it makes sense, it is wrong. That is the only reliable rule-of-thumb…." Wilson is right; but seen another way, this very historical intractability (he is talking about the historical Jesus) yields endless literary fertility. I do not claim that my interpretation is right in a way that would make all others wrong. Historical truth may be single, but literary power is multiple.

Q: Which brings us to the matter of history. Would you concede that there is even a small kernel of historical truth in the Bible? Or is history of no importance to you?

A. Rather than a small kernel of historical truth, I tend to see a large husk. Or to use a metaphor I like better, historical truth is the light from behind a stained-glass window that makes its colors glow. It would make a difference, an artistic difference, if it could be known that everything in the New Testament was unadulterated invention. That said, most of the interest in the text as we read it now arises from those parts of the text that are invention, just as what engages us most in a stained-glass window is not the light per se but the glass that actually prevents the light from reaching us directly. I belong to a company of readers, a large company, I believe, who are prepared to concede in a general way that the Bible contains history but who are not deeply engaged by sorting out in detail those parts of the Bible which are historical from those which are not. For us, to change the metaphor for the third time, history is not the drama, history is merely the theater.

Q: If historical truth does not engage you, does any other kind of truth do so? In what sense is the Bible true, or is that simply a trivial question.

A: It is not a trivial question at all. I take Christian faith to be confidence that a life lived in accord with the Gospel story, as that story is translated into a way of life, will be a life lived in harmony with reality itself. As a practicing Episcopalian, I believe that the Bible is true in that way. Not to be over-dramatic, I might even say that I have staked my life on its truth. If it is false, then by trying to life my life in accord with it I am falsifying and potentially ruining my life. There is, at the very least, a good deal at stake.

At the same time, however, I continue to insist that a merely literary response to scripture–one that is neither religious nor, in the way just indicated, existential–can have its own integrity. The Iliad and the Odyssey were written by someone who really believed in the gods of Greece, but does our way of engaging these works as mere literature–that is, without belief in Zeus and company–lead us so utterly to misconstrue them that we get nothing out of them at all? I certainly don’t think so. Moreover, a large number of readers cannot and will not read the Jewish or the Christian classics if persuaded that religious faith is a necessary condition for the reading. By every indication, these were the readers most drawn to God: A Biography. Perhaps they will be drawn to this new book as well, and to the unorthodox but, I believe, liberating notion of a repentant God.