God, the personality: a riveting protagonist

April 30, 1995|By Frank P.L. Somerville

"God: A Biography," by Jack Miles. 446 pages. New York: Alfred A. Knopf Inc. $27.50

C.S. Lewis' biographers tell us about his conversations, sometimes light, sometimes heavy, always witty, often in cozy pubs, that so delectably fed his voracious imagination.

One of these, in 1954, had Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others engaged in "very good talk" about "who is the most influential and important man in various countries." The group decided on Burke for Ireland, Scott for Scotland, Shakespeare for England - "but there difficulties arose, Pitt and Wellington also being put forward."

Would that Lewis had lived to greet Jack Miles' new book. It is hard to imagine such a discussion occurring today without God being put forward as the world's "most influential and important man."

And woman. Heretofore, commentators have cited Malachi 2.13-16 as the source of scripture's strongest condemnation of divorce. Miles adds that the verses also contain "God's first completely unequivocal and unmistakable reference to himself as female." In what are very nearly his final words spoken through a prophet, "God is the wife, and Israel is the husband."

This, of course, is no ordinary biography. God is no ordinary subject. Energetic and creative in youth, reduced to a mysterious silence in old age, God has no birth, no death, or beginning or end.

A one-time Jesuit seminarian who studied in Rome and Jerusalem and has a doctorate in Near Eastern languages from Harvard, Miles has written a provocative, scholarly, usually accessible tour de force. His disclaimers of a religious purpose notwithstanding, there are a couple of good sermon ideas on almost every page.

The Deity who emerges from this reading of the Hebrew Bible (not the same as the Christians' Old Testament because the sequence is different) is a complex, contradictory, riveting protagonist. Reflected in the men and women he creates in his own image, God can be guarded or emphatic, brusque or eloquent, cruel or pitying. He is a warrior, a friend, a law-giver, a counselor. Toward the abused, stiff-necked Job, he is ambiguous if not actually a capricious "fiend," to use Bertrand Russell's word. God is both loved and feared, attractive and repellent.

He (or she) is "a character with a multiple personality." "What makes God's character distinctive," Miles explains, "is its combination of the lofty and relatively impersonal personalities of LTC world creator and world destroyer with the humbler and more intimate one of personal advocate." Like Hamlet's, God's character "is trapped within its contradictions." Changes are tracked through the ages. God's familiar manner with Adam and Eve, with the patriarchs, with Moses, contrasts with the popular notion of him - after Isaiah - as distant and inscrutable.

Miles sets out to answer the kinds of questions raised in any biography: Why did God do what he did? How did he adjust to crisis, to failure? Although he is without parents or children, what are his life experiences, his expectations?

The author, true to his intent, renders God's humanity more persuasive than his divinity. It is not the God of faith who is revealed so much as the protagonist whom Harold Bloom has called "an extraordinarily wayward and uncanny literary character."

Is it an authorized or unauthorized biography? That is between the author and his Maker, but there is a hint in the Acknowledgments, where God's name appears in an alphabetical list of 40 people for whose help Miles is grateful.

Frank P.L. Somerville has been a reporter and editor at The Sun since 1956. For16 years, he has covered religion. His assignments included the National and World Councils of Churches, Pope John Paul II's trips to the US and last November's Vatican ceremonies elevating Cardinal William H. Keeler.

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