Everyone, absolutely everyone, has heard of God. Who else has that distinction? Even so, until recently, God lacked the fundamental sign of his celebrityhood: his own biography.
With “God: A Biography,” Jack Miles has nicely filled the gap. In Seattle recently on tour for the paperback edition of the book that recently won the Pulitzer Prize, Miles talked about the importance of a secular context for the Western world’s supreme religious figure.
His God is a character, first and foremost. Said Miles: “Philip Roth wanted me to start with the first sentence in my second chapter: ‘He was thinking about himself.’ I couldn’t do it. I had to begin by nipping at readers, moving them over to where literature is - out of the church and into the library or armchair.”
“God: A Biography” (Vintage Books, 446 pages, $15) was first published in 1995 to extraordinary acclaim and very little criticism. Criticism might well have been expected, considering that in Miles’ lucid and eloquent account, the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is a dangerous and unpredictable force.
Miles isn’t improvising with his own notions in this book. He’s applying a close and scholarly scrutiny to the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament.
Miles is a dispassionate guide, a believer who is not blinded by belief. He is also a formidable writer.
There are no cheap touches, nothing coy, angry or blasphemous about his effort. He simply puts the question of God’s divinity aside and studies the words and actions attributed to God during the course of the Bible’s long gestation of almost 1,000 years.
Nor does the hired hand of researcher show itself. All the work Miles did himself, and the understandings and conclusions are his own.
As Emerson said about Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” such books must have a prelude. Could this fluent and scholarly effort come from a 53-year-old who has published no other books? Apparently so.
“I’m a late-bloomer, I suppose,” he says. Even though this is his first published book, a prelude does exist, as it must. Miles is a former Jesuit who joined the order at 18 and left at 28 before taking his final vows.
He pursued religious studies at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the latter during the Six Day War. He has a doctorate from Harvard University in Near Eastern Languages, speaks English, Italian and Spanish and reads German, French, Latin, Greek and Hebrew, as well as a number of archaic languages. For 10 years he was literary editor at the Los Angeles Times and then a member of the editorial board.
Currently he’s contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and director of the Humanities Center at the Claremont Graduate School near Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and daughter.
And he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, the first so honored for a biography of someone who never lived, in the human sense of the word.
Miles’ central thesis is that the biblical God is not omniscient, that he “enters time and is changed by experience,” and that he, like King Lear at the start of his play, slenderly knows himself.
Miles uses the Hebrew Bible instead of the Christian, as the Hebrew is older and the order of the chapters is slightly different, a broad movement from action to speech to silence after God’s encounter with Job.
“God: A Biography” charts the emergence of monotheism from polytheism, or a multiple-minded God struggling with himself. The plot, such as it is, is full of contradictions glossed over by the faithful.
First, God creates man in his own image, a quest that is the “sole and indispensable tool” of God’s own self-understanding. Who is he? A “parentless, childless being, a cosmic orphan, literally the only one of his kind,” writes Miles. “Herein lies the deep psychological peculiarity, the uncanniness, the elusive weirdness of the Lord God,” who has no friend but Moses.
When he drives the first parents out of the Garden of Eden, he goes with them. He still wants to see himself in his creations and needs them to do so.
He commands them to be fertile and multiply, yet when they do so, becoming, through offspring, makers of images themselves, he’s resentful. Thus he destroys the world (Noah’s flood) on flimsy grounds. But that isn’t what he wants, either, so he repents and sends a rainbow sign.
As the story continues, God’s character changes again. He has no interest in wars and becomes a warrior, setting up foes to fail and punishing them for that failure. He urges his people to acts of ethnic cleansing against their neighbors, especially the Canaanites, whom the Bible records as having done nothing to deserve it.
When Saul hesitates to slaughter those who have been friends of Israel, God replaces him with David, who mows down every foreign living thing, as per God’s command.
God attends slightly to morality (Who before Joseph in the Bible is rewarded for being good?) and then becomes a moralist. He treats his chosen with wild unpredictability, and they respond with passive resistance and much complaining. God himself is not a stoic and is impossible to please.
“God is only very imperfectly self-conscious and very slightly in control of the consequences of his words and actions,” Miles writes. “He is painfully unable to foresee his end in his beginning.”
Miles doesn’t think he has discredited the Bible as a sacred text by focusing on parts that are uneasily skipped over and explained away by conservative and liberal theologians alike.
The supreme moment in Miles’ narrative is his brilliant account of the Book of Job. Here a just man is beset by God, who tortures his servant at the behest of a fiend.
“If you want to affirm God’s bright side, don’t deny the dark,” Miles says. “God is like us. He struggles to subdue his wrath and liberate his love.”