Christ

Jesus H. Christ!
New books dissected over email.
Dec. 18 2001 9:27 PM

Christ

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Dear Debra,

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Am I so transparent? So predictable? You are right. I found Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God strained, mannered, unconvincing as either literary criticism or theology (not, to put my atheistical cards on the table right away, that there is some other theology I would find persuasive), and pretentious and overbearing in style. Miles has a weakness for large generalizations, rhetorical questions, repetitious constructions, and sweeping intensifiers ("utterly" and "profoundly" are favorites). To this skeptical reader, his prose has a hectoring, hyped-up quality that calls attention to itself in a most uncongenial way. Here's a typical passage:

So, then, what has come over him, now incarnate as Jesus of Nazareth, that he presents himself so differently? As God Incarnate, Jesus surely remembers quite well what he once did to the Amalekites. Surely he remembers as well that he promised no less to Israel's later oppressors. What has driven him to forswear those oaths and assume so utterly different an attitude? The root of the change, as we have seen, is something more radical than an intensified commitment to the mercy, patience, and steadfast love of Exodus 34:6-7, something more than a mere muting of transgenerational revenge. No, Jesus exhorts his hearers to a profoundly counterintuitive, cost-what-it-may disregard for the most basic of human differences, the difference between amity and hostility.

Two "incarnates," two "remembers," two sentences (the first and the fourth) that say the same thing, two "something mores," one "utterly," one "profoundly," four uses of "different" and its variations, all culminating in a dubious generalization, which is itself expressed in a repetitious way. Is "the most basic of human differences, the difference between amity and hostility"? Why not health versus sickness, as Susan Sontag wrote in Illness as Metaphor? Possessing power versus lacking it? Being awake versus being asleep? Or, for the evolutionary psychologists among us, being able to reproduce versus being unable to do so? Amity and hostility are actually rather close together—think of any love affair or the shifting allegiances of Afghan warlords. What disturbs me about Miles' style isn't its grim charmlessness—a quality it shares with much literary criticism, after all—so much as the intellectual use to which I think it is put, which is to keep the reader from arguing back.

I found Miles' thesis, which you so ably set out, ingenious but perverse. He treats the New Testament as a sequel to the Old, in the same sense that Twenty Years After is a sequel to The Three Musketeers—God is older, sadder, wiser; he feels guilty about all the terrible things he did to people back in his youth, beginning with Adam and Eve and including the poor Amalekites, mentioned above, who were obliterated by Saul at God's insistence. Perhaps I misread Miles, who is not entirely clear on this point, but by New Testament times God seems to have lost his old military magic too: He not only knows he won't rescue the Jews from the Roman oppressors but perhaps could not do so even if he wanted to. Becoming human, sharing the fate he imposed on humanity, is God's atonement and also his triumphant second act: The material blessings hitherto promised to the Jews become the supernatural blessings—life after death—promised to all. Clever of God, isn't it? He obviously failed to deliver on his part of the covenant with the Jews. But who can say whether God is keeping his new covenant with believers? By the time we find out, we'll be dead.

One thing I liked very much, and learned much from, was the way Miles goes back and forth between the texts, showing how deeply referential to the older text every word in the Jesus story is. Here too, though, I felt he strained meaning to bring the text in line with his thesis. For Miles, as a good Trinitarian, Jesus is simultaneously the son of God and God himself. That this idea is in the text is not so obvious to the casual reader. Certainly, many times the Gospel writers, and Jesus himself, refer to God as if he is another, distinct character in the story. In the famous tag from John, we are told, God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten son—not "became his only begotten son," whatever that would mean. Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane and asks that if possible the cup pass from his lips—is he just talking to himself? On the cross, he asks God why he has forsaken him—is he addressing himself? Miles is very interested in Jesus' uses of the verb "I am," which he wants to mean "I AM," an Old testament name of God, as if whenever Jesus says "I am," he is confessing that he is God. But what about the passages in which Jesus seems clearly to be saying that God the Father is not himself, but Dad?

Miles attempts to impose his narrative on a highly ambiguous and internally contradictory text point up the literary problem of regarding the Bible as if it were a novel by a single author with an overarching unified vision, like Tolstoy. Miles wants us to imagine that that author is God—writing, producing, directing, and starring in his own drama. But as he is well aware but not very interested in, the New Testament, like the Old, was the work of many hands over many years. The differences between the four Gospels are but one of the elements that are hard to understand if you pretend they were all written by the same person at one go. I understand that Miles aims at a literary rather than historical analysis, but surely a literary critic needs to attend to the way a book is put together and its effect on meaning? A literary critic who analyzed the Iliad without reference to the bardic tradition of oral heroic poetry—as if Homer was the same kind of poet Virgil or Milton was—would be barking up a lot of wrong trees.

Here's a question I'd like your views on, Debra: If Jesus the person is God the person, having all God's memories and knowing everything God knows, then how big a sacrifice is he really making through his suffering and crucifixion? As God, he knows he's immortal and will go right back to heaven: He'll feel physical pain, humiliation, even grief—but not fear of death or death itself. Miles says God, as Jesus, commits suicide—but according to his own interpretation, that is precisely what God doesn't do.

Casuistically yours,
Katha

Katha Pollitt is the author most recently of The Mind-Body Problem, a collection of poems.

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