by Catherine Madsen

     Jack Miles, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. New York: Knopf, 2001. 289 pp. $26.95 (cloth).

The rules of scholarship and imagination can overlap, but often they don't; where scholarship concerns itself rigorously with the provable and the defensible (and the limits of guild consensus), imagination is interested in following a train of thought and seeing what happens. A scholar who combines accurate observation with a spark of imagination may be criticized by his peers as if he were making things up (as Leo Steinberg was for The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion). A writer who knows the scholarship but strikes out on his own, using methods that scholars consider untouchable, may cause bewilderment and even hostility. What authorizes him to set his own terms, nodding collegially to the community of scholars but going on to do just as he pleases? What permits him to flout a disciplinary consensus so painstakingly arrived at? What possesses him to revive discredited forms? Is he dangerous or just silly?

What Jack Miles is up to in Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God is both the recovery and the extension of a method. For two millennia Christians have engaged in a form of nave reading -- taking the text at face value, without winnowing historicity from miracle or their own preoccupations from what is known of the real past -- to come to some working decision about what the New Testament wants of them. The whole corpus of Christian art and music arose from this kind of reading, which accepts the biblical perspective while being infiltrated subconsciously by the cultural habits of the maker's own place and time. Of course Miles is not the first to read the Bible "as literature," from outside the bounds of faith, but he is the first to make so thorough a case for the right of the faithless to do so at the same pitch of ingenuity and energy as the faithful. Readers who may once have been Christian, or who may never have been Christian -- who have no commitment one way or the other to the historicity or creedal demand of the New Testament, and may be armed against it with the hermeneutics of suspicion -- remain fascinated by its power as narrative. Miles has demonstrated that the text responds to them as readily as to believers.

Miles's God: A Biography read the Tanakh (the Old Testament in its Jewish collation, with the prophets in the middle and the books of wisdom at the end) as a record of God's development as a literary character: a coherent narrative emerging from a loosely related set of canonical books by force of their canonicity. In the beginning, by this reading, God was a novice -- inexperienced, fallible, volatile, deficient in self-knowledge. He could understand his powers and his limits only by trial and error. His adoption of a people, his development of law, his promise of a protective relationship with Israel, and his fierce disappointment with Israel's conduct of that relationship are all stages in God's education. Ultimately his creatures, with Job as their spokesman, challenge his claim to justice and goodness. God rises magisterially to the occasion, but with a non sequitur: Job's question to God (as George Steiner observes in Grammars of Creation) is ontological and ethical, but God's answer is aesthetic. After delivering that answer from the whirlwind, God falls silent for the rest of the Hebrew Bible, as if he has been ultimately defeated. His people, having grown up, learn to fend for themselves.

Christ: A Crisis extends this reading to the New Testament. In the gospel according to Miles, God becomes human not to fulfill messianic hopes but to invert them: not to establish justice now but to defer it to the world to come, not to revive and fulfill his failed political promise to Israel but to reconfigure it as a universal promise of eternal life. His purpose is not so much to save humanity from destruction as to rescue his reputation. From his silence in the last books of the Tanakh, God returns insistently talkative, intensely self-conscious, obsessed with his own nature and his new mission. He has become a theorist of spiritual transformation.

Reading the Bible for the evolution of God's character permits an objectivity -- in John Cowper Powys's phrase, a profane detachment -- in which the religious reader's persistent unvoiced misgivings may rise to the surface. In literary terms we don't have to like Jesus, or read him in the best light and ourselves in the worst. God in human flesh becomes aggravating at a human level. The intolerable young man who knows everyone's needs before they ask, and their ignorance in asking, has a problem to solve; we can see his thinking and his actions as extensions of his position. When God becomes Christ, milk and honey are in short supply, and will soon be replaced by vinegar; the Promised Land has been for centuries a pawn and a tributary of stronger nations, and is about to be lost altogether; Jesus will die childless, and his method of disciple-gathering cuts against the grain of family ties rather than enrolling the generations. The promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have almost collapsed. Although Christ does not quite revoke them, he does not renew them. "Prosperity," Francis Bacon observed, "is the blessing of the Old Testament, adversity is the blessing of the New." God -- defeated, like others before and after him, by the might of secular empire -- makes a virtue of defeat; unable to defend Israel, he compensates by refusing to defend even himself.

Miles's reading is frankly patripassian: the Incarnation is God's descent to the same vulnerability as his creatures. "Satisfaction atonement," in this reading, becomes the satisfaction of human honor, not God's honor. "Our offense [in Eden] was so mild, his punishment so ferocious. Can we avenge ourselves upon him?" God's metamorphosis from lion to lamb subjects him to the very injustice he has laid on his creatures -- a development which must merit a felix culpa for Judas and all the others responsible, though Miles does not offer it. At the same time it salvages and vindicates God's claim to be just: if he cannot protect his people, at least he can share their misery to the full.

Reviewers who are imaginatively attached to Christian orthodoxy have objected to the patripassianism; to their minds, a literary reading affords no diplomatic immunity to heretics. Historical critics have faulted Miles's casual conflation of the synoptic gospels and John into one all-purpose narrative, and his use of the doctrine of the Incarnation to interpret texts that predate it. But the artistic model Miles follows is neither theologically or chronologically systematic. Artistic detachment -- even when not profane -- is perfectly willing to bend time and space and intellectual history to the needs of the work in hand. Certainly Miles reads the Incarnation backward into the gospels; so did Dante and Hans Baldung Grien and Bach. The compilers of the New Testament would have found strict boundaries between the gospels artificial, and in building up their case for Jesus as the Messiah they played high-stakes Midrash with every remotely plausible verse of the Tanakh; there is no reason a modern writer cannot use the same techniques. Theological conformity and historical accuracy are not illegitimate concerns, but the imagination does not grant them an automatic veto. If anything, Miles concedes too much to the historical critics by his exhaustive apologias for his method; readers with a working knowledge of medieval art and baroque music are willing to grant a modern scholar poetic license.

A subtler and more interesting criticism -- in this case, actually a literary one -- is that Miles cannot maintain a consistent view of God's dual nature as character and author. He veers off into treating Jesus as "a fictional creation whom no human being actually created" (James Wood in the November 12 New Yorker). Sometimes he seems to attribute structural and symbolic details of the gospels' collective plot line to God's elegant arrangements of his life circumstances on earth, rather than to the gospellers' literary skill. But in a work whose central character is a fictional creation whom the writers did not believe to be fictional, this Escher-like disorientation may come with the territory. A literary reading of the Bible develops a peculiar chicken-or-egg quality: did we invent God or did God invent us, and even if we believe anthropologically that the Bible is a purely human narrative, isn't it more interesting for the sake of the narrative to take God at his face value? Miles took a similar approach with the Tanakh, treating its writers as collaborators in an evolving character study which also evolves partly under its own power. But the method may be more disconcerting when it deals with a visible human character; the suspension of disbelief is of a different order. In the annals of heresy there are several wrong ways to understand Christ's dual nature as God and man; perhaps a kind of stereoptic perception is needed even in a literary reading. The question "Who do you say that I am?," even if one is only prepared to answer it within the terms of the story, still has only one answer within the terms of the story.

Certainly the New Testament's insistence on asking this question would account for certain uneasy moments in Miles's rendering. God grown to human manhood, intent on extracting hope from Israel's and his own tragedy by any means necessary, is an even trickier proposition than the uncanny God of the Tanakh. Although the literary approach allows the Hebrew Bible its own narrative legitimacy -- there is no reason one text cannot be used as the material for two narratives, more or less as Jane Eyre is the precondition for Wide Sargasso Sea but remains independent of it -- the New Testament is relentlessly and deliberately a supersessionist text. God is not only revising his promises but carrying out his accumulated resentments against the priests and Levites, and sometimes against "the Jews" generally. A nave reading would not necessarily require an uncritical sympathy with Christ's view of his pharisaic opponents -- which is essentially what Miles offers; instead it might ask why God needed, at this stage in his development, to present himself as daring and free-spirited as against an ethnically narrow, religiously rigid and politically craven Jewish hierarchy. What is his real attitude toward the abrogation or fulfillment of his own law? If he finds his people xenophobic and obsessive, does he remember how much time he spent forcing them into that mold? How much does he know about the developing Talmudic sense of humor? What will Christian supersession do to the Jews? If Christ the character plans to abandon all pretense of a protective relationship with Israel for a new universal covenant, the twenty-first-century reader sometimes wants to caution him that in human terms he is only thirty-three years old and still operating by trial and error. If he thought he had had an education before, he is in for some nasty surprises.

At best, the oscillation of Miles's feeling about the material is one of the fascinations of the book; one gets a sort of cutaway view of one of the liveliest intelligences in biblical studies acting upon the text with admiration, incredulity, ambivalence, and irreverence.

Irony is the last word that the "Hallelujah Chorus" brings to mind, and yet the enthronement of the Lamb is a supremely ironic outcome. This is not how God's work in the world was supposed to culminate, and yet, ironically, this is just what was predicted. This is not the glorious victory that the Lord promised to Judah, and yet, ironically, it meets every criterion for that victory. The Bible is a divine comedy in both the high and low sense of the word comedy. The enthronement of the Lamb is truly both sublime and ridiculous. Yield to it in just the right way, with just the right music playing, and you will be swept away. Catch it at a slightly crooked angle, with the sound system off, and you will laugh out loud.

The very notion of irony in the same breath with the New Testament is disturbing to some readers, and Miles deserves a great deal of credit for insisting on putting them together. Michael Wood, in the New York Times Book Review, complains, "Can we speak plausibly, as Miles seeks to, of 'the deep psychological peculiarity, the uncanniness, the elusive weirdness of the Lord God' or the collection of 'personality profiles' that compose him? Doesn't such language tilt us toward the dizzyingly anachronistic jokes of Woody Allen or Mel Brooks?" Of course it does -- and toward the heresies of Harold Bloom and the penetrating psychological analyses of Avivah Zornberg and the staggering (and entirely legitimate) liberties of Talmud and Midrash. Why should it not? A piety that cannot survive anachronistic jokes is anemic; a structure of religious thought that cannot cope with affectionate anarchy is too rigid to accommodate sane human beings. More pertinently, a literary reading that eschews irony has sold its birthright. There is enormous irony in a text that starts from the Jewish tragedy of the first century, reverses it forcibly into a form of joy, and goes on to conquer Byzantium and Rome. There is the further irony of its having to recreate the Jewish tragedy for itself wherever it went; the irony of a catholicity that depends so much on exclusion; the irony of a kingdom "not of this world" that keeps playing such a decisive political role. It would not be the worst fate if the New Testament were to survive as a complicated and compelling Jewish joke; it might do less damage.

With the right music playing, however, Miles is quite willing to be swept away, and his literary gratitude has curious echoes of other writers' religious gratitude. "There is no single necessary or correct way to read the New Testament, as there is no single necessary or correct way to read any great literary classic; but when the divinity of Christ the Lord is embraced as a literary opportunity rather than resisted as a theological imposition, the protagonist of this work can seem illumined from within." One thinks of C. S. Lewis and his forerunner G. K. Chesterton, two of the liveliest literary evangelists of the modern era, who got their start as agnostics and arrived at Christian orthodoxy through seeing it freshly, experiencing it as joy. Lewis came quite consciously to Christianity as a sort of logical extension of narrative, especially of myth: Christ was a true and historical version of Balder the Beautiful and Osiris and Tammuz, as if these precursor gods were a premonition of Christ's universality in the collective pagan unconscious. Chesterton is incisive and funny at suggesting the imaginative breadth of Christian orthodoxy compared to the narrowness of rationalism. But Chesterton ends by defending such Catholic absurdities as the prohibition on birth control; Lewis embraces literary opportunities like the Narnian lion Aslan and the planetary spirit Maleldil and turns them into the same old theological imposition. Miles is not on that track -- he is no believer and is not trying to gather believers -- yet the echo is disconcerting; one does just look around for the exits. There is a relationship between irony and ardor, but it may not be this one. Some adventurous-minded student somewhere will take Miles's book as warrant for crossing the line into Christianity, believing that she can bring literary irony with her, and then there'll be hell to pay.

The most salient irony of all is one that Miles misses the chance to point out: by replacing the old political covenant with a new spiritual covenant, God gets himself permanently and conveniently off the hook. No one can tell, this side of the valley of the shadow, whether his promise of eternal life will hold up. From his refusal to intervene in John the Baptist's death to his lack of enthusiasm for restoring sovereignty to Israel, he defers victory to the afterlife, where no one can hold him accountable. Lo ha-metim y'hallelu Yah, says Psalm 115: the dead don't praise God, and they may not accuse him either. The life of Christ knits up the raveled ends of God's promises with marvelous ingenuity and skill, but he is still giving aesthetic answers: the promise of eternal life solves his problem, not ours. To a mind looking at the question with profane detachment, it seems likely that he can't keep this promise either.


CATHERINE MADSEN is a contributing editor of CrossCurrents.

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Source: Cross Currents, Spring 2002, Vol. 52,  No 1.