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.”
The biblical text is plumbed for every nuance. Even the silences are given significance. Eve’s death is not recorded, while Adam’s is. The author muses that perhaps “the mother of the living” is meant to stay alive.
Cain’s murder of Abel, and the resulting fragmentation of their family, also provides marital instruction. Real love will be severely tested, says Feiler, perhaps even by tragedy. But a marriage needn’t crumble. The first couple stayed together and bravely went on to bring another child into the world. Human love can withstand even the deepest of losses.
In all these dramas, though the Bible is the source book, Scripture does not take center stage. Because the biblical account of their lives is so slim—Feiler, as a practicing Jew, relies only on Genesis, not any New Testament interpretations—each chapter leans on a panoply of commentators, ranging from feminist theologians to psychologists to an evangelical pastor, all the way to the Pope himself. He follows the cultural record as well, exploring interpretations of the Adam and Eve story through history, through the pens of Augustine, Shakespeare, Milton, Darwin, and Mary Shelley, to name a few. As Feiler presents it, the interpretive movement snakes inexorably from early patriarchal views that blamed Eve and stressed hierarchy in relationship toward a contemporary egalitarian understanding of the first couple’s union.
In the final two pages, we arrive at the destination. We live in a time of “crumbling commitment and disposable pleasure,” the author observes, but the first marriage withstood all tests and endured. “They were the first to say we are better off as an us than either of us is as a me.” Feiler goes one step further and delineates six hallmarks of mature love: covenant, connectedness, counterbalance, care, constancy, co-narration.
Who among us cannot cheer this message? The author delivers much-needed wisdom on this most misunderstood emotion—love—and the most bedeviled of human relationships. God knows how much our culture needs relational fixatives that glue couples together through all of life’s joys and disasters. I underlined many passages and applauded Feiler’s persuasive skills.
Rebels or Heroes?
Yet, for all of this good, I find a fatal flaw at the heart of the book. It begins with Eve’s reach toward the forbidden fruit, a reach, Feiler says, toward “real meaning.” Eve is not breaking the covenant with a holy, loving God; rather, she is a modern heroine, “the first to commit the ultimate modern act of not accepting the meaning of others but insisting on making meaning yourself. She writes her own story.”
When Adam is faced with the choice between obeying God and joining his wife, he chooses his wife. Feiler sees this as triumph: “Now at last, man and woman can be together as equals. “ He cheers their autonomy from God. This is what makes human love possible, he argues: “Only by eating the fruit could Adam and Eve be fruitful. Only after falling from grace can Adam and Eve fully fall in love with each other.”
As a reader, I never quite recovered from this recasting of our rebellious parents into heroes. They are not heroes of the faith, of course, but heroes of love. Their separation from God is not the root of selfishness, isolation, and death, but rather the happy moment that makes real love possible. And it is abundantly clear that the only kind of love worth discussing is human love, a love more noble, more free when untethered from divine love. Will we really find our deepest meaning and most lasting pleasure in our spouse? To these ears, this reeks of a romanticism as equally doomed as our culture’s own deadly cocktail of narcissism. But if God is out of the picture, maybe this is as good as it gets.
Can this secularized version of “the first love story” succeed in inspiring us to remain committed to a marriage partner for a lifetime? As someone who’s been married for four decades now, through immeasurable highs and unspeakable lows, I know it’s not enough for me. And I suspect it won’t be enough for many others as well.
Think back to Feiler’s list of six characteristics of long-lasting relationships. This invites a much deeper question. How do we reach outside of ourselves toward covenant, care, and co-narration? How do we give up our own meaning-making to embrace an us rather than the all-sovereign me? If I took Feiler’s message to my friends, just before they walked away from their spouse and children to follow another lover, what would I say? “Look, stay together. Keep covenant, like Adam and Eve. Yes, they’re probably not real, and no, you don’t have to obey God or believe in him at all. Just consider all these cool things writers and artists have said about love and marriage. You can be happy and fulfilled through each other if you just stick it out.”
I can’t imagine even a hitch in their step as they run off, hand in hand with their new us.
Leslie Leyland Fields is the author of Crossing the Waters: Following Jesus through the Storms, the Fish, the Doubt, and the Seas (NavPress). She lives on Kodiak Island, Alaska.