Cover image for Christ : a crisis in the life of God
Christ : a crisis in the life of God
Miles, Jack, 1942-
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First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.
Physical Description:
ix, 352 pages : 24 cm
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BT220 .M55 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
BT220 .M55 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Five years after his everywhere--acclaimed, brilliantly successful, Pulitzer Prize--winning book about God as portrayed in the Old Testament--God: A Biography--Jack Miles gives us his striking consideration of Christ. He presents Christ as a hero of literature based only in part on the historical Jesus, asking us to take the idea of Christ as God Incarnate not as a dogma of religion but as the premise of a work of art, the New Testament. As this story begins, God has not kept his promise to end the five-hundred-year-long oppression of the Children of Israel and return them to greatness. Under Rome, their latest oppressor, the Jews face a holocaust. This is God's supreme crisis. Astonishingly, God resolves the dilemma by becoming a Jew himself, Christ, inflicting upon himself in advance the very agony his people will suffer, revising in the process the meaning of victory and defeat. By dying and rising as Christ, God not only swallows up the historical defeat of the Jews but also offers the promise of a cosmic victory that will "wipe away every tear" for all mankind. In telling this remarkable tale, Miles offers the shock of the familiar reframed and reimagined: --When Christ undergoes a baptism of repentance at the Jordan, it is God who is repenting. --Since no one can kill God, the Crucifixion is actually a sacred suicide. --When after preaching "turn the other cheek" Christ refuses to defend himself against his own enemies, what he means to say is that God will never again come militarily to any nation's rescue. The story ends in joy. Having assigned himself the role of Passover lamb, Christ, God Incarnate, expands God's covenant with Israel--the covenant of the original Passover--to include all the children of Adam and Eve. In the final scene of the New Testament, this covenant becomes a marriage in heaven. A writer of exceptional eloquence and imagination, profound literary sensibility, Jack Miles has captured once again the lost, fierce, ecstatic power of the greatest work in our literature.

Author Notes

He has been a Regents Lecturer at the University of California & a professor of humanities at Claremont Graduate University. He is currently senior adviser to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. He lives in Pasadena, California.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Miles continues the literary analysis of the Bible that he began in the prizewinning best-seller God (1995). Taking up the story of Jesus, he treats it as the record of God's sojourn on earth as a man. That is, unlike the hordes of scholars concerned with the historical Jesus, Miles takes the Gospels at face value, though he argues, with plenty of demonstration and reason, that in them Jesus is an ironist, who turns old messianic understandings, in particular, inside out and upside down. Perhaps Miles is never more provocative than at the outset, when he posits that the Crucifixion isn't a matter of dying for humans' sins but of dying for God's error in expelling Adam and Eve from the garden. That is, it is a real punishment. This interpretation helps mend the great discordances between deity and criminal, between supreme omnipotence and innocent suffering, that the figure of God crucified contains and that repel Judaism and other religions. Jesus also demonstrates to his people that although he has failed to deliver them from repeated bondage and return them to power in the promised land, and although he won't intervene to free them from Rome, he is with them. So as the Messiah, Jesus exchanges militarism for pacifism and exemplifies triumph through loss. He is killed but rises from death to promise everyone that they will, also. This promise, Miles says in the book's first paragraph, instilled in the "cultural DNA" of the West the conviction that someday, "the last will be first, and the first last." More prizes, please. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

In God: A Biography, Miles observed that God undergoes remarkable changes in the biblical narrative, moving from action to silence. In this astonishing new book, Miles applies the same method to Jesus, God Incarnate, with even more remarkable results, arguing that "the changing of the mind of God is the great subject, the epic argument, of the Christian Bible." Engaging in close readings of the Gospels (particularly John's), as well as sweeping impressions of the entire Bible, Miles intriguingly shows that God's incarnation in humanity was a way of talking once again to God's people. After Israel experienced defeat at the hands of the Babylonians, God promised to defeat this enemy, restoring Israel. But, forgetting this promise, God allowed Israel to continue to suffer, even as God struggled to address the situation in a different, less violent way. Miles argues that when God became human in Jesus of Nazareth, God suffered with Israel, and offered some revolutionary new teachings that indicate a change of mind. As God Incarnate, Jesus taught humanity that he must die in order to bring about a restored paradise. Weaving philosophy and literature into his reflections on the Bible, Miles offers literary perspectives on the life of Christ that are at once provocative and revelatory. After reading this book, one can never look at God, Jesus or the Bible in quite the same way. (Nov. 5) Forecast: Miles's God: A Biography nabbed a Pulitzer Prize and enjoyed exceptional sales; Knopf hopes that this follow-up, which is a selection of the BOMC, History Book Club and QPB, will achieve similar heights. The title will launch with a 60,000-copy print run. (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This book will become one of the most widely read and discussed books on Jesus to appear in the last 50 years. Miles, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning God: A Biography, takes a revolutionary approach to Jesus studies, focusing on the literary rather than the historical Jesus primarily as he appears in the Gospel of John. Where most writers would use the word "Jesus," Miles usually substitutes the word "God." Thus, rather than viewing God through Jesus, as is typical, Miles views Jesus through God. Readers get a glimpse into the mind of God as Miles perceives it to be revealed in the Old and New Testaments. Therein, God is facing a crisis because he has not delivered the Jews from their enemies as promised. God's answer is to send Jesus, who brings a different kind of deliverance but allows God to keep his promise. Miles's take is refreshing but at the same time so jarring that it is like shock therapy for religous readers, who will radically rethink their beliefs. He has taken the familiar story of Jesus to study the spiritual development of God in a way that will completely capture the reader's interest. An essential purchase. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 7/01; BOMC, History Book Club, Reader's Subscription, and Quality Paperback Book Club selections.] David Bourquin, California State Univ., San Bernardino (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Miles here extends the scope of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book God: A Biography. Whereas the first book characterized the God of the Bible of Judaism, this book portrays the God of the Bible of Christianity. This book's method is neither historical analysis nor systematic theology but rather literary interpretation. Thus its focus is interpretive meaning, rather than historical or systematic integrity. The defining thesis of the New Testament, as Miles sees it, is simply that Jesus is Lord. In other words, in Jesus of Nazareth, we have "the fusion in one man of all God's prior interactions." The big surprise, according to Miles, is that "God the Son is not at all the kind of man one would expect God the Father to become," because in Jesus we see a God who humiliates himself. Miles tells his interpretive story of Jesus the Christ with considerable literary flourish and intertextual skill. He offers some theology along the way. For instance, "the death of God [is] a redemptive death, one that saves us from the violence that we might otherwise feel justified in inflicting on one another." This book will be of value to all libraries supporting religious studies. Summing Up: Recommended. All levels. P. K. Moser Loyola University of Chicago



The Messiah, Ironically In the beginning was the Word, And the Word was with God, And the Word was God. --John 1:1 Before God spoke his first words, "Let there be light," the words that began the making of the world, what was he thinking? What was he thinking during the eternity of silence when "the earth was formless and void, darkness was upon the face of the deep, and God's Spirit breathed over the waters" (Gen. 1:1)? In its opening words, the Gospel According to John consciously echoes the opening words of the Book of Genesis-"In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth"--but establishes its own beginning at a time before that famous beginning. Back then, it says, is when this story really began. HIS LIFE BEFORE HE WAS BORN What was God thinking? The thought that he entertained in silence before he thought or spoke any other reality into existence, John says in his oracular way, was the all-encompassing thought of himself. This is the Word that was with God and was God at the beginning before the beginning. All God's subsequent self-revelations, everything that he has said or done, made happen or allowed to happen, the whole of history and reality since then--all of these later words, John suggests, derive from the great Word of primeval divine self-consciousness. And as all of them in their different ways have enlightened mankind about what God is like, all have been life that gave light: Through him all things came into being, And without him nothing was made that has been made. What came to be through him was life, And the life was the light of mankind. (John 1:3-4) Now comes the premise of the Gospel itself. At a certain point in time, this unspoken divine self-consciousness itself came to expression. The all-encompassing Word itself "became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). God spoke himself aloud in the form of a human being who lived a human life among other human beings. Why did God do this? Because the human race, to whom God had given dominion over the world, was estranged from him: "The world did not know him" (John 1:10). God had chosen a special people to be his own, but even many of them rejected him: "His own received him not" (John 1:11). At length, in a final effort to achieve reconciliation with the human race (collectively, his own self-image and therefore intimately connected with his own identity), God became one of them. This time, too, he was rejected, yet through that very rejection he accomplished something glorious. He began his own life anew; and because he did, his human creatures are now able to begin their lives anew as well, living them not as human beings ordinarily do but rather with a portion of the all-encompassing "fullness" (John 1:16) that was his before the beginning and will remain his after the end. The Gospel is the story of how this new, all-transforming relationship was inaugurated, and John gives his own credentials by confessing, in a tone of awe, "And we have seen his glory": For the Word became flesh And dwelt among us. And we have seen his glory, Glory as of the Father with his only Son, Full of gracious truth. (1:14) The prologue to the Gospel of John says not a word about crucifixion or resurrection, and never so much as mentions the name of Jesus. In the way of all such mythic proems or "prologues in heaven," it delivers, in poetry, the quintessence of a story that it assumes we all know. It sets the tone and, above all, makes the true identity of the protagonist known to the reader in a way that it will not be known to most of those to whom the protagonist will say what he has to say through the action that now begins. "the winnowing-fork is in his hand" The act of divine self-expression by which the Word became flesh might not seem to require either birth or death. If God neither begins nor ends, then these two definitive features of human existence might seem exactly wrong for any divine self-revelation. Far more in character for God, at least for God as a reader of the Old Testament may recall him, would be an appearance, without warning, in the form of a grown man. In the Book of Joshua, for example, the Lord appears just before the battle of Jericho in the form of a warrior with sword drawn: Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him, grasping a naked sword. Joshua walked up to him and said, "Are you with us or with our enemies?" He replied, "Neither one. I am here as the commander of the Lord's host." Joshua fell flat on the ground, worshipping him and saying, "What does my Lord command his servant?" The commander of the Lord's host answered Joshua, "Take the sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy." And Joshua did so. (Josh. 5:13-15) Joshua's reaction makes it clear that this "commander of the Lord's host" is the Lord himself, the divine warrior in person. The Lord confirms this impression by giving Joshua the same order that he gave Moses when he appeared to him as a burning bush: "Take the sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy." It is no more beyond God to appear in the form of a man than it is beyond him to appear in the form of a bush. To be sure, it is one thing for God to make an isolated appearance in the form of a bush and another for him to plant a seed, water it, cultivate it, and have it grow up to be God-made-bush. And it is yet another thing for him to conceive a human being with a fully human (and, not incidentally, Jewish) genealogy, gestation, birth, and childhood, and have it grow up to be God-made-man. But this last step, incomprehensible as it first seems, is a step in a known direction. The question of why God the Father chose to proceed in this way, choosing to experience human birth and death as God the Son, is best dealt with later. Suffice it to say, for now, that it is the adult Jesus who was first recognized as Messiah and as God Incarnate. All four of the Gospels initially began with Jesus, as a grown man, being baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. All four recognized the descent of the Spirit of God upon him at that moment as the inauguration of his career if not of the Incarnation itself. This, they all agree, is the moment when the Gospel story begins in earnest. Postponing genealogies and Christmas legends to a later, retrospective moment, we may enter the Gospel story at the dramatic moment when God Incarnate appears full-grown and as if from nowhere like the Lord Commander of Joshua 5, but this time without a sword. In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar's reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of the territories of Ituraea and Trachonitis, Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during a term when the high-priesthood was held by Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah, in the desert. He went through the whole Jordan Valley proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the sayings of Isaiah the prophet: The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Clear a way for the Lord! Make straight his paths. Let every valley be raised, Every mountain and hill lowered, The crooked made straight And the rough smooth So that all flesh will see the salvation of God. (Luke 3:1-6; passage in italics from Isa. 40:3-5) The action of the New Testament begins with the memory of a broken promise. Isaiah's language is wonderful, but he describes a triumphal march that never occurred. Mountains were going to be leveled and valleys filled to create a parade route for the Israelite exiles marching home from Babylon to Jerusalem--but the parade was canceled. The exiles to whom the Lord spoke through Isaiah did not return home in glory. Many of them never returned at all, and those who did merely exchanged one imperial ruler for another. The Persians defeated the Babylonians, but Israel was just one part of the spoils of war. Yes, a new temple of sorts was built by imperial order in the tiny, Persian-governed province of Yehud, but no Psalms were ever written in its praise. For those old enough to remember, the sight of the Second Temple was a cause more of grief than of joy: "Many of the priests and Levites and the chiefs of the clans, the old men who had seen the first House [Temple], wept loudly at the sight of the founding of this House. Many others raised their voices in a shout of joy. The people could not tell the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping"(Ezra 3:12-13). The Lord himself had to apologize for the paltriness of the Second Temple: Who is there left among you who saw this House in its former splendor? How does it look to you now? It must seem like nothing to you. But be strong, O Zerubbabel, be strong, O high priest, Joshua son of Jehozadak; be strong, all you people of the land, and act! For I am with you. . . . The glory of this latter House shall be greater than that of the former one. (JPS; Hag. 2:3-4, 9) But the glory of the Second Temple never did become greater than--in fact, it never approached--the glory of the First. The Zerubbabel whom the Lord exhorted through Haggai was a son of David, an anointed son of David--that is, a messiah--but he was a failed messiah, and his name was half-expunged from the record. As the Baptist speaks, five hundred years have passed, and a spectacular Third Temple is nearing completion in Jerusalem, but this Third Temple, King Herod's Temple, whose remains can still be seen in Jerusalem, is the work of a Roman puppet, an Idumaean married into a collaborationist Jewish clan. Is this Temple the fulfillment of the Lord1s ancient promise? Many in the Baptist's day are impressed by it. Indeed, the entire ancient world is impressed by it. But dissident Jewish groups--notably the Pharisees (forerunners of the Judaism of today) and the Essenes (who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls)--keep their distance. John does the same, preaching in the desert rather than on the steps of Herod's monument to himself. The memory of the past and the reality of the present--the great and holy temple that never was and the great and unholy temple that is--conspire against elation of the sort heard in Isaiah. That promised triumph did not happen the first time. Will it happen this time? What the Lord says through the Baptist, moreover, is disturbing in another way: He said . . . to the crowds who came to be baptized by him, 3Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear the fruit that accords with repentance, and do not start telling yourselves, "We have Abraham as our father,' because, I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Yes, even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Any tree that fails to bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3:7-9) It is not that the rhetorical question "Brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" is particularly disturbing. This is the usual prophetic idiom for a call to repentance. The Lord is accustomed to saving his friends by destroying their enemies. What disturbs is the fact that the Lord seems audibly irritated with Israel for making so much of its national identity--which is to say, of course, for insisting so much on being his people: "I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones." The Baptist is identified elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke as the Old Testament prophet Elijah come down to earth in fulfillment of a prophecy made in the very last verse of the Old Testament: Behold, I shall send you Elijah the prophet, Before the great and awesome Day of the Lord. He will reconcile parents to their children, And children to their parents, Lest I put the country under a curse of total destruction. (Mal. 4:5-6; some editions, 3:23-24) When the Baptist speaks--prophetically, in the name of the Lord, just as Elijah did--what he says is not altogether unlike things that the Lord has said before. The Lord has shown himself capable of mocking his chosen people for ethnic pride on more than one previous occasion. Speaking through Ezekiel, he said with blistering contempt for mere pedigree: Your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. At birth, on the day you were born, there was no one to cut your umbilical cord or wash you in water to clean you, or rub you with salt, or wrap you in swaddling clothes. No one looked at you with kindness enough to do any of these things out of pity for you. You were dumped in the open fields in your own filth on the day of your birth. I spotted you kicking on the ground in your blood as I passed by, and I said to you, lying there in your blood: "Live!" And I made you grow like the grass of the fields. (Ezek. 16:3-6) Ezekiel is a fairly ferocious precedent for what the Baptist says, yet the Baptist1s tone is still jarring when directed at an oppressed people living in an occupied land. The passage from Isaiah that Luke uses as keynote for this episode is, after all, an oracle of consolation, not mockery. It says, to quote the King James translation familiar from Handel1s Messiah, that God is done punishing Israel: Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. (KJV; Isa. 40:1-2) The Baptist, however, seems intent less on building confidence that God will eventually save his people than on undermining it. Finally, there is the surprise that the Baptist1s message is preached to the oppressor as well as to the oppressed: There were tax collectors [Romans or Jews in Roman employ], too, who came for baptism, and they said to him, "Teacher, what must we do?" He said to them, "Exact no more than the appointed rate." Some soldiers [Jewish mercenaries under Roman command and perhaps a Roman officer or two] questioned him as well: "What about us? What should we do?" He told them, "No intimidation! No extortion! Be satisfied with your pay." (Luke 3:12-14) Excerpted from Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God by Jack Miles All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.