In the be­gin­ning

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - GLOBE BOOKS - RE­VIEWED BY MICHAEL COREN

The cre­ation story gets a modern-day fact check to see if it qual­i­fies as fake news

When the U.S. Supreme Court fi­nally le­gal­ized same-sex mar­riage in 2015, some anony­mous wit said that they des­per­ately hoped that the first cou­ple to take ad­van­tage of the law would be named Adam and Steve. It was a re­sponse, of course, to the gal­lop­ing ho­mo­pho­bia of the Chris­tian right and the fact that it con­stantly ob­sesses about what it be­lieves was God’s orig­i­nal de­sign for and of hu­man­ity. Born again, alas, of­ten means the same as be­ing born yes­ter­day. Thus the story of Adam and Eve has in many ways ac­tu­ally caused great harm and is still do­ing so.

To those who em­brace the metaphor­i­cal na­ture of the tale – and in­deed of much of the He­brew Scrip­tures, the Old Tes­ta­ment – it’s a story that is en­tirely un­chal­leng­ing. The op­po­site of un­ques­tion­ing re­li­gious be­lief needn’t be doubt but faith seek­ing un­der­stand­ing. Yet there is none so an­gry as a fun­da­men­tal­ist scorned, and in a darkly nos­tal­gic at­tempt to pre­serve a pa­tri­ar­chal cer­tainty, some Chris­tians have em­braced a raw, un­kind lit­er­al­ism. So there could be some good old book burn­ing if they get their hands on this one.

What Har­vard aca­demic Stephen Green­blatt demon­strates in his new book, with a lyri­cal ease of nar­ra­tive and a gen­uinely im­pres­sive breadth of schol­ar­ship, is that the Adam and Eve tem­plate is repli­cated in numer­ous other cul­tures and says rel­a­tively lit­tle that is ex­clu­sive to monothe­ism. He also looks to mo­tive, ori­gin and source. When some of the ex­iled Jews re­turned to Jerusalem from Baby­lon, they were hor­ri­fied at the de­struc­tion and de­cay. Ezra and his fol­low­ers may be cel­e­brated as cham­pi­ons of Ju­daism but to­day we’d prob­a­bly see them as fa­nat­ics who re­jected the prag­ma­tism and mod­er­a­tion of most of their co­re­li­gion­ists. Their re­sponse to Jerusalem’s demise was to set about eth­ni­cally cleans­ing the city both phys­i­cally and spir­i­tu­ally. They were also obliged to ask them­selves how this could have hap­pened to the cho­sen peo­ple, why so many de­feats, so much pain? Sim­ple. The first hu­mans let the side down and pun­ish­ment was in­evitable. Adam and Eve, you’ve got some ex­plain­ing to do.

None of this ma­te­rial is new and there is no ab­so­lute an­swer to when the first books of the Bi­ble were writ­ten, but it’s likely that pro­pa­ganda was in­volved. Spin, an agenda or, God for­bid, fake news! “Yet mil­lions of peo­ple, in­clud­ing some of the sub­tlest and most bril­liant minds that have ever ex­isted, have ac­cepted the Bi­ble’s nar­ra­tive of Adam and Eve as the un­var­nished truth,” the au­thor says. When­ever the Adam and Eve ex­pla­na­tion of hu­man ori­gins came into be­ing and who­ever wrote it, it has mat­tered for 2,000 years and still does.

While the book is a his­tory and an analysis of the Adam and Eve story, it is also an ac­count of the au­thor’s wan­der­ings and won­der­ings through the prism of the Scrip­tural ac­count of the orig­i­nal found­ing fa­ther and mother. It’s as though the first cou­ple rep­re­sent a rock thrown into the wa­ter and we are taken on a jour­ney to fol­low the rip­ples. Green­blatt used the same ve­hi­cle in an ear­lier book about Shake­speare (Will in the World) and the re­sults then and now are com­pelling. It’s not a unique de­vice, of course, but there’s al­ways the dan­ger of it all be­com­ing too solip­sis­tic, too in­dul­gent. Not here. We spend time with John Mil­ton, a time­less poet but also the ded­i­cated spokesman of the revo­lu­tion­ary and regi­ci­dal Pu­ri­tan regime of mid-17th-cen­tury Eng­land. We read of St. Au­gus­tine, the early shaper of the church whose in­flu­ence on Chris­tian­ity is in­cal­cu­la­ble but not im­pec­ca­ble. We’re told of Re­nais­sance artist Al­brecht Durer and his de­pic­tions not only of Adam and Eve but also of Christ and of those or­di­nary cen­tral Euro­peans whom he met and knew. And fi­nally, there is Charles Dar­win and his rip­ping apart of the seam­less gar­ment of faith and sci­ence. He may have caused hard­lin­ers a great deal of an­guish but, even at the time, there were Chris­tian lead­ers such as the au­thor Charles Kings­ley who were con­vinced that the­o­ries of evo­lu­tion in no way un­der­mined Chris­tian be­lief as long as we took an in­tel­li­gent ap­proach to the cre­ation story. Green­blatt then jumps from mat­ters Dar­winian to a de­light­ful con­clu­sion about his own time ob­serv­ing chim­panzees in Uganda.

He’s strong and thor­ough on the misog­yny that has been prop­a­gated by Eve’s ap­par­ent weak­ness and ma­nip­u­la­tion and how it has drenched Jewish, Mus­lim, and Chris­tian teach­ing. There’s ob­vi­ously a new the­ol­ogy at work to­day in cer­tain cir­cles, but it’s dif­fi­cult to ex­punge mil­len­nia of as­sump­tions from in­sti­tu­tions that rely on au­thor­ity and hi­er­ar­chy. Eve the temptress, Eve the mother, wife, pro­cre­ator, helper, ser­vant. Eve the ob­ject. Never Eve the leader or Eve the priest. It’s of­ten bet­ter than it was, it’s sel­dom as good as it should be.

Green­blatt knows, as we all should, that an­cient texts, whether they are re­li­gious or purely de­scrip­tive, al­ways re­quire in­ter­pre­ta­tion. While taken in his­tor­i­cal con­text and with­out ba­nal anachro­nism the Old Tes­ta­ment is a vi­brant, vi­tal text – I cer­tainly be­lieve so as a Chris­tian – but it’s re­duc­tive and even dan­ger­ous to re­gard it as pure his­tory. It was writ­ten and as­sem­bled at dif­fer­ent times with dif­fer­ent pur­poses, it’s of­ten ten­den­tious and usu­ally com­posed by the win­ners. As the au­thor fre­quently tells us, the Adam and Eve moral­ity tale is used to ex­cuse and to jus­tify at least as much as it is to il­lu­mi­nate and ex­plore.

Per­haps more time could have been spent on the star­tlingly gen­der-free na­ture of much of Ge­n­e­sis in its orig­i­nal lan­guage and the fact that more than one ac­count of the cre­ation story is pro­vided in the Bi­ble, which is some­thing re­li­gious zealots ei­ther do not know or choose to ig­nore, but that would be carp­ing. This is icon­o­clasm with a del­i­cate touch, never mean-spir­ited and in­tent on open­ing doors rather than push­ing peo­ple through them.

By the way, that first mar­ried gay cou­ple in the United States was not, un­for­tu­nately, named Adam and Steve. Oh well, we can’t win them all. Amen.

Michael Coren’s most re­cent book is Epiphany: A Chris­tian’s Change of Heart & Mind over Same-Sex Mar­riage.


In his book The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Stephen Green­blatt ex­plores how the cre­ation myth has been used to sup­port misog­yny and ho­mo­pho­bia.

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