Apologia Pro Biblioteca Sua
In Defense of His Library
A talk given in October 13, 1998, Braun Room, Andover Hall, Harvard Divinity School. Published in the 1998 Harvard Divinity Bulletin.
"Any one of us in this room could right now, without any warning, without any preparation, tell the rest of us his or her life story simply by moving in memory from library to library, back to early childhood."
An after-dinner speech, I have always thought, should not make more demands upon the listener than a tart makes upon the diner. Let it have a bright, fruity color. Allow it even to be a bit flaky. Think of it as optional, so that if a given diner must leave early, he won't leave unnourished. (When Jimi Hendrix began his set at Woodstock, he said "You can leave now if you want. We're just jammin'.") The after-dinner speech, like dessert, serves the purposes of entertainment rather than nutrition, and, as such, must be served in modest quantity. The diner will have a tart, thank you, not a whole pie.
The title of this after-dinner speech, given in Latin in deference to this seat of classical learning, is "Apologia pro biblioteca sua" or "In Defense of His Library." Any one of us in this room could right now, without any warning, without any preparation, tell the rest of us his or her life story simply by moving in memory from library to library, back to early childhood. Emily Dickinson has a lovely little poem that goes as follows:
He ate and drank the precious words
His spirit grew robust--
He knew no more that he was poor
Or that his frame was dust--
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book--
What liberty a loosened spirit brings!
That poem is only the more suggestive for making no reference to the age of the reader, but the reader who comes to my mind when I read it is myself at the age of about nine when on snowy afternoons in Chicago my sister and I would drag a sled a mile and a half to the local branch library. Arriving with snow in our hair and snow crusting our coats, we would thaw out and dry off for two hours or more as we browsed the shelves in the children's reading room and finally head for home as the street lights began to blink on, our selections wrapped in a blanket and strapped to the sled.
What liberty a loosened spirit brings!"
Chances are pretty good that you have some such early memory yourself. And starting there, you could, if asked, continue to your high school library, your college library, perhaps a law school or medical school or graduate school library, and then on to the libraries of adult life, professional and personal, and still further to the libraries to which you may have taken a child or grandchild, and at length to the home library that will accompany you into old age. Optimus amicus bonus liber, "A good book is the best friend," to quote words from the frieze of Chicago's monumental downtown library as I came to know it a few years later in high school.
Speaking of personal libraries, I cannot forget a visit Jacqueline and I made to a dusty, unprepossessing little house on a dusty, unprepossessing street in dusty, unprepossessing Tucson, Arizona in the early 1980s. I was in town to visit the University of Arizona Press, and while there I visited my old friend dusty, unprepossessing Peter Machinist and so had occasion to discover, there in his adobe haciendita, a learned library of simply staggering proportions--a labor of love and intelligence, the hundreds of volumes on steel library shelves, professionally catalogued, a set of books that was neither an ornament nor an obsession but the working collection of a young scholar who took his work with complete seriousness. Having seen that library, I wasn't surprised when, a few years later, I learned that Harvard had named Peter to succeed Frank Moore Cross as the Hancock Professor of Hebrew.
What is a university? According to one hallowed definition, a university consists of a library and a printing press. The faculty sometimes rather grandly say of themselves "We are the university," and so they are. But just as a young scholar ideally takes away from a great university an image of what a greatness is in a scholar, so he or she takes away a complementary image of what greatness is in a library and of how the two both support one another and sometimes, quite properly, undermine one another. The ranking world authority in a subject may stand in a Harvard classroom and with good reason correct received opinion. He or she may be heard to say "You will find thus and so written in the literature, but I tell you neither thus nor so but as follows, and I suggest that you take this down." That subversion of printed authority is essential to the creation of an independent mind. And yet a gifted student with borrowing privileges at a library like the Andover-Harvard Theological Library may think to himself, "You say thus, and the usual literature says so, but I have just discovered a book that offers a third alternative." In memory, the image of a challenging library--a library from which challenges may be mounted--has as much formative importance as the image of a challenging professor.
The first sentence in the first lecture that I attended at the Harvard was "The history of Bible interpretation in the West is the history of Western thought." If that sentence is a deliberate exaggeration, it is an exaggeration that makes the necessary point that as far back as we go in the history of what we call the West, scripture is already there, enlivened by and enlivening the thinking of one era after another. What makes the oldest and best theological libraries so irreplaceable in this connection is that the works they own, some of them quite fragile, are works that document the thinking of these successive eras, and these works are often not for sale anywhere at any price. The history of Bible interpretation is not cyclical, but wholly new ideas about the Bible are rare, and the refreshment of interpretation in any given era can often begin with a look backward. The Harvard-Andover is a library uniquely rich in resources for that kind of refreshment.
Now, as for my own library, the library that requires explanatory defense or apologia, it reflects the fact that I left college teaching after only four years and went into book publishing for a decade and then into journalism for a second decade. My longest-running assignment in journalism was as literary editor of the Los Angeles Times; and in book reviewing, even more than in book publishing, the cardinal virtue is breadth rather than depth. It is said that a good book editor should be like the Rio Grande, a mile wide and an inch deep. During these twenty years, in which books came to me by the hundreds, I first ceased thinking of myself as a Bible scholar, then surrendered my identity as a university person of any sort, and then, or rather for some years along the way, saw myself as fallen away from any and every religious community. My library was growing steadily, but because of frequent changes of residence it was unsystematic and uncatalogued, and much of it at any given time was also unshelved. When I needed a given book, I typically would have to track it to a storage box.
In 1990, when a long-shot Guggenheim application succeeded, I devoted the first months of what I saw as my last chance at serious writing not to actual writing--Jacqueline will confirm this--but to overseeing the construction of the first semi-adequate, permanent bookshelves of my adult life. As I unpacked and surveyed my holdings synoptically for the first time in some years, I discovered that, yes, impulsively or compulsively, I had continued to acquire new books about religion and about the Bible, but more active impulsive acquisition had clearly been in fiction, poetry, and science journalism. Five years later, when God: A Biography was published, the Chicago Tribune's reviewer, who evidently knew a little about my history, said that I could not have written this book had I not been so long departed from the campus. He may have been right. One can never know these things about oneself. But privately, I have speculated about the effect of my having been, for so long, in the presence of but without ready access to my own library. In a way I may have been forced to spend more time just reading the Bible.
Prof. Machinist, Dean Thiemann, and Dr. Thomas Jenkins of the development office, himself the author of a fine book on the character of God in 19th-century American theology, will confirm that I felt considerable diffidence at the prospect of speaking about my one book to a Harvard audience of any kind. In general, he who reviews his own work has a fool for a critic. Beyond that, old habits die hard: I come to Harvard to listen, not to talk. However, I did finally agree to talk about the book; and as you will see in a moment, I have found a way to talk about it by talking about somebody else talking about it, which is easier.
God: A Biography may be described generically as a formalist reading of the Bible offered as an alternative to the intentionalist school of Bible reading which has been dominant in university circles for a century or more. What I understand by those two terms--formalism and intentionalism--can be simply stated. To intentionalism, the meaning of a text is located in the mind of its author, and the text is simply the means by which a reader reads the author's mind. To formalism, meaning is located in the form of the text, and the author is simply the means by which the form came into existence. I myself tend to see formalism and intentionalism as simply two options which, however mutually exclusive, are simultaneously valid. But this is not how formalists and intentionalists have typically seen each other.
One of the most influential statements ever made in this country about the nature of literature was a formalist manifesto by W.K. Wimsatt, published in 1946 under the title "The Intentional Fallacy." This is the article that, in my judgment, launched the entire, still continuing dominance of critical theory within the study of literature in this country. Wimsatt wrote that a poem "is not the critic's own and not the author's (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the public...."
To Wimsatt and kindred formalist thinkers, the notion that any text remains connected to its author and must be interpreted accordingly was a fallacy. To intentionalists, however, it was Wimsatt's view that was nonsense. They took and still take the common-sense view that understanding any text involves understanding who produced it for whom and when and where and why. Anything that contributes to understanding the who, the whom, the when, the where, and the why contributes to understanding the text, and unless a few such questions can be posed and answered, there is really very little for a critic to do.
Intentionalists do not generally call themselves intentionalists. What they call themselves is historians. If they happen to work in literature departments rather than in history departments, what they call themselves is historicists or historical critics. They are right to do so, for when an author is not one's immediate contemporary, it is only by using the conventional tools of historiography that authorial intention can be recovered. In the United States, intentionalist, historical criticism was dominant in the study of the modern vernacular literatures, notably the English, for the first half of this century. This kind of criticism was the "Old Criticism" with which "New Criticism" of the sort espoused by W.K. Wimsatt was tacitly comparing itself.
For the Bible, historical criticism of the sort possible for nearly all the works of English literature was for centuries out of the question because, by contrast with English literature, historical information relevant to this literature was not to be had outside the text itself. Because of the enormous cultural importance of the Bible, however, once such information began to become available--we may date that beginning to 1821 when the Rosetta stone was deciphered--the attraction of history for students of the Bible became overwhelming. Unfortunately, from being the most exciting kind of study available, historical study became over time virtually the only kind of study recognized as valid or important. Only as historical criticism has become the standard sort of criticism practiced in divinity schools has the notion that this kind of criticism is controversial or revolutionary begun to abate. It continues to be interesting, of course. Those who would define it as modern and themselves as postmodern rarely quite escape it. Their own work, even if written in a new idiom, usually has revisionist history as its end product and intentionalism as its implicit orientation. And yet a large change has occurred.
As for the New Criticism of the English departments, it is now fifty years old and decidedly a closed historical chapter in the history of that field. Still, New Criticism, having never really been attempted for the Bible, is new in this context and still full of potential, or so I am prepared to believe. Though I never used the phrase new criticism in writing God: A Biography and do not consider myself a specialist in it, my book is in effect an attempt to apply New Criticism to the Tanakh or the Hebrew Bible. This has entailed taking the text in its entirety, taking that entirety in all its variety as a unit for purposes of formal or formalist criticism, and taking the text's principal character as unitary for the same purposes. Relationships among parts of the text and among differing manifestations of that mercurial central character are assessed, when this approach is followed, for their formal impact--the effect they produce as words in a certain formal order on the page--rather than as information about the authors who have produced them or about those authors' home communities.
Does this approach work? Described in such abstract language, it might not sound particularly promising, but to many readers of God: A Biography it has seemed to work surprisingly well. Rather than linger over those readers, however, or their published opinions, I prefer to turn to one reader for whom the approach definitely did not work; namely, Jay Harris, Wolfson Professor of Jewish Studies here at Harvard. Mr. Harris reviewed God: A Biography at considerable length in the venerable Jewish newspaper Forward (July 7, 1995), and I consider this review, though more negative than positive, to be, bar none, the most stimulating review the book has received or is likely to receive.
I want to quote from this review at some length and then comment on it; but before I do, let me pause long enough to say that the fact that Jews and Christians are now reading and commenting on each others' sacred texts in each others' presence is a historic achievement not just for this or any other educational institution but for this nation. The West has known nothing comparable since the Spanish convivencia of the twelfth century, and we owe it, in my judgment, largely to the social equality that American polity permits and American culture fosters.
But now, without further ado, let me read to you the concluding one third of the Harris review, which was published under the title "God's So-Called Life":
In formulating his approach to this project, Mr. Miles, while ever concerned for Jewish sensibilities, remains thoroughly within a Christian understanding of this shared cultural treasure, known to Christians as the Bible (singular). The name presupposes an overarching unity that, it seems, is fundamental to Mr. Miles' insistence that we may think of it as a literary work. While aware that Jews call it Tanach, and adopting what he assumes is the order of this Jewish collection, Mr. Miles, a former Jesuit, very naturally assumes that this tripartite collection (which he knows full well consists of dozens of texts from various times and places) ultimately reflects some kind of unity. Sound familiar?
From a Jewish perspective, it seems that the matter is quite different. Leaving aside the question of sequence, we must ask whether in Jewish historical understanding the acronym Tanach (or the category of sacred writings) ever conveyed a sense of unity. It seems to me that the answer to this question is certainly negative. In classical Jewish literature, the collection of scriptures was divided into three parts, and were called the "24 books," or the kitve ha-kodesh, the holy writings, or sifre ha-kodesh, the holy books. Even a more collective name, such as mikra, the reading, conveys only that these books may be read publicly in the synagogue or the Temple in Jerusalem; or ha-katuv, that which is written, differentiates this collection from those that were not written or were written differently. But they do not convey a sense that there is unity to the collection.
Leaving aside names, it is certainly the case that in Jewish homiletic practice any verse in the collection may be associated with another verse for mutual illumination, Yet the practical, legal contours of the Jewish tradition (halacha) could only be drawn from the Torah, and it was understood that the other parts of the collection were of lesser status. Similarly, only the works of the prophets could be read regularly in the synagogue with a blessing, while "the writings" could not be read in this manner (with the exception of Esther). Moving forward from talmudic times, the prophets and writings were virtually never studied in most premodern Jewish schools, and a person who could be described as a "Bible-reader" is almost non-existent. Indeed, in 19th-century Eastern Europe it was often assumed that someone who spent time studying these parts of the collection must be a heretic. The assumption of overarching unity is supported by cultural assumptions not grounded in traditional Jewish thinking.
In the modern period, as Jews tried ever more desperately to highlight shared aspects of Jewish and Christian religious cultures, they naturally turned to the Hebrew scriptures. In time many adopted an understanding of this text rooted in Christian cultural assumptions. Indeed, German Jewish writers frequently enough used the term "Old Testament." In more recent times, as Jews have become more assertive and insisted on a more neutral term (and as post-Holocaust Christians have becomed receptive to this demand), the prevailing term in interfaith and academic communities has become "Hebrew Bible." Yet this term, too, concedes far too much from the Jewish side, for in Jewish cultural history this collection has never been understood in a manner that corresponds to what Christians call the "Bible" (definite article, singular). Rather, we have a collection of Hebrew scriptures (plural, lower case) of unequal authority and historical-cultural importance.
To Mr. Miles, the "Bible" can serve as a literary work whose protagonist merits a biography; yet to this Jewish reader the colleciton of Hebrew scriptures can never produce a coherent biography of God, but, at best, a series of assumptions regarding divine demeanor, some of which have never mattered a great deal.
Very much worth reading for what it says about "biblical" conceptions of God, Mr. Miles' book also serves to remind us just how much baggage people raised within the Jewish or Christian religious traditions bring to their efforts to communicate with one another, and how even the most honest attempt to understand the other frequently misses the mark.
This is an admirable review, friendly in tone but provocative in content; I am grateful to the author for having written it. My first response to it is to concede immediately that for some Jews the Bible does not exist as a singular entity to which a definite article may be attached. My second response, however, is to assert that for some other Jews some such singular entity does exist. The question that must be asked is whether Jews who consider Tanakh a Hebrew singular noun to which they may attach the Hebrew definite article or who, when speaking English, use the phrase the Bible without embarrassment must be seen to have adulterated Judaism with Christianity. Mr. Harris clearly thinks so. An alert reader of his review will note that not only does he speak only of Tanakh, never of the Tanakh, but also, when speaking in his own name, he never uses the phrase the Bible or the adjective biblical without putting them in quotation marks. He drops the quotation marks only when summarizing my views.
Let me note, parenthetically, that one of the several advantages of the word Tanakh as an alternative to Hebrew Bible is that, as an acronym representing three plural nouns, it may be heard by those who use it as either singular or plural and even construed accordingly. In Britain, the acronym US is commonly construed as a plural; e.g., "The US have no ambassador in Cuba." In the United States since the Civil War, that acronym is always construed as a singular: "The US has no ambassador in Cuba." As the British and the Americans understand each other without difficulty or offense, this grammatical discrepancy notwithstanding, so Jews at pains to insist on the plurality of the scriptures and Jews or Christians preferring to recognize a singularity embracing that plurality might manage an analogous feat of nomenclature.
To return to review, Mr. Harris's rejection of the unity and singularity of the Tanakh is a rejection not only in the name of Judaism but also, as I see it, in the name of intentionalism: multiple authorship requires multiple and separate consideration of the works the authors have written. This issue is highly relevant to another less perennial, more contemporary issue, however; namely, the sometimes acrimonious controversy--especially, though not only, in Israel--between, on the one side, Reform and Conservative Jews and, on the other, Orthodox Jews. When Mr. Harris reminds us that "in most premodern Jewish schools, ... a person who could be described as a 'Bible-reader' is almost non-existent' and 'in 19th century Eastern Europe it was often assumed that someone who spent time studying these parts of the collection must be a heretic," is he merely noting the habits of a bygone era or rather suggesting that, perhaps with some adjustment, this state of affairs should continue to be normative? When he adduces the traditions of 19th-century Eastern Europe, does he mean to honor them by preference to those of 16th-century Southern Europe, where in the Shulhan Aruch Joseph Caro urged the study of the full Jewish canon? When he says "The assumption of overarching unity is supported by cultural assumptions not grounded in traditional Jewish thinking," is he defining the Jewish tradition in a way that would define as un-Jewish the way that the Israeli school system turns all Israeli children into Bible readers? Is the school system unwittingly turning Israeli children into cultural Christians? I note that in modern Hebrew the word tanakh is commonly used with the definite article and that the adjectival form tanakhi also occurs. I do not doubt that there are some Jews --perhaps not many but some--who do see the Israeli public schools as producing secularized Jews and who do equate secularization with Christianization. But there are others who think otherwise and who vociferously decline to be defined, in a phrase recently used by one of their religious opponents, as "Hebrew-speaking gentiles."
This contemporary question has more than one historical dimension. The Jews of Europe embraced the Enligthtenment and even gave it a Hebrew name, haskala, for the very good reason that it opened a path to modernity that, as they saw it, did not lead by way of Christianity. Against Mr. Harris, I have assumed that the cultural ideology to which European Jews in the modern period were adjusting was secular liberalism rather than Christianity. It is from this source, I have again assumed, that secular Zionism imbibed the notion that the Tanakh could be celebrated as a work (singular) of literary art. But perhaps this is a mistaken view. If it now turns out that certain Christian assumptions were not repudiated by but rather are built into the Enlightenment, then must the Enlightenment be rejected lest Christianity be accepted? In the test case of whether the adjective biblical or the phrase the Bible can be used or whether in either Hebrew or English the word tanakh may be allowed the definite article, I myself see a fairly clear line. On one side of this line are observant or traditionalist Jews, who reject the assumption of biblical unity as essentially Christian. On the other side of the line are many observant Jews and most secular Jews, who accept the assumption of unity in neutral literary terms rather than in charged religious ones. Even after it has been pointed out to this second group that western Christianity misconstrued a Greek plural as a Latin singular and over time, so to speak, put the collection between two covers and made it function anthologically, even then they may regard the Jewish anthology as more than adequately Jewish for their purposes.
It is interesting to note in this connection that such tension over usage as may be observed in the United States does not divide Christians using the word Bible from Jews using some translation of a traditional plural designation such as siprey haqqodes or kitbey haqqodes. The tension one may note on occasion at meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature is rather a tension between, on the one hand, Christians who want to reserve the word Bible for their own two-testament collection and, on the other, Jews who want to use that noun without the adjective Hebrew to refer to the Tanakh alone. Plainly, the unitary assumption to which Harris objects animates the Jewish party to this muted American dispute no less than it does the Christian party.
No doubt, the distinction between Torah and Tanakh or the Torah and the Tanakh, is profoundly felt even among the most secular of Jews. Nonetheless, to repeat, the originally Christian transformation of a plurality into a singularity is by now so much a part of the general secular western literary patrimony that a good many Jews are undistracted in their reading of the Tanakh or of my book about the Tanakh by the consideration that so preoccupies Mr. Harris.
Interestingly, in this connection, the title of Mr. Harris's own most recent book is How Do We Know This? Midrash and the Fragmentation of Modern Judaism (SUNY Press). Mr. Harris would seem to have a keen eye for multiplicity, and yet to speak of fragmentation is to speak of an earlier unity that has been broken. So much unity Mr. Harris would apparently concede to Judaism as a tradition, but I ask: What degree of unity, however meager, would he concede to the various presentations of God himself in Tanakh?
Let me present a kind of limit case in a thought experiment comparing serial polytheism to serial polygamy. Let us imagine a man named Mr. Schmidt, who takes a wife and calls her Mrs. Schmidt, then divorces her and takes another, whom he also calls Mrs. Schmidt, and so forth through seven wives. Let us further suppose that Mr. Schmidt is an active diarist and that a century after his death, using only the Schmidt diaries, an enterprising writer should set out to write a book entitled Mrs. Schmidt: A Biography. This Mrs. Schmidt would be a very interesting lady indeed, full of conflict, full of internal contradiction, but she would also, of course, be a figment of the writer's imagination, for in point of fact there was no single Mrs. Schmidt, and Mr. Schmidt was not monogamous but serially polygamous.
Something like this, I take it, is the kind of mistake I might seem to have made in my biography of God. But I object to this objection, I question this question. Is monotheism itself one unifying assumption too many to make about Tanakh? Would Mr. Harris concede that such is the implication of a one-sided insistence on plurality? Is it excessive even to assume that the words 'adonay and 'elohim always, or almost always, refer to the same being? They need not in principle. Rather than mutually inconsistent representations of one being, we are free in principle to posit several internally consistent representations of several different beings all merely operating at different times under the same name, their successive appearance being Israel's serial polytheism. It is common now, at academic gatherings, to hear talk of Judaisms in the plural rather than Mr. Harris's single fragmented Judaism. My question is: Can we go from multiplicity in the worshippers to a multiplicity in the worshipped? Or to speak in terms of the text, need the serene creator of Genesis and the raging warrior of Exodus be regarded as one being, or should they with greater fidelity to their characterization be regarded as two?
Frankly, I believe that redaction, editing, and--not least important--massively consistent reader response have woven yarn that in many cases was originally polytheistic and can easily be recognized as such into what is now a monotheistic fabric and that this much unity--though it be little--the collection cannot be denied. One may admit that much of the effect of the Tanakh when one reads it as a whole is indeed pure effect--effect, that is, without any thoroughgoing, all-unifying intent--and yet recognize the unifying power of the monotheistic assumption simply as an assumption, not to speak of the innumerable instances of actual editorial revision under the impact of that assumption. It may be that the unitary assumption has stamped the Christian Bible more powerfully than it has the Jewish Holy Writings, but the difference is surely only a matter of degree.
The writers of the Tanakh and God are not analogous to the blind men and the elephant, for anyone invoking that folk tale, whatever protestations of humility he may seem to make, assigns himself the role of the sighted man who sees what the blind men miss. Unfortunately, outside the incommunicable privacy of mystical experience, God is an elephant whom no one has seen. Where the Tanakh is concerned, the only unity within common, replicable reach is the unity brought into existence by a reader's decision to hear separate voices polyphonically. In other words, these voices may well not refer to the same elephant, but by an act of the will I may nonetheless read them as if they do. Alternately, reading the separate testimonies as wholly separate, I may--indeed I must--leave tacitly open the possibility that separate believers believed in separate gods and wrote accordingly.
The avoidance by scripture scholars of this God question deserves more scrutiny than it has received. That avoidance was pointedly noted by Gildas Hamel in his review of God: A Biography for the quarterly Judaism (Summer, 1996). Hamel wrote as follows:
Secularization--the steam-rolling process of rationalization--has been gobbling up traditional beliefs and customs, the Bible being one of its main objects, for now three centuries. The intensive historical criticism of two centuries has flattened scripture, succeeded by a generation's work in modern literary study. Yet some questions have eluded the machine's grasp. As recently as 1993, in Narrative in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford Bible Series, Oxford University Press), D.M. Gunn and D.N. Fewell noted that there are gaps in the account. "None of the commentators is willing to explore the character of God," with loyalty to "established dogma" apparently "determinative. What God does is generally assumed to be unchallengeable, despite the fact that the question of justice in God's initial treatment of Cain is raised as early as the Targum." ... If one takes seriously the idea that the Bible is literature, as has been done especially in the English-speaking world, it does appear curious that God has not yet been studied as a character within the text rather than its external author or inspirer.
I agree with Hamel, obviously, that this omission is curious, and I further agree with him that this inhibition is rooted in religious commitment. However, the object of the inhibition, the notion from which one most shrinks, goes beyond the particular horrors that come to light when one reads the whole text and not just the most edifying passages. Ultimately, what paralyzes is the awareness forced upon one by a consideration of the whole of the Tanakh that monotheism is not a conclusion we can draw from this variegated text but is rather an assumption we must bring to it from the outside. It is disturbing to consider the possibility that the unity not just of the text but of God himself is not given but made.
Perhaps neither Judaism, which complements the written Torah with an oral Torah, nor Catholicism, which has the pope as its functional equivalent of the oral Torah, need have feared as much as they have an approach which makes the coherence of the text itself rest so heavily on coherence in its reception. But it is scarcely surprising that Protestantism, which once hoped to supplant personal with textual authority and later hoped to supersede both with the authority of sacred events as recovered by exacting historical research, should have felt such an anxiety.
God: A Biography has been or is being translated into fourteen languages, and the reaction has varied from country to country. In Germany, where the influence of Protestant theology is particularly strong, nonbelieving reviewers received the book with relief, as if released at least simply to enjoy the Bible. Believing reviewers, however, received it respectfully but somewhat anxiously, disturbed by what they referred to as Aesthetisierung, aestheticization. The difficulty, I believe, and here I speak perhaps of my own religious stance at last, is that once one has taken an aesthetic stance toward the Bible for any purpose, all other stances come to seem variants of that one. As the Bible loses its power to compel assent, so does the Bible's God lose his power to compel worship, for when one is complicit in the making of the God one worships, one is properly open to the charge of self-worship. But in this our worship merely reveals itself to be our worship, the worship of human beings with the limitations of their species. No product of the human mind--no philosophy, no science, no art--escapes the limits of its human production. The French philosopher Simone Weil once wrote that a man who would boast of his intelligence is like an animal that would boast of the size of its cage. The insight within that insight is that there is no such thing as an uncaged intelligence. Beyond the bars of culture, there are the bars of biology and even the bars of biological engineering. As a great scientist once wrote, the world is not only stranger than we know, it is stranger than we can know.
A doomed desire to keep the Bible or at least the Torah or at the very least 'edonay 'elohenu above this fray has surely much to do with the abstention from free discussion of the character of God in the Tanakh that Gildas Hamel notes. As an illuminating counter-example from another field, I might adduce the scathing frankness with which, forty years ago, scholars of English literature debated the character of Milton's God in Paradise Lost. Thus, the Christian critic C.S. Lewis observed archly that many objections to Milton's God seemed not to be against Milton but against God, a charge to which the atheist critic William Empson pleaded guilty with positive gusto. But then Paradise Lost is only a classic. The Bible has seemed more than a mere classic, being propagated not only and not even mainly through schools but through churches and synagogues and their closely dependent academies.
Will this state of affairs change? Perhaps the earliest move I made toward God: A Biography was a little essay I published in 1976 under the title "The Debut of the Bible as a Pagan Classic." I drew attention to the fact that though no one any longer believed in Zeus, many were still prepared to read The Iliad for its greatness as poetry. Many, in 1976, were already reading the Bible that way--when they were reading it at all. Were many more about to begin doing so?
My article implied that the answer was yes, but my prediction can scarcely be said to have been entirely borne out by events. The aesthetically refined, theologically agnostic reading that appealed most to me has gained far fewer adherents than the aesthetically coarse, theologically arbitrary interpretation that bedevils public life around the world in countries almost too numerous to list.
Courageous clergymen and divinity school professors have their work cut out for them in this area, but what of those who cherish the Bible as art and would be happiest cherishing it only as art? I am reminded of the plaintive opening question in one of Shakespeare's sonnets:
Since brass nor stone nor earth nor boundless sea
But sad mortality o'ersways their power,
How with this wrack shall beauty hold a plea
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
The lines are the lines of a poet, but the question is the question of a critic and a critic of more than poetry alone. Against long odds, beauty does hold its plea against power. Where does it do so? Let me close this little talk with the thought that it often does so in libraries and that one of the libraries that may count most for it in the struggle that will face us during the years ahead is the Harvard-Andover Theological Library. Thank you.