The Book Club

Jesus: An Earth Tourist

Dear Debra,

Remember Black Like Me, the first-person account of racism by John Howard Griffin, a white writer who temporarily dyed himself black? It made an immense splash when it came out in 1961. (In fact, a new edition is still spreading ripples, with 77 reader reviews on I suspect one reason is that Griffin’s testimony of undeserved ill treatment had more bona fides to white readers than the same tales from a black person would have had at that time. After all, a real black person might be suspected of having gone looking for trouble, might have been uppity, been a criminal, been making it up. But a white person taking on the burden of blackness got instant credit—like those Mr. Moms who land slots on Oprah for doing what millions of women do without so much as a thank you.

In a way, God becoming human is like Griffin’s experiment with blackness: Bad things happen, but they are temporary and known to be so. Jesus dies—for three days! What kind of death is that? It’s more like a long nap. To use your example, God incarnate’s experience of being human is like being a Babylonian widow with four children for a weekend—definitely not fun, but not the real thing either, an essential part of which is its unendingness, the way the widow would stare continually at a future that looks always the same, only worse. I don’t mean to underappreciate his sufferings, but basically, Jesus was an earth tourist. If he’d really meant all that about taking on the human condition, he would have given up his consciousness that he was God—not to mention his ability to see the future and read minds—and when he died, he would have stayed dead.

Come to think of it, maybe that’s what happened. It would explain a lot.

I think you hit on an important reason for Miles’ popularity when you suggest that he offers a way for nonbelievers to engage with the Bible as a work of art—and as a modern, ironic, weird work of art at that. There’s a vogue for the Bible among literary people now—you could have knocked me over with a communion wafer when my friend Ellen and my friend Eva, both scholars and writers and nonreligious people, each told me they had joined a reading group devoted to the Bible. Miles would be an interesting guide for them. Essentially, he’s a New Critic, analyzing texts with relation to other texts—the New Testament in terms of the Old—and accepting, as Henry James said the reader should, the work’s artistic donnée: God exists and is the author of both books, which contain true accounts of historical events, or at least accounts that are true in some literary-critical, artistic, metaphorical sense. You may be right that Miles’ approach will help some on to some kind of engagement with faith, which can hardly be said of the historical approach to the Bible. For example, the panel of scholars known as the Jesus Group has been analyzing the words attributed to Christ in the New Testament and has concluded that the actual historical Jesus either definitely or probably said almost none of them.

As we’ve discussed, Miles scorns historical criticism, and I think mischaracterizes it. He describes what he himself does as reading the Bible “as a rose window”—that is, looking at it, rather than through it, to an external reality. It’s a lovely image, if (as so often in Miles) a slightly manipulative one: Only a boor, or a 17th-century Puritan, would prefer plain glass to stained. But the purpose of historical criticism is not (or not just) to figure out whether the Bible is historically accurate, which it seems not to be much of the time, but to better understand what the Bible MEANS and what the Bible IS. Who were the early Christians? What did they believe? These are immensely important questions since all denominations claim to be faithful to original practice and belief—for example, Pope John Paul II argues that women can’t be priests because Christ chose only male disciples, and feminist theologians argue that they can be priests because in the early church they played important official roles. You can’t answer these questions by reading the New Testament alone: You have to think about what being a disciple would have meant at that time, and about the role played by the women followers of Jesus, and how the early church was organized. You have to consider the points of view from which the different New Testament authors were writing and the way subsequent eons read and maybe misread the text. (Was Prisca, an important figure in St. Paul’s work, a leader in her own right whose role has been diminished through slanted and selective translation?) And so on. The book doesn’t answer such questions, any more than Jesus saying that St. Peter was the rock upon which he would build his church means, on the face of it, that St. Peter was the first pope.

While we’re on the subject of history, I’d like to recommend Keith Hopkins’ A World Full of Gods: Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Roman Empire. Hopkins shows us how Christianity came into existence as the faith we recognize (sort of) today—a process that took some 300 years. It’s a lively, erudite, amusing, and inventive book—he depicts various eras and regions of the Roman Empire by sending two time travelers back to report on daily life, and he stages a debate between a first-century Christian and Jew as a segment of a TV news show. Hopkins is particularly interested in early Christianity’s extreme hostility to sex, so different from the pleasure-loving, sex-drenched world of Rome and from Judaism as well, which assumes marriage and family life, including sexual life, as the norm for both men and women. It’s quite a feat to become a world religion while recommending virginity as the highest state of human existence. You wouldn’t think people would go for that at all. Go figure!

This has been fun, Debra—the perfect pre-Christmas book, don’t you think? Miles doesn’t spend much time on Jesus’ birth, virgin or otherwise, but I wish you (and all the Slatesters who want one) a Merry Christmas anyway.

Till next time,

P.S. It’s “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son,” not “sent” as I wrote in my previous posting. I knew that!