Like father, like son

Why do millions of people the world over worship a God who was executed as a common criminal? Why do they venerate this unexpected, provoking and not particularly appealing character? Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jack Miles approached his latest book, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, eager to find answers to these questions.

Plenty of scholars have tackled the New Testament in search of the “historic” Jesus, searching for clues as to what “really happened” way back when. In Christ, Miles does the opposite. He forgoes the history and examines the Bible’s New Testament as a work of literature, a narrative story to be read with Christ as surprising protagonist. Miles sees no need to explore whether Jesus is God—he accepts it fully because the text presents it that way. What better way to examine why the account of Jesus’ life and death became the best known story in history?

Christ does for the son what Miles had already done for the father because the new book can be read as a sequel to Miles’ 1995 God: A Biography. An intellectual, teacher and former Jesuit, Miles is a scholar who is both original and traditional in his approach. He writes with depth and force, without sacrificing accessibility.

Christ considers its protagonist’s motivation—based on the merged story line from the four gospels—as Jesus proceeds through birth, baptism, hook-up with the disciples, miracles, attack on the temple, teachings, death on the cross and ultimate resurrection. Readers are asked to consider why God has become a man—especially the kind of man who provokes reaction, a know-it-all (let’s face it) who never apologizes and doesn’t seem to care what others think.

More important, why does the character of the adult Jesus in this text contrast so distinctly with the character of God as previously revealed in the Bible? In Miles’ estimation, this is the “crisis” in the life of God. After all, the God of the Old Testament repeatedly promised a messiah who would arrive as a kick-ass warrior to take revenge on those who have enslaved the chosen people. So what does it mean when instead God sends Jesus, the lamb of God (not the lion!) who begins preaching love, forgiveness and eternal life?

What accounts for this change? Miles concludes that God simply evolved—the character changed his mind. Lucky for the future of the world, the newly evolved deity exchanges militarism for pacifism and the spirit of people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

The power of the Christmas story itself, the birth of Jesus, is explored by Miles as an interlude, not particularly crucial to the character’s storyline. What’s most intriguing to him was why Christ became human by beginning his existence in a woman’s womb. The answer is in the power of the story of an ordinary human birth, says Miles. Jesus started off as a baby because we all did.

From the beginning, Christ’s schedule seems to have only one “appointment”—the time pre-destined for his execution in Jerusalem. Miles posits the theory that Christ has become a man so he can suffer and die as he has made people throughout history suffer and die. According to Miles, Christ’s death is a kind of divine suicide. His resurrection symbolizes the redemption in store for those who he himself had exiled from paradise.

In American society, things are usually pretty obvious. Winners are winners and losers are losers. What a treat, then, for Miles to turn all that on its head by examining the Greatest Story Ever Told in a manner that reveals how a manifest loser turns out to be the winner of all time. Christ brings new resonance to the teaching “the last will be first, and the first last.”