- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 23, 2001

By Jack Miles
Knopf, $26, 322 pages

With all the problems that we face in the postmodern world, it was probably inevitable that God, too, would at some point find himself in crisis. But in spite of the title's attempt to appeal to certain contemporary fashions, Jack Miles' "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God" offers a serious attempt to deal with some attitudes that have prevented many people from a living encounter with the central figure in the New Testament. Indeed, Mr. Miles offers several ingenious arguments intended to open up the power of the Bible to a wide range of readers, both believers and not.
Mr. Miles uses two approaches here that he employed in his critically acclaimed 1995 volume, "God: A Biography." First, the apparent inconsistencies within the scriptural account of God are taken as they appear, not explained away as stemming from different historical strands woven together in the Bible. Second, those discrepancies are allowed to speak for themselves as of primary importance to a narrative rather than being the occasion for theological or other outside efforts at reconciliation. For Mr. Miles, this and other strategies of strict respect for the actual words of the text should be used in a "literary" reading of the Bible, almost as a kind of novel.
This has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage lies in the fact that all parts of the text can receive careful attention. Many historical critics of the Bible, for example, would reject the angels singing Hosannas at Christ's birth because they cannot be "historical" in secular terms. Mr. Miles gently mocks the earnest kind of modern scriptural scholar who brackets everything that cannot be verified ("a laughable notion"). His literary reading of the Bible allows the angels singing in high heaven to play an important role in the meaning of the story whether they were historical or not. Mr. Miles notes the way that they echo various Psalms to indicate something about this birth, and how all Jesus' acts will be intertwined with the earlier Biblical life of God. On the same principle, other "miraculous" passages can be allowed back in for a hearing.
But as these very examples show, the literary approach runs the risk of making it seem that the Bible is only a made-up story, in the worst sense of those terms. For decades, scriptural scholars in search of the historical Jesus have cast in doubt virtually every event or saying in the text. Ordinary believers, and even some quite sophisticated ones, have often come to regard this skeptical approach as dogmatically useless, and ignored it. The Bible as Literature looks, at first sight, like just one more attempt to hold interest in an important Western text by denying it any solid basis in reality.
Mr. Miles is not entirely innocent of such charges and, in the literary reading he gives to the New Testament for the main part of this book, he can be fairly accused of all sorts of fanciful interpretations. He detects sexual flirtations, for instance, in the famous scene of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, which may or may not be there. He speculates whether Jesus could have married, even though he acknowledges that the New Testament, like ancient classical texts, assumes that eminent philosophers will be single. A literary text, he concedes, may be read in an unlimited number of ways, which is one reason it possesses perennial interest. True enough of mere literature, but problematic for a text that, like the Old Testament, has claimed authoritative importance over people's lives. A guide that may be read in too many ways is no real guide.
Mr. Miles is on firmer ground at least when he points to the revolutionary differences between the Old and New Testaments. In the Old, God promises success temporal success to the ancient Hebrews, including the destruction of their enemies. In the New, Jesus (whose name ironically is a form of one of the greatest Jewish warriors, Joshua) far from coming as a military conqueror appears among human beings as a victim, an offering by God to God for the salvation of his people. This apparent change in the divine life, necessitated by circumstances in Israel under Roman occupation, constitutes the crisis Mr. Miles seeks to establish.
This bare description of his argument does not do justice to a text that is beautifully and vigorously written, and studded with many memorable insights at every point. Yet the argument, in addition to its weakness as just one of many "literary" interpretations, suffers in many places from the kinds of contemporary re-readings of Scripture that seem all-too-relevant to our presumed situation, and not really different enough to energize a countercurrent to our culture.
Yet things do not end there. In two stunning appendixes, Mr. Miles brilliantly lays out the full panoply of challenges to really reading the Bible today. He traces the skepticism of contemporary scholarship to the efforts by the Protestant reformers of the 16th century (Catholics would only get involved in this after the Second Vatican Council). The Reformers sought to see through the accumulated layers of Catholic interpretation back to the historical Jesus.
They wanted to undermine Catholic positions while leaving the authority of the text intact.
Though perhaps a proper pursuit for some types of believers, in the 18th and 19th century, the skeptical Enlightenment would carry forward the project by denying the possibility of miracles, questioning Jesus' claims to be God, and attributing parts of the Gospels and the Pauline letters to later developments in thought that did not reflect the literal events of Christ's life. David Strauss and Ernest Renan were the great high-priests of this scholarly current, which detected accretions by the church not merely in later interpretations, the Protestant charge against Catholics, but in the very writing of the New Testament.
The great 20th-century Protestant scholar Rudolph Bultmann saw this mediating role of the historical school as, in its own way, substituting itself for the Catholic Church as the authority for what could be believed by a modern Christian. And his solution was to replace the Reformation cry of sola scriptura, "scripture alone," with the principle sola fide, "by faith alone." But this did not really solve the problem, and Mr. Miles comments that it tended towards sola ecclesia, "by the church alone." In fact, "The church, which was to be reformed by using scripture as a norm, turned out to have created scripture for its own purposes."
Mr. Miles examines the many twists and turns this situation has undergone down to our own time and makes the case for a literary reading of the Bible as an approach that avoids the dead hand of historical criticism, on the one hand, and a fundamentalist reading on the other.
The Bible has to be taken as a kind of great Rose Window of stained glass, not something to be seen through, but appreciated in its glorious fulness.
To do this properly requires us to adopt a very different attitude about a work of art than is common, even in the postmodern world. Such an attitude may or may not finally lead to religious understanding, but it will take the internal richness of the work seriously: "Someone may begin by merely acknowledging that a certain power lingers in a Christian painting displayed at the National Gallery and end up at the baptismal font."
That kind of appreciation is clearly intended for a world in which secularity is a real option, but so is religion in a way that has mostly not existed for some time among certain types of thinkers. Ultimately, what you will think of Mr. Miles' book will probably depend on your own religious beliefs and whether you think an aesthetic object can bear the kind of real-life importance he assigns to it. For many, it will seem that this merely offers one more choice between skepticism and blind faith. But whatever you believe, Mr. Miles will stimulate you to think some thoughts you probably have never entertained before.

Robert Royal is president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C.

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