Download Christ: a crisis in the life of god
God is not just the sum of our adventures, but he is, in the text seen as literature, the sum of what we have tried to make of him. It is for this reason that his hopes and fears are ours. He is, as Miles puts it, ''the divided original whose divided image we remain. His is the restless breathing we still hear in our sleep.'' It is for the same reason, I take it, that Miles can slyly acknowledge God, alphabetically listed between friends whose names begin with an F and a G, as among those who ''helped'' him with the book of that title.
Toward the end of the Hebrew Bible, God has gone silent, and the children of Israel have long been in exile, as if their forefathers had never been brought out of Egypt. This situation, Miles argues, must place God in a condition of distress, even if -- or just because -- it is his own doing. Evoking this condition in ''God: A Biography,'' Miles comes across, more than once, the sub-title of his next book: ''a crisis in the life of God.'' As represented in the New Testament, God resolves the crisis by taking human form as his own son and allowing the Romans to crucify him.
How is this a resolution? In Christian doctrine, God sacrifices himself for the sins of humankind and replaces his old covenant of mercy and justice toward a chosen people with a new covenant of love toward those who choose to worship him. ''For God so loved the world,'' we read in the King James Version of the Gospel of St. John, ''that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.'' He will, in Miles's terms, ''begin a new creation that will correct the old,'' and all his promises of long-delayed worldly success will be converted into metaphors of ultimate spiritual triumph. The multiple enemies of ancient Israel become the single enemy of us all: Satan, the adversary whom God, through Cain, once allowed to invent murder.
But ''against the usual Christian spiritualization of the Old Testament,'' Miles proposes ''a relative materialization of the New Testament, in which God's real-world, land-and-wealth-and-offspring promises to the Jews are expected to remain on his mind.'' In this interpretation, God is a sleeping pragmatist who wakes one day to realize that the old promise won't work, who must therefore break it and make a new one. The not-yet Christian God, Miles suggests, ''needs a way to fail'' and makes a ''brilliant adjustment of the idea of covenant,'' deciding to accept his own guilt for what has happened since creation and to die for his people rather than scatter their human enemies once again.
''A priest who is his own sacrificial lamb, a lamb who is his own sacrificing priest, a father who is his own son, an Isaac who is his own Abraham, with the dagger in his own hand -- it is by this fusion of identities that the crisis in the life of God is resolved.'' God, Miles explains, ''found a way to turn his defeat into a victory, but the defeat came first.'' He ''had to learn how to win by losing.''
This proposition sounds far-fetched until you think of the historical worldly success of Christianity, although this no doubt rests on some astute political practice as well as on preaching. But the scandalous brilliance of the Christian covenant becomes clearer if you think of its consequences. You can win by losing, but only if you manage to invert the meaning of the terms. Christ -- either the person himself or those who wrote his story or a combination of both -- turned the very ideas of life and death upside down. He died, it seems, and the world went on living.
The Christian assertion is exactly the reverse: the world is dead and only Christ and those who believe in him are truly alive. When Christians take communion, they are said, in St. Paul's extraordinary words, to ''show the Lord's death till he come'' -- that is, they insist ritually on an apparent death in the past in order to celebrate the end of death itself in the future. The miracle is that anyone would believe this -- much less, within barely three centuries, most of the Roman Empire, including the emperor himself.
This is a spectacular story, and Miles tells it very well. However, two doubts grew on me as I read this pair of remarkable books. First, the story is so spectacular -- nothing less than a repudiation of what we might think of as the ordinary, providential relation of religion and history -- that I wonder whether it can be enough to say that God changed his mind, even under tremendous pressure. ''It has been the thesis of this book that so problematic a turn in the life of God . . . can only be explained by supposing a prior problem for which this enormity may seem the resolution.'' But can it be explained at all? And wouldn't any attempted explanation have to be theological, whatever it called itself?
What Miles defines as a literary reading of the Bible turns out to be an elaborately argued guess about what God might have been thinking and feeling if he had been a human being. It is true that God is said to have created us in his own image, ''an unmistakable invitation,'' Miles says, ''to make some sense of God in human terms.'' This is certainly an invitation to see God as not entirely inaccessible to the human mind and heart, but is it an invitation to reduce him to our psychology? 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 dizzying anachronistic jokes of Woody Allen or Mel Brooks?
The second doubt has to do with Miles's exclusive interest in God as a character -- and indeed his interest in character to the exclusion of almost everything else. For Miles, literary criticism is primarily the psychological understanding of the real or imaginary people in a text. There's nothing wrong with that, but to promote character at the expense of language, imagery, motif, structure, voice, tone, point of view, plot, genre, verse form, imputed intention, audience response and much else is to offer us a very restricted view of what literary study can do.
It is true (or can be true) that, as Miles says, ''even at moments when literary intent is questionable, literary effect is undeniable.'' But the so-called death of the author doesn't mean there are no writers, only that writers and readers need to collaborate, that there can be several Shakespeares and not just the one our professor dogmatically insisted upon. Of course, Miles knows this, and at times says so clearly. ''What the radical reversal in the divine identity implied by the pacifist preaching of Jesus suggests is that a Jewish writer of powerful imagination projected this crisis of faith into the mind of God, transforming it into a crisis of conscience.'' But mainly Miles treats the product of this and other Jewish imaginations as a free-standing character, complicated and divided but finally autonomous, like a David Copperfield who has gotten rid of Dickens.
Federico Fellini once said that when he was a child he thought movies were made up by their actors; it didn't occur to him that there were writers and directors. Miles goes one step farther and ascribes all the motions of his book to its chief character. This is a sweeping critical gesture, and it makes for exciting reading. But the final effect is to mystify, to turn back into fable, what Miles is otherwise so finely unraveling. It is to evoke the amazing triumphs of God's writers and readers, but then award them to their own creature, which is entirely appropriate for a religious reading if you believe God inspired the writers and the readers in the first place. But if we subtract Shakespeare (whoever we think he is) from ''King Lear,'' we don't have a play, let alone a masterpiece. We just have a wild old man.