While in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport waiting for a connecting flight
one day, I went into a bookstore and saw a book called “A Biography of
God”, written by Jack Miles. It was a Pulitzer Prize winner, so I
figured it would be hard to go wrong. It was certainly a
fascinating book. It took the Old Testament (the writer didn’t
consider the New Testament) at face value, as a story, whose
protagonist is God. What does it say about God? In a
nutshell, it said that God was a conflicted being, striving to find
some resolution between the desire to create and to destroy,
oscillating between lashing out in anger and then healing in
repentance. The shocking climax of the book was that the book of
Job was the story of God meeting someone more moral than him, and
retreating thereafter into the background, and finally fading, becoming
a ringing echo in the Prophets. What makes the author’s case
especially convincing is the fact that God’s final response to Job has
nothing to do with fairness or justice, but is a long way of saying
“Who do you think you’re talking to?”
My own theology is evangelical Christian, and I’ve been a Christian for
over 27 years. So the book, to me, was filled with heresy, yet
seemed to have a perspective worth considering. The book and its
arguments held my attention for a long time, because it was somewhat
thrilling to have another person look boldy at the Bible and say what
they found there, simply as a reader of a story: that God does
seem to be a lot like an abusive father who really does love his
kids. What has always stuck in my craw a little is the elaborate
apologies that Christians make for God when it seems like the Bible
itself uses language like “God repented of the evil He had done”.
Christians really do like to paint a portrait of God as an Unseen
Force, always expressed in terms of extremes and superlatives, and,
with the addition of perfect foreknowledge, never credibly able to
experience regret or curiosity like we do. I believe that this
kind of philosophy of extremes is the Hellenistic influence on the
early Christian church—the philosophy of the Greeks seemed tight and
mathematical to the early church fathers, and they strove, I believe,
to fuse it with the stories of the Bible. But to me, this
theology seems to have little foundation in the actual Bible as it
What I couldn’t get away from is that whether or not the language
“accurately” describes God, it is God’s own account of himself!
Words like “regret” were chosen, it seems, so that we understand that
whatever emotion God felt, its closest analogue in ourselves is
regret—the gut feeling of “I wish I hadn’t done that.” God may
not have a gender, but he chose the word “Father” to describe his
relationship to us. Not “Mother”. Is part of that because
He feels more challenging than nuturing?
And what would I do with this knowledge, this new way of looking at the
universe and its Creator? I think I would be inclined to pester
God more (through prayer), fear Him more, wrestle with Him more.
I might question Him more. Deal with Him more as a Person.
But maybe I would also think a little less of Him. I’m not sure,
because it’s hard for me to believe this new idea in my heart. I
knew that I didn’t believe all of this author’s conclusions. It
forced me to ask: did I really believe, as Jack Miles does, that
Job was more moral than God? No. So what was happening
there in the Bible?
What would make a perfectly moral Person seem tormented and barbaric?
And then I saw my three-year-old daughter’s time-out chair, and the
answer came, wordlessly, at once. A relationship with a barbarian
can make an exalted Being act barbaric. At least if He’s going to
be an involved Father.
Suddenly I realized that Jack Miles was only half right—the Bible is
indeed God’s biography, but from his children’s point of view. It
would be as if my daughter, at the tender age of 18, when children
believe that they finally have their parents figured out, when they’ve
judged their parents’ lives and choices wanting against their
crystalline adolescent ideals, decided to write a biography of myself
and my wife. Suppose in fact that my daughter has a perfect
memory, able to remember every scene since birth exactly as she
experienced it. What would she write?
She would write, I suspect, about how the Parents welcomed her into the
world with love and attention, omnipotently taking care of every need,
for a year or so. Then the relationship took a turn for the worse
as the Parents began, on occasion, to turn violent and capricious,
without any apparent warning. Later she understood that there
were Rules of the House that had to be obeyed, but these were all
imposed by the Parents anyway, and seemed to be under constant
revision, all with the apparent aim of putting an end to perfectly good
ideas. And many times, trying to repeat a once-good experience
with the Parents led to more sudden and strange censure.
Eventually she would write how she came to understand the Reasons
behind the Rules, and began to negotiate with us about exceptions and
extensions to the Rules. This seemed like a good way to proceed,
but the Parents retained their capricious ways. Wheedling an
extra cookie out of them worked once; why, when tried an hour later,
did it result in such arbitrary censure? Hadn’t it been
established that this particular Rule could be bent? But the
relationship does improve as time goes on. The punishments and
the capriciousness begin to relent.
Finally, as she grows older, she begins to see what the Parents are
about, somewhat, and is able to imagine what it would be like to be a
Parent herself. They seem like peers now, more than anything, and
she talks with them as one adult to another. The relationship is
becoming strained again, though; the Parents do not seem to understand
the world she is in, nor its priorities, and it is hard to talk about
some very simple and important things with them.
Eventually, as she arrives at the age of 18, she sees that the Parents
have grown up along with her, but she has recognized, from her vantage
point, their fatal flaws and poor choices. But her magnanimity is
such that she can forgive these flaws—now that she’s no longer in the
house—and simply pities them for their smallness. She sits down
to write the Biography of the Parents, and does not quite realize that
her Parents were already 9 years older, 9 years more experienced, 9
years wiser and more capable than she is now—before they ever even
decided to conceive her.
She doesn’t remember, for example, that when she first began to become
strong, having the capability for destruction, that she ignored our
gentle warnings and redirections, becoming set on a given destructive
path, so that loud voices were finally necessary. She couldn’t
realize that something like an extra cookie is not either Totally Evil
or Perfectly Acceptable, and that our decision as to whether she should
get one is based on whether we see a bad habit developing, the way she
asks for it, and frankly, on our mood. She doesn’t see that the
reason we didn’t share many of her adolescent interests was because
they were irrelevant to who she was becoming as a woman; whereas we
took great interest in those events and relationships which could be
turning points in her character or her life. Nothing to do with
whether we understood her adolescent interests.
And anyone who’s been the parent of a spirited three-year old knows
that the experience doesn’t bring out the best in you. It doesn’t
go the way you hoped, always. And how do you explain your real
motivations? How do you explain balanced meals and the value of
nutrition to a toddler who just wants an extra cookie, without either
giving in all the time or making them think that cookies are Bad?
And if you’ve got that licked, try dealing with a group of
toddlers. How do you explain that you see the long-term
consequences of certain budding behaviors and habits, and that it’s not
really the action that’s a problem, but the habit?
It seems like, in the process of “getting into it” with the barbarian
culture with which God worked, He looks—to the barbarians—like the
biggest barbarian of all, with the interesting twist that he is trying
to call them to a higher moral ground. Bringing them along.
Is God Surprised?
There is a strong feeling in evangelical Christian theology that
because God is omnipotent, and knows the future, that he isn’t
surprised by anything. But the Bible just doesn’t seem to teach
that to me. It seems that he isn’t surprised by much. But
it does seem sometimes that people do surprise him. Like with the
Tower of Babel, where the Trinity seems uneasy about man’s
achievements, and they seem to take a preventative measure. Or
when Jesus is “taken aback” by the faith of the centurion. Or
when God tests Abraham, or Job. The whole point of a test is that
you’re not sure how it’s going to come out. There are other
examples as well.
As a parent of a toddler, I know this feeling. As a child grows,
you can predict very accurately how they’re going to respond to certain
situations, because you’ve been with them every moment, and you know
them intimately. But once in awhile they will really surprise
you, showing either an astonishing amout of maturity or a bewildering
lack of it. You suddenly realize that they aren’t who you thought
they were. A relationship with any person can be full of these
kinds of surprises.
Does God Have Moods?
Can God be in “a bad mood”? I can remember many Bible studies
where this was laughingly asserted, as a rhetorical question. Of
course not. He has perfect self-esteem, can control the universe,
has everything He wants; he doesn’t need us. What would he ever
be in a bad mood about?
Again, looking at it as the parent of a toddler, I wonder. Before
having children, my wife and I had everything we needed. We had a
home we enjoyed, friends, work and hobbies that made us happy.
And we had each others’ company. We really didn’t need children
for anything. Now that we have her she still doesn’t “give” us
much. At her very best she can only help contain and control the
destruction her own existence causes. Sometimes she puts us in a
bad mood and then even when she does the things that we find lovable at
other times, they just make us angrier. During those bad moods
it’s just better if she lays low, acts respectful and makes reparations
Yet—we cannot now imagine what life was like without her. What
she does “give” us is the joy of a relationship with her. The joy
of teaching her something new, of watching the wonder in her eyes, of
being able to give her something she wants or needs, hearing her say
she loves us, and, of course, the joy of loving her.
So—God had everything He (They) needed, but He created humans anyway,
and is now embroiled in a relationship with them that he doesn’t want
to give up. It’s something He has learned to crave.
What! Does God “learn”? But he already knows
everything! I really start to wonder about that “knows
everything”. I’ve heard the definition of a “family” as “those
people who stick by you through all the trouble you wouldn’t have had
if you didn’t have a family.” Having children is the same
way. Children teach you all those things you wouldn’t have needed
to know if you didn’t have children. In other words, they teach
you about themselves and what you’re like when you’re around
them. There is a humbling that goes with being a parent.
You think you’re a calm person until it’s really tested.
Perhaps God made us in order to test Himself.
And maybe there is a clue in the following extremely mysterious phrase,
when the Bible says of Jesus: “He learned obedience.”
Could it be that God became man in order to see what was so hard about
it? Is this part of the logic that lies obscured behind the
Divine Scandal? And the strangest possibility of all—was God
changed by the experience? When He prayed to Himself in
Gethsemane, was this his way of seeing if he could take what he dished
out to the prophets? To see, even, if it was “right”?
Isn’t there a parallel between Job and Christ? Christ lives
perfectly righteously, yet—is put through tremendous suffering as part
of a test.
I am assuming a lot, and a good bit of it is probably heresy.
Much of what happens with the human family and human parenting ends up
being accidents of our biology, I am sure. But there is a
spiritual aspect that transcends our bodies and minds, something to the
task of parenting that is like a self-examination, a raising of one’s
own self-consciousness, nuances of self-sacrifice and self-judgment
that are hard to come by any other way.
The Reality is certainly much greater. But I yearn to understand
it to any degree possible.
© Derek T. Jones 17 July 1998