Book  Review


When I finished reading the introduction of God" a Biography (New York: Vintage Books, 996, 446pp.) by Jack Miles, I thought I would hate this book.  By the second chapter I was hooked.  By the end I thought it was the most provocative book I've read in years.

Miles does not approach the Bible in the way I've always liked to see it done.  Typically, scripture study has brought me into the world of the writer.  By coming to know as much as possible about the writer's own story, vocabulary, historical setting, place of origin, and influential sources, the student of the Bible can sift through the text and understand better why a book, chapter, or verse was written in a particular way.  Our faith is that God is the ultimate writer of the Bible, but God's inspiration became publication by means of human authors whose fingerprints on the texts can still be seen by careful observation.  Knowing more about the background to the text opens up a more personal approach to God:  By understanding the writer's relationship to God, we can see the God behind the writer, active in the writer's community.  I like that approach to the Bible.  But Miles doesn't do it that way. 

Jack Miles treats the Bible not in its little parts, but as a complete literary unit with one amazing Protagonist.  His biography traces the behavior of the main character from one book to the next.  He does not analyze the books as independent units, but treats the story as a continuous whole.  In scripture study this is dangerous.  The Bible consists of many books by many authors.  In some ways, Miles's approach struck me as that of someone who might take a shelf full of novels by different authors, dating from different centuries, search for all the women named "Nancy", no matter who they were or how they appeared in the texts, and write a single biography as if she were one character.

But the results are fascinating.

Miles limits himself to the Hebrew Scriptures.  He accepts the sequence of the books from the Jewish canon, which differs slightly but significantly from the sequence in what Christians call the Old Testament.  He then works to account for the behavior of this one character, God, in its many manifestations throughout the holy books.

Difficulties with the character surface from the very beginning.  God does not act consistently.  In Genesis God is both the creator of the universe and it's flood-wielding destroyer.  Later God appears as lawgiver conqueror, father, and wife.  Miles also discovers God the sleeper, the bystander, and even the fiend.   This book tries to reconcile the character of God.   How can we account for all these personalities in the same entity?  

Some revelations are particularly striking.  God has no past to explain the dynamic creation which opens the story.  Miles makes a case that God does not express love until the second half of Isaiah.  And by the end of the story., God has become strangely silent.  The God we meet in this biography needed to create, but then gradually withdrew from what he made.

The author's case depends on the reader's acceptance of some key issues.  One must accept the very premise, that God can be analyzed like any character in a play or novel.   One must accept the sequence of books in the Hebrew scriptures for the theory to work.  One must also accept the protracted argument Miles makes about the closing verses to the Book of Job.  That biblical book represents a real turning point in God's character, according to Miles.  He claims, in essence, that God overstepped the boundaries of divinity and acted wrongly in the case of Job.  Job, Miles believes, cornered God on this point, and God never acted the same again.

Because Miles takes a literary approach to the Bible, his argument can be read by both believers and atheists.  He treats God as a character.  So whether you believe in the God of the Bible or believe that the Bible is just a story, you can read his analysis of the protagonist.

God: A Biography offers the reader a unique approach to reading the Bible.  It reveals some surprising aspects about the personality of God as recorded in Scripture.  It may disturb the reader who has an ironclad image of God, but it may bring comfort to those who have concluded that the traditional images of God don't fit their multi-layered experience of joy and sorrow.  As with any journey to the heart of God, this one brings both fear and comfort.

This review first appeared in the Catholic Key (Fall,1998).

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