Title: Fleeing the Garden: Reading Genesis 2-3 (Proceedings of the Mormon Theology Seminar)
Editor: Adam S. Miller
Publisher: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship (BYU)
Year of Publication: 2017
Number of Pages: 120
Reviewed by Julie J. Nichols for the Association for Mormon Letters
The 2018 Gospel Doctrine curriculum is the Old Testament. Last time I taught it, I was deep into Margaret Barker’s The Older Testament and Temple Theology, and the year was a fascinating exploration of a library of documents written and collected by people who thought so differently from us we can hardly recognize their purposes and meanings without help. This year, my ex-co-teacher harrumphed, “I just had lunch with Terryl Givens, and we agreed that the Old Testament shouldn’t even be taught. It’s not…” Not what the manuals want us to think it is? Not relevant? Not very interesting?
Time was, I might have agreed. But somehow I don’t think “relevant” or “interesting” were what Givens and my e-c-t meant. All four curriculum years of the LDS adult Sunday School Gospel Doctrine class have their challenges, but the Old Testament, perhaps the most removed on the surface from LDS emphases in Jesus Christ, Joseph Smith, and modern applications, is especially rife. So this slim volume, one of six so far in a series of proceedings of the Mormon Theology Seminar, has particular pertinence. For the Gospel Doctrine teacher, or the student anticipating a year of unintelligible readings, it happens to be a gem.
As editor Miller explains in the Introduction, The Mormon Theology Seminar is “an independent scholarly forum dedicated to organizing short-term, collaborative readings of Mormon scripture that (1) offer close readings of key texts and (2) experiment with the potential theological implications of these readings” (xii). Other volumes in the series look at Alma 32, 2 Nephi 26-7, Revelation 21-22, D&C 42, and 1 Nephi 1.
“Collaborative” is a key word here. For three months, six seminar participants worked together through Genesis 2 and 3 (the “second creation story”) verse by verse. Each participant brought his or her expertise and interests to the table. Literature (David Foster Wallace, Wendell Berry, Mark Twain) is referenced. Walter Brueggemann’s The Land: Place as Gift, Promise and Challenge in Biblical Faith and Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis 1-2 provide common foundations throughout. Certain thematic questions recur: what was the nature of the knowledge that the fruit carried? Why did God not want Adam and Eve to have that knowledge? Was Eve’s choice a good one, a salvific one, or not? How does this second creation story demonstrate the primacy of place in God’s plan of salvation? What does it mean that Adam and Eve are born of dust, how literally shall we take God’s words to them about their place in his creation?
Every Gospel Doctrine teacher wants rich discussion questions, wants her or his class members to think in new and interesting ways about stories they’ve always taken for granted. In “Paradoxes in Paradise,” Julie M. Smith, BA in English and MA in biblical studies, interrogates the “Wise Choice” theory (was Eve doing the only right thing to eat of the fruit?). She offers six new ways to look at the details of the fall, bringing in 19 other scriptures that “resonate” with the fall to conclude that the “Wise Choice” theory, while it may correct the gender bias that blames Eve for eating the fruit, can’t account for all the story’s facets. The ambiguity, the unknowability of the story, may be a cause to rejoice. Perhaps we ought to stop thinking we can completely understand it.
Ben Spackman looks at translation issues. James E. Faulconer focuses on the ways that the story of the fall leads to an understanding of community-building. Rosalynde Welch lays Wendell Berry’s poem “Damage” over against Genesis 1-2 to point up the issues in both of technology, appetite, and the nature of knowledge. Adam S. Miller and Joseph M. Spencer do a fun and fancy wordplay with questions of digestion and passing:
What is your theology’s position on digestion?
Excrement is a regrettable, local, temporary phenomenon.
Excrement is so essential to bodies that such remainders are eternal.
In many ways, this indelicate question is the theological question. How we choose to answer will decide how we treat time and how we think about matter. It will shape our understanding of creation, agency, desire, sins, and redemption…(83)
A few pages later, after a rousing discussion of David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” in which DFW describes with dismay the apparent intention of the cruise he’s on to sate his every, every wish, including the wish to have his toileting vacuumed completely away:
“What we think life is, what we think our bodies are, what we think sin is, and what we think redemption looks like will depend on whether we think [the fantasy that our desires can ever be fully met] is sound…or whether we think this fantasy itself smells of fear, shame, and sin…” (93)
Spencer’s response—about the phrase “and it came to pass”—unpacks Miller’s “Theoscatology” in grammatical and punwise terms. The two essays together are grinworthy and thought-provoking. I can see formerly harrumphing Gospel Doctrine teachers and class members walking away smiling from a discussion based on these two essays alone.
There isn’t just one way to read the Old Testament, of course. Margaret Barker’s focus on apocryphal documents that suggest the stories in the canonical O.T. are “fake news” is one guaranteed to make Latter-day Saints sit up and take note. But the essays in Fleeing the Garden will not only provoke thought about content. They’ll also point to matters of method–methods of reading, methods of interpreting. Candice D. Wendt’s claims about Adam and Eve as environmental stewards (in “Partaking of the Fruit of Ecological Wisdom”) could take up more than one Sunday class period. When she concludes that “Cultivating faithful and wise stewardship among ourselves and our youth may empower them to become vital beacons of home and exemplars of good stewardship in generations to come” (117), she encourages us all to think in deep contemporary ways about the places we live in, the communities we’re mindfully building. In this she circles back to both Faulconer and Welch, suggesting that in collaborative, imaginative readings of Genesis 2 and 3 there are powerful directives for modern-day first-world Latter-day Saints.
We can change this world if we interpret the stories of our origins with resourcefulness and insight. Fleeing the Garden is fun to read (easy to hold, appealingly produced), its purposes full of delight. I propose that we all open our scriptural lives–or at least our Sunday School study–outward and upward through this and the other books in the Mormon Theology Seminar series.