PW: Your new book's title is Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God. What precipitates this crisis in God's life?
JM: God makes a promise to return Israel to sovereignty after the Exile in Babylon. Yet, after 500 years, God has not kept his promise. He realizes he must either keep his promise or break it and justify his breaking it. So, God becomes a Jew and suffers in advance what the people will suffer in their defeat by Rome. Christ is really a resolution to the crisis in the life of God.
PW: In what ways is this a resolution?
JM: God the divine warrior, a familiar aspect of God's character in the Hebrew Bible, didn't go to war when he was needed. God the divine warrior becomes a pacifist. In his teachings to "turn the other cheek" and to "love the stranger," he instructs everyone to become a pacifist after his model. Through his death and resurrection, he then shows everyone the consequences of this pacifism. When God becomes incarnate he is able to restore his creation, for when God created humankind he shared his eternal life with Adam and Eve but then took it back. As Christ, God is able to restore what he had originally taken back.
PW: You say in the book that God Incarnate, Christ, commits suicide. Many Christians would recoil at that image. What's behind your use of it?
JM: Well, the concept of the suicide of God has a history that stretches back to the very first Christian theologians. The Letter to the Hebrews says that Christ is both priest and victim. If God Incarnate is going to resolve the crisis in the life of God, only he can take his life. No one can force death on him; he takes it on himself. I refer to the self-martyrdom of God as suicide because the use of nontraditional language to describe an event can wake us up to the power of events in Scripture that we often overlook. The beautiful drama of the passion and death of Christ is that the man who is dying is also in control of the process, and this man is divine.
PW: Your argument depends mostly on the Gospel of John. Why do you use this Gospel rather than the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke)?
JM: The Gospel of John expresses powerfully an exalted understanding of Jesus' identity that arose well before the curiosity about the historical details of his life. In John, Jesus is presented as divine, and his divinity spreads retrospectively to all he has done. Thus, when Jesus quotes Isaiah, God is simply remembering what he said in an earlier moment in his relationship with Israel. John boldly transforms the memory of a humble Galilean peasant into the myth of God Incarnate sacrificing himself to reconcile the human race and its creator. But the gospels do blend together, so that whatever is said of Jesus in one of them is true for Jesus in any of them.
PW: In the end, though, your God Incarnate is simply a character in a well-told novel. Why should it make any religious difference to read this story?
JM: I admit that I am not writing as a theologian, but as a literary critic who approaches the Christian Bible as part of the canon of world literature. I am reclaiming the literary power of the Christian Bible that has been sacrificed by the ways that the New Testament has usually been read. Religious truth can be conveyed through works of art as well as through history. But the Lord's Prayer, for example, continues to have meaning far beyond discussions of whether or not Jesus historically spoke the words. I hope my book will speak to those people, and there are many of them, who believe that the Christian Bible was intended as a work of art and simultaneously a work of religion around which they will fashion their lives.