Wall-E of Separation

io9 is a progressive website. Its futuristic stories delight and entertain. When a friend sent me a story on io9 titled “New Fan Theory Asks the Obvious Question: Is Wall-E Satan?” I had to read. Then wonder. People know so little about the Bible. The idea is simple: in Wall-E the people live in an undisturbed paradise until Satan (in the form of EVE’s plant) tempts them to leave paradise and return to an earth they’d forgotten existed. Okay, so the Genesis parallels are blindingly obvious (Peter Gabriel was even formerly a member of a band named with the title of that very book). What’s wrong is that there’s no Satan in the Bible’s first book. I give Katharine Trendacosta credit—she discounts the connection of fat, immobile future humans and paradise. The idea that the snake of Genesis is Satan, however, is about as biblical as original sin.

Genesis never calls the snake Satan. It doesn’t mention original sin. In fact, many (Christians, especially) don’t realize the event isn’t called “the fall” in the Hebrew Bible at all. The gaining of knowledge by the first human beings is painful yes, but can be a good thing. Some Jewish interpretations of Genesis 3 suggest precisely that. The story goes that Eve and Adam were living, stupidly, in the garden. The snake points out that the fruit will make them wise—and it does. They do not immediately die as God said they would. Instead they lose a blissful ignorance and have to grow up. The serpent is never said to be the Devil until the very last book of the Christian revisionist scripture, Revelation. Sometimes a snake is just a snake. That’s the way it is in the book of Genesis.

Christian interpretation, however, took over the story of humanity’s awakening and made it into the fall into sin and evil. Things have been so bad ever since than that we have to elect Trump to start a war that’ll end it all. That’s Christian revisionism writ large. Read Genesis again. Slowly. The snake is not said to be Satan. “The fall” isn’t sinful. In fact, the word “sin” doesn’t occur until the story of Cain and Abel in the next chapter. So, is EVE inspired by Satan to end the paradise of the Axiom, unaware of its true origins? Only in a revisionist history of the Bible. The idea existed long before io9, and, according to Genesis, it was wrong even then.

Which Way to Eden?

We don’t have television service, and I haven’t watched TV regularly for about two decades. Over the years, however, we’ve collected the DVDs of the shows we miss, or which we wish we’d seen so that we missed them, and use those in lean times. Feeling a bit lonesome over the weekend I downed a few Twilight Zones followed by a Star Trek chaser. On a three year mission to explore strange new worlds, my wife and I have been working our way through Star Trek, the original series. We’ve finally reached the final chapters of the final frontier. I’ve noticed as we’ve gone through the episodes just how biblically literate the series is. Even Spock quotes the Bible from time to time. Over the weekend, to keep my mind off present reality, we ended up watching “The Way to Eden.” As much as I enjoyed Star Trek as a kid, when it was still new, the overtly ’60’s-themed episodes bother me as an adult. I’m very much still a hippie at heart, but I don’t like lingo, and the alien cool cats in their weird shorts and funky hairdos chanting “Herbert! Herbert!” still really bother me. Somewhat predictably the aliens hijack the Enterprise to reach their fabled paradise.

Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Star_Trek_1968

Spoiler alert! For those of you who’ve been asleep since 1969, or have had no curiosity about the inspiration behind all those geniuses who’ve ushered in the technological revolution, I’m about to reveal some details. Eden is deadly. The landing party finds the short-pants wearing, funky guitar-strumming crooner dead under a fruit tree. “His name was Adam,” Spock laconically notes. The scene of Dr. Sevrin’s burned foot has stayed with me since childhood, and I still cringe when he leaps out of the shuttlecraft to take a bite of the poisoned fruit. It was only as an adult that I realized his name was reminiscent of Eve, indeed, a kind of blending of the words “sin” and “Eve.” In a kind of homoerotic death scene, the two male leaders end up under the tree together. Probably my overactive imagination.

Sometimes I ponder how much a biblically illiterate society misses. I frequently told my students that the Bible is foundational for our culture. Whether or not you’re aware of it, it is reinforced regularly in ways both ortho- and heterodox. Despite our very secular self-awareness, entire movies, such as The Book of Eli, can be based on the premise of biblical literacy. It is entirely possible to watch movies and television shows, and to read novels (graphic and literary) with enjoyment and not notice the allusions. The reasons they are there, however, is that despite the abuses of literalism, the Bible does have some profound things to say. It’s up there with Shakespeare and Chaucer. And even with Roddenberry and his host of staff writers. And I suspect that it still will be, in some form, in the twenty-third century.

Garden of Earthy Delights

AdmenEve I’ve self-identified as a feminist for as long as I’ve understood the word. I know that such a statement from a man must sound somewhat disingenuous, but I have never believed men are in any way superior to women. I suppose part of it may have been having men make such a poor showing in my early life, or maybe it was I simply realized people are all different from each other. Gender is just another one of those differing factors. It is always a surprise to me when I read, therefore, that feminism is no more. Some writers suggest that we are in second or third wave of feminism. I think we’re all just people, and that we should learn to treat each other that way.

I recently read Katie B. Edwards’ Admen and Eve: The Bible in Contemporary Advertising. Edwards identifies herself with the contemporary feminism that is associated with biblical study. Reading the Bible from a woman’s perspective can’t possibly come at a cheap price. Nevertheless, Edwards focuses on the character of Eve, and specifically how she is used in post-feminist advertising. Admen who are targeting the younger demographic of women about up to thirty present Eve as a strong female, sometimes next to an insipid Adam (good-looking, but essentially brainless). Even though Eve may appear undressed, she is self-objectified, according to Edwards, and therefore is not objectified by the viewer. Along the way, Edwards also does some hermeneutical work on Genesis 2-3, and showing how the story is recast in terms of a buyer’s market.

As interesting as I found Edwards’ analysis, what stood out most strongly was the fact that advertisers have no difficulty in using a biblical character for a biblically illiterate public. Many people in the western world recognize Jesus (whether Buddy or the regular one), but of Hebrew Bible characters perhaps the only ones that readily come to mind are Eve and Adam, Noah, Moses, and David and Goliath. Some still recognize Samson. These characters, however, are almost always lifted from their contexts—they are caricatures rather than the object lessons they were originally intended to be. What Edwards demonstrates, the admen have known all along: sects sells. If you want them to buy, make the marks feel like it is a religious act. And we can almost hear the advertisers say, “Let us prey.”

Like Virgins

If you are reading this, I have safely arrived in the United Kingdom, courtesy of Virgin Atlantic. Given the lens through which I view everything, I somehow supposed that Virgin Atlantic was named after one of history’s two most famous Madonnas—the Blessed Virgin Mary, or just plain Madonna. It turns out that I was wrong on both counts. Virgin Atlantic, famously under the leadership of Richard Branson, borrowed its name from its older sister company, Virgin Records, also founded by Sir Branson. Virgin Records, I had supposed, was named after the only musical Madonna, but again, not so. The record company, new to an inexperienced Branson, was named by a colleague who noted that they were business neophytes, like virgins. The original logo showed an Eve-like virgin with a snake and everything.

Steve Fitzgerald's pic from WikiCommons

Steve Fitzgerald’s pic from WikiCommons

While in the UK I always call on Nick Wyatt, one of my doctoral advisors and now a good friend. As my mentor in Ugaritic, we always joke that I fly Virgin Atlantic because of the Virgin Anat, Baal’s famous warrior sister and sometimes lover. Anat was, of course, not the first perpetual virgin. The Mesopotamians had the idea that a goddess could be a perpetual virgin and still have kids, and what led up to said motherhood. Virginity is a status marker, still unfairly applied to women. I suspect a good part of it is biology (and if this seems weird, blame it on the jet lag), because the essential male reproductive function occurs whether or not a female is present, and even the most saintly men can not, from time-to-time, barring very extreme measures, avoid it. It is difficult to measure virginity in men, so why the double standard?

In this early morning haze (or is it really afternoon?), I suppose it comes down to not wanting to support somebody else’s child. Looks are at best a lackluster proof of paternity, and in the days before effective birth control, the only way you could be absolutely sure was to make sure your spouse was a virgin. Goddesses could get away with sex and still retain their purity. It was less sanguine for the human woman. Thus the Virgin Mary is accorded a special, but not unique status. But it turns out that none of this really matters because the Virgin I fly is merely a business virgin. And with a bit of experience, provides some of the best care in the air.

Last Genesis

Roger Corman was famous for saving a buck on his movies. When it came to low-budget sci-fi and horror, he could be counted on to stretch pennies into dollars. The B quality with which this impresses most of his films makes them all the more addictive. I watched my share growing up, but I’m still discovering ever more as an adult. The Last Woman on Earth is one I recently found and the religious implications of the film were so obvious that they seemed worthy of a little exegesis. The plot is simple enough, three skin-divers, a man, his wife, and his lawyer friend, are the only survivors of an anoxic episode. When Harold Gern (the man) wonders what happened his friend Martin says, “A new and better bomb, act of God, it doesn’t really matter.” The destruction of humanity is a time-honored divine pass-time, so no one considers the statement blasphemous.

Naturally enough, within a short time Martin starts to feel that Harold’s claim on his wife Evelyn (clearly, by choice of name, an Eve figure) is a bit unreasonable under the circumstances. Biology is, in this instance, the misogynic element as the men increasingly step up their hostilities. Evelyn eventually decides to run away with Martin, but Harold is in hot pursuit. The entire episode takes place on Puerto Rico, and so there are a limited number of places to hide. Martin tells Evelyn to await him in the church, which she dutifully does. Harold catches up with Martin and blinds him. Martin finds his way to the church and when Harold comes in Martin provides a final homily (including some lines from Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”) declaring that there is no more God. He then dies on the church floor.

The movie ends with Harold and Evelyn leaving the church to try to learn what life is all about. Reading up on the movie, I learned that Corman wanted to keep the costs down so that the writer of the script was cast as Martin for the film. The script wasn’t finished before they started shooting. Nevertheless Robert Towne’s story brings the overall trajectory back to an updated Garden of Eden story. Puerto Rico, a tropical paradise, where the one woman is Eve, is the scene of the first sin—the murder of Martin by Harold. Throughout the movie, Martin is clearly the Abel character while Harold is selfish, unsympathetic, and emotionally absent. Cain wins the epic struggle and God, we are told, is no more. Not the most profound of story-telling, but the themes and concepts are very much biblical. And when the final couple leave the church the remainder of world history is set to begin. I’d gladly give this one a B.

Crimes and Misogynies

Mill Creek Entertainment has, through no fault of its own, accounted for many an idle hour of my weekends. Assiduously gathering and collating public domain movies, mostly of dubious quality, into sets of fifty movies per box, sold at a rate that probably isn’t actually cheap since most of the movies are available free online, Mill Creek panders to the connoisseur of B, C, D, or even lower, movies. Sometimes, however, a good one slips through. That’s how I discovered Bluebeard (1944). One of John Carradine’s many movies, this version of the seventeenth-century tale of a murderous husband is set in Paris sometime in the not-too-distant past, Gaston Morel is a demented puppeteer who murders his models because of a religious incident. In the final confession scene Morel explains how he, as a starving artist, took a homeless girl to his studio to nurse her back to health. As he sketched her, he realized she reminded him of the Maid of Orleans—Joan of Arc. After her recovery, she turned to a life of debauchery, driving Morel insane with rage. He thus comes to kill his models due to his tattered faith (and fragile psychology).

Despite some typical overacting and strange plot twists (why would a Paris police inspector take his American girlfriend to examine evidence to solve a crime about which he is clueless? Was he planning to run for president later?), the movie manages to provide an intelligent number of turns in the plot to keep viewers interested to the end. The concept of a killer deranged by an idealistic fiction of a female victim is somewhat frightening because it continues to this day. Long before Eve bit the fruit, ancient Mesopotamians feared the demonic female of the night who later came to be called Lilith. When the unruly female entered Judeo-Christian tradition, however, she became the target of the hate and fears of too many men who had their own ideas (backed by their own religions) of how women should act.

Witch-hunts (of all varieties) have their basis in religion-fueled misogynies. Religious texts, written mostly by men, set the standard of female behavior. Those who fail to live up to it must be enemies of the world order of masculine ideals. They are the heretics, the expendable, the feminine. As someone raised by a woman without benefit of her husband, I have never had any doubts that women were just as, if not more, capable of making it in the world as men. Yet even then, in the 60’s, many women believed equal rights with men to be immoral because of the magisterial pronouncements of the male Bible. Remember, God for the Bible is a bearded man. And upon close inspection, at times at least, one may discern in that beard a touch of blue.

Parable

Dark Materials

After three years we have finally finished Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The Golden Compass, a fantastic story made into a very disappointing movie, followed the adventures of Lyra as she struggled against the insidious designs of the Magisterium, Pullman’s not-so-subtle code for the church. The story picked up again when Lyra met Will in The Subtle Knife and revolves back to the Garden of Eden in The Amber Spyglass. It becomes clear early in the book that Lyra is a type of Eve, about to open a Pandora’s box for the entire universe. Along the way Metatron and the symbols of the old religion, including God, die. Detractors like to hurl accusations of atheism at the author, although Pullman tends to call himself agnostic. Whatever label is pasted to him, the fact is the message of the trilogy is profoundly in keeping with what is purported to be the message of Jesus. Not to put too fine a point on it, the message is “Christian.”

Of course, these days that word has to be qualified. “Christian” has been co-opted by so many special interests theologies that its vagueness is useful for little more than winning presidential elections. Part of the difficulty begins with the fact that we don’t have any objective way to assess what Jesus actually said. The earliest canonical Gospel, Mark, was written some three decades after the events that it recounts. There can be no doubt that Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from Mark while John, written much later, blazed his own trail. Some of the statements attributed to Jesus in these variant accounts differ, but the basic idea seems to be: love others, try not to harm each other, and be willing to be the victim once in a while. These precepts permeate that story of Lyra and Will as they flee from an institutionalized church that seeks to destroy them. Yes, the parable is transparent here and even today many would-be rulers understand the power in the blood of the lamb. Accusations of someone being non-Christian can turn a red tide against them.

Ironically, today “Christian” often has the connotation of intolerance and lack of forgiveness. We see the wealthy and powerful adopting the rhetoric when it suits their purposes but refusing to live by its principles when the poor reveal their underprivileged faces. Taking Jesus out of context they like to say, “the poor will always be with you.” As if Jesus never spoke a harsh word to the wealthy. Something that Pullman makes abundantly clear is that power corrupts. The church in his books is not evil, but corrupt. It is too powerful for its own good. Above all, the books are a tale of growing up. Lyra realizes the danger that the Magisterium poses, and fights it with the conviction of the young. She learns to love and liberates the dead. She learns the pain of loss. Indeed, her sacrifice is for the salvation of the universe. Sounds like something Jesus might have approved of—when he wasn’t busy lining the pockets of the wealthy, that is.

Dukes and Serfs

Once upon a time in a land far away, a man and woman worked a fertile garden, blessed by God. That garden was in the incredibly rich, black soil of Savoy, Illinois. The zucchinis harvested were of biblical proportions. Some of them miraculously grew to the size of my calves seemingly overnight. The broccoli and carrots my wife and I grew had so much flavor that we couldn’t believe just how much leeched out while vegetables sat in the back of a truck or on a grocery-store refrigerated shelf. Even with their periodic mistings. It was as if Bunnicula had visited them at night. So long ago, the garden. It seemed obvious in those days why the writers of Genesis compared paradise to a garden. Ours was no Eden – it was hard work – but my wife and I had a lot of fun with it.

James Buchanan Duke, namesake of Duke University, owned a considerable estate outside Hillsborough, New Jersey. Having established both a tobacco monopoly and an electric company, Duke was enormously wealthy. He left his Hillsborough farm (not the tobacco farms which were in his native North Carolina) to his daughter Doris, making her one of the wealthiest women in the world. Her estate now consists of a socially conscious Duke Farms Foundation that has offered gardening plots to the plebeians of the region. So yesterday I found myself once again back in the garden. Sharing a plot with a friend, we arrived for opening day and were greeted by one of the organizers of the garden. Her name, of course, is Eve.

New Jersey planting requires more manure than the black earth of the Midwest. Yesterday I found myself shoveling horse manure, not for the first time in my professional life, while Eve supervised the garden. It seemed strangely biblical. Dodging between my summer classes this year, I will be emulating the first profession of our mythic father Adam. In the afternoon, after cleaning up, we headed to Rutgers Day, the university public-relations festival that shows off the tremendous wealth that cannot afford to hire full-time faculty any more. As I kept a weather eye on the clouds, worried about the seeds I’d just planted, the future continued to look stormy to me, even on the campus that has at times been my only source of barely sustainable income. Perhaps I should have changed my shoes, because it seemed to me that the smell of horse manure still hung heavily in the air.

I wonder if this is how Adam got started

Eve’s Orchard

One of the innocent pleasures of autumn is apple picking. Not living in the country, many of us rely on the local orchards that open their trees and furrows to the public during the fall so we can feel once again in touch with nature. It may be only temporary, but this farm life is authentic and revitalizing – especially under a cerulean blue October sky. So it was that we joined our anonymous friends to pluck fruit and feel a part of the organic world away from laptops, palms, and cells. Picking apples always brings Eden to mind. In fact, no matter how secular the class I teach, if I ask students what picking fruit from a tree – usually I have to throw in the snake as well – represents, invariably most guess Adam and Eve. Of course, in the patriarchal world of the Bible, Eve gets the rap for taking the first bite, but a more sensitive reading reveals maybe this was what God intended all along.

Tasty fruit of knowledge

Within a generation of the origins of Christianity, a negative spin had been placed on that fateful fruit. This was the willful disobedience of sin rearing its ugly head in Eden. Of course, Genesis does not refer to the act as a “sin” – the word first occurs in the story of Cain and Abel. The human striving for knowledge, for the prerogative of the divine, the sadder but more informed life, was now a matter of blame. In the Greco-Roman cultural milieu where men set the standards, woman became the harbinger of sin and decay. Adam stood chastely by, happily clueless until Eve insisted he try this brand of iniquity. Pure fiction. And yet it is this version that has retained cultural currency in the western world. Blame it on Eve.

The patriarchal version


So much of our reading of the Bible is based on prior expectations. Even Bible translators know that they can’t go too far a field from the standard that the KJV set. When western Bible readers first cut their teeth on English prose, it was the dulcet tones of Elizabethan English that captured their attention. And the mores of Shakespearean England combined with the harsh repressions of a simmering Calvinism led to a Bible choked with sin to the point that a little fruit enraged the creator as much as fratricide just a chapter later. The fruit had rotted on the tree, and women were to blame. Perhaps it is time that we recognize the filters before our eyes when we approach the Bible. If we can understand that the patriarchalism is not the point, but merely the cultural shading of the time, we can release the message that the fruit is good. The temptation was not to become evil, but simply to become human.

What’s Wrong with Eve?

Reading a newspaper film analysis by critic Stephen Witty on film noir, I was intrigued by how he represents the role of the femme fatale. Most produced and directed by men, the classic noir features a dangerous woman. Noting that there are “nice girls” in such movies, Witty states, “they’re not the ones who matter, the ones as essential to the plot as that serpent is to Genesis.” Naturally, this statement evokes the image of Eve, the seductress.

Eve has been much maligned by patriarchal religions. She is a convenient scapegoat for men’s uncontrollable urges, and by making her the gateway to sin itself the male spiritual psyche is unburdened; it is all her fault. It often comes as a surprise that Genesis does not use the word “sin” in the episode in Eden. Interpretations of the tree of knowledge are not universally negative, nor is Eve alone to blame. Scapegoats, however, are much more comfortable than admitting culpability. Religions have stropped this to a high art; the masculine religious establishment can repress the feminine threat with scriptural justification.

Eve is a misunderstood heroine. She is the mother of knowledge. Genesis does not forbid the tree of life; ignorant humanity was free to live forever. Without knowledge. Eve, while perhaps under the duress of temptation, nevertheless took the initiative to find wisdom. And she has been paying the price ever since. Film noir is a reflection of life, as is most art. In a world where men like to think they have the right to rule, the woman who sees a little farther is considered dangerous. All feeble theological attempts to forbid religious leadership to women have Eve to thank for their revisionist hermeneutics.

Giving Lilith Her Due

Lilith Fair has announced its 2010 tour dates and excited fans are already purchasing tickets. Lilith Fair is a collection of women artists who share a stage to showcase the female contribution to contemporary music and donate a considerable share to charity. The event name, of course, is taken from the mythological character of Lilith. Popularized as a rare example of “Hebrew myth,” Lilith is a character who likely derives from ancient Mesopotamia, although her origins are obscure. Best known as “Adam’s first wife,” her somewhat sexy story in Judaic tradition evolved into Lilith being the original woman. Unlike Eve she was created simultaneously with Adam. Things were fine until she wanted to be on top during intercourse – males were not made to be dominated, according to patriarchal old Adam, and Lilith ships out to shack up with Satan. She is demonized (literally and figuratively) and becomes the “night hag” that snatches babies and claims the first right of intercourse with every male (an etiology for nocturnal emissions). She becomes the mother of demons.

This story shows all the traits of a late development, but the idea of a strong female figure in Eden is an appealing one. Lilith has come to represent the empowered female, and the modern trend towards accepting her as an icon of feminine independence is apt. Long ago I was intrigued by the female side of the story. Perhaps because I was raised primarily in a single-parent family for my formative years, I have always wondered about the disparity in our “advanced” culture that still considers the male as the “default” model with the female as kind of an adjunct after-thought. This fascination led me to the study of goddesses in the first place, culminating in a doctorate on Asherah. In the Bible men have Adam, Noah, Moses, David, and countless other role-models – even God himself according to standard interpretation. Why not admit the goddess?

It is telling that when Lilith becomes too powerful she is presented as evil. Anthropological explanations have little to offer by way of adequate explanations for such a development. Not to blame biology (or to lay claim to an excuse), but Frans de Waal’s Inner Ape demonstrates that males are hopelessly paranoid about showing weakness. Female primates tend to express their power by group cohesiveness while males try to blunder their way to the top with brute individualism. Adam had nothing to fear from Lilith. To those who perform in Lilith Fair, I only have to say, “Rock on!”