The concept for the book originated with the author taking his young daughters through the Sistine Chapel. They wanted to know what was going on in the painting of Adam and Eve. Bruce Feiler realized then that this was a story that has never stopped being interesting to tell.
On the first day of a quick trip to Rome, Bruce Feiler dragged his two 8-year-old daughters to the Vatican, eager to expose them to some culture.
It did not go well.
“We hate carpets! My feet hurt! This is boooooring!”
As he shepherded them into the Sistine Chapel, he walked them to the center of the room and said, “Look up.”
“One of my daughters took one look at the magisterial image of God, flying superherolike through the air, reaching his index finger toward a listless Adam, and said, ‘Why is there only a man? Where am I in that picture?’” Feiler writes in his new book. Her sister added, “Who is that woman under God’s arm? Is that Eve?”
“I thought, ‘Wow,’” Feiler said of that moment four years ago. “Adam and Eve have been at the heart of every conversation about religion for 30 centuries. They have been the battleground for family and marriage and sexual identity for 3,000 years and, as absurd as it sounds, maybe they have something that we need now. Can Adam and Eve be role models for today?”
The answer, as unraveled in “The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, and Us,” is a definite yes. Adam and Eve, Feiler writes, are much more than an origins story – they are a tale about overcoming fear and loneliness, of making sacrifices for one’s beloved, of dealing with enormous loss and, ultimately, of dying.
It’s the essence, he writes, of what it means to be human. To ignore their story – writing it off as a myth or a piece of misogynist propaganda (“Eve was framed” has long been a popular bumper sticker) – is to reject “our cultural DNA” and 3,000 years of discourse about why we are here.
“As soon as I looked into the story, this entire cast of characters was just waiting to talk to me – Milton, Michelangelo, Byron, Hemingway, Bob Dylan, Beyonce, Pope Francis,” Feiler said. “Any creative person for the last 30 centuries has written about or engaged this story and that is part of the story of Adam and Eve and who we are today, and that’s where I am going in the book.”
As he has done in his previous books, Feiler “walks” the story of Adam and Eve, traveling from his home in Brooklyn to Rome, London, Hollywood and even the Galapagos Islands (home to an early 20th-century German couple who tried to make an Eden there with free love and naked gardening). He follows Adam and Eve far beyond the Bible, to the works of John Milton, Mae West, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mark Twain, Mary Wollstonecraft and more.
It is an approach that has served Feiler, who is Jewish, well in his previous religion books, most notably “Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses,” his 2001 best-seller, which was followed by “Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths.” Both became multipart PBS television series, and “Adam and Eve” seems poised for a similar fate.
Writing for USA Today, reviewer David Holahan said “Adam and Eve” is “a thought-provoking odyssey, and by its end it is hard not to nod in agreement with the author’s conclusions, such as ‘There is no love without time’ or ‘Instead of censuring them (Adam and Eve), we should be celebrating them.’”
Feiler has had his occasional detractors.
In reviewing Feiler’s “American Prophet,” Stephen Prothero, author of “American Jesus,” described Feiler’s approach as his “walking schtick” and said his “I was there” approach was sometimes “embarrassing to read.”
But Feiler says a practical approach is essential to his – and our – understanding of religion.
“For me, everything starts at the kitchen table” in the discussions families have over dinner, he said. “I believe religion starts at the kitchen table. I believe we are not going to get the answers by looking into our phones, by virtual reality or by the latest apps. I have this sort of personal passion about linking timeless wisdom with timely knowledge. So all of this mixes in my head when we visit the Sistine Chapel and one of my girls says, ‘Where am I in that picture?’”
The search for answers often leads to a reframing of the subject, and in this book, Eve gets the most radical treatment. Instead of blaming her for the expulsion from the garden, Feiler discusses how Eve’s eating of the apple led her to be “reborn,” through God’s command to “Go forth, be fruitful and multiply.”
“Threatened with death, Eve becomes the source of life,” Feiler writes. “Tarnished with spoiling humanity, Eve becomes the wellspring of humanity.”
And, Feiler points out, while the Bible relates the death of Adam, it remains silent on the death of Eve.
“No one ever talks about this,” he said. “And I think it is fascinating – Adam dies and Eve does not. On its simplest level, that means the story never goes away. That means the story survives. I think Eve never dies so that their love never dies. They are a testament to what they meant to each other, and it is there for the rest of us to go and touch base with in the beginning story of the Bible.”