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David Lose

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Adam, Eve & the Bible

Posted: 08/17/11 11:36 AM ET

Did Adam and Eve exist?

No.

Then again, George Washington didn't cut down a cherry tree, and Paul Revere never yelled, "The British are coming," either.

So what's the big deal? We regularly embellish actual events (in the case of Revere) or invent them (as with Washington) to point toward a larger symbolic truth. Why, then, should anyone be dismayed that all the archeological, historical and, most importantly, genomic evidence ever collected points to the implausibility that two persons named Adam and Eve once lived in a paradisiacal garden and gave birth to all humanity? Because the recent hubbub about Adam and Eve -- and the increasing number of Evangelical Christian scholars who don't read their story literally -- isn't actually about our supposed ancestral grandparents. Rather, it's about authority, insecurity and the fear of chaos.

Biblical Authority

Fundamentalist Christians regularly give two significant reasons for accepting the story of Adam and Eve as historically and scientifically accurate. The first deals with the integrity of the Bible itself. If one element of the biblical story isn't historically accurate, the argument runs, then you can't trust any of it. I call this the "link chain" notion of biblical authority because, as with chains, the Bible is suddenly only as strong as its weakest link. Creation of the world in seven days? Absolutely. Jonah in the belly of a whale for three? No problem. And Joshua stopping the sun in its tracks for one? Why not? Doubt any one of these stories, and the veracity of whole Bible, according to conservatives, vanishes into thin air.

The difficulty with this view is that the Bible never presents itself as a scientific or historical textbook. Rather, it is a collection of testimony, confessions of faith made by persons who had been so gripped by their experiences of God they had to share them using whatever literary and cultural devices were at hand. Poetry, metaphor, simile, myth, parable, story, advice, analogy -- all these and more are employed by biblical authors who were more poets than historians, more muses than scientists, and more interested in faithful persuasion than rational explanation.

Theological Insecurity

The second argument against reading Adam and Eve as mythic story rather than historical account is that later theologians, most notably the Apostle Paul, base some of their theology on the Adam and Eve account. Lose Eden, the theory goes, and you've lost Paul as well. This I name the "house of cards" understanding of theology, because if any single element of a larger theological argument appears flimsy then the entire confession is at risk. This creates for conservatives tremendous insecurity about the validity and integrity of Christian theology that must be kept at bay at all costs.

The Apostle Paul, however, betrays no such insecurity. Striving to describe mysteries that surpass him, Paul presses language to its limits in order to witness to God's work in Christ. Paul is not trying to explain divinity but rather pay homage to it. For this reason he reaches for familiar stories, symbols and characters to give voice to his testimony of how the man crucified as a criminal unexpectedly emerges as God's divine solution to our human plight. Working at times with Adam and at others with Abraham, drawing comparisons to the sacrificial system of Judaism at some points and Greco-Roman house ethics at others, Paul stretches language and metaphor to render God's accomplishment as vivid and accessible as possible rather than reduce it to historical or even theological formulas. Jesus is neither a data point in Paul's larger rational argument nor a cog in some machinery of salvation; rather, he is the narrative linchpin and interpretive key that holds together and makes sense of all of Israel's stories and, indeed, all the stories of the world.

Fundamentalist Fear

Make no mistake, however: There is something much deeper at stake in these arguments for those who defend a literal reading of the Bible. In its bluntest form, it goes like this: Lose confidence in Adam and you might as well give up on Jesus as well. Because if Genesis' account of Eden is mythic rather than historical, then how can you trust any of the Gospel reports about Jesus. Comparisons with Washington and Revere and countless others we might offer fall short at this point, as we're not talking merely about the father of our country or a silversmith turned patriot. This is Jesus, after all, the One confessed by Christians to be the Son of God. And so here lies the great fear that gnaws at the heart of fundamentalism: How can I believe -- in the Bible, Jesus and God (probably in that order) -- unless I know for certain that all these things happened just as they were told?

Beyond overlooking that there are different kinds of writing in the same book - at turns more mythic, poetic, or historical - this insecurity-driven view gravely confuses faith and knowledge. Faith, according to the Letter to the Hebrews, "is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (11:1). This implies that there is an irreducible element of tension inherent in the life of faith that literalist readings of the Bible attempt to dispel. Across its pages, however, the Bible calls the faithful not to the safe haven of absolute knowledge but instead beckons believers into the stormier but far more interesting waters of faith, hope and love. Where knowledge demands cognitive assent, faith calls for equal measures of courage and imagination. Faith, that is, invites us to embrace mystery rather than merely solve a puzzle.

Fact And Fiction

Throughout Tim Burton's "Big Fish," Will Bloom demands the truth about his father Edward. Thus far he has only heard various and far-fetched stories his father has told, many of which don't add up. "Most men, they'll tell you a story straight through," his father tells him. "It won't be complicated, but it won't be interesting either." But Will wants the facts, believing that only in this way will he know the truth about his father.

In particular, he wants to know where his dad was the day he was born. Near the end of the film, the Bloom's family doctor lays it out:

Your mother came in about three in the afternoon. Her neighbor drove her, on account of your father was on business in Wichita. You were born a week early, but there were no complications. It was a perfect delivery. Now, your father was sorry to miss it, but it wasn't the custom for the men to be in the room for deliveries then, so I can't see as it would have been much different had he been there. And that's the real story of how you were born. Not very exciting, is it? And I suppose if I had to choose between the true version and an elaborate one involving a fish and a wedding ring, I might choose the fancy version.

By the end of the film, Will recognizes that his father is the stories that he has told. Fact and fiction, actual detail and fanciful elaboration, fallible man and larger-than-life myth -- together they combine to offer something larger than mere chronology, giving Will a glimpse of truth.

Adam And Eve Redux

So back to Adam and Eve. There are, of course, two creation accounts in Genesis. The first (1:1-2:3) pulses with the divine cadence of orderly creation, setting the rhyme and meter for understanding the harmonious ebb and flow of work and rest, creation and goodness, male and female. It was most likely the work of a priest, attuned to the rhythm of the week and the worship of the creator God. The second story (2:4-3:24) undertakes no less than to portray the condition of humanity and to address questions as sublime as the complimentary differences between men and women and as problematic as why this good life is so marred by strife, discontent and hardship.

The differences between the two are as palpable as they important for those with the courage to notice, revealing the distinct and complimentary confessions the ancient Israelites offered about their confidence in God and the nature and destiny of humanity. Yet read these stories literally and all the artistic nuance and poetic beauty of these distinct confessions is immediately flattened by the need to have them conform to post-Enlightenment ideas of rational verifiability imported in the mid-19th century to repel attempts to read the Bible as a historical document.

If, however, we look to Genesis not for historical datum from which to construct a pseudo-scientific cosmology we find a different story all together. It's a story about the insecurity that is endemic to humanity and the ever-present temptation to refuse the identity that comes from the vulnerability of authentic relationship in favor of defining ourselves over and against each other. Read this way, the story of Eden is the history of humanity writ small, and Adam and Eve are, indeed, the parents of us all. It's a more complicated story, for sure, than we've sometimes been offered, but it is also more interesting and compelling and, ultimately, one I'm inclined to believe.