Book Review – Enticed By Eden

Linda S. Schearing and Valarie H. Ziegler, Enticed By Eden, (Waco:  Baylor University Press, 2013) or order from Amazon.

In this extremely readable book, Linda Schearing (Professor of Hebrew Scriptures, Gonzaga University) and Valarie Ziegler (Professor of Religious Studies and Women’s Studies, DePauw University) examine the ways that Christian and secular culture both compete and conspire to redefine, recreate, and recycle the symbolism, characters, and themes of the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve, the snake, and the forbidden fruit.  As a philologically-inclined textual scholar, I was slightly disappointed at the lack of textual and exegetical analysis in the book, but this was obviously not one of the goals of the book, and it undoubtedly made the book more accessible to the non-academic reader.  Furthermore, the authors’ analysis of the interactions of contemporary Western culture with ancient scripture was for the most part extremely insightful and engaging (I will address a few complaints below).

Sch and Zieg EdenThe book is organized into two halves, with three comically-named chapters in each half.  The first half, termed “Recreating Eden,” analyzes the ways that contemporary Christians find in Genesis 1-3 prescriptions for  gender roles, sexual norms, and proper Christian dating or courtship practices, and attempt to impose those ideals on contemporary society.  These chapters focus specifically on what the authors consistently refer to as “conservative evangelical Christians,” but I would I would identify these groups as “fundamentalist” or “extremely conservative.” 

The first chapter, titled “Someday My Prince Will Come—When Eden Becomes Camelot” challenges the ways which extremely conservative Christians construct gender norms—especially those of women—and the ways that girls ought to relate to men.  The authors convincingly demonstrate that most of these gender and sexual ideals (females as pure princesses, subject to their fathers, waiting for their prince) do not derive from Genesis at all, and are instead the result of poor or nonexistent exegesis and the incorporation of medieval and romantic cultural constructs into contemporary Christian culture.

The second chapter observes how the characters of Adam and Eve manifest on Christian online dating websites.  There are many such websites, and all of them look to Adam and Eve for the example of appropriate behavior between men and women, which is odd since Adam and Eve did not need to seek out their mate!  The relationships between extremely conservative Christian men and women can be very difficult, given that some reject “dating” altogether in favor of courtship or betrothal, and those who accept dating usually advise girls not to initiate relationships, and still others teach girls how to manipulate slow-moving men into proposing.  Indeed, the advice given on Christian websites reflects the diversity of opinion, but most of it still reflects a commitment to a degree of female subordination and passivity.

The third chapter highlights the role of Adam as “alpha male” in extremely conservative interpretation, and examines the practice of wife spanking as a way of enforcing the hierarchical gender roles within Christian marriage.  The authors describe the bizarre world of Christian Domestic Discipline in detail, having obviously spent many hours scouring internet discussion boards on the practice.  Most of the practitioners described three types of spankings:  “playful,” semi-erotic spanking sessions, moderate “maintenance” sessions, and severe and painful “disciplinary” sessions.  Many women—by their own accounts—apparently welcome the stability that they find in a strong disciplinarian husband, and some describe becoming very aroused after being spanked.  The authors, however, rightfully caution that the practice verges on abuse, especially the severe disciplinary spankings, which in some cases lasted nearly an hour, and in some marriages were followed by forced sex. 

I was disappointed, though, by the authors’ predominantly descriptive approach and their failure to undermine the biblical interpretation on which this practice is founded.  They explain the spanking practitioners’ apologetics well enough, but do little to counter with trained academic analysis of Genesis 1-3.  Furthermore, I was disappointed with the authors’ consistent failure throughout this first section to identify exactly what sorts of Christians were involved in producing and maintaining these ideals and behaviors.  Throughout the section, the authors simply refer to “conservative evangelicals” without qualification, thereby reifying an entire religious community and identifying it with misogynist ideals and practices. 

The second half, termed “Recycling Eden,” deals with the use of the themes and characters in the Eden story in popular culture, including jokes, advertising, and the entire adult industry.  These chapters focus on the ways that gender stereotypes are reinforced or challenged through the use of Adam and Eve in jokes, as well as the way that advertisers co-opt themes such as taboo, forbidden fruit, and persuasion to sell their products to contemporary consumers. 

Chapter four explores representations of gender stereotypes through online humor.  The authors categorize these jokes as either sexist (derogatory toward Eve and women), feminist (derogatory toward Adam and men), and post-feminist (contain elements that are critical toward both men and women).  These categories create a false sense of temporal progression, despite the fact that they can all be found on the internet today.  For this reason, I would have advised finding a different way of naming the categories.  At any rate, the authors find that all three categories variously support gender stereotypes (women as emotional, insecure, sensual, and either undersexed or manipulative with her sexuality; men as rational, individualistic, aggressive, insensitive, and hypersexual), as well as undermine them by changing the elements of the Genesis story.

Chapter five focuses on contemporary advertising and the use of the “temptation” or “forbidden fruit theme” in advertisements.  The authors point out that the characters Adam, Eve, and the serpent, and the setting in the garden are often used in a wide variety of ads as a cultural signal to the consumer.  Often, the product being sold is then set up as a substitute for the forbidden fruit, especially in the case of taboo products such as gambling, alcohol, and tobacco.  Alternatively, following the “sex sells” school of thought, many ads focus on Eve as temptress as a way of seducing the consumer.  This approach is utilized for products from clothing, to fragrances, to television shows, to alcohol, and is the strategy most maligned by the authors for its explicit objectification and sexualization of women.

Chapter six further focuses in on the characters of Adam and Eve as the first sexually active couple, and the “sexploitation” of them by the adult industry.  The main discussion in this chapter revolves around the Adam & Eve adult empire, which includes pornography, condoms, and sex toys.  The company’s founder, Phil Harvey, began the company with the specific intention of promoting a “sex-positive” movement.  He had previously run a mail-order condom catalogue business, which subsidized his philanthropic efforts to increase global access to condoms, family planning, and AIDS/HIV prevention.  The authors predictably question his success in that effort, especially his libertarian philosophy that pornography or any other “sexual free speech” are harmless as long as they are shared among consenting adults.  Even as they criticize Harvey’s stance on pornography, the authors take greatest issue with his appropriation of the Eden story for his own purposes:  “…the end result is that Harvey has successfully turned ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’ into consumer commodities and made their very names into his own ‘brand’” (148).

While I share in Schearing and Ziegler’s dismay over the commodification of biblical stories, symbols, and characters, I have a difficult time blaming any single entrepreneur for this phenomenon.  After all, it takes a great many consumers responding positively to such marketing to support a company.  In a free market system, these advertisers would not utilize such techniques if they did not work.  Marketers are able to co-opt religious symbols and characters, to manipulate their meanings, and to put symbols and themes to uses that are unrelated and sometimes contradictory to their original meanings because Western consumerism has created an environment which encourages shallow engagement with both marketing strategies and the products they are designed to sell.

Overall, this book is a very good investigation into the ways that contemporary Christian and secular culture uses and misuses the symbols, characters, and themes of the Genesis 1-3 story.  I noticed a constant tension throughout the book regarding depictions of females and sexuality:  on one hand, the authors criticize ultra-conservative Christian subjugation of female sexuality to the control of her father or husband; on the other hand, when presented with a popular culture advertisement of a woman clearly in control of her own sexuality, the authors denounce it as another incarnation of the “tired cliché of Eve as temptress and Adam as victim” (120).  Regardless of this apparent indecision on the part of the authors (which I think is symptomatic of contemporary feminism at large), this book provides an enlightening and much needed look at depictions of Adam, Eve, and the Garden in contemporary culture.  Biblical scholars will be disappointed by the lack of textual engagement but will be otherwise pleased, while students of gender and popular culture will thoroughly enjoy this book.

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