The world can be a confusing place these days when one tries to pair speech to a belief system on the topic of gender. Words create worlds. Just put the words “we uphold the doctrine that woman is subservient to man and that Eve is responsible for the fall of humankind” together in a modern day press release and prepare for the foundations to shake. Somewhere between the two creation stories in Genesis, in a garden of paradise where God’s footsteps and the voice of a talking serpent can be overheard, there lies a belief that women are not the equals of men and it has made it into our modern day.
We all know, as former President Jimmy Carter recently stated in what seemed a painful departure from his Christian denomination of 60 years, his open letter to the Southern Baptist Convention, that the Bible was written in a time when the system of patriarchy was preferred. The Bible did not invent patriarchy, it’s been around a long, long time as one of culture’s tools of civilization. These ancient stories in Bible come to us through a cultural construction that held women as property, at a time when it was also legal for all God’s children to own slaves and practice polygamy. Carter’s point is that he fears that the doctrinal perspective that views women as subservient weakens the argument against degrading practices towards women such as human trafficking, sexual and physical abuse, gender and sexual harassment as well as pay inequity, objectification and shaming speech. Great problems in our day we have not quite been able to solve, and so he decided he could no longer, in good consciousness, practice his faith with that perspective holding sway. So he left, though he still believes the Bible.
The truth is, not all Southern Baptists treat women as if they are second-class citizens and not all Christians interpret the Bible that way, and the system of patriarchy has provided a cultural framework that has built nations and won wars, though the ends do not justify the means by any means. Someone recently reminded me, it is men, not women, who are required to register their names upon their 18th birthday for the draft, it is still the law of the land, an important realization around the topics of assumed gender roles for all of us. However, when widely held doctrinal understandings are soaked in the idea of a God ordained hierarchy among human beings, it makes for some confusing conversations, a world of hurt, lost opportunity, unachieved potential and a whole host of other maladies of the soul that occur around those who fall into the well populated category of the oppressed.
When some Christian doctrine (having seeped, too, into the foundational layers of our cultural DNA) teaches us that Eve, the created woman, is the scapegoat for the sins of the world, the one who is responsible for the downfall of humanity, it conditions us to perceive the female gender as fundamentally flawed, untrustworthy and suspicious. When all women are filtered through the lens of the first woman template deemed subservient to man, it is not just women who struggle to succeed inside this dominant ideology, it is all humanity. This is Carter’s point in leaving the SBC, this is what makes it difficult for him to practice a faith in such a framework. I noted with interest, however, that he did not leave his faith, only his denomination. He still believes in Biblical truth, he just chooses to interpret the story differently. And that is the beautiful thing about Bible story, it is the story that is fluid, flowing beneath the layers of systems, carving new grooves, new pathways, new possibilities into the foundations of time.Stories tell us who we are. Stories, like the creation stories in the Bible, consist of many layers, many depths, many facets and an underlying truth. Some storytellers call this underlying truth the story beneath the story, the world beneath the world, and the master storytellers of the Hebrew Bible were some of the best in the world at their craft at expressing these depths, sometimes even working around the imposed patriarchal lens. We often get at this underlying truth by looking at the story from other perspectives within the story itself such as the narrator or other characters, and as we do, we are changed by it, it has a way of writing us. The story is timeless, though the mode of the manifestation of the story in the time it was written may be fixed, the story continues to move through time as a living thing, regardless of how we might like to appropriate it to whatever conventional idea supports our agenda. Stories refuse such containers, they are meant to be read and re-read, lived and re-lived. Why else would a child beg to hear the same story over and over again?
Why would we? It is because stories enable us to find our place in the world, the world is made of stories, stories hold the world together.
Re-reading the two creation stories through the eyes of Eve enables us to re-live the story again in a new way, opening up a whole new world and new layers of insight, giving us a way to connect with ourselves, the Divine, our life of faith and the ancient stories once again.
The primary perspective that has been maintained about Eve is that her choice to eat the forbidden fruit caused a great fall, sin, the teaching of this doctrine maintains that the original woman was responsible for original sin. But attempting to read the story through her eyes gives us the opportunity to lift the veil of this curse and peek at another perspective. What if instead of being an anti-hero, Eve’s actions placed her in the category of being heroic? After all, none of us would be here if the first couple never left the garden and moved out, past the forever sealed gate, into the world. They would have been perfect forever, never becoming fully human.
Eve is punished in much traditional doctrine for her desire, yet it was her desire that compelled the transformation, it kicked the whole thing off. Desire is the device used by storytellers to move the character forward. In acting upon her desire, Eve initiated the human journey, she took advantage of the offer to become real in the world, to feel the full spectrum of the human experience. After all, before taking the fruit, Adam and Eve may have been created human, but they had no functional idea of the difference between being human and being Divine. She would have to choose the opposite of perfection to obtain the knowledge of what it meant to be human, the knowledge offered through the tree of life.
This is a difficult choice for all of us, choosing whether or not to become real in the world is to risk knowing the full spectrum of the human experience, it is, as Eve proved, the choice to live life in the world, not in a protected bubble of certainty. The journey beyond the gates of paradise involved coming to know opposite emotional realms such as love and hate, joy and pain, trust and deceit, success and failure. The capacity to know trust, as it turns out, also requires the capacity to know its opposite, betrayal. Eve teaches us that becoming human involves risk. Risking the journey outside the gates of paradise requires a trust that God’s love goes there, too, to the depths of despair and darkness. To take of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is to risk becoming real in the world, in all the hurt, pain, failure and even death. The knowledge that the world is hard, it turns out, is real gold when it comes to true spiritual growth.
Eating of that fruit of the tree of life is perhaps the great free fall from which none of us ever fully recover, the very fall we need in order to understand that God’s love is bottomless, that we will never come to the end of it. After all, this is how the soul is born, that kind of spiritual birth canal called life, where our souls become real as we choose to risk being in the world, taking the great risk of ultimate belief in the Divine even though we are still mostly convinced we are the masters of our own destiny. Coming out of the darkness into the light.
To risk belief is to risk walking blind for a while, out beyond certainty, until a kind of second sight occurs, the ongoing healing of the human wound. Risking the journey through the gates of Eden into the unknown is to risk your own great healing. Perhaps Eve had an intuition of the risk she was taking, perhaps she knew there was something important inside of her that had to be born, inside of us all, something that would cause a tear, a great ripping of perfection, and being created in the image of God with borrowed man parts, fully equipped, she walked bravely and heroically into the wilderness to be born, regardless of the consequences. The good news is that Adam walked with her, her male counterpart, her partner and God did not abandon humanity but also moved out into the world to protect and provide, to nurture and care, sometimes from a distance.
Perhaps in the world beneath the world, in the story beneath the story, we will find ourselves knit back together, someday, as we take the risk of re-reading the story through her eyes, so many years later, and experience, perhaps, the lifting of the curse. After all, we are created in the image of God, and creation is meant to grow.