King Arthur approaches a peasant couple trudging in the soil and announces, “I am your king!” The peasant woman responds, “Well, I didn’t vote for you!” The chagrined king answers, “You don’t vote for kings,” which leads the woman to ask, “Well how do you become king then?” Angelic music begins to play, and King Arthur explains wistfully, “The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering silmite held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I am your king!” The peasant man then speaks up and says, “Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic
That scene is from, of course, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It’s a fantastic juxtaposition of ancient myth and contemporary sensibility. King Arthur’s explanation and the strikingly modern peasants’ worldview speak such different languages that they are entirely foreign to one another, and thus the king is utterly unconvincing.
I’m reminded of Monty Python and the Holy Grail whenever I read Genesis 3. “How is it that we are sinful creatures?” the bible tacitly asks. Genesis 3 gives us the explanation, but we read it with incredulity. Our response is “Talking snakes slithering up to oblivious naked people, whispering to them to eat forbidden fruit is no basis for a system of morality and punishment!”
That’s a fair response, but also an easy one. If we consider Genesis 3 based solely on a two-dimensional, literalistic reading, then we are stuck with two options: We either suspend our disbelief and embrace the story according to its cartoonish surface, or we reject it wholesale as primitively removed from our modern understanding of science and ethics. But what if that’s a false dichotomy? What might be a third way to read Genesis 3, about Adam, Eve, and the serpent?
At the beginning of the story, God, who at this point resides in the Garden with Adam and Eve, counsels them not to eat the fruit of one specific tree in the garden. If they eat of that fruit, God says, they will die. The serpent later shows up and counsels them otherwise. They won’t die, says the serpent. They’ll become like God. And Adam and Eve make the first momentous choice of their lives against God’s counsel. Apart from God, they decide to eat the forbidden fruit. And Genesis says, “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.”
This line is the interpretive key to the whole story. This is the line that keeps this profoundly true myth from being merely a fanciful and primitive tale. The tree from which the man and the woman choose to eat is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Its fruit is the fruit of awareness, the eye-opening elixir that transforms the man and the woman into something more than mere creatures. Until now, they, like the animals, knew no distinction between the lives they lived and what any other kind of existence might be. They were one with their environment, one with one another, and one with God. They did not know they were naked in a literal sense, because nakedness itself was a nonexistent concept. Until this moment when their eyes are opened.
The man and the woman eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, and they awaken, becoming conscious and self-aware. Suddenly, they now have minds quite unlike the other creatures. They have minds very like, in fact, the mind of God. They now look out at the world and see not what it is, but what they can make of it; how they can adapt and change it according to their whims; how the world seems so very bare and naked, and how they can dress it all to their liking. Like God, and alone among creatures, the man and the woman can imagine a future and then labor to create it.
And we see that this story is not about a single man and woman eons ago in the mists of prehistory. It is about each man and each woman, each human being throughout all time. It is our story of becoming self-aware in the world, each of us. But still, why is it ultimately a story not of our ascent but of our fall?
It is true that once human beings could imagine and envision alternate futures for themselves, they could plan and act to create—Godlike—those futures. But unlike God, human beings also immediately realize that we are still bound by our creatureliness: There are limits to what our minds can grasp. There is weakness in our bodies. There are those interminable other human beings around us who obstinately refuse to kowtow to our personal visions. And there is stubborn, actual death always in front of us, the spectre that will not let us forget that all of our Godlike visions will ultimately end up dust in the grave.
We want to be Godlike—we feel as if we should be—but all our pretenses finally succumb to the unavoidable reality of our contingent, finite life. We find ourselves unable to make that which we can imagine for ourselves fully come to be. And the collision of our Godlike awareness and our very creaturely limitedness inevitably, eventually births frustration, resentment, and finally malice. We lash out in all sorts of ways, large and small. In Genesis, we see this in the very next chapter, when Cain’s malice boils over and he murders his brother Abel. Our frustration and malice lead us to act in ways that disrupt and destroy ourselves, our sisters and brothers, and our earth. And with each such motion, we move a step farther from God.
And so, it turns out the serpent and God both told Adam and Eve the truth. As the serpent promises, after eating the fruit of awareness Adam and Eve still live, and as far more than they previously were. They are like God. But God also tells the greater truth (as God always does). At the moment they choose to eat the fruit, in a very real sense Adam and Eve also die. What they were is irretrievably gone: their innocence, their satisfaction with their place in the world, their existential harmony within the creation, their peace.
We can set aside all those archaic notions of original sin that we rightly find primitive, noxious, and downright silly. This is a conception of original sin that we cannot ignore and cannot deny. It is the diagnosis of the human condition. Though we have used our Godlike minds to map the human genome, split the atom, and create sublime works of philosophy, literature, music, and art; in our frustration and rage at our limitedness we have also despoiled the planet, committed genocide, and built the atom bomb. We have manipulated people and relationships and hurt those we love.
We have been brilliant, and we have become far less than God intended us to be. And thus, we are alienated from God and one another. Mythically speaking, God no longer lives in the garden among us, because, indeed, there is no garden left. The place of our innocence has disappeared.
It is not a denial of our human dignity to admit this. Indeed, this humble admission is the only thing that can save us. Lent is the season in which we are invited to use our Godlike self-awareness differently, to turn its eye inward, and instead of rebelling against our finitude and frailty, to acknowledge and accept it. Because when we do so—when we admit in vulnerability that we are not little gods; when we recognize what our original and universal human sin has been—then God can reapproach us.
Jesus himself shows us the way today. Tempted by Satan in the wilderness as Adam and Eve were tempted by the serpent, Jesus—even Jesus—denies the presumption to be Godlike and admits his dependence and need. Only then, Matthew tells us, “angels came and waited on him.” So it can be for us. But first we must do what little pretender gods are loathe to do. First we must admit and repent of our frustration, our resentment, and our malice. Lent has begun. May our wilderness bloom like a garden, and may we walk once again with God.