A Distinguished Professor’s Ignorant Take on Adam and Eve

Oct. 11 2017

In The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve, Stephen Greenblatt traces the history of the Hebrew Bible’s account of the first man and woman, presumably built from similar tales in ancient Babylonian literature, through interpretations of the story by St. Augustine and John Milton, to the Enlightenment critique of creation, to the modern scientific understanding of human origins. Marilynne Robinson, in her review, argues that Greenblatt demonstrates a woeful misunderstanding of Milton’s theology and approach to the Bible—to which a sizable portion of the book is devoted—as well as a failure to read Genesis as it might have been understood by the ancients. More importantly, she writes, he misses the point:

Greenblatt, an English professor at Harvard University, . . . frames his inquiry in terms of truth or fiction. For him truth means plausibility, and by that measure the story of Adam and Eve is no more than a miracle of storytelling. But science tells us that Homo sapiens does indeed roughly share a single lineage, in some sense a common origin, just as ancient Genesis says it does. In the Hebrew Bible the word adam often means all humankind, mortals.

Greenblatt never seems to consider why the myth might have felt so true to those who found their religious and humanist values affirmed by it—and their own deepest intuitions, which science has partly borne out. It is interesting that those who claim to defend the creation narrative from rationalist critiques [similarly] ignore the fact that its deepest moral implications, a profound human bond and likeness, have been scientifically demonstrated.

In any case, it is a tendentious reading of any ancient text that would apply modern standards of plausibility to myth. . . . Greenblatt respects his subject, and still he assumes that the rationalist reading offers up the true meaning of the story.

[He] imposes this kind of reasoning on John Milton, no less. He writes that Milton “was convinced that everything had to spring from and return to the literal truth of the Bible’s words. In the absence of that truth, Milton’s Christian faith and all the positions he had taken on the basis of that faith would be robbed of their meaning.” There is a special problem with the phrase “literal truth.” Milton knew Hebrew. A serious student of Scripture is aware that neither English nor Latin versions can be described as “literal.” . . . In any case, precisely his devotion to Scripture would have made [Milton’s] understanding of it nuanced and rich, and not in the least “literal.”

Read more at New York Times

More about: Creation, Genesis, Hebrew Bible, John Milton, Religion & Holidays


Winning Islam’s War of Ideas, Saudi-Style

March 19 2018

Since September 11, 2001, U.S. policymakers have understood the need to confront jihadism not only militarily but also ideologically; yet, writes John Hannah, they have had little success. Now Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’ reformist crown prince, appears willing and able to take up the fight, and Hannah urges Washington to support his efforts:

By an order of magnitude, al-Qaeda in 2018 enjoys a larger presence in more countries across Africa, the Middle East, and Asia than it did the day the Twin Towers were felled. . . . What’s consistently been missing from America’s strategy have been powerful partners in the Muslim world who can reliably be counted on to speak out authoritatively on matters of Islamic theology in ways that the United States simply cannot. That’s where Saudi Arabia comes in. It’s the birthplace of Islam and host to the faith’s two holiest mosques. Combined with abundant oil wealth, these assets bestow on the Saudis a measure of soft-power influence unrivaled in the Muslim world. . . .

For months, the crown prince and his closest advisers have relentlessly hammered the theme that Saudi Arabia’s modernization requires an embrace of “moderate Islam.” He’s slammed the extremist ideology that the kingdom did so much to empower after the Iranian revolution and acknowledges that “the problem spread all over the world.” . . . At home, the powers of the kingdom’s notorious religious police have been scaled back. Prominent hardline clerics have been jailed. On the all-important issue of female empowerment, the pace of change has been breathtaking. . . .

Now the U.S. imperative should be pressing Mohammed bin Salman to take his campaign for moderate Islam on the road. . . . There should be multiple elements to such an effort, but some immediate tasks come to mind. First, school textbooks. The Saudis promised to eliminate the hate-filled passages a decade ago. Progress has slowly been made, but the job’s still not done. Mohammed bin Salman should order it finished—this year. Behind the scenes, U.S. experts should provide verification.

Second, working with trusted partners in indigenous communities known for their religious moderation, the Saudis should conduct a thorough audit of the global network of mosques, schools, and charitable organizations that they’ve backed with an eye toward weeding out radical staff and content. Third, [they should] initiate a worldwide buyback of Saudi-distributed mistranslations of the Quran and other religious materials notorious for propagating extremist narratives.

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Moderate Islam, Politics & Current Affairs, Radical Islam, Saudi Arabia, War on Terror