Sunday, March 27, 2016

The apparent loser may be the winner

All mankind is forgiven, but the Lord must die. This is the revolutionary import that, two thousand years ago, a group of radical Jewish writers appended to the scripture of their religion. Because they did so, millions in the West today worship before the image of a deity executed as a criminal, and -- not less important -- other millions who will never worship at all carry within their cultural DNA a religiously derived suspicion that somehow, someday, "the last will be first, and first last" (Matt. 20:16).

... The crucifix is a violently obscene icon. To revere its visceral power, children of the twenty-first century must imagine a lynching, the body of the victim swollen and distorted, his head hanging askew above a broken neck, while the bystanders smile their twisted smiles. Then they must imagine that grisly spectacle reproduced at the holiest spot in whatever edifice they call holy. And yet to go even this far is to miss the meaning of the image, for this victim is not just innocent: He is God Incarnate, the Lord himself in human form.

Winners usually look like winners, and losers like losers. But thanks to this paradoxical feature of the Christian myth, there remains lodged deep in the political consciousness of the West a readiness to believe that the apparent loser may be the real winner. ... One of the many implications of this epilogue to God's life story has been that in the West no regime can declare itself above review. All power is conditional, and when the powerless rise, God may be with them.

So opens the prologue to Jack Miles' Christ: a crisis in the life of God, this scholar's own epilogue to God: a biography. Both books treat ancient scripture not as revealed reality, but as literature, tracing the development of their central character, the Lord God. Instead of erasing scripture's contradictions -- the tensions within the picture of its central character -- Miles treats those tensions as part of the narrative from which emerges the story's import. This is how Miles explains:

... when one reads in this way, many vivid scenes are recovered for the characterization of the protagonist that, because they did not happen, historical criticism must read as the self-characterization of an author.

Did a heavenly host of angels sing praise at Jesus' birth as Luke reports? For historical purposes the answer must be no: Angels have no place in secular history.

For literary purposes, however, even secular literary purposes, the answer may and indeed must be yes ... For the literary critic, the song of the heavenly host, no matter that is unhistorical, enhances the angel messenger's characterization of the newborn Jesus as "a savior who is Messiah and Lord" (Luke 2:11). What matters for the literary effect is not that the account cannot be verified (a laughable notion) but that it wakes echoes of a dozen exultant Psalms ...

Miles draws out the implications of his reading:

Why does the New Testament exist at all? ...Literary criticism as I have attempted it here prefers to remain within the assumptions of the story and to rephrase the question as Why does God do it? Why does he become a man?

... And why, if he has to become a man at all, does he choose to become the unlikely man he becomes? ... God's power was such that, in his prime, he annihilated in minutes the mightiest army in the world. More than once, he compared himself to a great marauding beast. Why does he become a defenseless peasant who, when the authorities sentence him to death, offers no resistance and ends his life as a convicted criminal? ... Rather than a further development of God's character, does Jesus, the Lamb of God, not seem its terminal collapse?

Yes, he does, and the condition for a literary appreciation of the New Testament is a willingness of the part of the reader to see this ending as horrifying or ludicrous surprise. God the Son is not at all the kind of man one would expect God the Father to become. ... What makes the surprise subjectively urgent as well as logically possible for God, given his previous life, is that he has something appalling to say that he can say only by humiliating himself.

The Lord of All the Earth, to use the grandest of all his Old Testament titles, arranges to have himself put to death as the King of the Jews not to destroy hope as he destroys himself but only to replace a vain hope with one that can still be realized. The old hope predicated on invincible military power must yield to a new hope predicated on the inevitability of military defeat but anticipating the kind of victory arms cannot win....

... [The story's] effrontery cannot be appreciated unless the God of Israel has first been confronted in all his untamed and terrifying intensity. That of all gods, this god should be imagined to have become of all men this man; and that, repudiating everything he has always seemed to be, he should have had himself put to death by the enemy of his chosen people -- that is a reversal so stunning that it changes everything back to the beginning. The Rock of Ages cannot die as God; but as God incarnate, the Rock can be cleft. God, shattered, can descend to death; and when he rises to eternal life, he can lift his human characters up with him. ...

In this volume, Jack Miles wrestles with the hoary problems of Christian theology: theodicy: why a good God allows evil to win; and atonement: how Jesus' death somehow is Good News. He rejects and supersedes the notion of appeasing a Mean Daddy that infects so much Christian thinking.

If anyone finds Miles intriguing, I'd recommend reading God: a biography first. In that book, Miles convincingly establishes his bona fides as a sensitive linguistic interpreter and as a thoughtful respecter of ancient texts. Christ: a crisis in the life of God really is an epilogue, quite a wonderful one.

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