Jack Miles Essay - Critical Essays

Miles, Jack


God: A Biography Jack Miles

American nonfiction writer, journalist, and theologian.

The following entry presents criticism on Miles's God: A Biography (1995).

A theological scholar, Miles received the Pulitzer Prize in Biography for his first major publication, God: A Biography. From 1960 to 1970 Miles studied as a Jesuit seminarian at Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and Hebrew University in Jerusalem; he studied the Hebrew Bible at Harvard University, earning a doctorate in Near Eastern languages in 1971. Miles taught in the theology department at Loyola University, worked as assistant director of Scholars Press, and served as an editor at the University of California Press and Doubleday before joining the Los Angeles Times in 1985, where he worked as a book columnist and editorial board member for ten years. In 1995 Miles became the director of the Humanities Center at the Claremont Graduate School near Los Angeles.

Plot and Major Characters

Miles received a 1991 Guggenheim Fellowship for God: A Biography, which was published in 1995 and earned the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. The "biography" is actually an interpretation of God's "life" drawn from careful analysis of the Hebrew Bible. The events of God: A Biography will seem out of order to those unfamiliar with the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, which can be broadly described as switching the middle and ending portions of the Christian Old Testament. The difference is crucial in Miles's interpretation of God's behavior, from His first creation to His subsequent reactions toward humankind.

Major Themes

Miles's "biography" presents a portrait of God as a being with faults, inconsistencies, and conflicting personalities. Miles argues that the Book of Genesis presents God with two personas: the God who is "lofty, unwavering and sincere in his creative actions," and the Lord God, who is "intimate volatile and prone to dark regrets and darker equivocations." Miles contends that over the course of time, God learns and matures. In presenting an interpretation of the Bible as a work of literature, Miles creates a picture of God as a character in a plot who develops and grows.

Critical Reception

Finding him uniquely qualified for the task, critics did not dismiss Miles out of hand for purporting to assign to God a "life" and imperfect human characteristics. Overall, critics found God: A Biography thought-provoking, if not always in line with popular belief. Ross Miller wrote in the Chicago Tribune: "Jack Miles's God: A Biography is a brilliant, audacious book. Effortlessly interweaving the voices of scholar, teacher and inquisitive layman, Miles takes the reader into the very heart of the Bible." While some critics pointed out problems in execution and method, the overall assessment was positive. Phyllis Trible wrote: "At places the argument is strained and prone to hyperbole. Nonetheless, with artistic sensitivity Mr. Miles has accomplished what others failed to try. He has made a certain literary sense of the character God in the totality of the Tanakh."

Principal Works

Retroversion and Text Criticism (nonfiction) 1984
God: A Biography (theology) 1995


Michiko Kakutani (review date 26 March 1995)

SOURCE: "God, You Imperfect, Conflicted Fella, You," in The New York Times, March 26, 1995, p. C20.

[In the following review, Kakutani discusses Miles's purpose in writing God: A Biography and lauds the author's success in reinterpreting the Bible as a work of literature.]

"You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart," reads a passage in the Apocrypha, "nor find out what a man is thinking; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out His mind or comprehend His thoughts?"

This, however, is exactly what the Los Angeles Times book columnist Jack Miles proposes to do in God: A Biography, and this results in a scintillating work of literary scholarship that will forever color, if not downright alter, our conception of the Bible as a work of art.

By treating God as a literary personage and minutely examining narrative evidence of his character in the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh (which has the same material as the Old Testament but presents it in a slightly different order), Mr. Miles constructs a detailed portrait of the Almighty, who, in his telling, turns out not to be quite as all-powerful or all-knowing as commonly thought. Indeed, Mr. Miles's God emerges as an "imperfectly self-conscious" fellow whose "word is as poorly under His control as rain that has already fallen from the sky" and whose "thoughts must strain to be equal to His experience," a character as conflicted as any young Bildungsroman hero and as magnetically compelling as Satan in Paradise Lost.

God's intentions, Mr. Miles suggests, are constantly being subverted by His experience. "After each of His major actions, He discovers that He has not done quite what He thought He was doing, or has done something He never intended to do," Mr. Miles writes. "He did not realize when He told mankind to 'be fertile and increase' that He was creating an image of Himself that was also a rival creator. He did not realize when He destroyed His rival that He would regret the destruction of His image."

Part of the problem, it seems, is that God suffers from what might be called a multiple personality disorder. Throughout the Book of Genesis, Mr. Miles argues, He displays two entirely different personas: God who is "lofty, unwavering and sincere in his creative actions" and the Lord God, who is "intimate, volatile and prone to dark regrets and darker equivocations." God creates man "in his own image" (Genesis 1:27) and gives him dominion over the earth (1:28); the Lord God forms man "of the dust of the ground" (Genesis 2:7) and confines him to a pretty garden (2:8). God gives man and woman an ungrudging and unqualified command to "be fruitful, and multiply" (1:28); the Lord God worries about the prospect of man living forever and reminds him that he will always be dust (3: 19).

As Mr. Miles points out, God's inner conflicts will multiply even further in later books of the Bible, as He vacillates between His roles as liberator and lawgiver,...

(The entire section is 1263 words.)

Paul Wilkes (review date 9 April 1995)

SOURCE: "God's Boswell: A man writes a biography of God. God responds," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 9, 1995, p. 4

[In the following humorous review, Wilkes presents a "letter" from God addressed to Jack Miles in which God praises Miles's knowledge of scripture, languages, history, and culture. God points out a few problems with Miles's "biography," but lauds his ability to engage and captivate readers with a lively and entertaining story.]

Dear Jack,

The galley proofs of your new book about me arrived a while back, and I've finally finished it. What with all the requests, complaints and reports I have to sort through, it's hard to get any...

(The entire section is 1346 words.)

Marina Warner (review date 30 April 1995)

SOURCE: "The Divine Protagonist," in Book World—The Washington Post, Vol. XXV, No. 18, April 30, 1995, p. 2.

[In the following review, Warner praises Miles's attempt to look at the Bible in a new way. Saying "the book belongs in a fresh tradition of biblical scholarship," Warner nevertheless faults Miles's interpretation, calling the Bible an "epic without a hero."]

Reversing the usual angle of view, a character in one of Jose Saramago's novels overhears Christ on the cross asking humankind to forgive God: "Forgive Him for He knows not what He has done." In this audacious new study, [God: A Biography,] Jack Miles also tackles the character of God on...

(The entire section is 1064 words.)

Phyllis Trible (review date 14 May 1995)

SOURCE: "A Flawed Character," in The New York Times Book Review, May 14, 1995, p. 10.

[In the following review, Trible acknowledges Miles's scholarly achievements but faults his omission of the prophetic literature in Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea. The critic also pans the diversionary focus on other characters such as Abraham, Jacob, Esau, and Pharaoh.]

In recent years literary studies of the Bible have explored all kinds of topics—save God, the chief protagonist of the narrative. That not insignificant subject has now received its due, a tour de force called God: A Biography, by Jack Miles.

If some people may find a biography of God an...

(The entire section is 1683 words.)

Luke Timothy Johnson (review date 19 May 1995)

SOURCE: "What a Character!," in Commonweal, Vol. CXXII, No. 10, May 19, 1995, pp. 32-4.

[In the following review, Johnson praises portions of God: A Biography for "stunning prose" and inventiveness but contends the book is also deeply flawed in its reliance on the order of books in the Tanakh and in its focus on God's emotions.]

Should we think of the Bible as a kind of novel, with God as the story's protagonist? And if we read the Bible in this way, will it deepen our understanding of God or of ourselves, or of the "book" we regard as sacred Scripture? Jack Miles attempts such a character study of the "Lord God" as that figure is developed within the...

(The entire section is 1202 words.)

T. Howland Sanks (review date 1 July 1995)

SOURCE: A review of God: A Biography, in America, Vol. 173, No. 1, July 1, 1995, pp. 24, 26.

[In the following review, Sanks notes that God: A Biography is reliant on the reader accepting a variation in the order in which the books of the Bible appear. Despite this, he calls the book "fascinating" and praises Miles's ability to stimulate readers to imagine God in new ways.]

The title [of God: A Biography], though arresting, may sound impudent or presumptuous. It is neither. It is a literary study of the Lord God, protagonist of one of the great classics of world literature. By a strictly sequential reading of the Hebrew Bible, Miles imaginatively...

(The entire section is 959 words.)

Further Reading


Gardels, Nathan. "Pluralism and Faith in the Next Millennium." New Perspectives Quarterly 13, No. 2 (Spring 1996): 44-7.

Interview with the author.

Mesic, Penelope. "Up Close and Personal with God." Chicago Tribune (26 April 1996): 1.

Presents Miles's comments about God: A Biography.

Miller, Ross. "God's Book Revisited." Chicago Tribune (7 May 1995): 1.

Describes God: A Biography as a "brilliant, audacious work."

(The entire section is 55 words.)