Flawed God, wash away all your sins

October 12, 2001

Jack Miles tells Anthony Freeman how his take on the Bible casts God as a sinner who overcame a late-life crisis only by repenting in the form of Jesus.

The Bible should carry a warning: it can seriously damage your ideas about God. Anyone who doubts this has only to read Jack Miles's new book, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God . As in his 1996 Pulitzer prizewinning work, God: A Biography , his approach is to take the Bible with the utmost seriousness as a narrative whose protagonist is God. It sounds harmless enough, but the God who emerges from its pages is a direct challenge to the popular image of an unchanging and perfect entity. This God is a sinner who pays dearly for His misdeeds.

Anthony Freeman : How does your new book relate to its predecessor, and, in particular, what is the "crisis" of the subtitle?

Jack Miles : The crisis is the fact that, after 500 years, God has failed the Jews. After the children of Israel were carried into exile in Babylonia, God promised to restore their sovereignty and glory, but as Christ is born, He has not kept His promise. One empire has followed another in 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 crisis in His life. Christ is the resolution of the crisis.

Freeman : Your own life has not been without its crises and U-turns. You abandoned plans for a career in journalism to join the Jesuits, only to abandon the Catholic Church in its turn. With a Harvard PhD in Hebrew Bible under your belt, you then spent 20 years in publishing and literary journalism, which you had earlier rejected. Then, suddenly, you are back with the Bible and the literary character of God. Why?

Miles : What provoked my return to the Bible as a subject was a recording of Bach's "St Matthew Passion". The opening chorus 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 itself - much less anyone else - from the butcher's blade.

In the conventional terms of literary character development, this seemed an unimaginable transformation. One could only ask, in amazement, "What came over Him?" With this as motive, I found my way back into Bible studies.

Freeman : Have your studies led you to an answer to what did come over God?

Miles : Yes, I do have an answer, though I do not expect that everyone will accept it. It is that God repented. He underwent a change of mind and heart as He recognised 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.

Freeman : The most striking thing about your book is the way you treat the Lord of the Old Testament (Yahweh) and the Lord of the New Testament (Jesus) as a single character with a psychological continuity and development. Your interpretation of Jesus's baptism and your insistence that "God repented" is an excellent example of this. It is a welcome antidote to the theological fashion of a "social Trinity", in which the three divine "persons" are treated as psychologically distinct. But we have been brought up to believe that God is morally perfect, so what does He have to repent of?

Miles : Back in the Garden of Eden, God allowed His anger to betray Him into marring His own creation and sentencing His own human creatures, His own image and likeness, to terrible suffering and to death. The fall of man was thus also the fall of God, and the fall of both signalled the rise of Satan, who had defeated both by luring them into mutual estrangement.

Freeman : An example of that estrangement was God's repeatedly breaking His promise to restore the Jews, which you say required repentance. But for humans, repentance is not just a question of symbol. It involves amendment of life, a determination to do better in future. In your reading, God knows He will not stop a Roman holocaust. He has no intention of improving. Doesn't that make a mockery of God's symbolic repentance in Jesus's baptism?

Miles : The late-life crisis that God faces over His failure to defeat Caesar and rescue Israel is resolved when God reverses His primeval defeat. 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.

If God had mended His ways merely by defeating Caesar as of old He defeated Pharaoh, what would have been gained? The victors would 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 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.

Freeman : I am sympathetic to your literary approach, but by insisting that we treat the Bible as a single work, you disregard the literary intentions of the several authors. And in regard to Jesus himself, surely each evangelist is offering us a different literary character of the same name. John's Jesus, for instance, as the incarnate Word of God, can say "I am the way, the truth and the life", which would be outrageous or meaningless on the lips of Mark's Jesus.

How can literary, as distinct from historical, criticism just bundle them into one?

Miles : Not all literary criticism is author-centred. Literary criticism can be reader-centred as well, focusing synthetically on the effect rather than analytically on several different intents. 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 tends to be very good at putting such sheathing in place and so fostering author-centred responses to the Gospels. But pre-critical responses to the Gospels tended always towards the creation of a Gospel harmony. I regard harmonisation as a spontaneous and legitimate form of literary response to the four Gospels, and I submit that each reader harmonises in a slightly different way.

Freeman : Which brings us to the matter of truth. If each reader puts their own interpretation on the text, is there any sense in which the Bible can be true? Does the literary character you want to place at the centre of things relate to any historical or metaphysical facts?

Miles : Historical truth as a factor in literary appreciation is like the light from behind that makes the colours in a stained-glass window 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 comes from those parts of the text that are invention, just as what engages us most in a stained-glass window is not the light but the glass.

As for metaphysical truth, I take this to be - in religion, I stress - the confidence a believer has that living in accord with the myth, as it can be translated into an ethic, is living in harmony with reality itself. With philosophy, the goal is to think correctly, not necessarily to live well. For religion, the life-test matters more.

I continue to insist, however, that a merely literary response to scripture - one that is neither religious nor, in your sense of the word, metaphysical - 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 - without belief in Zeus and company - lead us utterly to misconstrue them? I don't think so.

By the same token, 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. These were the readers most drawn to God: A Biography . Perhaps they will be drawn to this new book, and to the notion of a repentant God, as well.

The Revd Anthony Freeman is managing editor, Journal of Consciousness Studies .

Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God is published this week by William Heinemann, £18.99.

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