Jack Miles’ book, God: A Biography, was first released in 1996. In it he examines what the bible says about God through a very specific lens; not one used by a theologian to ponder lofty ideas or one used by a historian to check for accuracy and verifiable details, but a lens used by a literary critic to ask how God as a character is developed as the story unfolds. Such an approach is not easy to take, says Miles, because of our tendency to read into every chapter the knowledge of God we already have from episodes in the bible’s future. When you first read a book, attend a play, or watch a movie, each character develops from scene to scene as more and more information and insight is shared. But if you have read the book before, already attended the play, or are seen the movie multiple times, you bring to each scene all that you have learned about a character from previous readings, performances, or showings.
So, according to Miles, when we hear today’s reading from the Book of Genesis, which occurs only 18 chapters into the bible, we bring to it everything we know of God from the Exodus and the Psalms and the prophets and the Gospels and the writings of Paul and the Book of Revelation. Now, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but Miles wanted to explore what the bible tells us about God if we approach it as an unfolding work of literature.
And what he sees in these early chapters of Genesis is a depiction of God who calls forth creation and then creates human beings not for company and not to receive worship, but to be an image of God’s own self. Initially, human beings express this image chiefly through procreation and productivity. The effort, as you no doubt know, sours quickly with the story of the apple, Cain slaying his brother, and a general state of wickedness that culminates with the flood where only Noah and his family are saved.
God, as a literary character, always seems to be surprised by these turn of events; caught off guard by human behavior, if you will, and placed in a position of having to respond ‘on the fly.’ This is not the picture of St. Paul’s God who, from before the beginning of time, has been working out a cosmic plan of salvation. It is a picture of God with strong feelings for creation that swing between passionate love and deep regret.
And at this point in the story’s development we come to Abraham – a person God deems as righteous. It is during this act when Abraham’s character is on the stage that we read today’s Old Testament lesson. God “hears” of the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah, but must see in person whether it is true or not.
Now, it might be worth noting how, in the Book of Genesis, God’s character appears on stage in ways that are different from the acts that follow. Here God visits Abraham in the form of three men who are in fact angels who somehow are God. The men leave for the notorious cities in order to discern what has been going on and Abraham is left standing with God in conversation. Believe me, at this point, it is refreshing to read the Bible as literature rather than theology (where you have to make sense of what it means) or as history (where you have to figure out how it actually happened).
Abraham posses a very simple question: “Suppose the men down there are as wicked as you have heard. Will you sweep away the righteous just to get rid of the wicked?” “What if there are 50 righteous people? 45? 40? 30? 20? 10?” Finally God seems to tire of Abraham’s line of questioning and simply walks away. But in the process Abraham has born the image of God; an image yet to be revealed in the literary development. Abraham reminds God that God is just, measured, and merciful.
All in all, I think it is fair to characterize the conversation between Abraham and God as being a forerunner to prayer, but it does not look much like the kind of prayer we offer this morning or that I, for one, typically pray. In worship we offer collects and Eucharistic liturgy. They are reasoned, articulate, and adoring expressions of our gratitude, our intercession, and our awe. My own personal prayers tend to offer loved ones to God’s care and keeping. What I ask for them and for myself is the strength and ability to accept all that comes our way. But Abraham’s prayer is different. It is more akin to a debate and in this debate Abraham gets the better of God.
At the very least, Abraham assumes the future has yet to be determined and even if God is bent on going down a particular path God still can be persuaded to change course and move in a different direction. I grew up in a faith setting that saw God as sitting beyond time and time itself was something like a giant movie. For us, we live in the moment; seeing only the particular image as it is being played out on the screen of human history. But for God the film is unrolled and every image is laid out beginning to end before God. This perspective creates a spiritual challenge. How and why should one pray? If the next scene is already set then what is the point of praying for anything other to happen? Within this spirituality the most effective prayer, and perhaps the most pleasing prayer to God, is “Thy will be done” – “As you wish” – “Let it happen.”
Think how differently Abraham approaches God early in the human drama: “God, let’s talk about what is going to happen next because I have a few ideas on the matter.” And through this prayer Abraham is able to convince God to act in a way different from what God intends. This perspective on God and prayer gives a unique and empowering emphasis to the teaching Jesus offers to His followers, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.”
Why should you pray? If you ask someone who conceives of God as being like the person with the entire film rolled out before him, he will tell you to pray because God likes it when you ask… even though it won’t change the outcome. But if you were to ask Abraham, he would tell you to pray because it makes a difference in how things unfold. “Sometimes,” he might say, “God needs to be reminded to do the right thing.”
Now, I am not suggesting (nor does Jack Miles suggest) that we view God as being only a literary figure or as being only like the literary figure of the early Genesis stories. Holy Scripture provides a multi-faceted image of God who is, among other things, both immutable and open to change. What I am suggesting is that in our prayer life we have permission, though I personally do not often take advantage of it often, to approach God with very specific, concrete proposals and ideas:
Ask: Lord, my friend is in the hospital following a massive heart attack and his daughter is going to be married in two weeks. Will you, who hears the cries of all, please grant him relief and make it possible for him to be at the wedding.
Seek: Lord, my brother has caused me much harm that he can neither see nor acknowledge. Will you please teach me how to confront him that he might amend his life and not do wrong to others as he has done wrong to me.
Knock: Lord, so many innocent people are dying on the streets of our country and hatred and violence are on the rise. Please watch over us and send forth your Holy Spirit to impart peace, respect, and understanding.
Today’s readings invite us to embolden our prayers, believing the future is open and God is interested in our input.