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.”

Sacred Sexism

holymisogyny How terrifying to observe religion from the eyes of women! In the monotheistic traditions it begins as early as Genesis 2 and continues unbroken through to the twenty-first century. While the origin of such views seems a mystery, they may be partially understood by reading April DeConick’s Holy Misogyny: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter. Not that anyone fully comprehends the insidious idea that women are somehow less than men, but DeConick offers some insight into the issue. She suggests that sacred misogyny is, like much of life, an embodiment issue. The monotheistic traditions from the beginning have had trouble with women’s bodies. Men can’t control their urges and blame the victim. That is over-simplifying, I know, but the basic gist is about right. What can’t be missed from reading Holy Misogyny is that the idea has embarrassingly deep roots in religious thought.

The Bible starts out pretty fair. Except from the beginning the masculine pronoun is used for God, even though theologians from very early days declared God neither male nor female. How do you believe that an “it” really cares for you? Wants the best for you? Loves you? We are gender embodied. We want to know who it is that’s loving us. Genesis 1, on the human level, has man and woman created together on the same day, at the same time. The essence of their embodiment appears to be divine: “in the image of God created he him, male and female created he them.” “Human” is gendered humanity. But then the apple falls. We turn the page to find that the not yet monotheistic religion of the Bible is already pointing sticky fingers at Eve. I know that I can’t read Tertullian without wanting to hide my face when he castigates women as the source of evil.

Holy Misogyny is a disturbing book. It should be. What it does demonstrate, however, is that a wide variety of opinions and options existed for early Christianity when it came to the perception of women. Some of the Gnostic sects of Christianity came much closer to a kind of equality, but they lost out to an unremittingly masculine “orthodoxy.” The Bible itself, although written in a patriarchal world, is an ambiguous document. At points even Paul seems to indicate the genders are equal in God’s eyes, but then, he (or someone writing in his name) tells women to keep quiet in the church. Ask your husband at home. I’ve talked to a lot of church guys in my time, and Paul, I have to contest you here. Women who want to get proper instruction in matters of the soul—or of the body—would be better off reading DeConick than asking their husbands. We’ve got two millennia of unfortunate history to prove the point.

The Afterthought

This week I finished Genesis 2 on my venture to tweet the Bible, and even before reaching the famous snake scene in Genesis 3, I blushed. Not in a good way. Reading each word of the text in King James English (ironically, technically Elizabethan English), it becomes clear just how androcentric the text is. As a reader with sensitivity to historical eras, it is important not to judge the past by present standards. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be offended at the assumed male primacy that had begun to be dismantled, only to be propped up again by sacred writ. As soon as people began to realize that sexual dimorphism did not equate to sexual dominance, the Bible came into the hands of the laity and there, beginning in Genesis 2, became the prooftext that women were made for men. Note: “for Adam there was not found an help meet for him. And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept: and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.”

One of these things is not like the others...

This passage is, of course, very familiar. Too familiar. Accompanying the ready availability of the Bible was the concept of divine writing. To a society of chamber pots and horse manure in the streets, the idea that God could write a book was sensible enough. The problem is, as our sophistication grew, our biblical sense couldn’t keep pace. Centuries later with probes soaring beyond our solar system, rovers on the moon, and space stations circling the planet, we still believe God wrote a book. And since God is male, the man’s point of view is normative. Of course, no one knows the reason for the story of Adam’s rib, but there is no doubt that ancient society, at least in this instance, was hopelessly patriarchal. It is society that determined which words would be considered sacred. The tale they chose matched their worldview.

The problem is that worldview gave an excuse to a patriarchal tour de force that has lasted for dozens of generations leaving women in their biblically predetermined place. There may be no sin as insidious as literalism. Those who cling to the King James do so only with special pleading, for anyone who has studied Hebrew (or any foreign language) knows that translation is an inexact science. Even Genesis 1 with man and woman created the same day, both in the image of God, still lists man first. Ironically the literalists miss the humor of a God who thinks man will be satisfied with the animals. Presumably all the animals were guys at this point, although the Bible literally doesn’t say. No religion that claims victims has the right to declare itself universally true.

Hidden in Plain Sight

I have been tweeting the Bible for nearly a month now, and tomorrow—the thirtieth tweet—will see the end of Genesis 1 and the first words of Genesis 2. One of the occupational hazards of having been a biblical scholar for many years is the constant rereading of the same text over and over. I couldn’t even guess how many times I’ve read Genesis 1, in numerous languages, trying to find a key to unlock what is going on there. It is definitely not science—for that it would have had to have been written after science had been invented. Religion and science share that feature: they are human endeavors to understand the matrix in which we find ourselves. Anyone who is truly honest will admit to not being able to trust her- or himself all the time. We have all been betrayed by our convictions now and again. In this day of arrogant religious leaders and arrogant scientists we have little hope of coming to an armistice. Those who claim a special position for the Bible really couldn’t handle the truth in any case.

My twitter verse for today reads, “I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so. And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good. And the even”. Sense units in any text are where we, the readers, draw the limits. Taking this bit as a cue (indeed, the whole of Genesis 1 supports this), God intends humans to be vegetarians. The predatory gleam in the eyes of our religious politicians and televangelists belie their convictions given in public forums. The first rule God instates, after informing our primordial couple to have lots and lots of sex, is not to harm other creatures. At least the sex part seems to have gotten through, although many branches of Christianity repudiate it. The harm part we have received with ambivalence.

In a related development, an op-ed piece in yesterday’s newspaper gives instructions for properly disposing a worn-out Quran. While Christianity has no uniform opinion about where an old Bible goes to die, I find in this question a snapshot of the contradictions inherent in holy writ. We treat certain texts as sacred, and yet, is not the human expression in written form itself some kind of sacred act? Book-burning, no matter the book, strikes deeply at a visceral level those who’ve ever tried to reduce their ideas to what might be replicated on a page. It is our highest human achievement. All texts are sacred. Some may be misguided, and others are blatantly wrong—perhaps even evil—but they are the essence of a human endeavor. Perhaps this is the key I have been seeking all along.

Let there be light

Genesis Too

My Twitter Bible verse yesterday landed on a passage that has been routinely ignored by the church in favor of a different mythic construct in Genesis 2. Assuming the Bible to have been written by a human-like god, the natural expectation is that the manuscript would have been checked for inconsistencies before being sent to the publishers. Any close reading of the Bible, however, reveals a number of contradictions that have crept into holy writ through what seems to be poor editing. The verse to which I’m referring is Genesis 1.27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” Readers and commentators have endlessly remarked upon the tripartite structure equating deity-male-female in this passage. This single verse, however, is soon forgot once the need to harmonize with Genesis 2 sets in. There man is given utter primacy and woman comes almost as an afterthought, even after the animals. That is the version fundamentalists consider inspired.

Readings of scripture are done only with the pre-decided outlook of the believer. We do this all the time, unconsciously, when we read. We approach texts with expectations, outlooks, and assumptions firmly in place. When dissonant notes sound, we try to harmonize. We’ve got a whole chapter stating that man was god’s first thought, and woman only comes later. We have only a single verse stating their equality. Before Paul and company distorted the story of Eden into a “fall” narrative—note the words “fall” and “sin” occur nowhere in the account of Eve and Adam—some ancient readers toyed with the idea that maybe the first human was actually intersexed (or hermaphroditic) and the word translated “rib” meant “side.” Genesis 2, in this reading, understood women and men to be equal and of the same creative moment of God.

Some in the early church, however, valued doctrine over equality. Afraid that heterodox teaching might win out—we know there were many early Christianities, not a uniform body only latterly split apart—what came to be orthodoxy rallied around Paul and his fallen humanity with man first and woman second. And thus it has stayed in the sand castles of power for two millennia. Setting aside the unreliable narrator, our present sensibilities for reading are generally to take the first information as correct and later changes to be embellishments. In the case of Genesis, this tendency is overlooked. Too many men have too much invested in male priority to suggest that the Bible actually says what it does. Such is the problem with sacred texts—they are far too serious to be read for its plain sense, which is, after all, its common sense.

We're all in this together

Paradise Re-Lost

It is through the astute eye of my colleague Deane Galbraith that I came to know of my most recent reading project, Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden by Brook Wilensky-Lanford. BWL (since the author’s name is a mouthful and since it took me four hours to get home tonight (at a distance of less than 30 miles) I’ll abbreviate her title. Being a fellow New Jerseyan, I’m sure BWL will understand) surveys various attempts that have been made over the past century-and-change to try to locate the Garden of Eden. Spurred on by the discovery that her own educated, rational great-uncle had also wondered about the mythical location of our mythical ancestors, she sketches various attempts to find Eden. Tracing a course that often crosses paths with my own academic background, BWL notes the pervasive—one might say undying—belief that once upon a time in a land far away there was a garden paradise.

Quite apart from the obviously folkloristic, and Mesopotamian, origin of the creation story, BWL demonstrates that the unifying factor behind the search for Eden is the four rivers mentioned in Genesis. The Tigris and Euphrates should be no-brainers, and no-brainer is a word that frequently comes to mind when otherwise intelligent people sincerely suggest Eden lies beneath the North Pole, or in Ohio, or Florida. Clearly this story left only psychological traces on the impressionable. Far more mysterious are the Pishon and the Gihon. The fact that these rivers have never been found (never existed) has fueled the economy of adventurers and bibliophiles for well over a century. The fact that people buy BWL’s book underscores the point. The end result is that any confluence of four rivers could potentially be Eden. What is lost is the biblical worldview.

The four rivers of Genesis 2 flow to the four points of the compass to water the entire earth since all ancient people seemed to have believed they lived in the middle of everything. The Genesis writer takes for granted that we’ve heard of them, and who, among the sophisticated, wants to admit otherwise? Since the story never happened, no physical evidence should be expected. And that’s what all of BWL’s explorers find. Nothing. Of course, if you want to run for President you’d better claim to believe in Eden, for plenty of Americans, despite our educational system, do. Many an ape is wiser. So if you want to find Eden, locate the center of the world. Given the traffic tonight, it surely must be New York City. If you’re going to look for it, you’ll want to take a book to read while the rivers of cars stop flowing. I’d suggest Brook Wilensky-Lanford’s Paradise Lust.