I’ve often wished for a book to hand to wives and husbands preparing to walk out on their families. I could have used half a dozen copies this year. I picked up Bruce Feiler’s The First Love Story: Adam, Eve and Us with hope. Maybe this was it!
Feiler is the best-selling author of nine books, including Walking the Bible, an account of a 10,000-mile journey retracing the steps of the Hebrew patriarchs. He’s widely recognized as an expert on religion and family, and has hosted two PBS series, Walking the Bible and Sacred Journeys with Bruce Feiler. His most recent book was The Secrets of Happy Families. The topic of marriage, then, was a logical next step.
I began the book with enthusiasm. What a fabulous idea! To harness the power of perhaps the most famous story in the Bible and employ it as an apologetic for the enduring kind of love that God desires in all marriages. Indeed, this is Feiler’s aim: to offer an antidote to our culture’s love affair with pleasure and narcissistic romance.
The need for the book is obvious. Feiler doesn’t waste much space reminding us of our pitiful state, including the staggering number of marriages that end in divorce. Recent challenges of online pornography, polyamory, technology, and a pervasive individualism all threaten our already fragile unions. Under this onslaught, Feiler asks, “Are there any values, lessons, or stories worth preserving?” Which lands us in Genesis, in the Garden, ready to take notes from the first couple.
A Radical Re-reading
Feiler anticipates yawns of irrelevance. He spends a lot of time disproving such charges, tracing our ongoing conflicts—from equal pay to household chores to same-sex marriage—all the way back to the Garden. What if the Bible means nothing to you? What if these events never actually happened? No matter, Feiler insists. The first couple deserves at least our attention, if not our outright imitation, for three reasons: First, their story is part of our cultural DNA. Second, their story addresses our fundamental need for communion in a world of isolation, separateness, and disunity. And third, they were the first to “contend with . . . being in love.”
Here is my first surprise. Yes, the book is titled The First Love Story, so there’s a pretty strong clue as to the lens Feiler is using. But it took several chapters before I fully grasped the radical reading this presents. Throughout history, Christians have read the story of Adam and Eve as epic, but as an epic of sin and death. The brief account of their lives and their infamous rebellion has served universally as at least a cautionary tale of human greed for forbidden power. In the church, it means much more: Through their disobedience to God, the first man and woman plunged the entire human race and all of creation into death, separation from God. Because of them, we were all banished from the Garden; even the Garden fell into ruin.
Feiler thoroughly recasts and repurposes their story, such that every major event in their lives casts light on our current relational woes. At the start, in the sequence of God’s creation of man and woman, he finds guidance for our present debate and confusion over gender. Feiler claims that the creation of humankind first, then the separation into male and female, suggests that human beings had a “mixed-gendered past”; we are all both male and female. That separation, then, creates a “craving to return” to the other. “Because on day one they were one, they yearn to live out their days as one. They both need the other to be fully themselves.”