As part of my aborted preparation for last week’s Sunday School lesson on Adam and Eve, I read Stephen Greenblatt’s new book The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (W. W. Norton, 2017). Like all of Greenblatt’s books, it is terribly readable and very informative. It is highly recommended for any Mormon, given how greatly expanded the role of Adam (if not Eve) and the narrative of the first few chapters of Genesis has become in LDS doctrine and folklore compared to the standard Christian story. For Mormons, Adam is not just the first man but a great and noble spirit if not God Himself (see: things I learned from Brigham Young). For Mormons, Cain is not just the brother of Abel or the first murderer but the literal sidekick of a literal Satan and the architect of the first great Evil Secret Combination. Reading Greenblatt’s book helps Mormons understand where some of this doctrinal speculation and folklore comes from. It helps Mormons understand that no one else — not Jews, not Christians, not JWs or Scientologists — believes the things Mormons do about Adam and Eve and Satan and Cain and the Garden of Eden.
I can’t do a full summary of the book or even a full review. I’m just going to pick a few topics that jumped out at me in the course of reading the book and briefly discuss them.
On the whole, I’d rather be a Pelagian
On pages 104-5, Greenblatt contrasts Augustine’s view of Original Sin, “the taint you had inherited from the sin of Adam and Eve,” with the kinder and gentler views of Pelagius that were (thanks to Augustine’s tireless efforts and politicking) eventually declared heretical. Pelagius denied Original Sin. Here is the short summary of his views.
Pelagius and his followers were moral optimists. They believed that all human beings were born innocent. … We possess in ourselves the possibility of choosing good over evil. True, we are all descendants of Adam and Eve, … [b]ut that act in the distant past does not condemn us inescapably to sinfulness. How could it? What would be the mechanism of infection? Why would a benevolent God permit something so monstrous? No: we are at liberty to shape our own lives, whether to serve God or to serve Satan.
Thanks, John Milton
In a chapter on John Milton’s composition of Paradise Lost (which does at least as much to shape our view of Adam and Eve as the text of Genesis), Greenblatt recounts how the War in Heaven theme emerged and expanded within the Christian tradition, then was incorporated by Milton.
Developing the ancient midrashic speculations that some of the angels had objected to the creation of the first humans and envied the qualities that God had conferred upon them, Ambrose, Augustine, and their contemporaries began to posit behind the serpent’s temptation of Eve a backstory: the rebellion of Satan and his legions. By the Middle Ages these speculations had been elaborated into an account of a full-scale war in heaven, with Satan leading a third of the angels in a reckless, mad, doomed uprising against God and then, in defeat, plotting to harm God’s creatures, the first man and woman.
Sound familiar? The LDS story carries on even farther than the medieval story. Here’s from the Bible Dictionary entry for “the Devil,” pulled from LDS.org this morning (references omitted): “Since the devil and his premortal angels have no physical body of flesh and bones, they often seek to possess the bodies of mortal beings. There are many such instances recorded in scripture. Such can be evicted by the power of faith in Jesus Christ and the exercise of the holy priesthood.” This highlights the doctrinal link between the War in Heaven and the idea of demonic possession. Mormons sort of affirm possession and exorcism in theory but not in practice. Which spurs a bit of reflection. If Mormons affirm but don’t really believe in possession and exorcism, maybe Mormons affirm but don’t really believe the linked idea of the War in Heaven?
Narratives can die, too
Toward the end of the book, Greenblatt likens the mortality of Adam and Eve, as represented in the story, with the mortality of the story itself, that is the rather marked decline in modern belief in the literal Adam and Eve narrative. Here is Greenblatt’s commentary.
The mortality of a narrative — one that has, as an article of faith, been taken as true — is not the same as a human’s. The aging process is not comparable; there are no telltale signs of impending collapse; no heirs crowd in by the bedside weeping or hoping for a legacy. Above all, there is no moment in which the living myth decisively stops breathing and a licensed physician hurries into the room to certify that indeed it has all come to an end. What happens instead is simply that a significant number of people cease to believe that the story convincingly depicts reality. Others may continue fervently to believe after the decline has begun, but the ground has begun to shift, and the process is usually irreversible. Even those who think that the story is untrue may hold on to it for some time, whether because it is awkward or dangerous not to do so, or because the alternative is not clear, or because it still seems to convey something important about life. But its key elements have begun to shimmer like a mirage. They have ceased to be solid truths in the real world and have begun to drift toward make-believe. The narrative becomes a just-so story, a fanciful attempt to account for the way things are. If it is powerful enough, it becomes a work of art.
This concept of the dying narrative seems quite relevant for contemporary Mormonism. I’m sure you can think of examples.
Doubt your doubts, Darwin
The last chapter is titled “Darwin’s Doubts,” and starts off with this provocative statement: Darwinism is not incompatible with belief in God, but it is certainly incompatible with belief in Adam and Eve. I think he could have phrased that better. He should have said: “The theory of evolution, supplemented by modern genetics and our understanding of DNA, is not incompatible with belief in God, but is certainly incompatible with belief in the traditional story of Adam and Eve.” I suspect most LDS biologists would dispute the claim as stated by Greenblatt (because they can’t or won’t explicity reject Adam and Eve) but privately accept the rephrased version of the claim (because their story of Adam and Eve, however modified, is not really the traditional one). Here is a corollary to that claim: The more a church affirms and elaborates a literal, historic Adam and Eve story, the more it will dispute and reject the theory of evolution. Makes sense. That describes the official LDS position as most forcefully stated by Joseph Fielding Smith and carried on by CES and Mormon culture as a whole to this day. The attempt to have both evolution and Adam and Eve, exemplified by the various BYU biology departments and a distinct minority of Latter-day Saints, is a recent development. The way things are going, it may not last.
The book is so new I doubt any reader has had a chance to read it yet, but if you have, please chime in with your own comments on or responses to topics I did not cover.