Of all the folks who could end up in the headlines in the Year of Our Lord MMXVII, our first parents seem unlikely, if highly deserving, candidates for their poor banished children’s attention.
Adam and Eve have been in the news thanks to a ludicrous book by Stephen Greenblatt, an American professor who long ago abandoned Marxist historical criticism in order to churn out literary potboilers: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare; How the World Became Modern; and now The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve. I suppose anything beats writing sentences like this: “Social actions are themselves always embedded in systems of public signification, always grasped, even by their makers, in acts of interpretation, while the words that constitute the works of literature that we discuss here are by their very nature the manifest assurance of a similar embeddedness.”
The problem with Greenblatt’s books is that, like all potboilers, they always begin with the same premise, namely that people in the past were rather dim and bigoted and believed in all manner of absurd things, including God and hell and so on, unlike us clever moderns.
His latest is no different. A generous extract appeared in the New Yorker a few months ago prior to publication under the headline “How St Augustine invented sex” – not the most fanciful action ever attributed to the author of the Confessions, but still pretty wide of the mark. (We all know that sex was “invented”, like evolution and vers libre, in the 19th century.)
A few weeks ago, the New York Times hired an equally bad, albeit Christian, writer to do a hatchet job on Greenblatt. In some 1,300 words, Marilynne Robinson found room for all manner of irrelevant and reader-insulting details (“Milton was a major figure in the English Reformation”: you don’t say?) but somehow missed the essential point, namely, that Adam and Eve were real persons, not “plausible” literary characters.
This is a truth unfortunately lost on many Catholics as well. The literal first parenthood of Adam and Eve is not a matter about which we are at liberty to speculate. As Pius XII put it in Humani generis, “The faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents.” When forced to respond to those who ask us about the historicity of the Fall as it is presented in Genesis, we should quote Harrison Ford in one of the recent Star Wars films, the intricate plot details of which I have already forgotten save for one line: “It’s true – all of it!”
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection