Tuesday, March 12, 2013

ENTICED BY EDEN -- Review

ENTICED BY EDEN: How Western Culture Uses, Confuses, (And Sometimes Abuses) Adam and Eve.  By Linda S. Schearing and Valarie H. Ziegler.  Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2013.  Xi + 218 pp. 

Adam and Eve are names familiar to large numbers of people living in the broad swath if the world populated by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  Whether viewed as the historical first parents of all humans or iconic figures that embody, even if metaphorically, the ideal of human perfection, we find meaning in these names.  Likewise, the Garden of Eden, the biblical original home for this couple, conjures in the mind images of paradise.  Who doesn’t want to live in paradise?  Indeed, the Edenic vision continually beckons us “homeward,” or to use the title of this book, it entices us.   These  images of Eden, along with Adam and Eve, are so iconic that they’ve been used and abused in a multitude of ways  that range from advertising to the search for a soul mate.     

Enticed by Eden, authored by Linda Schearing and Valarie Ziegler isn’t a work of biblical exegesis.  These two professors of Religious Studies are more interested in the ways in which the biblical stories emanating from Genesis 1-3 have been appropriated by Western Culture.  Schearing and Ziegler write that “Eden, Eve, and Adam, and the God who created them, are such familiar figures to Americans that people routinely appeal to them to justify any number of practices: how to teach science in the public schools; how to choose a proper diet, how to find a partner, how to make love, how to dress, and even how to ask one’s spouse for a spanking” (p. 3).  Yes, Genesis 1-3 has made a major impact on our lives.  Whatever our ideology it’s likely we’ve thought about Eden and this “original couple,” seeking to find some meaning for our own lives in them, whether that has to do with the relationship between men and women, or the care of our world.   
The authors divide the book into two parts, the first focuses on the theme "Recreating Eden," while the second is entitled "Recycling Eden."  Part two looks at how the images of Adam, Eve, and Eden are used in humor, literature, film, and the sex industry.  As for the last of these uses, remember that Adam and Eve are naked until they eat the “forbidden fruit.”   Most of the uses (abuses) that the authors explore in this section are not religious in nature.  Instead, they look at the ways people have re-purposed religious imagery.  This section is informative, but I found Part One even more interesting and even frightening at times.    

In Part One, in describing this yearning for a return to Eden, the authors expose a number of rather interesting practices and beliefs that have emerged in recent Western Culture.  Chapter 1, for instance, details the equating of Eden with Camelot, wherein Eden is thought of in romantic and even sexualized imagery.  Among some portions of the Evangelical world Adam and Eve are seen as red-hot lovers and soul mates destined for each other.   This has led to the emergence not only of Christian sex manuals, but an exchange of dating for courtship.  Young women are taught to wait for their beloved to come calling, and then marry early/quickly.  Of course, the problem emerges when no one comes calling.  Connected with this idea is the belief that women should submit to men.  There is a strong gender hierarchy built into these movements – that’s nothing new.  We who have been part of this movement know it all too well.  But what’s interesting here is how the Bible has been melded in many ways with the ideal of Prince Charming.  This leads to the envisioning young girls as princesses, who dress up in pink and wear tiaras and participate in tea parties.  Not only are they taught to remain pure until marriage, they are drawn into a world of make-believe . . .   But that’s not all – connected to this gender hierarchy is the teaching among some that daughters are to have a special bond with their fathers until marriage, where the father essentially controls the daughter’s life.  Submitting to the father prepares the daughter to submit to her husband.  It almost seems incestuous at points, and thus a bit scary.  

The need to find one’s soul mate – after all Adam and Eve are perceived as soul mates, but as the authors note – they are a tough act to follow.  Being that there are no other humans in the Garden, it’s not difficult to find a mate.  But what if the process is more difficult.  This is especially true for those women who’ve been taught that it’s inappropriate to initiate relationships.  For some reason, however, on-line dating may solve the problem.  Though not all Christian on-line dating sites assume that we all have soul mates, there is the assumption that we can find the right person, and that cyberspace can be used by God to link people up.  The authors spend an entire chapter exploring the various Christian sites from the distinctly Christian (Christian Cafe and Christian Mingle) to the more mainstream behemoth – eHarmony that has its origins in evangelical efforts.  The later site was founded by Neil Clark Warren, who was dean of Fuller Seminary’s School of Psychology when I arrived there three decades ago, with support from Focus on the Family.  There has been a parting of the ways, which has led Focus to support other on-line efforts.  After all, men and women are supposed to get married, and if they can’t meet in the traditional modes, why not do it online?
Online dating is quite mainstream, but what about Christian versions of sadomasochism?  I’d never heard of Christian Domestic Discipline before reading this book but apparently there is a robust subculture of men who beat their wives and wives who take this as a sign of love.  It’s even supposed to be erotic.  Really the main difference this form of S&M and traditional forms, is that women are always the ones being dominated.  Not only that but many of these devotees see this as a form of redemptive suffering – the suffering of the women redeems the man.  But as the authors note “any theology that ties male redemption to female suffering is problematic, all the more so when that suffering involves physical abuse” (p. 89).   

One of the themes present in this discussion is the use of the Adam/Eve relationship to underscore gender hierarchy.  Whether we talk about courtship or CDD, these are rooted in the belief that women are subordinate to men and that men are losing control. The return to Eden, therefore, is a return to a male-dominated world, where women know their place.  But is this truly Edenic in vision?   This has more of the philosophy of Robert Filmer, a 17th century advocate of divine right monarchy and opponent of any form of equality, than it does of John Locke, and his theories that support human equality and democracy.  Do we really want to return to a medieval vision of society?  Filmer’s vision traces human forms of hierarchy back to Adam, the first father, the first husband, and the first king.  
  
The use of Edenic images in literature and film, even advertising isn’t surprising.  There are few images better known to a great swath of American culture.  We may be biblically illiterate, but there are some stories that have become part of our culture, which allows them to be used and abused, even exploited in the pursuit of wealth and pleasure.  While the authors helpfully delve into these areas, the real value, as I see it, is found in part one.  As one who emerged out of a conservative evangelical subculture where James Dobson and Tim LaHaye have been quite influential, it is helpful to see how their vision of Eden has been developed.  Although not everyone takes things to the bizarre lengths found in Prince Charming movements or CDD, we can see how these trends might develop.

As we look at these trends, we might want to laugh at them, and yet we might want to be troubled by the desire on the part of at least some of these groups to impose their subculture on the rest of society, in their dream of restoring Eden to earth.  Believing that there is a biblical mandate for hierarchy and patriarchy that starts with male/female relationships within the family and the church, must in their mind take root in the broader culture.  For those of us who embrace the ideas of democracy and equality and reject sexism, may find this troubling and uncomfortable, but perhaps understandable as a subculture.  But what if groups like the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, seek to impose this vision on the rest of society.  Consider the Culture Wars that have been ongoing for the past few decades.  Is this the world we envision?  

Reading Enticed by Eden is an enlightening experience.  I thought I’d seen everything, until I was exposed to their report on Christian Domestic Discipline (CDD).  Perhaps you will also find it enlightening, even frightening at points.  You may also, like me, wish to offer a counter interpretation, one that is egalitarian and democratic.  Those of you who have fundamentalist roots may also recognize the seeds of these trends in your own experience.  For instance, many in my circles were devotees of Bill Gothard, who for some reason doesn’t make an appearance in this book.  Gothard had a huge following in the 1970s in Evangelical Circles.  I remember attending one of his conferences that filled the University of Oregon’s Mac Court.  We dutifully filled out our workbooks that told us of the blessings of living in hierarchical family structures.  Gothard didn’t make the book, but his ideology is still prevalent and needs to be exposed to the light.

Reading the book will make for more sensitive ears and eyes as we attend to voices in the public square that seek to return to Eden or recycle it!  The book is an enjoyable read, but you might not enjoy everything you encounter, but you will see how some appropriate and misappropriate the message of Genesis 1-3.  Take up and read! 

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