In 1985, a group of some 250 scholars decided to determine the historical accuracy of the Gospels’ presentations of Jesus. They called themselves The Jesus Seminar, and over the next eight years they met, discussed–and voted–on the authenticity of each of the Gospel passages attributed to Jesus. The goal of this historical criticism was to fashion a new, scholarly and more accurate reconstruction of the Christ and his teachings.

Their work culminated in the 1993 publication of The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus. The study concluded that almost none of the Gospel accounts of the words and actions of Jesus can be considered historical facts. The authors reached their conclusion largely because the Gospels were composed between 30 and 150 years after Jesus’ death, and because it’s assumed the members of his movement produced those texts for polemical purposes.

The problem with this conclusion? The process of identifying “authentic” passages was wholly arbitrary. Since none of the Gospel passages can be directly attributed to Jesus, any reconstruction of his message is just that. However inspiring to some, the work of the Jesus Seminar gets us no closer to the original Jesus. It simply renders another version of the Christ, one according to its own lights.

Jack Miles’ Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, just released in paperback, is a direct response to the work of the Jesus Seminar. It’s intended as a remedy for the current trend in scholarship towards historiographical reconstructions of Christ and his teachings.

As good an idea as this is, the project goes awry in Miles’ hands, largely because the author still wants to find the single intention in the work and because he wants to shield his reading from critique.

Miles’ interpretation is certainly a departure from convention. The Jesus he constructs is an incarnate God who has come to kill himself, in order to rob the Devil of the power of death. It is a warrior God who has chosen to accomplish his power through this act, thereby correcting the errors of his creation much as he previously did by unleashing the great flood of Genesis. Miracles of healing and teachings of compassion for others are read as displays of God’s power over life and his intention to extend paradise to all. Thus they are displays of power more than love.

It’s an extreme conceit, one ostensibly couched in Miles’ choice to treat the Gospels as a work of literary art instead of historical documents. The strategy’s an attempted end-run around the dead-ends previous scholars have reached through historical inquiry. Less obviously, it’s also an effort to undercut the authority of naturalism–in which historical or natural facts are always privileged over intuition or imagination.

Admittedly, Miles is on tricky ground here: Any book that takes religious inquiry or truth at all seriously risks being marginalized or dismissed. But unfortunately, in Christ, Miles isn’t simply critiquing naturalism; he’s also attempting to get his own faith in the back door. It’s this last agenda that undercuts whatever strength lies in the privilege he gives art.

Those familiar with issues in literary criticism will be aware that the contrast Miles makes between literary art and historical criticism is something of a red herring. Often, today’s literary critics read a text in its historical context.

Hence, Miles is also arguing for a particular kind of literary criticism, one which assumes that a work can be read without reference to any other “world” than that of the text. To this end, he speaks of considering the Gospels as a stained glass window, to be looked at instead of through, and he claims his remarks should be understood as being restricted to the “window’s” province and not what lies behind it.

Although this analogy may strike us favorably–who doesn’t like stained glass?–what Miles actually does is similar to those critics of 19th-century realist novels who don’t want to question the “realism” of the text.

Miles claims, “I write here about the life of the Lord God as–and only as–the protagonist of a classic of world literature … I do not write about (though I certainly do not write against) the Lord God as the object of religious belief.” But in fact, by restricting himself to the text, he restricts himself to a province where God’s reality is an object of religious belief. And he never looks back.

This is too bad, since in making this move Miles robs art of the very power he seems to want to mobilize against naturalism. After all, art remain meaningful, even though (or even because) it is free to fly beyond the constraints of fact. It’s that capacity that leads Miles to hope that a strictly artistic rendering of the Gospels will be “sealed off” from naturalistic criticism.

But Miles loses all this when he limits art itself to the realm of strict representation. In fact, Miles subordinates art (and thus meaning) all over again by a truly reactionary move: He assumes traditional doctrinal interpretations of the Gospels are somehow the only meaningful way the Gospels can be artistically rendered.

What’s funny is that Miles, himself, appears to be aware that the Gospels are not a single unit with one universally agreed-upon boundary. Nor is their meaning already as determined as he would like. In a second appendix, Miles admits that the Gospels are a collection of texts, a group only conceived of as a single text at a fairly late date.

Hence, far from being able to determine the arc of Jesus’ character according to a single narrative, Miles begins with a text whose very arrangement is a stained glass window, already shattered, opening out in all directions. Before he starts, the Gospels have already broken apart the fictive boundary of narrative coherence.

Miles does not admit this, nor does he admit that the majority of his reading of the character of Jesus draws from the single Gospel of John. To this end, he does not treat the Gospels, as he claims, as a bounded text. And this is too bad, since the Rashomon-like nature of the Gospels can be read as their genius. The collage arrangement of the text forces one away from closure, and toward an openness to mystery.

I could almost forgive Miles for the slippery way in which he attempts to secure a privilege for belief, if the authoritarianism inherent in his move were not repeated in the image of Jesus he constructs. Sadly, and perhaps inevitably, this is not the case.

There is no question that Jesus, even as he is given in the Gospels, is a complex and difficult person, alternately authoritarian and opaque, intimate and instructive. Further, there is no question that reading the person of Jesus has been understood within Christianity as a way of intimately encountering God. However, constructing some sense of the character of God in this way has always dovetailed with a second tendency in Christian thought towards imitation of Jesus.

It is at this point that I find myself wholly at odds with Miles’ Christ. His absorption in what essentially is a political struggle with the Devil offers a Jesus for plutocrats instead of a figure of real humanism.

Further, Miles’ celebration of the act of suicide seems to offer any plutocrat who would identify with Jesus a terrible warrant to stay the course–all the way into the apocalypse.

As I look out the window at my storm-damaged mulberry, smooth bark against the sky, I wonder if we should be so quick to leave this world, so hungry to have our way. I am tired of plutocrats who seem determined to steer us into death.

Finally, Miles’ game is not so new, despite its claims. People have been generating their own versions and readings of Christ since they first set eyes on him. So often, the versions reflect the times.

For instance, it’s no mistake that, at different times, both Thomas Jefferson and Leo Tolstoy literally cut the miracles out of their copy of the Gospels, hoping to fashion a post-Enlightenment, humanist Christ. The recent Jesus of the Jesus Seminar is even more narrowly drawn–a Jesus by committee whose only virtue is that, in being almost wholly opaque, one can imagine almost anything of him.

Miles’ Jesus belongs to yet another active current in our cultural discourse. It is a Jesus set against the world, prepared to bring about apocalypse in the name of justice, an old patriarchal voice echoing anew.

But what is curious–and what should possibly frighten those of us who wonder at the renewed specter of authoritarianism in our culture–is how Miles won the Pulitzer Prize for the first installment of this project, God: A Biography, despite the flaws and subtle deceits of its discourse.

Apparently Miles is speaking a tune that some power applauds. It is one that would prefer a Jesus who, so as to preserve his power, destroys the world.

It’s worth being aware when people who give out Pulitzers don’t flinch at something like that. EndBlock