The National Catholic Review
Peter Heinegg

In 1996 Jack Miles won the Pulitzer Prize for biography with a learned, gripping, semi-plausible flight of fancy. Since the Hebrew Bible is doubtlessamong other thingsa collection of stories about a figure or figures (Elohim, Yahweh, El Shaddai, etc.) whom Westerners have agreed to call God, Miles proposed reading those tales, despite their many different authors, sources and perspectives, as a single coherent life story. Some of Miles’s fellow contestants might have carped that God: A Biography wasn’t really a biography, since God (immortal, eternal, immutable) transcends every category of that humble human genre. Well, too bad for them. Miles showed that God could be portrayed intelligibly, and even movingly, as a complex but coherent literary character: a fact that both ironclad fundamentalists and hard-boiled demythologizers would just have to live with.

More than half a decade later, Miles is up to his old tricks again; and the results, it must be said straight off, are splendid. This time he starts from the unimpeachable premise that after the Exodus, the theophany on Sinai and Joshua’s blitzkrieg conquest of Canaan, the Lord had an at best spotty record of defending, much less exalting, his people. He showed fearsome powerbut only by using the Assyrians to annihilate the Northern Kingdom (722 B.C.) or letting the Babylonians sack Jerusalem and destroy the Temple (587 B.C.). And when Babylon fell, God passed his people on to one pagan oppressor after another, from the Persians to the Greeks to the Romans. Granted, there was a century of fragile independence under the Maccabees, but Pompey reconquered the Jews in 63 B.C.; and by the time of Christ acute observers suspectedand God himself knew for surethat much worse trouble was on the way: the horrendous genocide of the Jewish War (A.D. 66-70), Masada and the Bar Kochba catastrophe. Meanwhile, the prophets’ thrilling visions of Israel’s restoration, of its geopolitical greatness and spiritual hegemony, had gone unfulfilled; yet the Lord’s primordial curse of toil, suffering and death for the children of Adam and Abraham continued unabated.

Into this traumatic context Miles launches his provocative but disarmingly logical interpretation. The New Testament, he suggests, is like a stained-glass window: look at it, for its beauty and power, and not through it, for hopelessly controverted historical data. Why not suspend both secular denial and liberal-Christian fudging of Jesus’ divinity and take John’s Gospel at face value? Why not allow Jesus’ claim to be God? But, in that case, wouldn’t Christ’s very omniscience have induced the world’s most excruciating guilt complex? Of course, his people had constantly failed him (whence their centuries of exile and foreign domination). But hadn’t he toopoetically speaking, at leastconstantly failed them? So why notand here comes Miles the risk-taker think of Christ’s death on the cross as redemptive suicide?

In other words, Christ, as God incarnate, faced the crushing realization that sacred history had been, and would go on being, a disasterand was about to reach its most dreadful nadir when he, the Holy One of Israel, would be brutally executed by Israel’s (then) worst enemy. But, though Christ knew the range and horror of the Devil’s victories (past, present and to come) in a god-forsaken world, his outrageous claim I have overcome the world (Jn. 33.1) makes perfect literary (and theological) sense. The death of the God-Victim, who now experiences the evil he has inflicted, or let others inflict, on his children, puts an end to the ultimate evil, death. The self-martyrdom of God incarnate changes nothing in the realm of Realpolitik, but it saves the only world that can be saved and whose salvation ultimately countsthe Beyond, the olam ha-ba.

This idea is less radical than it might appear. Jesus spoke more than once about laying down his life (Jn. 15.13) for those he loved (i.e., ultimately everyone). Origen (d. ca. 254) argued that Jesus’ giving up his spirit was a completely deliberate act; and Miles cites further evidence for this notion from Pierre-Emmanuel Dauzat’s Le Suicide du Christ (1998). The concluding, frankly homiletic lines in Miles’s epilogue eloquently summarize his view of the astonishing literary character who stands at the heart of the New Testament. Of the mind-boggling trajectoryor plummetfrom Mount Sinai to Golgotha, he writes:

That of all gods this god should be imagined to have become of all men this man; and that, repudiating everything he had always seemed to be, he should have had himself put to death by the enemy of his chosen peoplethis is a reversal so stunning that it changes everything back to the beginning. The Rock of Ages cannot die as God; but as God Incarnate, the Rock can be cleft. God, shattered, can descend to death; and when he rises to eternal life, he can lift his human creatures up with him. Victory is postponed in the Christian revision of the Jewish epic no less than in the Jewish original. Yet because that victory is assured, even the poor, even the meek, even the grief-stricken and scorned who in this world must hunger and thirst for justice may count themselves blessed. Theirs, because he made himself one of them, is the kingdom of heaven.

Miles never denies that, by and large, he accepts the judgment of Albert Schweitzer and most modern New Testament critics that, except to the eyes of faith, Jesus must remain a passionate Galilean prophet who believed that the world was nearing its apocalyptic end; and that Christ’s empirical identity has been so overlaid with myths and midrash as to be irrecoverable. Miles’s quarrel with the critics who whittle the majestic Lord Jesus down to a mere symbol and spokesman of the early church is not so much that this is blasphemy, but that it makes such a dreary, lifeless story (try reading any heavy-duty scholarly Introduction to the New Testament at an airport or on a commuter train).

It seems, then, that Miles, a former Jesuit, must also be rated a former believerbut, hold on, he’s still a regular (Episcopalian) churchgoer. How exactly he balances such contradictions is his own business, but the C. of E. and its affiliates have long mastered the art of turning cognitive dissonance into a peculiar sort of harmony. Whatever his eclectic personal brand of Christianity, Miles has now given us a literary vision of Christ with more insight, warmth and verve (not to mention chutzpah), than have been seen in the published shoptalk of most academic theologians for many a year. Like God: A Biography, Christ: A Crisis defies easy categorization; and, like its brilliant, eccentric predecessor, it too deserves a major prize.

Peter Heinegg is a professor in the department of humanities at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.