His So-Called Life

Piss Christ (detail), Andre Serano, 1989

Piss Christ (detail), Andre Serano, 1989

Easter season seems a fitting time to revisit last year’s paperback publication of Jack Miles’s book Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God (Vintage), which was put on bookshelves just in time for the holidays — all the holidays. As in his previous, Pulitzer Prize-winning book, God: A Biography (Knopf), Miles here approaches the Bible and its subjects — the God of Hebrew scripture in the first book, and now Jesus of Nazareth — as literature, in order to make the story told in the New Testament accessible and newly relevant, and not just to Christians.

According to a blurb on the jacket of one edition of the book, Christ is “an erudite and provocative literary tour de force that would make a perfect Christmas or Hanukkah present for believers and nonbelievers alike.” Imagine the marketing meeting in which this quote was chosen for the back of a book concerned entirely with Christian theology. Finally, someone must have said, a Jesus book we can sell to the Jews.

The implications of the universal appeal to which Miles aspires in Christ went little noticed at the time of its publication. One reason for this perhaps is that, historically, December has not been the most common setting for increased theological tension between our culture’s dominant monotheisms. It’s a holiday season of merriment more than passion; for Jews and Christians alike, the winter festivities offer religion in a gold-foil wrapper, leaving substance to other times of the year.

The regular overlap of Passover and the Christian Holy Week, however, has long been a time when the challenges and dangers of belief are laid bare. This is the season when Christians are reminded in their churches who it was that supposedly said of their savior, “His blood on us and our children,” which prompted more than a few believers to take to the streets over the centuries in violent indignation. For that matter, it’s the season when Jews, sitting at the Seder table, call out shefokh hamatkha, “pour out thy wrath,” summoning God’s ire against those who have it coming.

Yet while the Christian shadow-tradition of looking for Jews to harass on Easter Sunday is largely a thing of the past, our seasonal affinity for this god over that, or for none of the above, is always on our sleeves, as well as in our ham- or matzo-filled shopping carts. Of course, it’s not supposed to matter anymore with which god we break bread. And yet, obviously it does. This tension is precisely what makes a book like Christ interesting, and a little unsettling, at this time of year.

For Miles, a former Jesuit with a doctorate in Near Eastern languages, the Bible is literature first and foremost — a work of art used for theological ends, but a work of art just the same. Unless we understand and explore it as such, he argues, we will never grasp its meaning.

Distancing his work from current trends in biblical scholarship — concerned as it is with the “historical Jesus” and the social milieu within which he lived — Miles seeks to regard the New Testament “as if it were a stained-glass window.” His hope is that “it will be looked at and appreciated as a work of art, rather than seen through in an attempt to discern the historical events behind it.” He asks that we take the Gospel’s claims at face value; that we simply accept Jesus as God incarnate and move on, reading as we would any other work of literature, not to discern if it is true but to understand what it means.

It seems a simple, almost anti-intellectual premise at first — read the book as it is, and you will learn what it is about. But Miles is no fundamentalist. He does not advocate reading the Gospels as the inspired word of God, but rather as something like a pre-modern novel of ideas. This is Miles’s great innovation, but also his greatest obstacle. Because of it, his task from the outset is made twofold. In order to undertake a work of literary criticism of the New Testament, he must continually convince the reader that the New Testament is in fact a work a literature worthy of such attention. In a sense, he’s forced to build his house and take it apart at the same time. The risk he runs is obvious: that in the end he will have expended a great deal of effort, but will be stuck with the same pile of wood he started with.

Yet Miles is a daring critic and a remarkable writer whose obvious love for his subject is infectious. Held together by his thorough contextualization and sharp commentary, colorless biblical passages glow like Easter eggs. He never fails to surprise with the breadth of his knowledge and his willingness to mine the New Testament for meanings that would make most churchgoers blush.

In an otherwise unremarkable scene of Jesus and a woman at a well in Samaria, for example, Miles finds a film noir-style dialogue thick with double entendres.

Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”… [She] said to him, “You are a Jew, how can it be you ask me, a Samaritan, for a drink?” “If you only knew… who it is who says to you, Give me a drink, you would be the one to ask, and he would give you living water.” “You have no bucket, sir,” she replied, “and the well is deep. How do you get this living water?” Jesus replied, “The water that I shall give will become a spring of water, welling up for eternal life.” “Sir,” the woman said, “give me some of that water.”

On the surface, this scene seems full of the kind of cryptic posturing that makes much of the New Testament tedious. But unpacked (or perhaps unzipped) by Miles, it takes on new life. Citing Genesis 29:11, in which “the insouciant Jacob risks kissing a strange young woman” beside a watering hole, the village well is illuminated as a sexually charged place where women entertain or fend off advances as they might today while walking by a construction site.

“Although ‘living water’ is a Greek expression for spurting water, water that bubbles out of a spring as if alive,” Miles writes, “does the woman really think the spurting water Jesus says he can give her is spring water?”

This is Miles’s strategy throughout — to approach an ancient text as if it were written with a modern sensibility. He re-imagines Christian scripture not as a document of faith or history but as a subtly crafted narrative in which “You have no bucket, sir” is less an innocent observation than a sexual ribbing worthy of a Mel Brooks movie. At times it seems as if Miles wants his readers to say, “Hey, I didn’t know the Bible was funny! And that Jesus, what a character!” But this is only part of his intention. What he seems to want is for his readers to respond to the New Testament as he clearly does — to regard it not merely as the Good Book, but as a great read.

And what’s wrong with that? Why not regard the Gospels simply as literature? Why should our suspension of disbelief falter when faced with these particular narratives? Reading Moby Dick no one would doubt that Ahab is the captain of the Pequod. That would be silly. It’s part of the story. Well, isn’t Jesus as God incarnate only part of the story? So why not think of Jesus in the same way we think of Ahab?

Well, for starters, no gang of Melville fans ever started a pogrom. To divorce the New Testament from the history it has made, as a purely literary reading does, is wishful thinking at best, crass revisionism at worst. Whatever they began as, and however convincing Miles may be concerning them, the Gospels are no longer merely works of art, and it is disingenuous to regard them as such.

It has been said that the brilliance of Miles’s work is that he has managed to “make strange” the best-known story in history. But really he has done just the opposite. In fact, the New Testament already was strange; with Christ he has made it palatable. There is nothing new in this. It’s what savvy Christians have done with the Gospel in many new environments, proving time and again that to a certain extent it is their scripture’s adaptability that accounts for its pervasiveness.

A literary Jesus is just one more evolution: a Jesus for a world in which belief is not supposed to matter. A Jesus like Ahab, in other words: frightening in his resilience, unyielding in his pursuit. Miles’s creation is a Jesus who, wrapped in the cloak of literature, can weather any storm of reason or disbelief, which indeed makes Christ a great accomplishment — but one with questionable intentions.

Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.