The Character of God: Recovering the Lost Literary Power of American Protestantism

By Thomas E. Jenkins | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ELEVEN
Prospects

The relationship between theology and literature, of course, is only one aspect of theological development in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A more comprehensive analysis of this development would need to focus more on science, especially the challenges that Darwinism posed to theology during this period. But a historical understanding of how neoclassical and sentimental characterizations of God persisted in the twentieth century may give us insight for future study into the challenge of Darwinism. For instance, we can ask, what was it that made Darwinism such a shock to theology in the late nineteenth century? The harshness of Darwinian nature was certainly a factor; such a vision of nature seemed incompatible with the character of God. But is this because theologians assumed that God must have a neoclassical character, a character suited to the enlightenment vision of nature? An emotionally complex characterization of God might prove more resonant with the complexity we now see in nature. 1

At the end of the twentieth century, there are some hopeful signs that a more complex characterization of God may emerge from a renewed theological interest in the Bible and literature. In "narrative theology," for instance, biblical and literary stories are examined for their ability to convey epistemological and ethical complexity. This may naturally extend to an exploration of the complexities of character. 2 From another angle, one of the most promising developments in recovering the biblical characterization of God is Jack Miles's 1995 work, God: A Biography. Though not a theological study, Miles's work may be helpful to theologians in a number of ways. These cannot be treated thoroughly here, but a few points can be made. The first is that Miles demonstrated in an engaging fashion what--amazingly--seems to have been forgotten in cosmopolitan culture: that the biblical characterization of God is complex and intriguing. "Cultivated people" may find this surprising, noted Frank Kermode in his review of Miles's work. John Barton pointed out that Miles helped to make the Bible "readable" again and showed that it is an "immensely powerful, complex and ambivalent work of art." But the effort to understand this "ambivalence" raises two questions concerning fidelity to the Bible and the role of doctrinal tradition. 3

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