Allegory of Incredulity and Conviction
Updated: Sep 11, 2019
Literary License- An allegory of Incredulity and Conviction
A book review, "The Fall of Adam and Eve by Stephen Greenblat" with personal reflections.
by Brian Keeler
As with some books, there are those that rise to the top of our personal reading history as benchmarks, so to speak, as they seem to inform our lives or make relevant or bring into high relief so much that is intimated or below the surface. I’ve had the luxury of keeping almost all of the books that I’ve read over the years and for many I’ve had the practice of underlining, usually in pencil, key points and making minimal marginalia notes. This practice has come in handy in recent years when writing about other topics and the need to reference key concepts when necessary.
I’ve also been writing my own book reviews, for my own enjoyment mostly for many of the art-related books that I’ve read with the goal of including them in a future book on figure painting. The process also serves to clarify how I relate to any given text and how it might pertain to current events.
A book that I read this fall while traveling in Scotland certainly is in that category of memorable books, made especially relevant to me for its primary concern with art history but also for the book’s inclusion of western religion and the way the author challenges or brings to light so many of the foundational aspects or our culture. As you may imagine, a book about God, using Adam and Eve as point of departure is bound to bring up some contentious issues, if not revelatory contemplations.
This book, “The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve” by Stephen Greenblat is certainly one of those milestone kind of books. I had read one of Greenblat’s earlier books, “Swerve” with relish several years ago as it dealt with the saving of the manuscripts of ancient Roman philosopher, Lucretius by a renaissance scholar, Pioggio Bracciolini, in Italy in the 15th century.
This most recent book by Greenblat confronts us with the Biblical narrative, some would say creation myths of the old and New Testament and how incredible the influence has been on western art and the lives of millions over many centuries. Part of that influence was destructive, as we know untold thousands of statues and frescos were destroyed throughout Rome and the Mediterranean as they represented pagan deities. Some survived by accident or mistake, I think of that monumental equestrian statue on Rome’s Capitoline Hill of Marcus Aurelius that only escaped having its bronze melted because it was thought to depict the early Christian emperor Constantine.
Greenblat is far from indulging in mere boosterism here, as his main goal is confronting so many of the resultant conundrums of the past 3,000 years or so with incise and thought-provoking inquiry. Greenblat’s many examples range from lime-lighting other interpreters and provocateurs like Milton, in his Paradise Lost, Michelangelo’s entire artistic output including the iconic Birth of Adam on the Sistine Chapel to Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Some of these being confrontational and polarizing, resulting in episodes like the Scopes Monkey trial, which is still unfortunately lingering on in the current political theatre. Personally I adhere to the idea of “Fine, you don’t want evolve, then don’t” school and all this railing against evolution and for creationism is regarded as a huge throwback to the dark days of science-denying inquisition of 14th century and beyond. One would think the light of the Renaissance would have quelled darkness but episodic backlashes like Galileo’s imprisonment, The index of prohibited books or the burning at the stake of free thinkers like Giordano Bruno all prove the flames of ignorance are hard to stomp out.
To cut to the chase, Greenblat exposes many of the preposterous assumptions, con jobs, logical inconsistencies, plausibility deficits and outright whoppers that are conveyed in the Bible. Putting the many hoops the faithful are required to jump through into perspective, in order to accept the veracity of the Hebrew Bible, we are presented with St Augustine of Hippo’s conundrum in the last 15 years of his life. It is somewhat reassuring that if a thinker as profound as St Augustine wrestled with doctrinal issues from the Bible and was flummoxed, then us mere mortals certainly are bolstered in legitimate questions of Biblical truth. St. Augustine’s quest in these later years of his life was to reconcile the job of accepting the literal interpretation of the Bible. Apparently he could not do it, and for even a casual armchair skeptic of the 21st century it is not surprising to find the absurdity of so much contained within to be circumspect. Others before him had tried to suggest that the only way to approach the text was to regard all the wacky narratives and wild miracles as metaphors that were meant to suggest higher truths if not poetic beauty.
Many of the core aspects of the Biblical text are questioned and brought to light by Greenblat. For example, the good book is always presented as the word of God, when if fact we know that it was the work of men who often plagiarized the text of earlier foundation myth authors. We suppose the hope is that these authors had a hotline to the creator, therefore divinely inspired, but this is more often than not, suspect and dubious at best. What is worse, is that later New Testament author’s works have been shown to be altered versions or outright forgeries by later authors, in order to promote a certain agenda. This certainly makes one wonder about putting one’s faith in such disingenuous assertions and believing in fables. Greenblat in presenting the fallacy suggested by the title of his book, then he goes to the essence of the Adam and Eve narrative and the difficulty of swallowing its premise. Two naked people, meant to be the first ever, just popping out of nowhere and then confronted with the moral dilemma of staying ignorant or being punished for seeking wisdom and knowledge by eating from a fruit of knowledge. After speaking with a snake, (the author wonders with what language they conversed) Eve embarks on her aspiration and the rest is one long sordid history of suffering and punishment. We can relate to Stephen Dedalus’ remark in Joyces’ Ulyses here; “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Greenblat asks: what kind of deity would set up such a trap and purposely refuse humans salvation if they disobeyed and ate the apple of knowledge?
One could make a list of seeming absurdities that St Augustine and many others grappled with or for us hoi polloi, we just never thought about too much. For example; original sin, Eve emerging from the rib of Adam, virgin birth, walking on water, packing all the living species on to an arc, the seven days of creation according to Genesis or manna from heaven are part of this list of far fetched reports. In short, the bizarre stories were regarded by St Augustine and many others as just a preposterous as the myths of Classical Greece and Rome, but with the additional burdensome necessity for the faithful to accept them as actual historical occurrences instead of truths couched in symbolic metaphor.
In my speculation as to how such flagrant lies have become orthodox, I’ve assumed that everyday life in the prehistoric dessert and the Fertile Crescent was rather hum drum and without punctuation, except for normal occurrences like birth, death, war, disease, natural catastrophe and seasonal changes. As the saying by The British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, goes, “life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” So I am assuming that creating these fantastic tales had the appeal of escapist fare, maybe akin to movie with lots special effects. If something supernatural occurred, in other words, is must have been evidence of an otherworldly deity. There are in fact many wonderful aspects to the Bible, including guides to wisdom and understanding, still, a book meant to be a holy and sacred guide to the universe should seemingly be comprised of something other than a compendium of patent untruths.
But the worth of a really great book, as I believe Greenblat’s new book is, to me, is how it evokes so many personal relevancies by calling forth so much of our own history. At least that’s one aspect of what I find compelling, which is to say, the engagement and stimulation. In short, a successful book furthers more inquiry into related areas and augments understanding in general as well as exploration. So rather than asserting finalities and dogma, the purpose might be to offer more questions than answers. The effect of Greenblat’s text is the way it fosters a coming to terms with our cultural and social inheritance but also because it serves as spiritual and intellectual barometer of sorts or even a compass.
So as one of these inquiries goes, this book of Greenblat’s has prodded a reflection on the idea of God and some of the contemporary takes on the idea of deity. One of those obvious observations is in the extreme intolerance in the main exponents of monotheism. We need to look no further than the Jihadist screaming “God is Great” as they blow up a bus full of children or decapitate someone in front of a camera only to post it on social media to horrify many in the rest of the world.
The intolerance market is by no means cornered here by Islam, as there are abundant and horrific examples in Christianity from the brutal treatment of Native Americans to persecutions, torture, burnings at stakes, and executions of entire groups of people merely because they ended up on the loosing side of a theological debate. The east is not immune either, the recent destroying of 17th century temple by rabid Hindus in India or the bombing of Buddhist statues by the Taliban or more recently the destruction of Palmyra by Isis in Syria are all evidence of a world-wide religious fanaticism and fundamentalists. It’s all simply ghastly stuff with no end in sight.
Then there are the volumes of accounts of pedophiliac priests sexually abusing children- the very agency that should lead to salvation and protection has become the perpetrator of nefarious deeds and these examples are probably in the thousands and ongoing. Then the subsequent cover up, denial and protection of the priests by the higher ups in the churches only furthers our exasperation and contempt.
Another example from this truly deplorable religious history is the selling of indulgences by the Papacy in the 15th and 16th century, ostensibly to secure one’s place in heaven by purchasing a ticket up to the pearly gates, but with the more immediate result of padding the coffers of the Catholic church. Of course we have the architectural triumph of St. Peters Cathedral in Rome to marvel at as a result of huckster indulgence sales when visiting the eternal city. This was all the result of bilking the populace with such a ruse, but perhaps we could have artistic and architectural wonders like St. Peters Cathedral without the duplicity and con jobs.
But then we wouldn’t have Martin Luther’s protestant reformation railing against the sale of indulgences, resulting in even more intolerance as his mission spun out of control with iconoclasts running rampant across Europe destroying paintings, statuary or anything resembling a craven image. This was more intolerance again in a different form but still based on literal interpretation. A courageous man was Luther, standing up to the Papacy, one of the original proponents of Truth to Power. We can only wonder why Luther never really questioned the whole lot instead of just the tip of the iceberg. By this I mean, why Luther didn’t speculate on the veracity of the text itself, instead of only focusing on the duplicity and disingenuous practices of the church.
It has been pointed out, that monotheism by its nature is an intolerant institution and we need look no further than the Ten Commandments to see this credo broadcast front and center in numero uno, You Shall have no other Gods before me. A jealous God in other words with all the inherent negative qualities inherent in jealousy; of possessiveness, insecurity, neurosis, clinging and so forth that degrade us all. Is this effective proselytizing and marketing? Well it is explained that the original use of jealous in Biblical times was same as zeal, which mitigates the stigma somewhat but not entirely.
There is wonderful chapter on Darwin in Greenblat’s book and the incendiary and confrontational aspects of Darwin’s publishing of The Origin of Species in 1859. In short, there was nothing in this text that left a glimmer of hope for those adhering to literal take on Adam and Eve to cling. One can see how those holding to this literal idea in the Biblical narrative were offended however, as their sacred text, or at least their interpretation had been exposed as untenable. Fast forward to the Scope’s so called Monkey Trial of 1925 and one will see that the embers of resentment still burned as they do today with the science-denying adherents.
It is odd how a book can jar our memories. In respect to Darwin, the book brought some memories to light regarding evolution. My parents had given me an illustrated book on the subject when I was 10 and I took to making my own drawings for a school science project. But my grandparents discovered my interest, and my grandfather who was an Episcopal Priest proceeded to give me a lecture on the incompatibility of species. Its uncanny how I remember the details of this summer day behind their house, and aspects of his argument. The implication of his lecture, of course was that we could not evolve from lower species.
There is considerable amount to Greenblat’s book that addresses art, which is particularly interesting to me, as so much of what I have admired in the museums of Western Art is in the service of the church. But this subject also brushes up against the idea of intolerance to art in relation to religious fundamentalism and fanaticism. Take the recent Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris or the cold-blooded murder of the Dutch filmmaker Theo Van Gogh, which are examples of intolerance in regards to religious fundamentalism, but in this case perpetrated by Islam. Even cartoons of the prophet Muhammad have been fodder for extremist to seek the death of the illustrators. It doesn’t take much these days in any Muslim country to run afoul and be jailed or stoned to death for blasphemy for what seem to us a mere trifles.
In Renaissance Florence, the epicenter of the rebirth, another flagrant example comes to mind with the penitential friar, Savanorla who initiated the first bonfire of the Vanities where works of many famous artists including Botticelli were burned in front of the Loggia dei Lanzi. Savanorla, who initiated the burning books and art also organized a group of youthful thugs to harass those dressing outside of the narrow definition accepted norms, those showing too much vanity. In other words these were precursors in many ways to the Nazi Brownshirts of the 20th century.
Though the superb examples of art in the Renaissance in service of illustrating Biblical stories are some of my favorites for their sheer virtuosity, they can also be seen as propaganda or so many billboards for the Catholic Church. When we see in the Louvre, the Uffizi or any museum or books all those depictions of the torture of Saints from the arrows in St. Sebastian depicted by Pollaiuolo and others, to the inverted crucifixion of St Peter by Caravaggio to the frying of St Lawrence we are swayed by the imagery but recoil at the cruelty depicted. Yet we’d be well advised to keep a more balanced take on history by recalling the equal amount torture meted out during the dark ages to the unfaithful. Hypatia, the Neo-Platonic philosopher, is one such classicist who met a grisly end in Alexandria at the hands of mob of incensed Christians. If one can have a favorite of such examples, it would be the American Indian in the West Indies, mentioned by Dee Brown in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. This unfortunate man had been offered a chance to go to heaven if he would only accept Christ. After being tortured he refused this so called salvation, as he feared heaven would be full of Christians.
Part Two- Personal Reflections
So, part of the result of considering this book of Greenblat’s is to reflect on my own take on deity and my weaning years, which included going to church. Our family divided its Sunday attendance at churches between two, an episcopal church in Towanda, PA and a Presbyterian church in my hometown, Wyalusing. The experience was basically rather neutral, meaning there were no real mystical, or ecstatic experiences of rapture, but neither were there any oppressive or negative ones either. There was none of the political strife, doctrinal polarization or anything resembling persecutions either. There seemed to be little difference between the Methodists, Presbyterians or Catholics and certainly none of the rancor that divided Ireland into Protestant and Catholic. We did notice however that the Baptists were not allowed to dance at school functions. Religion was however, in retrospect a communal aspect of social significance as attending served as a central unifying aspect, as a part of the fabric of a village. The major religious holidays of Christmas and Easter also showed a salubrious and warmth in family and community. The sermons, hymns and liturgy that I recall seemed to support a belief in the basic tenants of the faith but without the connection or felt personal relevance.
We all know of many positive aspects a spiritual life can offer on a personal level no matter what the course or the way that results. There are in fact many miraculous occurrences that are legion as a result of a devotional or a faith-lead life and through a reverence to a higher authority. And to give the Bible its due, there are many passages of wisdom that have informed our lives in subtle and overt ways. Yet, the tallying of plusses and minuses is rather a fruitless act, at least when attempting to come up with a final verdict.
There is however the aspect of a secular state, which seems to me one of the cornerstones of a civilized society and one that our country was based upon. It was also recently reported that significant majority of the French consider this secular civility and tolerance one of the key aspects of their nation. I also recall hearing a televangelist making secular humanism into what he considered the enemy of God. Say what? It took me aback the first time, as I did not understand what the issue was for this fundamentalist. Why the vilification? Since then I’ve come to see humanism, as one of the essential aspects of the Renaissance and to see the representations of man and woman in art as one of the key elements of a new appreciation of the divine as realized in the here and now and not only in a celestial deity. In fact, a key component of the Renaissance was bridging the gap, or reconciling, or even blending the classical past, with re-birthed artistic technique and ability or the wisdom of the ancients with Christianity. What could be better than a melding of ancient and contemporary with a rebirth to understanding lost in the intervening years? We need to only think of the portraits by renaissance artists that reflected this credo, as showing individual people instead of stylized icons. An even better example, Leonardo’s iconic drawing of the Vitruvian man, illustrating a spread eagled man standing within a geometric design “squaring of the circle” an illustration of man as the measure of all things. What is illustrated by Leonardo is the idea of God in man in other words, which apparently is part of secular humanism and anathema to American fundamentalists. Thank God museums are not curated by right wing evangelists.
I had my own encounter with a fundamentalist backlash several years ago when I protested, through a letter to the editor, an organized prayer of high school students under the American Flag at a high school. A photo of the event was put on the front page of the paper as if it were a hallmark of some sort without any implications of transgression. It was a clash of cultures. To me a line had been crossed with the separation of church and state, part of our constitution and an important part of being an American. To them it was a student lead spontaneous act of faith, or presented as such, even though it was organized by the church authorities. My retort was, that there are places for worship and their called churches and temples and synagogues. Yet at the same time I can relate to making the everyday part of ones faith or convictions as well.
One of the upshots of this episode was occasionally to be referred to by the other side as an atheist, which I suppose is probably the worst thing they could think of saying. You know, back in the day before Russia was the darling and friend of the right wing, it used to be said that communism and atheism were about as contrary to their take on patriotism as one could veer. It smacks of hypocrisy however, as those usually hurling the slings and arrows are not exactly exalted in the holier-than-though competition.
In a review of an exhibition of my paintings a few years at the Roberson Musuem in Binghamton, NY, the reviewer, James Mullen referred to my work as being pantheistic. I thought this also to be interesting, as I had not known that this quality would be attributed to my paintings. It peaked my interest because my own take on God veers strongly toward the pantheistic, meaning of course equating the divine or transcendent with the forces or aspects of nature, wind, light, atmosphere, human interaction, the seas and rivers and so forth. Pantheism of course relates to Pan meaning, all of nature, and seems to have an affinity with American Indian appreciation of the world and cosmos. This exhibit I titled, Heliodelic Topography, a sort of self-invented term to refer to turning toward the light as sunflower and referencing delectation and heightened awareness as in psychedelic.
There is also the aspect of light in art, religion and spiritual pursuits of many traditions. Over the years I’ve been casually interested in the writings of the philosopher Paul Brunton. I say casually as my interest is rather cursory compared to many of his students, who’ve spent decades in study groups and those who’ve actually studied with him and are involved in publishing and cataloging his volumes of work. One can appreciate how profound and far reaching their understanding can be. Brunton, although I find his writing style rather burdensome, he is regarded as one who offers sophisticated appreciation of the workings of the cosmos. There are many aspects of the divine that are the source of contemplations when studying Brunton, with such concepts as World Mind and Overself. Here is an observation about light by one of Brunton’s main followers and teachers, Tim Smith.
"Consider all the people who have been inspired by a Beethoven Quartet—including the many musicians who have lived inside the piece for years at a time—all that is an expression of the firey mind of pure imagination. Now take this deeper, to the light of the deep mind—the teachings and truths which illumine and define the lives of individuals and institutions for millennia—this too is truly light. Light is the agency of directed and connective consciousness which allows the conscious co-existence of individuals and their universal environment—it is the life of consciousness itself! No matter which sense or senses we use to come into an awareness of the world, and as such their function illuminate the world for us—when we try to access that illuminative agency we find ourselves following a parallel path to our pursuit of life! "
As you can see this one book inspired a rather lengthy essay, but one that has provided a means to explore further my own personal relation to many foundational principles and attitudes.
Starting around 1971 with readings of Krishnamurti and Allan Watts, I was introduced to alternative sources of wisdom by a great philosophy teacher at Keystone College, David Brahinsky. Then along with more traditional ancient Greek Philosophy my own quest started in my late teens. Then during art school there were decidedly counter-culture authors with an eastern-religious slant such as Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) whose book Be Here Now was one of those books that qualified as life-changing. Transcendental Meditation had its mark in the mid-seventies too, with my parents actually getting involved. Later in life I have continued with an appreciation for Buddhism and Zen Buddhism in particular which, is augmented by a occasional weekends of the real deal at the Mt. Tremper, NY monastery called Mountains and Rivers Order. The aspect of Zen and Buddhism in general that has always appealed to me was that it was more about appreciating what actually is, rather than imposing dogma and belief into the mix. But the fact that there is a liturgy in the monastery surprised me pleasantly. It was reminiscent of church services. The fact that “art practice” is part of training of Zen and incorporated at Mt. Tremper also bolstered its appeal and efficacy.
When Christianity was a mere cult, it was commented that the adherents resembled a bunch of old frogs sitting around a pond croaking about sin. And this is the way it has appeared to me in many of its most high profile representatives such as those televangelists barking over the airwaves. To be fair however, I do enjoy small churches and attending a Christmas service at the nearby St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Slaterville Springs, NY was a wonderful experience with the congregation all exuding warmth and the service full of music and spiritualty.
So whether it’s God, Spirituality, religion, human potential, personal growth, metaphysics, philosophy or sacred pursuits there are many avenues to take. Take any town in America today, like my hometown of less than 700 people, which had three active churches within the borough when I was growing up there and dozens of others scattered around the nearby hills. In the final analysis tolerance and respect seem to be the best approaches.
CODA- As an ending to this essay- the lyrics of John Lennon's song Imagine are included as a vision of truly living without the crutch of divisive dogmas.
Imagine there's no heaven It's easy if you try No hell below us Above us only sky Imagine all the people Living for today (ah ah ah) Imagine there's no countries It isn't hard to do Nothing to kill or die for And no religion, too Imagine all the people Living life in peace You may say that I'm a dreamer But I'm not the only one I hope someday you'll join us And the world will be as one Imagine no possessions I wonder if you can No need for greed or hunger A brotherhood of man