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Feb 12 2013

And just because something is not literally true does not mean it’s profound

Atheist leans over backward to find something contrarian to say about religion because of finding Dawkins too simplistic on the subject. Douglas Murray, in The Spectator. (It sounds like something piping hot and fresh from 2009, but oh well.)

These new atheists remain incapable of getting beyond the question, ‘Is it true?’ They assume that by ‘true’ we agree them to mean ‘literally true’. They also assume that if the answer is ‘no’, then that closes everything. But it does not. Just because something is not literally true does not mean that there is no truth, or worth, in it.

Schopenhauer said that truth may be like water: it needs a vessel to carry it. It is all very well to point out — as Dawkins did again the other night — that Adam did not exist. But to think that this discovery makes not just the story of Eden but the narrative of the crucifixion and resurrection meaningless is to rather startlingly miss a point. You can be in agreement with Professor Dawkins that Adam did not exist, yet know and feel that the story of Eden speaks profoundly about ourselves.

Oh come on. The story of Eden? Speaks profoundly about ourselves? Really profoundly, more profoundly than most stories, to say nothing of psychology or history or journalism?

No it doesn’t. It’s a crude little story, taking up all of 13 verses, and its “profound” speaking amounts to saying obey imaginary rules from imaginary gods, and by the way you’re supposed to be ignorant. What’s profound about that?

People do talk such bullshit about this kind of thing. It’s the old magic of reputation – priests are always saying The Fall is a profound story, so because repetition trumps truth, lots of people believe it. It’s crap. Shake off the prestige of the story and look at it without mystification. It’s not profound. It’s the theocratic version of The One Forbidden Thing. It has a talking snake. Next contestant please.

 

51 comments

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  1. 1
    Mattir, Another One With Boltcutters

    The story itself? Bah, brief and fairly silly. The imaginings of midrash and art and elaboration around the story? Wonderful. But then I really really like folklore.

  2. 2
    Mattir, Another One With Boltcutters

    Oh, and the new nym suffix is directed at the, um, clinging Freeze Peach crowd. Go. Already. Please.

  3. 3
    glodson

    It also plays havoc with the whole notion of original sin, a quite important concept with many strains of Christianity… So conceding that there was literally no Adam is basically saying there was no need, or reason, to let Jesus die.

    But I guess just because the story of the Bible isn’t literally true is no reason to live your life according to these false, yet profound, reasons.

    Yes, this seems like a profoundly stupid article.

  4. 4
    Kevin, Youhao Huo Mao

    The story of Eden isn’t even all that interesting. “It was created” *yaaawn*

  5. 5
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    Quite. I mean, the Norse creation story has the world licked into shape by a cow out of the frozen carcass of a giant. That’s a lot more fun/interesting.

  6. 6
    kosk11348

    These new atheists remain incapable of getting beyond the question, ‘Is it true?’ They assume that by ‘true’ we agree them to mean ‘literally true’. They also assume that if the answer is ‘no’, then that closes everything. But it does not. Just because something is not literally true does not mean that there is no truth, or worth, in it.

    No, it’s not that we cannot get beyond the question, “Is it true?” It’s only that we think it’s an important thing to know. Nor do we assume anything which isn’t literally true is of no value. I majored in English Literature, for Pete’s sake. I appreciate the value of art. But when we were reading fictional novels we were never encouraged to read them as history.

    It is all very well to point out — as Dawkins did again the other night — that Adam did not exist. But to think that this discovery makes not just the story of Eden but the narrative of the crucifixion and resurrection meaningless is to rather startlingly miss a point.

    Except no one, not even Dawkins, would argue that being untrue strips the Genesis story of all meaning. It’s that it fundamentally changes the sort meaning you can derive from it. And it does cause complications which multiply and which ripple down through he whole teetering edifice of Christian dogma.. These are not trivial points to overlook.

  7. 7
    Raging Bee

    You can be in agreement with Professor Dawkins that Adam did not exist, yet know and feel that the story of Eden speaks profoundly about ourselves.

    That story — and the way it’s used — certainly speaks profoundly of the mindset of the people who parrot it. It’s not flattering to Christians, or all that useful to people in our daily lives, but as a window into some people’s idea of themselves and others, it’s pretty profound indeed.

    PS: Dalilama, where did you hear THAT Norse creation story?

  8. 8
    Raging Bee

    Just because something is not literally true does not mean that there is no truth, or worth, in it.

    It doesn’t mean there IS truth or worth in it either. It just means we have another level or two on which we have to judge the truth or worth of a story.

    And either way, we still have to judge, not only the worth of a story, but the consequences of how it may be misunderstood or misused by rank-and-file believers.

  9. 9
    flex

    You’re absolutely right. It’s an abysmal story.

    What did it take, 4,000 years, to resolve that original sin? I mean, cricky! Four thousand years?!?

    George Lucas would have resolved it in the next generation!

    Able would have recovered the apple from the pit of plot elements. After Able is almost killed by his evil twin brother Cain, Adam repents of his original rebellion, kicks Cain’s ass, and returns the apple to God.

  10. 10
    flex

    Doh! Abel, not Able. And I did it more than once. *cringe*

  11. 11
    theobromine

    It’s not evolution that makes “the story of Eden [and] the narrative of the crucifixion and resurrection meaningless”, it’s theodicy.

  12. 12
    rnilsson

    PS: Dalilama, where did you hear THAT Norse creation story?

    I have heard it too. The cow’s name was Audhumbla. One of few details I recall.

    and returns the apple to God.

    … throwing it WAAY out of the entire ballpark. Angels cheer, chug beer.

    Allright then, maybe not quite true — but profound! Deep swigs.

  13. 13
    Deepak Shetty

    But to think that this discovery makes not just the story of Eden but the narrative of the crucifixion and resurrection meaningless is to rather startlingly miss a point.
    If Adam didnt exist why do two gospel writers trace Jesus’s genealogy from Adam? Were they making up stuff? Were they repeating made up stuff? Liberal Christians and atheists of the ofcourse Genesis is a metaphor ilk (Rosenau) – never quite seem to explain this.

  14. 14
    otrame

    As creation stories go Genesis is as good as any other. It is just a series of Just So stories, trying to explain a few odd facts.

    People notice that human females have a lot more trouble giving birth than other animals do. Why is that?

    People noticed that, as Eddy Izzard has remarked, there is no such thing as an evil giraffe. Why then, are there evil people? Are we not superior to a giraffe? The Eden story attempts to explain these strange facts. And you get free “blame the women for anything bad” with that, which can always come in handy.

    There is nothing wrong with trying to understand what the hell is going on there. Consider it a failed hypothesis that tells you a lot about how people thought about stuff in those days. An interesting document, to be sure.

    What is wrong is that a couple of thousand years later, a bunch of people who should know better are pretending that those stories are TRUE, because Jesus.

    Sad.

  15. 15
    TerranRich, Yet Another Atheist

    The only people who think anything in the Bible is profound, I’d imagine, are those who haven’t actually read the damn thing.

  16. 16
    sawells

    In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the snake steals the fruit of life from Gilgamesh while he is sleeping. So people still have to die, whereas a snake can shed its skin and be all shiny and new and regain its youth. Obvious, really.

  17. 17
    notsont

    The problem with Adam and Eve not being real is that it eliminated original sin, which has problems later on in the book. You can’t have supposedly real things happen if the things that were supposed to have caused them did not happen. Even if the genesis story were the most profound and meaningful story ever written (it isn’t) it needs to be true for the rest of the book to have any real meaning, creationists know this, that is why they fight so hard against evolution. Without the story of Adam being literally true Jesus has no purpose.

  18. 18
    Sastra

    You can be in agreement with Professor Dawkins that Adam did not exist, yet know and feel that the story of Eden speaks profoundly about ourselves.

    To repeat a point Greta Christina has made time and again, if Christianity is really just a metaphorical story which speaks profoundly about ourselves, then why is everyone so upset about Dawkins pointing out it’s not true? An atheist saying that Adam doesn’t exist would be treated like someone mentioning Gene Roddenberry at a Star Trek convention. “Yes, we KNOW that it’s fiction, of course we do! We’re playing dress-up. It’s fantasy. If it doesn’t personally appeal to you then go find some other convention, some other story which speaks to you.” And everyone would shrug over someone stating the obvious.

    But they don’t do that. At least, they don’t do that when nobody’s looking and the atheist is out of the room. If religion is taken as having unique and profound truths then it can’t all be a metaphor for the human condition with no whiff of the supernatural about it. “God” can’t be a symbol for the universe, or love, or struggle, or something that makes sense. If it is for YOU then I think you’re an atheist dressing up as a believer.

  19. 19
    freemage

    Raging Bee: Norse myth does, indeed, have the cow licking the world into shape, specifically from the glacier-like body of a fallen frost giant.

    Genesis, of course, also serves Just So duty on the eternal question, “Why does Snake have no feet?” But it really is kinda weaksauce as origin stories go.

    Now, personally, I’m kinda fond of Solomon’s Song of Songs; it’s a nice example of ancient erotic poetry. And mid-book, the character J.C. tends to have at least SOME good advice for his audience, once you remove the god-bothering bits. But most of the rest is just tripe or torture porn, and really not anything to recommend it.

  20. 20
    dantalion

    Taken literally, it is not true.

    Taken metaphorically, it is a badly written story.

    Neither reading reflects very well on god.

  21. 21
    sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    You can be in agreement with Professor Dawkins that Adam did not exist, yet know and feel that the story of Eden speaks profoundly about ourselves.

    And what does it profoundly say?

    the Norse creation story has the world licked into shape by a cow out of the frozen carcass of a giant.

    Who created the cow and the giant? What did the giant die of?

  22. 22
    Marcus Ranum

    But to think that this discovery makes not just the story of Eden but the narrative of the crucifixion and resurrection meaningless is to rather startlingly miss a point

    Speaking of points missed… Dawkins has raised that issue in a couple of talks, and it is a serious problem for thinking christians.

    Without “original sin” and the whole “garden of eden” fiasco then the already flimsy justification for why jesus needed to suffer his really bad day as scapegoat evaporates. Then, what?

    Take religion metaphorically and it’s bollocks. Take it literally and it’s just wrong. It’s easier to just understand that it’s wrong and not waste one’s time wading through endless pits of bollocks.

  23. 23
    Lou Doench

    I think that there are certain little nuggets to the Genesis story that I think are worthwhile.
    I quite like this bit. from Genesis 2:19

    19 Now the Lord God had formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.

    This, and passages like it which depict Yahweh as less than omnipotent, a creator curious about what his own creation will do… I think that’s charming.
    Of course the next bit is where God creates man his “helpmeet”, which is much less charming.

  24. 24
    screechymonkey

    And the question shouldn’t be just “is it profound,” though I agree that the answer to that is “no.” The question should be “is it so much moreprofound that it should be the focus of people’s lives?” Because believers don’t just treat the Bible as one profound book among many, they single it out as the most profound, and one that is so much so that we don’t even need to bother discussing the others.

    Once you concede that it’s fiction, you essentially just have a book club that meets every week to discuss the same book over and over again. I don’t think there’s any one book that merits that amount of close — and closed-off — study.

  25. 25
    Ophelia Benson

    Right – that’s what I meant by “Really profoundly, more profoundly than most stories, to say nothing of psychology or history or journalism?”

    It’s sooooo easy to think of countless stories, dramas, novels, poems that are vastly more profound, along with libraries full of psychology and history and journalism and social science. The “story of Eden” in comparison? It’s laughable.

  26. 26
    sailor1031

    This is all just BS. The whole point of christianity is that it is supposed to have happened. If it didn’t actually happen, if these supposedly historical events didn’t happen, then you can make up any meaningless BS you like and claim it as profound truth; but it isn’t truth at all. You might as well say “the golden ass” contains profound truths or that the “Aeneid” contains revelations by which to live one’s life, and maybe you’d be right. Where do you draw a line – any line? You would have to believe that absolutely everything ever written is full of profound truth……….good luck with that.

  27. 27
    Silentbob

    I can hear the ghost of Hitchens declaring that even as metaphor the stories are monstrous.

    Creatures punished forever for doing wrong when they were deliberately denied knowledge of good and evil?!

    A god that deliberately creates a child with the intention of sacrificing that child to himself, as payment to himself for the sins committed by creatures that he, himself, created?!!

  28. 28
    screechymonkey

    Ophelia @25: Exactly. And don’t even get me started on the people who refer to Jesus as “the Greatest Story Ever Told.” Blech. A boring protagonist, continuity errors, screwy moral messages, and a bizarro ending (“he’s dead. No, wait, he’s back! Ok, but he’s leaving again. Because he totally accomplished his mission by dying and coming back to life. Wouldn’t want to stick around and prove the whole coming-back-to-life thing to anyone other than his followers.”)?

  29. 29
    Deepak Shetty

    @freemage
    And mid-book, the character J.C. tends to have at least SOME good advice for his audience, once you remove the god-bothering bits.
    Actually the older I got , the less the advice made sense – especially after you see some applications of turn the other cheek in practice (like Gandhi’s advice to the Jews to let the Nazis evict them peacefully without violence).
    Let he who is without sin cast the first stone cant be good advice for the society. Do we really want to let paedophiles off with “we are all sinners” – well perhaps the RCC wants just that.
    And the golden rule is just guidance – i have often run into trouble doing onto others as I would want done unto me!.

  30. 30
    Jafafa Hots

    A god that deliberately creates a child with the intention of sacrificing that child to himself, as payment to himself for the sins committed by creatures that he, himself, created?!!

    A lot of so-called “horror” movies have scripts like these now. I call them torture porn movies, not horror movies.
    Someone could sell this idea to Troma or someone.

  31. 31
    Argle Bargle

    Waiting for Godot and Peter Rabbit are both not true and both more profound than Genesis.

  32. 32
    screechymonkey

    On a related note, I feel the same way about people like Andrew Sullivan who yammer on about “mystery.”

  33. 33
    Bruce Gorton

    Actually I would argue that it is possible to get beyond ‘is it true’ and use Genesis to demonstrate some very profound things.

    It is a basic glorification of ignorance, establishing the cult of the innocent as if knowledge leads to great wrongdoing. It essentially sets the tone for the rest of the story, where self-improvement along lines that do not follow a higher authority are dubbed sin, where seeking knowledge is in fact the original sin.

    It also essentially exists to service ‘golden age’ thinking, on which appeals to ‘simpler times’ always rest, always forgetting what simpler times really meant for anyone who wasn’t rich, of the right race and male.

    It is disgusting not simply on the level of being an untrue story, but on what the core message of the story is.

    It is very, very possible to draw more out of Genesis even after saying “well its not true” – the thing is it still doesn’t work out to saying nice things about the story tellers.

  34. 34
    Martha

    I like very much what kosk said.

    What profundity there is in religious tales/ mythology derives from their portrayal of the struggle of a people at some point in time to make sense of the world around them. Insisting that this interpretation remain static is a sacrilege, if I may use the term. The search is what’s valuable, both to understand how things work and to provide some kind of meaning to life. That’s why I love science and also why I recoil at the idea that science dictates morality.

    My biggest problem with Genesis (if you ignore version of the creation myth in which Eve comes from Adam’s rib– the other version is much more palatable) is the business of God giving man dominion over all the creatures of the earth. It wouldn’t surprise me at all that cultures with creation myths in which people are to nurture the earth are much less exploitative than the dominant culture in our society.

  35. 35
    evilDoug

    A god that deliberately creates a child with the intention of sacrificing that child to himself, as payment to himself for the sins committed by creatures that he, himself, created?!!

    But wait! There’s more! Not only were the sins of the past covered, but the sins of the future as well. That vast numbers of people happily accept that someone else has already atoned for their misdeeds and absolves them of personal responsibility does, I think, say something quite profound. It doesn’t say anything good.

    Waiting for Godot…

    That was one of the works that went through my mind shortly after reading Ophelia’s original post. A play considered to be theatre of the absurd, yet as Rodney says, “more profound than Genesis.”
    Dante and the Lobster also comes to mind.

    Murray comes across to me as sewn from the same cloth as de Botton. He also reminds me of the guy who berated (Greta iirc), wailing that causing someone to lose their religion would shatter their worldview. It damned well should!

  36. 36
    TheVirginian

    Once you get past the “Is it true?” and “Does it have any deep meaning despite its fictional nature?” questions, you can get to the most interesting points: Where did the story come from? and What did it mean to the original audience?
    The original version almost certainly was a Middle Eastern tale (there are 2 or 3) about how humanity lost a chance at immortality (“Gilgamesh” is one example). Someone adapted it to become an attack on goddess worship. “Eve” is one name of the goddess Asherah, who was the wife of the high god El, both of whom were the high god/goddess of the Israelites. Sometime in the 1st half of the 1st millennium BCE, some Israelites began worshiping only El and started campaigning against worship of El’s son Baal, then added in Asherah as also “forbidden fruit.” Pardon the pun here because symbols associated with Asherah, part of iconography in which she was depicted as a nude woman, were a sacred fruit tree and snakes. (I’m drawing on various scholarly sources here and my reading is a few years old, so if anyone knows of a more-recent analysis, please write it up here).
    The message to a pre-monotheism Israelite was that goddess worship had caused bad things to happen and should be abandoned in favor of worshiping only El. (This was not monotheism, the belief that only one deity exists, but henotheism, the belief that other gods existed but should not be worshiped, instead focusing solely on one deity.) Several passages in the Jewish scriptures say other gods exist, but one god had reserved Israel to himself. It’s not hard to see this transforming, over time, into the idea of henotheism, and later monotheism.

  37. 37
    evilDoug

    … the business of God giving man dominion over all the creatures of the earth ,,,

    That is certainly much-cited to justify all manner of cruelty and outright rejection of efforts to care for our planet.

    Profound words from another Irish playwright (Shaw):

    “Custom will reconcile people to any atrocity, and fashion will drive them to acquire any custom.”

  38. 38
    bad Jim

    There is probably nothing more useless for an atheist to do than explain what Paul got wrong about the story in Genesis, but since no one else wants to, I will. Paul said that death didn’t enter the world until Adam’s sin (though, if I have it right, Eve took the first bite of the apple). But Genesis records God wondering aloud what will happen if the humans then partake of the tree of eternal life. It would appear that at that point God thought death was already part of the scheme.

    He must have been mistaken. Silly old God.

  39. 39
    Carmichael

    I read or heard somewhere that the story related in part to the change from a hunter-gatherer life-style to an agricultural one. The Garden of Eden represented the the hunter-gatherer life, where people could simply wander around and find all they needed to live. Somewhat idealized, obviously. After the expulsion from Eden, people ate food with sweat on their brows, having to work hard to grow enough crops just to survive. Climate change in the Middle East at the time (10,000 – 8,000 BC?) may have played a part in this.
    I don’t know if this is merely speculation, but it’s an interesting idea. It would mean that some of the elements of the story might be many thousands of years old, like some of the Australian Aboriginal stories, and speak of important events in our cultural evolution. Other elements, such as those suggested by The Virginian @ 36, may have been interwoven later.
    Profundity in the way Douglas Murray implies, though, not so much.

  40. 40
    echidna

    There was a documentary on Gobekli Tepe a while back that suggested that a nomad to agricultural shift took place in that region, and found its way into the Genesis story.

  41. 41
    noxiousnan

    I really really hate when people believe that lies are better than truth. It’s much worse when they go about trying to get others to do the same…others that might not otherwise do so. “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable place to be, but when one prefers a lie to the truth one needs to own the fact that they are settling for “less than” for emotional reasons. I’ve done it; I’m not proud. I can’t always face the truth right away.

    Adam didn’t exist, and his fictional story is detrimental to society in my opinion. So no, don’t ever ask me not to argue down that myth at every opportunity, Mr. Murray.

  42. 42
    jonathangray

    A couple of points, if you will permit.

    While the Christian tradition does allow of non-literal(istic) reading of surface detail, that tradition insists the biblical account of Creation and Fall is true history, albeit expressed through mythopoeic compression. Our first parents succumbed to Satan’s temptation (“the transgression of the divine command through the devil’s persuasion under the guise of a serpent”) and as a result of their primordial sin fell from their state of grace into what is now vulgarly known as the human condition.

    If the Christian tradition is right and this really happened (and of course it did), then that is all that matters — whatever aesthetic merit or ‘insight into human nature’ that the Book of Genesis might or might not possess is strictly secondary. That said …

    The story of Eden? Speaks profoundly about ourselves? Really profoundly, more profoundly than most stories, to say nothing of psychology or history or journalism?

    I’ll give you that stories, histories and even journalism can have something to say on such matters — but psychology?? Which psychologists did you have in mind? X D

    It’s a crude little story

    Crude? Well, considered purely as a story, if Genesis is crude, what of it? Subtlety is not synonymous with profundity. At any rate there was enough in this crude little fable to fire the imaginations of everyone from Milton, Masaccio, Haydn & Joyce to Bob Dylan & Gene Wolfe. Were they all bamboozled by the flim-flam of “the old magic of reputation”? Are you more insightful than they?

    taking up all of 13 verses

    Size isn’t everything, you know …

    its “profound” speaking amounts to saying obey imaginary rules from imaginary gods and by the way you’re supposed to be ignorant. What’s profound about that? … It’s the theocratic version of The One Forbidden Thing. It has a talking snake.

    It’s not a “version” of the One Forbidden Thing, it’s the very source of the trope, at least as far as the Western imagination is concerned. For that alone it would command attention. And the One Forbidden Thing is not to prefer knowledge to ignorance; it’s the presumption to arrogate to oneself the divine prerogative. Hear the Talking Snake: “Your eyes shall be opened: and you shall be as Gods, knowing good and evil.”

    There you go — a bunch of Bronze Age goat-herders foresaw the entire course of modern civilisation! (And God responds to our present shamefaced nakedness as He did to its ur-type, with a sarcastic cosmic rotflmao: “Behold Adam is become as one of us, knowing good and evil!”)

    Ein Buch ist ein Spiegel, wenn ein Affe hineinsieht, so kann kein Apostel herausgucken. – Lichtenberg

  43. 43
    Ophelia Benson

    In other words, you disagree with me; you think it’s a great little story, and true besides. Plus you think psychology sucks. Got it.

  44. 44
    Anthony K

    At any rate there was enough in this crude little fable to fire the imaginations of everyone from Milton, Masaccio, Haydn & Joyce to Bob Dylan & Gene Wolfe. Were they all bamboozled by the flim-flam of “the old magic of reputation”? Are you more insightful than they?

    Don’t forget Andres Serrano.

    I’m never sure whether I find the smug yet naked appeal to popularity and authority less compelling when it’s coming from jonathangray or from heddle. A question for the ancients, no doubt.

    Of course, a true believer can never make this argument in good conscience, because they know that they don’t find the architects and calligraphers of Isfahan compelling evidence for the truth or profundity of the Qu’ran, or the artisans of Greece, Persia, Egypt, Peru, China, Japan, Australia, and generally, everywhere humans have ever lived, compelling evidence for the truth or profundity of their particular cultures’ creation mythologies. For Muslim apologists, swap in the Sistine Chapel for Naqsh-e Jahan Square as appropriate, and so forth.

    So the entire argument is a deception (or worse); a distraction they toss out to muddy the waters and change the focus. After all, if they don’t find it compelling, why should they expect anyone else to?

    Nonetheless, it is nice to be reminded once in awhile by a believer that the Bible is rather slim pickins when it comes to a good, meaningful, relevant, and moving story. For that, it’s best to go to the remakes by the true artists jonathangray mentioned.

  45. 45
    Genius Loci

    We look for narrative meaning in random events. That’s what the writers of the texts that make up the Bible did; that’s what the editors and translators did over the centuries in pulling together the books of the Bible, determining which ones were canonical (an arbitrary and nonsensical process) and producing translations that were intended to placate religious sects with a history of going to war over minor theological quibbles.

    And now we have this jumble of words that’s a little like one of those optical illusion puzzles, where you stare at a blurry pattern of colors for a while and then at some point it starts to take on shape, and suddenly you can no longer see it any other way. Look at the Bible one way, especially if you’ve been brought up to look at it that way, and it’s a (debatably) profound narrative about covenants and divine purpose and the beginning and end of the world. Look at it another way and…it’s a jumble of words shoehorned together.

    I was never much good at those optical puzzles. And now I can no longer see clearly the narrative thread of which I was so sure when I was a child. It’s just a chaotic jumble of text fragments now.

  46. 46
    octopod

    I have to say, “don’t try to arrogate to yourself the divine prerogative” only makes a good story if you’ve any fucking idea what the divine prerogative is. Eden never did much for me in anyone’s version. Some of the great Western artists do some good stuff with other parts of the Bible, but I’ve never found much for myself in that one at all.

    On the other hand, I like the story of the fall of Lucifer, but much as when I read the ending of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, I always get a little bit of an itchy feeling when I know I’m deliberately reading something at an oblique angle to how the author meant it.

    But back on topic: I’d say that’s a pretty good encapsulation for the Garden of Eden story. What is the message of the crucifixion-and-resurrection story? I can read the crucifixion as “sometimes an innocent person will choose to sacrifice themselves in order to solve an otherwise unsolvable problem, and we should respect them for that”. But the resurrection is more like wish-fulfillment fanfic, “if we tell the story with a new ending all the sad things will not have happened and we can ignore continuity to tell stories about him as if he’s still alive”.

    And I should probably go to bed because I’m deeply into the weeds here and not sure where I’m going with this whole value-of-myths business, sorry.

  47. 47
    Stacy

    the One Forbidden Thing is not to prefer knowledge to ignorance; it’s the presumption to arrogate to oneself the divine prerogative.

    And what is being reserved for the divine? Knowledge. Tomato, tomahto.

    (And God responds to our present shamefaced nakedness as He did to its ur-type, with a sarcastic cosmic rotflmao: “Behold Adam is become as one of us, knowing good and evil!”

    I can see why a believer wanting to frame the story as a profound one would spin it that way, but the text doesn’t support the idea that Yahweh was being ironic. He goes on to say:

    Gen 3:22 And the LORD God said, Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever

    Gen 3:23 Therefore the LORD God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.

    (KJB Cambridge Ed.)

    In other words: Yahweh was in fact afraid of the humans becoming “as one of us,” i.e., a god. Note the implicit acknowledgement of other gods. TheVirginian is right: when this story was reaching the familiar version we all know so well, Judaism was henotheistic, not monotheistic. They acknowledged the existence of other gods but ostentatiously confined themselves to the worship of only one.

    Such was the conception of a god before scientific thinking forced “the divine” to become invisible, immutable, and pretty much indistinguishable from a slippery mental skyhook for wishful thinking and daddy issues. The Yahweh of Genesis walked in the Garden in the cool of evening and was at pains to keep his creatures from acquiring godlike immortality; the Yahweh of Judges was powerless against iron chariots.

  48. 48
    Stacy

    I always found it a dull story, at least the version that was taught in Sunday school. When you realize that in earlier incarnations Eve may have been a goddess (as TheVirginian points out) it becomes a little more interesting. And this interpretation of the “rib” story is highly entertaining:

    http://vridar.wordpress.com/2010/06/20/which-bone-was-eve-made-from/

    (Was Adam’s rib a baculum, and was it a just-so story accounting for the lack of a penis bone in the human male?)

  49. 49
    eveningperson

    The Adam and Eve story does contain a profundity. It is one of profound misogyny – the woman as corrupter of the man – and both expresses and is used to ‘justify’ misogyny.

    All religious scriptures are essentially political documents. They are used to hold groups of people together and to proclaim the otherness of those not in the group. Their truth or otherwise is irrelevant to this purpose. Within the group they express the interests of the dominant faction and try to hold the others in their places. So it was with the Jews. These scriptures have been reinterpreted, edited, added to and translated in accordance with the political currents of the time, as with the King James bible. This process continues, as we see with churchmen, academics and Douglas Murray.

  50. 50
    jonathangray

    Ophelia Benson:

    In other words, you disagree with me; you think it’s a great little story

    Never mind what I think, it’s what a great many creative geniuses think. Appeal to authority? Not really. I don’t think Genesis is profound because creative geniuses say it is, but because it has proved such a fruitful source of creative inspiration for them.

    and true besides.

    I was merely trying to suggest that the possible ways of interpreting certain passages in Genesis are not limited to either a flat-footed literalistic reading in the manner of fundamentalist Protestants or a mushy liberal Protestant/post-Protestant demythologisation of Scripture to the level of existential parable. There is a third option — Genesis relates real history through the medium of mythopoeia as a kind of vivid shorthand. Adam & Eve might not have actually eaten an actual piece of fruit; their primordial sin might have been a purely mental act of defiant pride for all we know. But sin they did.

    Plus you think psychology sucks. Got it.

    Got it.

    Anthony K:

    Don’t forget Andres Serrano.

    Who?

    Of course, a true believer can never make this argument in good conscience, because they know that they don’t find the architects and calligraphers of Isfahan compelling evidence for the truth or profundity of the Qu’ran …

    In this context you can legitimately distinguish between a religion’s truth-claims and profundity, which you rather casually lump together. Milton, Haydn, etc aren’t proof that anything Genesis says is true; but they are evidence that Genesis is not trivial. The fact that it has inspired so many remarkable “remakes” as you call them suggests that it is not “slim pickins” at all but an endlessly fertile field.

    And no, I’m not operating a double standard here. If someone points to Islamic architecture or calligraphy and says these validate the truth-claims of Islam, I’d say they were talking bollocks. But if someone dismissed the Koran as an altogether worthless hack-job with nothing to say to humanity, I’d point to the splendours of the civilisation that flowered from that book.

    Genius Loci:

    We look for narrative meaning in random events. That’s what the writers of the texts that make up the Bible did; that’s what the editors and translators did over the centuries in pulling together the books of the Bible, determining which ones were canonical (an arbitrary and nonsensical process) and producing translations that were intended to placate religious sects with a history of going to war over minor theological quibbles.

    And now we have this jumble of words that’s a little like one of those optical illusion puzzles, where you stare at a blurry pattern of colors for a while and then at some point it starts to take on shape, and suddenly you can no longer see it any other way. Look at the Bible one way, especially if you’ve been brought up to look at it that way, and it’s a (debatably) profound narrative about covenants and divine purpose and the beginning and end of the world. Look at it another way and…it’s a jumble of words shoehorned together.

    I was never much good at those optical puzzles. And now I can no longer see clearly the narrative thread of which I was so sure when I was a child. It’s just a chaotic jumble of text fragments now.

    How can you be sure the “chaotic jumble” isn’t in your own head rather than in the Bible? Isn’t it at least a possibility? After all, by your own admission you were “never much good at those optical puzzles”

    Stacy:

    the One Forbidden Thing is not to prefer knowledge to ignorance; it’s the presumption to arrogate to oneself the divine prerogative.

    And what is being reserved for the divine? Knowledge. Tomato, tomahto.

    You can say Adam & Eve hoped to gain a kind of ‘knowledge’ if you like, but we’re not talking about the knowledge you can acquire through reason, whether scientific or philosophical. We’re talking about a usurpation of the godlike right to define good and evil for themselves.

    Note the implicit acknowledgement of other gods. … when this story was reaching the familiar version we all know so well, Judaism was henotheistic, not monotheistic. … Such was the conception of a god before scientific thinking forced “the divine” to become invisible, immutable … in earlier incarnations Eve may have been a goddess … Was Adam’s rib a baculum, and was it a just-so story accounting for the lack of a penis bone in the human male?

    Sounds like you’ve been listening to The Latest Biblical Scholarship. Over the years The Latest Biblical Scholarship has variously informed us that Jesus was a mystical hippy who preached disengagement and non-violence … that he was a fire-breathing revolutionary who preached the violent overthrow of the social order … that he was a wholly mythical figure pilfered from Mithraism … that he was a member of a celibate Jewish sect … that he fathered a child by shagging Mary Magdalene … that he was gay …

    When I was young, The Latest Biblical Scholarship solemnly declared that ‘Jesus’ was secret code for a hallucinogenic mushroom. Funny how The Latest always reflects the passing fads and fancies of the age.

  51. 51
    Stacy

    Never mind what I think, it’s what a great many creative geniuses think. Appeal to authority? Not really. I don’t think Genesis is profound because creative geniuses say it is, but because it has proved such a fruitful source of creative inspiration for them.

    You know what’ve also been a fruitful source of creative inspiration for a great many creative geniuses? Stories from classical mythology. Fairy tales. Folklore. Myths and legends of all kinds. Biblical stories are among the best known because they’ve been taught for centuries–and people were required to listen to them.

    There’s no reason to think there’s something inherently “profound” in a story just because it proves to be a popular source of artistic motifs. The profundity is to be found in what’s made of it.

    Of course we find meaning in the stories we grew up with (or were taught to regard with respect.) Of course they will shape our imaginations, and artists will borrow their plots and their motifs and make use of their symbolism.

    But the uses to which the stories are put change over time. We don’t know for sure what the ancients thought the garden of Eden story meant or what the apple symbolized. We don’t know the original version of the story–if “original version” even means anything when you’re talking about folklore.

    Sounds like you’ve been listening to The Latest Biblical Scholarship.

    Yes, I do read popular Biblical criticism, and yes, there are various hypotheses. We can’t be sure where the Eve character came from. What do you expect? These are ancient texts, and the stories preserved in the texts are more ancient still, and the context in which they were written is imperfectly known. Your point being?

    Funny how The Latest always reflects the passing fads and fancies of the age

    And funny how that’s true of the stories themselves, and likely was true from the very beginning. You mention Jesus: there have been lots of hypotheses about him (though it looks like you mixed up some crank hypotheses with better-supported ones.) One of the reasons there are so many different Jesuses (Jesi?) is that the gospels don’t provide a coherent picture of their main character. Like any other character from folklore, his story was spun in different ways at different times by different people, to reflect their concerns.

    In any case, outside of fundamentalist circles there is no controversy about the fact that the ancient Jews were henotheistic or the fact that their henotheism is reflected in the Bible. The primitive nature of Yahweh found in Genesis and Judges and elsewhere is right there in plain sight–just read the things.

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