God: A Biography

April 16, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This year, the biography that won the Pulitzer Prize featured an unusual subject: God. Jack Miles is the author. He’s a former Jesuit, who studied at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. For seven years, he was also the “Los Angeles” Times literary editor. He is now a columnist for that newspaper and director of the Humanity Center at the Claremont Graduate School in California. Thank you for being with us, Mr. Miles, and congratulations!

JACK MILES, Biographer: (Raleigh) My pleasure, Ms. Farnsworth.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What made you decide to write a biography of God?

JACK MILES: Well, I don’t wish to be naive. One can’t write at book-length about God and not be involved in religion in some way, but my goal wasn’t to solve anyone’s religious problem, even my own, but to do something about a great religious–rather, great literary masterpiece, the Bible, that seemed to me to have lost its protagonist, its hero. We had a simplified picture of God in our mind, and I was trying to restore some of its complexity.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you’re looking at him as a literary character, as if it were Hamlet?

JACK MILES: That’s right. And not as the object of religious belief. I’m interested in God on the page and not God off the page, as I sometimes like to put it. And in tracing his development, not from birth to death, because He wasn’t born, He doesn’t die, but from His first words to His last words, from His first actions to His last actions, a story can be told, and, uh, and the surprise is that there is a conflict in development in growth.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You write that God learns and changes as the Bible goes along. Would you read something about that? There’s a passage at the bottom of page 86.

JACK MILES: Sure. “As for the concrete particulars of what God wants mankind to be, this He only discovers as He goes along. His manner is always supremely confident, but He does not announce or seem even to know all His plans in detail or in advance. Again and again, God is displeased with man, but often enough, it seems that He discovers only in and through His anger just what pleases Him.

To change the analogy slightly, He’s like a director whose actors never seem to get it right and who is, as a result, often angry, but who doesn’t, Himself, always know beforehand what getting it right will be. When the actors get it wrong, He too gets it wrong until finally they get it more or less right and He calms down enough to admit. Getting it right is in the Bible, not just a matter of mankind’s observing the law of God.

At this point in the story, the law has not even been given. It is rather and much more broadly a matter of mankind’s becoming the image of God. That quest arising from the protagonist’s whole stated motive drives the only real plot the Bible can be said to have.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Mr. Miles, you also say that God has many personalities; the Lord God is at war with Himself, but His war is our own. What do you mean by that?

JACK MILES: Well, I mean that ancient Israel, originally a nomadic nation, encountered the religions and the Gods of many other peoples and as it concluded that there was only one real God, it took all the personality content that had ever fascinated it and combined it in, in this one amalgamated personality. Now, that personality necessarily because those parts didn’t fit perfectly together has on the page a kind of conflict.

But for centuries, Jews and Christians and even unbelievers through exposure to this work as literature have been exposed to that character and to His conflict. In this way, we, ourselves, have, have developed an attachment to a kind of romantic picture of what the human personality should be. We think it should have some conflict. There should be more than one person in there in a way, a conversation going on.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think that what we learn about ourselves in learning about God in the way that you’ve portrayed Him in this biography?

JACK MILES: I think we can. The, the–what’s shocking about God, if you skip nothing, if you read everything that is there on the page, even the unedifying parts, is that He is a destroyer, as well as a creator. And by pausing long enough to let that sink in, I think we can put ourselves in touch with the fact that, that we too have our dark side. All of us do. We are all capable of, of destroying, as well as creating.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You write a lot about Job, the Book of Job, and in the Hebrew Bible, Job, I think, comes closer to the end than in the Christian Bible. You say that God never speaks again after the Book of Job in this order of the Bible. Why? What happens in Job?

JACK MILES: Well, in the Book of Job, God, Himself, succumbs to a temptation by Satan. He agrees to allow Satan to torture an innocent man.

The torturer is a pretty severe symbol of evil, after all, and He allows this to go on, not anticipating that, that Job will ask Him for an explanation, but Job does again and again. Some of Job’s friends rebuke Job and say that he shouldn’t ask for an explanation. In the end, God, Himself, rebukes Job and says that no one should challenge someone as powerful as, as God knows Himself to be.

But as I read Job’s final speech, he doesn’t back down, and after that, God says that Job’s friends have spoken wrongly of God, and Job, himself, has spoken correctly. This means, I believe, that Job has shown God who He is.

He has shown God that He is a mixture of destruction and creation. And having discovered that about Himself, we might say God got what He was after when He created the human being in his own image. He now has, has found a human being who, who shows him perfectly who He really is.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Mr. Miles, thank you and congratulations again.

JACK MILES: Thank you so much, Ms. Farnsworth.