In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.
— Bertrand Russell (via Whiskey River)
Last month, I was browsing through a large national chain bookstore, kind of killing time, waiting on my oldest daughter. I always seem to gravitate to the religion section. I had enough books to read in the queue for summer. I did not need another one, so I was not paying too much attention. As I was skimming over the books, this one particular book nonchalantly peaked my interest. It was different from the others. The design of the cover was minimalist—plain white with one word in large contrasting black, “Christ,” with a subtitle in small dark maroon lettering, “A Crisis in the Life of God.”
I opened up this book by Jack Miles and started reading the prologue. First page, blah blah blah. Second page, blah blah blah. Third, fourth, more of the same, but I kept reading. Somewhere in there he wrote something that made me stop and think. I like that in a book. He created an imagine in my mind which triggered a memory from my past and its associated emotions flowed forth for a moment. Then my daughter found me. She was ready to go. I started to place the book back on the shelf and paused. Yes or no? Do I get it? If I don’t, the book will haunt me until I come back. Better get it now.
If I had only known that I was going to be knocked off my spiritual equilibrium point…
Jack Miles states very early on that the purpose of his book was to apply a literary analysis of the Gospels as a work of art. (This is what he did for the Old Testament in his Pulitzer prize winning book, God: A Biography.) From the note to the reader:
In what follows, the text of the New Testament will be considered rather as if it were a stained-glass window. That is, it will be looked at and appreciated as a work of art, rather than seen through in an attempt to discern the historical events that lie behind it.
This method of literary analysis seems to be in direct opposition by some to research into the historical Jesus. He includes a large appendix to deal with this conflict which basically says that from his point of view, both methods are valid and can complement each other. Miles further uses the stained-glass metaphor to criticize the historical point of view as an attempt to find a small, clear piece of glass in the window in which to peer through to the truth. In my humble opinion, both methods are rich areas to explore, but they both seem to fall short, or outright miss the point of it all.
Miles also states that since he is analyzing the Gospels, principally the Gospel of John, on a literary basis, he is not going to address any theological implications of his analysis. Again, he does not want to look through the stained-glass window, just upon it. As a result, Jesus, the incarnation of God within the world, becomes just a character in a story, albeit a very special character.
Before I go any further, Miles is an awesome writer. His research and analysis is staggering considering his knowledge and familiarity with the Old Testament. He added such incredible depth, detail, and background to many of the stories concerning Jesus written in the New Testament. This enrichment alone, although tinted with the goal of literary analysis, has made this book worth reading.
Miles’ hypothesis, based on literary analysis, comes in two parts. One, God has changed. God changed from a “head-smashing”, vengeful, jealous protector of Israel to an all inclusive, passive, humble, hidden lover of humanity. And two, God needed to atone for his curse of death on humanity given in the beginning with Adam and Eve. God was going to have to die too in order to make amends and bring humanity life.
There are also two minor parts to Miles’ hypothesis. First, in that God was either powerless, or was not going to prevent or interfere with the upcoming Roman holocaust in reaction to the Jewish rebellions of 66-70 AD and 132�135 AD. Jesus’ death at the hands of the Romans would be a model for non-violent protest, and that victory can be really won through apparent defeat. Second, God did not, could not, or would not fulfill his final promise to save the Israelites from the rest of the world. Many of the prayers found in the Psalms seem to have gone unanswered.
This hypothesis with all of its parts is obviously controversial. And on the surface, this hypothesis seems correct if one is content to look at the Bible only as a “stained-glass window” and not attempt to look through it to the truth. (Ironically, the stained-glass metaphor implies that one might be looking through rose-colored glass and thus see a distorted image of the truth.) Many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, have real problems with the Bible, especially in attempting to reconcile the different images of God represented in the Old and New Testaments. This discontinuity can be a real and tangible stumbling block to beginning the journey of faith.
Miles is such a good writer. His analysis sucks you in. You almost forget that it is suppose to be only a literary analysis of a work of art. Although Miles claims to not cross the line into theology, I think he blurs the division and subtly mixes the layers of literary analysis and theology. For example, Miles speculates a fantastical second Passover on the whole Roman empire similar to the first one on Egypt as a means for God to deliver the Jews once more from an oppressor and assert his power in the world. But instead, God, as a literary character decides otherwise. From pages 210-11:
…the Lord will never return to that kind of power. That he will not is the premise, if not in fact the central point, of this second Passover. To make that point, the role of the Lord himself chooses to play in this Passover is, shockingly, the role of the Passover lamb. The blood of this paschal lamb will save his disciples, as the blood of the original Passover lamb saved the Israelites in Egypt, not from death in a single massacre but from the curse of mortality itself. Rather than being splashed on lintels, the Lord’s blood will be symbolically drunk as the sign of a new covenant. Thereafter, by subjecting himself to the full force of the curse that he swore against his first human creatures, the Lord in effect will repent of it, atone for it by his death, and begin a new creation that will correct the old. At his resurrection, as the firstborn of this new creation, Jesus will “pass over” from death to eternal life, leading the way for his followers as the Lord led Israel from Egypt to Canaan. Having become one with him by symbolically eating his flesh and drinking his blood, his disciples have his word that they will pass over into eternal life of the new creation just as he has done. This is his covenant promise to them, the promise that will be sealed and solemnized once and for all by the shedding of his own blood.
The theology in this paragraph is right on, except for the word “symbolically.” The literary analysis seems to be right on too. The two overlap, merging into one. Which in turn, makes other statements sound like a mix of theology and literary comment too. To continue the above quote:
The blood of other sacrificial lambs has symbolized entrapment in the human condition. The blood of this sacrificial lamb will symbolize liberation from it. “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” the Lord said through the prophet Hosea (6:6), but it is the Lord himself, because of his ancient lack of mercy, for whom mercy is now most required. The disobedience of the first humans was a sin; yet it was not the enormity of that sin, but rather, the ruthlessness of God’s curse that brought death into the world. Thus, though sinners, for their own good, need to repent and be forgiven, it is God, in the end, who must atone for his vengeful and destructive reaction to their sin by restoring their immortality. God’s own ancient and long-running vengeance is the sin, that as the Lamb of God, the Lord himself takes away when he replaces the curse of death with a blessing of eternal life.
Once he demanded that they offer sacrifice to him; now he sacrifices himself for them. Once he demanded that they serve him; now he serves them. Once he demanded that they love him; now he loves them “to the end” and instructs them that the mark of their covenant with him shall be not their devotion to him but their devotion to one another. It is through this that they will teach the world and through this that the world will know that he is Lord. Finally, he who once insisted endlessly on separation and difference now insists endlessly on unity. His final prayer for them is that they should be one—one with him, one with his Father, one with one another.
Where does the literary analysis end and the theology begin? Or vice-versa? It is subtle. Miles weaves it together into a neat package that can be hard to separate. I do not know if that was his intent. Maybe the two cannot be separated. It is definitely not as separable as he implied in his statement at the beginning of his book.
Which leads me back to his hypothesis. It conflicts with theology. It also leads me into areas that I am not qualified to answer or explain.
What might be the theological implications of a changing God? My first thought is that it means God’s love for humanity has changed, or could change, or will change. (On a personal level, it means that God could hate me.) What about God being the very definition of love? If God changes, does that effect the theology of God existing in eternity, outside of time?
A changing God seems like an easy way to reconcile the different images of God portrayed in the Old and New Testaments. Too easy. Thomas Merton wrote, “It is the very nature of the Bible to affront, perplex and astonish the human mind. Hence the reader who opens the Bible must be prepared for disorientation, confusion, incomprehension, perhaps outrage.” (Boy! Isn’t he right about that?) Parts of the Bible are suppose to be a mystery, not to solve, but to delve into for further exploration and contemplation. If the Bible did not contain paradoxes, it would enable a shallow and false faith.
What about God atoning for his curse of death on humanity? This one sounds very seductive as an explanation for answering the big “why” of it all? Miles seems to infer this part of his hypothesis from many different areas of the Bible. It seems plausible based on a literary interpretation only. I do not know. All I can say is that it does not feel right to me. It smacks of our cultural tendency to pass the blame. It puts the majority of the blame on God and not on humanity, as if God had a failure of imagination for dealing with the consequences of our sin.
To reflect on this whole experience, I know that I have been knocked off my spiritual equilibrium point. As Bertrand Russell said, this a healthy thing to go through every now and then. I know that I will resettle around another equilibrium point, but not at the same one as before. That is the definition of growth, or of change at least. I hope in God that it will bring me closer to Him in the end.