Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God
by Jack Miles
Knopf, 352 pages; $26.95

Reviewed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 8, 2002

In 1996, an alternate juror named Barbara Adams, adding an unnecessary flourish to the already circuslike atmosphere of the Whitewater scandal, made headlines by appearing each day at Jim Guy Tucker's trial in a Star Trek uniform, with communicator and phaser at the ready. No one had any complaints about her as a juror; in some ways, her devotion to the ideals of (as she explained them to the press) inclusion, tolerance, peace and faith in humankind made her come across as strangely civic-minded and rational, given the company. She didn't really think she was an officer of the United Federation of Planets, after all and yet, let's say she didn't seem to have come fully to grips with the fact that Gene Roddenberry had made it all up, either. Like many of us from time to time, she had chosen her starship and quickly lost interest in niggling over whether it was really there.

So too Jack Miles. The former Jesuit priest won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for writing God: A Biography; now he has honed in his focus on the thirty-odd years of Jesus' life, the most burned-over district in the world of human commentary. His goal is the perpetual one, to restore to the story its original freshness and shock, to shake it loose from the two tired schools into which he believes it has fallen in recent centuries, a defensive theology on the one side and a sometimes fruitless, at best fragmentary search for the plain facts about Jesus on the other. What the schools have in common is an insistence that the truth or falsehood of the New Testament's every word is important. Miles doesn't agree, and he believes the key to escape is to read the testament frankly as a work of art instead, the same way you'd read Shakespeare, a Michelangelo fresco or a Bach fugue, as the product of creators who, with skill and subtlety, have woven ideas and echoes of ideas together to create a compelling whole. Who cares whether Shakespeare was a good historian?

As literary interpreters go, he does a lovely job. The Jesus he extracts from the Gospels is unsettling and strange, much more (as a Californian might phrase it) wrapped up in his own issues than struggling to teach anything to humankind. The subtitle suggests as much. The God of the Old Testament, having repeatedly failed to deliver Israel as he promised he would and foreseeing that he will soon allow the nation to be shattered entirely in the Jewish Wars of 70 C.E., realizes that he too had better "judge not, lest ye be judged." From the moment the adult Jesus arrives on the page, he is focused on the sacrifice he will make in expiation for his own broken promises and in solidarity with the other human beings whom, like himself on the cross, he will not save. Along the way he teaches forgiveness and love and a new kind of salvation in ways designed skillfully to provoke, disturb, offend, shame or unsettle everyone who hears him, on the theory that sometimes you have to slap people across the face to get their attention. And so the early Christians go on to slap the world to attention in their own turn, most startlingly with the symbol of the crucifix itself, which (Miles points out) continues to shock those unfamiliar with Christianity the way an image of, say, Martin Luther King lynched inside the Lincoln Memorial would jolt you and I.

It's good stuff. This is, after all, the Greatest Story Ever Told, so it's seldom tedious and often thrilling even as the Greatest Story Ever Told Yet Again. In my time I must have sat through three or four productions of Hamlet, two Antigones, a Richard III set in Nazi Germany, and musical versions of Pygmalion and A Christmas Carol, among others. Each one gave me something new to chew over - but my opinions may differ from yours over which was the best. And that's in the nature of reading or seeing a work of art. Each interpreter finds meaning in it because he puts it there; great art is great scaffolding, because many beautiful meanings can be draped over it and then mistaken for being exactly what the artist intended. I'm not sure whether Jack Miles realizes this or not. He puts great store in tracing down all the Old Testament allusions that a first century Jew would hear in the language of Jesus and the evangelists; they are like themes recurring in a symphony, and their richness does make the work magnificent. But other writers have done the same and seen a different Jesus. The Bible is an exceedingly complex creation, as artwork or Gospel. When you stand in a hall of a thousand echoes, you can hear many harmonies; which you do hear all depends on how you choose to listen.

And this is where I believe Miles does injustice to his subject. He wants to negotiate a sort of truce among believers and nonbelievers. By comparing the Bible to Renaissance paintings and rose windows, he's saying the religious can use it to reinforce their faith at the same time the secular can simply admire it. But westerners will never read the Bible for the same reasons they come to other works of art. I may draw insights about humanity from the ghost-story fantasy of Ebenezer Scrooge, but that's because I bring the truth I need with me: Humanity is something I know from experience. We read bibles on the other hand to learn about God. And while we may have inklings of God from experience - flashes of warmth, mystical moments of oneness, an abiding sense that we're not alone in our troubles, a conviction that souls don't die when bodies do - we learn all the lessons of what these inklings mean from the "word of God" on the page. Whether God is unchanging or evolves; what Jesus promised and taught; whether his resurrection was a fact or a metaphor; even whether God is the explanation for those experiences we have or it's something else altogether: Those aren't questions we can answer from any other source. And so anyone who believes in the Catholic God or the Calvinist God or the Hebrew God or the Islamic God - a god of details, history and promises - has already said, whether shouting it from the housetops or in the forgetfulness of his own mind, that he believes the words in his bible are absolutely true.

So, are they? I plainly confess I believe they are not. Among my friends are Jesuit priests and born-again Christians who insist equally plainly that they are. Our arguments are rich and indecisive; we have too little to go on for a question that we all feel is too important to ignore. People like Jack Miles who believe those arguments are passe will probably always make me wary, like anyone attempting an end run around the human condition. Wasn't it Jesus himself who said only the truth will set you free?

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