Christ

Would God Be Tolerated Without the Pestilence and Punishments?
New books dissected over email.
Dec. 18 2001 11:47 AM

Christ

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Dear Katha,

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Wow.

What an amazing, fearless book Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God is.

Brilliant, absolutely brilliant, of Jack Miles to approach God, Christ, and Scripture as matters of literary criticism, with plot, characters, and writing to be appreciated merely on their own terms. "Such is the reading—a reading of the New Testament as a work of imaginative literature—that this book will attempt." A book so beautifully written and satisfyingly argued, if nothing else, gives nonbelievers a reason to read hefty chunks of the Bible, a claim the fire-and-brimstone boys Falwell and Roberts will never be able to make. Other scholars have taken this approach, but surely Miles is the king.

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. The ultimately responsible party accepts his responsibility. And once he has paid the price, who else need be blamed, who else need be punished? The same act that exposes all authority as provisional renders all revenge superfluous. And because the death of God does this, it functions within the myth as not just another death but a redemptive death, one that saves us from the violence that we might otherwise feel justified in inflicting on one another. God must die, yes, but he will rise, and at his empty tomb, where none is king, all may be forgiven and may submit to one another. Thus does his kingdom come. Thus does the Lamb of God take away the sin of the world.

The End. With that blurb, Miles hopes to convince you to pick up this book.

Had, as usual, these been presented as matters of rational belief or even historical inquiry, Miles would have forfeited the opportunity to harness the reader's imagination and empathy to dare having some pity and understanding for this character God as he tried to right the mess he created. Or allowed to exist, those being the same thing here in this work of imagination, where anything can happen as long as it fits within the plot and within the characters' personalities and culturally understood back-stories. I suspect that many Christians could see their God in a new light, a much more forgiving and trusting one, as a result of this book, so many having been raised to believe in a God who made no sense. He made none because his subjects had to take him at face value, asking no questions and therefore receiving no answers, expressing no qualms and therefore receiving no reassurance, making no demands for rationality even though it was he who'd made them, and their world, rational. For too many (see above) God is like the unpredictable, often rude relative invited to dinner out of respect but never a real part of things because he's above accountability. God is tolerated. But would he be without the pestilence and punishments? Miles believes that if you truly loved someone because he deserved it, you'd interrogate him, require him explain himself so you could do more than fear him or humble yourself to him. You could respect him.

Here's a passage where Christ impressed me:

The fact that Jesus has read her mind alerts her to his being more than the average thirsty traveler. But if he is a Jewish prophet, then after upbraiding her for her marital infidelity, she expects that he will upbraid her nation for its religious promiscuity. In fact, she may detect that he has done so already. In Aramaic, the language that Jesus and the woman would be speaking, the word for husband, ba'al, "lord," is also a word that may be used to refer to a foreign god. Whence the elaborate pun: "You, milady, have had five milords" is the same as "You Samaritans have had five gods."

OK, now Jesus has my attention. He dogged her on two levels simultaneously and made the chick chuckle. He's made me think there might be more to this Bible than thees and thous. I have no control over whether or not he strikes me dead with a bolt of lightning, but my time and attention have to be won. This Jesus is like the rich, beautiful debutante at a cocktail party who stuns everybody by saying something smart, something that makes you give her the time of day, something that makes you give her the opportunity to win you over and earn attention rather than simply ascend to it. There's more to this Jesus than damnation, there's discussion.

His disbelief suspended as any reader's must be, Miles reads between the lines to offer satisfying, albeit bittersweet, explanations as to why God, with only the character development supplied by his authors and his times, stops smiting Israel's enemies and indeed allows his Chosen People to be hideously oppressed by Rome even as he starts making nice with all sorts of non-Chosen ones. How else to satisfyingly reconcile all those pesky irreconcilabilities that have driven millions away from their faith or from its full embrace? One of the things I found so amazing about Christ (I mean, Christ) was Miles' lack of sentimentality. "[God] is like a savvy politician who, when asked an embarrassingly unanswerable question, changes the subject and eloquently answers the question he would prefer to have been asked. The Incarnation creates the condition for this dramatization of a political moment in the life of God. By bringing the Lord God face-to-human-face with his 'constituency'—the people for whom the embarrassing question When will the Lord come again in power to free us from bondage? is so omnipresent that it scarcely needs to be asked at all—the Gospels force him either to answer it directly or to change the subject. Because the true answer to the question When? is Never, he has no choice but to change the subject." Miles never apologizes for God just as Mario Puzo never apologizes for Don Corleone. That the reader does not come away from Christ a Christian is of no more importance than that she will not come away from Geek Love a believer in the intentional creation of mutant children. She will, however, come away from Christ with a much better, much deeper, much more enjoyable understanding of the Bible.

On that note, though, and as much as I admired this book, I did get lost toward the end and spend increasing amounts of time wondering about the mechanics of the Bible. He mentions here and there when certain sections had been written, when they had been rearranged, what was written in Greek and Hebrew and the like, but I needed a thorough overview. It might have been supplied in the first (Pulitzer Prize-winning) book, God: A Biography. The various appendices and notes offered lots of explanation and background, but I was often distracted by asides like, "[S]cholars, significantly, are unanimous that the Gospels were all written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E." or "[T]he Gospel writers, writing in Greek for Greek-speakers." When was the other stuff written? In what contexts? By whom, in the non-eponymous books? What about the Aramaic?

Somehow, Katha, I suspect you'll be less impressed. Are you?

Impressed but Still a Strayed Sheep,
Debra

Debra Dickerson is the author of The End of Blackness andAn American Story.