Posted by: Andrew G | April 5, 2010

God: A Biography – Jack Miles

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Author

Jack Miles seems like an interesting enough guy, from his pics on the net and his wiki. An approachable academic, Jack Miles has been an editor and a professor. He has a Jesuit background but is now Episcopalian (somewhere between Catholic and Protestant – the pope isn’t recognized as an authority, priests can be men, women, straight, gay, and there is some freedom to think your own thoughts regarding Christianity and religion). Miles won the Pulitzer prize for this book (a pretty good boost to the writing career…)

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Technical Bits

The book is over 400 pages in length. It was first published in 1996, so I am a little late to the review game when it comes to this one. Miles has a scholar’s infatuation with history. He goes back to the original Hebrew texts and even offers his own translations for key parts relating to his discussions. He is extremely aware of the history of the Hebrew and Christian traditions, as well as the history and changes of the sources and the texts.

Miles does a really interesting thing in that he realizes his audience will contain both believer and non-believer, and so writes accordingly. A particularly brilliant move of his is to treat God as the protagonist of a literary story. And in the first few pages he makes it very clear that he is not trying to interpret the Bible as a religious text of truth.  He is firmly and politically putting his biography in the place of literary analysis and wants no one to to interpret him as messing with their religious beliefs.

A friend of mine made the comment, “Sounds like he is just making sure his house doesn’t get bombed.”

Well, I don’t fault him for that. It’s a bit sad that an author’s scope and style is altered due to something petty like fear, but if the human spirit has proven anything, genius shines though control and fear. There is always a way to negotiate the hardened angles. (The real trouble comes if the negotiation comes too late.)

He uses the Hebrew Bible as his main source rather than the Old Testament. I’ve mentioned the difference between the two before. Basically, the order is different. But order is important in storytelling. Pulp Fiction and Star Wars have taught us that lesson. Here is a link that compares the ‘line-ups’ of the two.

This may have been another way to safeguard against the zealots, but it also allows Miles to see God’s progression of changes in a more ‘growing’ kind of way that allows him to draw from some literary comparisons like Hamlet and Oedipus Rex.

The way Miles puts it, the Hebrew Bible can be broken into three parts — the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.  God starts as a very active, in-yer-face character (creating, walking with the Israelites, wrestling with the Israelites, leading and fighting for the Israelites). Then God changes to a more consultant-type character (giving speeches through prophets, not manipulating people so directly). Finally, God is silent, and maybe not even watchful. The Jewish people are part of a larger world community and must take care of themselves, left to wonder if God is simply waiting for the big dramatic finish of a last day or if God has in fact abandoned them so that they can live their own lives.

Miles sees the progression as Present and Active -> Present but only Vocal -> Absent but remembered. It’s really clever, and allows believers to see their God in a new way while offering the non-believers a better understanding of how subtle, how deep,  and how influential religious understandings can be.

In terms of style, Miles is putting together a lot of  long, comma-filled, hesitant sentences. You can really sense the academic behind the words. Everything has a qualifying or limiting phrase. He has paragraphs of questions that both lead and point in opposite directions. He provides translations, but then also offers two or three other translations to further illustrate the delicate work of understanding. These aren’t sparse, barren, Hemingway-esque sentences. Each page is a demonstration of his care and his respect to just might be tread upon.

Commentary

Possibly the smartest thing Jack Miles does with God: A Biography is he does not shy away from the inconsistencies or changes of character in the Bible texts. In fact, he directly uses the importance of contradiction as his overarching theme. Rather than denying the issue or waving away God’s rather indelicate, imperfect nature, Miles uses contradiction to show how the character of God struggles to maintain a kind of maturing  integrity and to come to terms with his/her/its/their own creation.

Miles proposes a kind of theory in that individuals must realize and come to grips with all sorts of contradictions in order to grow through stages of maturity. Personally, I still struggle with the boy-man contradiction, and when one is more appropriate than the other. So, I appreciate Jack’s point a lot.

I was going to leave the quotations until Wednesday, but this one explains Miles’ point quite nicely:

God is… an amalgam of several personalities in one character. Tension among these personalities makes God difficult, but it also makes him compelling, even addictive. While consciously emulating his virtues, the West has unconsciously assimilated the anxiety-inducing tension between his unity and his multiplicity. In the end, despite the longing Westerners sometimes feel for a simpler, less anxious, more “centered” human ideal, the only people whom we find satisfyingly real are people whose identity binds several incompatible subidentities together. As Westerners get to know one another personally, this is what we seek to learn about one another. Incongruity and inner conflict are not just permitted in Western Culture; they are all but required.

Miles spends a lot of time on each contradiction – Why is God the Creator, and then almost immediately the Destroyer? Why is it so important that Abraham submit to God’s will, only to have God become submissive to Abraham and his family? Why is God a Liberator and then a Conqueror? Miles addresses a great number of these major contradictions. He does not try to justify them but instead explains the effect from the viewpoint of literary analysis.

I will continue with God: A Biography on Wednesday with some quotations and a final wrap-up.

Here is a link to the google sample of the book.

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Responses

  1. Oooh, I have this book, I just haven’t got around to reading it yet. I may just have to pick it up sooner than later.

    • Hey an, (andi? what should I call you, anyway?)

      The book is amazing! I’m trying to be objective, but it just gave me so many new ideas to think about that my head still spins with them all. It made the OT an interesting epic for me rather than just the old boring snooze-fest.

      His style is very guarded and very academic but he really explains well just how subtle and deep the old text really can be.

      When you get to it, I want to compare notes and exclamation marks.


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