Interview with Dr. Jack Miles on Religion and His Book

1. Q: When did you first start reading the Bible?

A: I took my first steps in reading at age five but did not become an eager reader until age six. As for reading the Bible, I presume that I read the New Testament when I was given a leather-bound copy of it when I received Holy Communion for the first time at age seven. Most Christians celebrate a re-enactment of Jesus’ “Last Supper” with his disciples before his crucifixion. The ceremonial meal has been taken as a symbol of the “Holy Communion” of all Christians, as if all were guests around a single table. Roman Catholics—and I was born Roman Catholic, though I practice another form of Christianity now—do not allow children to take part until they reach the age of reason, which in my childhood was fixed as seven years. In any case, at that age I was entranced with reading and read any printed material that came within my reach. I was especially fascinated by the little New Testament that I was given for my “First Holy Communion.” What may have fascinated me most, though, was that this book actually had a zipper. A book with a zipper! A holy toy for a not especially holy boy. I did not read the Old Testament, the other half of the Christian Bible, until years later, though Christian story books for children re-told many of the most famous stories: Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, King David, and so forth.

2. Q: Did you react different as a Jesuit seminarian and a scholar?

A: Yes, but the difference may not be the one you are thinking of. I was a member of the Jesuit order precisely during the 1960s. I joined the order at age eighteen in 1960 and resigned at age 28 in 1970. The sixties were a decade of ferment and excitement in the Roman Catholic Church, much of it stimulated by the Second Vatican Council, which took place in 1962-1965 in Rome. I was resident in Rome during the years 1964-1966, so I drank in some of the excitement. At that time, Catholic scholars, many of them priests, were employing the Bible to challenge practices in the church, much as Protestants had begun to do in the sixteenth century. So, although the Bible is an ancient work, there was a sense of novelty, conflict, change, and excitement about studying it in that contemporary context. Later, during my studies at Harvard University, my professors stressed objective history rather than the use of scripture for church change or reform. To that extent, the study, though more serious, was less exciting. The further fact is that I was a silent rebel against my professors not for any religious reason at all but rather because I was strongly drawn to the study of scripture as literature—often imaginative literature—rather than as history or religious revelation. It was only years after I had left both the Roman Catholic Church and the academic establishment (I had become a publisher, first, and then a journalist) that I felt free to write about the Bible as a work of literary art.

3. Q: Can you say a word about how you came to write God: A Biography?

A: As just noted, I was eager to write about the Bible as a work of art rather than as religious revelation or, above all, as history. The bias toward historical interpretation of the Bible had led, in my judgment, to readings of a distinct literary insensitivity. Too little attention was paid, I thought, to the way in which things are arranged in the text to produce an aesthetic or artistic effect upon the hearer or reader. That was one root of the book.

Another was my awareness that as secular historians, my professors could not speak of God directly—as a character in his own right—but only indirectly, through historically verifiable individuals or groups who believed in him or wrote about him. This led to an odd silence about him who is, obviously, the protagonist of this great classic, its central figure. One proof of this is that in the vast Anchor Dictionary of the Bible, published in six massive volumes, there is no entry on “God.” If you look up that word, you find “God, Names of,” with cross-references to the various names of God that are employed, but these entries turn out to be narrowly grammatical. If historical critics were insensitive critics, it was partly because they could not easily talk about the main character in the work they were criticizing.

4.Q:How did the book come out of your teaching or research? How did you actually get started?

A:I can actually mention something of a moment of conception. It happened in a Harvard lecture hall. The late Frank Moore Cross, a major professor of mine, was speaking about patriarchal religion as attested in various parts of the Semitic cultural realm. He was speaking in particular of the research of the German scholar Albrecht Alt. Alt had noted that many Semitic tribes did not name the deity the tribe worshipped but only called him by the name of the patriarch of the tribe who, they typically believed, had encountered the deity at a place which thenceforth became holy by association with the “God of X.” As there were various tribes, so there were various patriarchs and various deities called “God of X,” “God of Y,” and so forth. Over time, however, stories told of one such deity could mingle with or be linked somehow to stories told of another. Alt’s inference was that the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob in the Book of Genesis had initially been three gods and only linked together as an editor made Abraham the grandfather, Isaac the son, and Jacob the grandson. What this engendered in me was the notion that monotheism could have arisen out of polytheism not by a process of repudiation but rather by a process of fusion as originally separate gods came to be thought of as a single god. “This is like the genealogy of God,” I remember thinking silently. So, a seed was planted, but it took many years to germinate.

5.Q:Your book God: A Biography is based on your reading of the Old Testament and not the New Testament? What is the difference between the two?

A:There are several ways to take up that question. Let me offer just one. The Bible is conventionally, and properly, referred to as “the Word of God.” In Christian belief, the Old Testament reveals the Word of God in words, while the New Testament reveals the Word of God in person. Jesus is spoken of as “the Word Incarnate” or “the Word Made Flesh.” Human beings do not learn only from written or spoken words. They learn by a complex process of observation and experience. The Christian belief is that by experiencing and observing Jesus, his disciples were “hearing” the Word of God, and thus it was not just by repeating or teaching his words but also by imitating him that they were to transmit his message. The New Testament is just a partial record of how this process of human transmission began. Initially, I had intended to write about the Old Testament and the New Testament in one book. However, I had a prior wish to write about both in a way that Jews as well as Christians could welcome. With this in mind, I chose to write about the Old Testament in the order in which the Jews read its books, which differs strikingly from the Christian order, and not to call the collection “Old Testament” (a term Jews regard as disparaging) but rather to use the Hebrew term for it, “Tanakh,” which many English-speaking Jews employ as an English word. Against my expectations, I found that when I read the Jewish scriptures in the Jewish order, I experienced a strong sense of ending and conclusion. Read in this way, the work seemed to defy continuation by the New Testament. I realized, in the process, that the Judaeo-Christian West reads this classic in two different forms. In one, the Jewish form, it comes to a close. In the other, it is edited so as to allow for the addition of a dramatic epilogue. My inference was that I would have to write two books, not just one. So, God: A Biography is about God as a character in the Jewish Bible, the Tanakh, without reference to any completion or continuation by or as Jesus Christ. My later book Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God is about the New Testament understood, to repeat, as an epilogue inseparable from all that has preceded it. In both of these books, however, my emphasis at every point was artistic and aesthetic rather than, in the first place, theological or historical.

6. Q:Could you please share your views on Christian-Muslim dialogue? Its challenges, possibilities?

A:There are so many ways to take up this question and, of course, so many different places to take it up, each with its own special dynamic. Since the area of dialogue that is now on the table is scriptural, let me say something about how a Christian might open himself to an experience of the Qur’an and a Muslim to an experience of the Bible or even just of the New Testament. What I want to propose is a literary approach—literary as distinct from religious or pious or theological—to these sacred texts that, in my experience, makes them accessible despite suspicion or resistance. When reading a novel or watching a film, we experience what the great English writer and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge called “a suspension of disbelief.” Watching the film “Avatar,” for example, we do not believe that the winged creatures flying past our eyes actually exist, but for the moment we suspend our disbelief. A comparable suspension of disbelief—while falling short of actual belief—can be a first step toward at least sympathetic understanding of a religion that one does not accept as religious truth. Let me begin by imagining a Christian approaching the Qur’an for the first time. He understands himself to be a monotheist. He does not find anything wanting in the sacred scripture of his own religion. “What do I have to learn from the Qur’an that I don’t already know?” he asks, “And anyway, didn’t the New Testament come first?” This is not a very promising start! But if this Christian suspends his disbelief that the voice heard speaking in the Qur’an is the voice of God himself, if at least in his imagination he can yield to the sound of that voice and hear the words as if God is speaking them, something can happen. Similarly, a Muslim reading the New Testament may begin thinking, “The New Testament is full of errors that God sent Muhammad to correct. Why should I read the erroneous version when I already have the correct one?” But if that Muslim can suspend his disbelief that the New Testament is not the adulterated or falsified word of God but the true word of God, then at least for the time of the reading, he can have a different experience of it than he would otherwise have. On the far side of the reading, each may revert to the orthodox opinion of his tradition, but neither will see the other afterward in quite the same way. There are many other forms of Christian-Muslim dialogue, some of them quite possibly more important than this one, but this one is worth trying.

7.Q:What do you think the future of Islam in the West will look like?

A: Christianity’s internal Wars of Religion pitted Protestants against Catholics with extreme combined loss of life during the 16th and 17th centuries. One third of the population of Germany died. The British Isles lost more dead than died in World War I. In the aftermath of those wars, starting with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, intra-Christian religious war in the West essentially disappeared. People point to the conflict in Northern Ireland as proof that it continues, but a) Northern Ireland, though I love it (I have family roots there), was and is a small backwater within the West; b) the conflict produced by comparison with any contemporary conflict only minor loss of life; c) the conflict was not centrally about religion, and the contending sides never blew up each other’s churches, assassinated each other’s clergy, or attacked each other’s funerals; and finally, d) the conflict is now essentially over. As Muslim immigrants from war-torn or failing Muslim states grow more and more desperate to move to Europe, will intra-Muslim differences begin to shrink among them under Christian or post-Christian Western influence just as intra-Christian differences have shrunk? I hope so; and in this regard, I do have to say that I think the American situation is especially promising because the Muslim minority in the United States is neither ethnically nor geographically concentrated, nor is it impoverished, and because Muslims here are availing themselves more and more effectively of American precedents in defending their rights to be both Muslim and American. This country has a history of prejudicial exclusions followed by inclusion, intermingling by conversion and counter-conversion, and then intermarriage. This history will repeat itself, is repeating itself, in the Muslim-American case.

8. Q:What is the greatest challenge respecting religious traditions (Judaism, Islam, Christianity) in the 21st century?

A:We must all learn how to be minorities rather than majorities and how to be guests rather than hosts. The Jews are a minority, but most of Torah is written clearly for an Israelite majority dealing with others as tolerated minorities. For centuries now, however, in the diaspora, Jews have had to learn how to be the minority that they had become. Clearly, a part of the trouble with the revival of Jewish national life in Israel is that it disregards the lessons of Diaspora Jewry and purports to build a civil society upon a Jewish majority that is barely there; between the Jordan and the Mediterranean, more than half the population is Arab. Muslim tradition in a similar way presupposes a Muslim majority dealing tolerantly—though within severe limits—with non-Muslim minorities. And yet Muslims in many countries around the world are now minorities. Can they adopt their tradition to make it work when they are the ones being tolerated rather than the ones doing the tolerating? Boko Haram (meaning “Book [western learning] Prohibited”) is a movement of Muslims who clearly cannot abide living in a Nigeria with a Christian president. To say the least, this is not a model world Islam will want to follow. Christianity is the world’s largest religion, but finally—if you take the global view—it too is just another religious minority. Serbian Orthodox Christians in Yugoslavia could not abide the thought of Serbs living in a country with a Muslim president and raged around Bosnia burning mosques and libraries, even the great library of Sarajevo. This is no model for Serbian Christianity, or any Christianity. The world has no religious majority, and our working assumption should be that it will have none for a very long while to come. Nobody has the role of host in the world of the 21st century. We are all guests, and we should act that way, worrying more about our own behavior than that of others. But will we?

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