June 10, 1995 in Features

Divine Biography Former Jesuit Uses Old Testament To Depict God As Changing, Growing

Joe Michael Feist Dallas Morning News
 

No one can accuse Jack Miles of thinking small when he decides to write a book.

He went straight to the top, and his work is receiving critical acclaim for its creative - and seldom explored - portrait of God.

In “God: A Biography” (Alfred A. Knopf, 449 pages, $27.50), Miles studies God not as a theologian nor as a historian but exclusively as a biographer of a literary figure.

“I think the import of a lot of historical scholarship has been to draw more and more attention to the human authors of the books of the Bible,” said Miles, a book columnist and editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times. As a result, he said, the Bible as a huge literary success is overlooked, and God as a character has seldom, if ever, emerged.

It is God as the protagonist of the Hebrew Bible - the Tanakh, or Old Testament to Christians - that concerns Miles, a Rome-trained former Jesuit (though he was never ordained a priest) with a doctorate in Near Eastern languages from Harvard.

Looking strictly at what we know about God from the Bible, Miles presents God as creator, warrior and lawgiver. We meet a figure who destroys his creation (in the great flood) and then regrets his action.

We see a God who manipulates humanity (he hardens pharaoh’s heart in the story of Moses), complains to the point of whining and unleashes his wrath on his chosen people after they turn to idolatry.

In short, God as a literary figure makes mistakes and, in very human terms, grows and develops and changes. To those who object to any discussion of God in human terms, Miles points out that God himself said he created man in his image.

Certainly, then, Miles says, in some ways there must be similarities between God and what he created.

One of Miles’ enduring themes is that God is an amalgam of personalities. There is tension inherent in his being, so much so that God seems to be in conflict with himself.

“But this makes him, in literary terms, far more dynamic and compelling, more magnetic than he would otherwise be,” Miles said. “A God who is all sweetness and light and completely unchangeable might be a consoling figure to have in the background, but it would be easy to lose interest in him.

“The God we actually find on the pages of the Old Testament - we never know if he’ll do anything, or what he’ll do. And some of his actions are beautiful and extraordinarily generous and creative, and others are destructive.”

Miles acknowledges that the God he presents, and particularly God’s vengeful wrath, are minimized in most churches and synagogues because the faithful might find it scandalous. But he doesn’t necessarily disagree with that approach.

“I’m not out to change religious practice,” he said. “I don’t disapprove of the fact that the God we encounter in church or synagogue is gentler, more concerned with justice, more tolerant and so forth, than the God we encounter in the opening pages of the Hebrew Bible.

“But if you’re writing as a literary man, you have to take what you find.”

Miles said he tried to address what motivates God as he is portrayed.

“What is it that interests God about mankind? What drove him to create them in the first place? As I read his story, he was curious about his own self.

“He created his image, namely, the human creature, as a way of understanding himself.”

Using the Tanakh, which is basically the same as the Christian Old Testament except in the order of books, Miles presents a God who moves, from the beginning to the end, from action to speech to silence.

Once mankind has been created, said Miles, “a certain urgency passes out of the story” for God. From a point in the Book of Job, and on to the end of the Tanakh, God ceases to speak. Why?

“He has now gotten what he was after,” said Miles. “Job showed him the truth that he was simultaneously creative and destructive.

“But he didn’t know that until Job forced him to see it. So at that point he ceases speaking and grows inactive.”

God as a character with inner conflicts and divisions might disturb some, Miles conceded, but he has a ready response.

“It’s all right there in the text,” he said. “I’m not making this up like a novelist would.”

Moreover, “there are several key elements in the popular understanding of God … that actually don’t come from the Bible,” Miles said. “The most important is the view that God doesn’t change.

“There are one or two questionable verses in the Old Testament that seem to suggest that, but there are hundreds and hundreds of verses that suggest the opposite, as well as large elements of the plot.”

But it’s not only God as a literary character who has been neglected, according to Miles. God, in any realm, is often ignored, he said.

“Conservatives talk about family values,” said Miles. “Liberals talk about social justice. In many churches the sermons have to do with ethical subject matters or what I might call the consolations of religion. But God per se is rarely discussed.

“This is a strange state of affairs. It’s Hamlet without the prince.”

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story:

Thoughts on deity Some excerpts from “God: A Biography”:

“We see him first as the creator, outside history, prior to it, masterfully setting in motion the heavenly bodies by which historical time will be measured. We see him last as the ‘Ancient of Days,’ white-haired and silent, looking forward to the end of history from a remote and cloudy throne.”

“(God) is portrayed, with apparent sincerity and unwavering consistency, as truly without a past and, though not without intentions, as truly without desires except the desire that mankind should be his self-image. … At the start, and for a long while after the start, God relies on man even for the working out of his own intentions and is, to this extent, almost parasitic on human desire.”

“If the Tanakh were tragedy, God, having learned the truth about himself through his relationship with mankind, above all his relationship with Job, would end in despair. But the Tanakh is not tragedy, and the Lord God does not end in despair. Tragedy has clarity and finality. The refusal of tragedy typically has neither. The Tanakh refuses tragedy and ends, as a result, in its own kind of muddle, but its protagonist ends alive, not dead. Taken as a whole, the Tanakh is a divine comedy but one that barely escapes tragedy.” Dallas Morning News

This sidebar appeared with the story:

Thoughts on deity Some excerpts from “God: A Biography”:

“We see him first as the creator, outside history, prior to it, masterfully setting in motion the heavenly bodies by which historical time will be measured. We see him last as the ‘Ancient of Days,’ white-haired and silent, looking forward to the end of history from a remote and cloudy throne.”

“(God) is portrayed, with apparent sincerity and unwavering consistency, as truly without a past and, though not without intentions, as truly without desires except the desire that mankind should be his self-image. … At the start, and for a long while after the start, God relies on man even for the working out of his own intentions and is, to this extent, almost parasitic on human desire.”

“If the Tanakh were tragedy, God, having learned the truth about himself through his relationship with mankind, above all his relationship with Job, would end in despair. But the Tanakh is not tragedy, and the Lord God does not end in despair. Tragedy has clarity and finality. The refusal of tragedy typically has neither. The Tanakh refuses tragedy and ends, as a result, in its own kind of muddle, but its protagonist ends alive, not dead. Taken as a whole, the Tanakh is a divine comedy but one that barely escapes tragedy.” Dallas Morning News

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