MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Bruce Feiler has gained an enormous following for his bestselling books and popular television programs and Ted talks for his ability to help people encounter the biblical story in fresh ways. For his latest book, he's asking readers to rethink what may be one of the most challenging Bible stories for many modern people to accept, the creation story of Adam and Eve and everything that story has come to mean - the weakness and disobedience of women, the source of all the evils of the world.
It's called "The First Love Story: Adam, Eve, And Us" and in it, Feiler makes the provocative argument that the first couple can be considered as the representation of reconciliation and forgiveness in a time of division and hate. And Bruce Feiler is with us now from our bureau in New York. Bruce Feiler, thank you so much for speaking with us once again.
BRUCE FEILER: It's my pleasure, Michel. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So first, could we set the table. This is - what? - number 13 book for you.
FEILER: It depends how you count, but we can go with that. Yes.
MARTIN: We can go on 13? OK. And I do want to mention you don't just talk about the Bible in your work. You also talk a lot about relationships and a number of other things. But I did want to ask you how you approach the Bible to begin with because as you know, for many people, the Bible is the literal truth, the inspired word of God, even a historical document. So I wanted to ask how do you approach it?
FEILER: I begin by taking the story seriously. Whether it's literal or not is of less importance to me than I take it seriously. I think there's truth in the story, and I think if we go back to the actual story, we can find wisdom. That's what I take very seriously.
MARTIN: I must say that you confront almost immediately the issue of why this story is so painful for many modern people - women in particular. And you also say yourself in your book that the idea that Adam and Eve are still relevant actually kind of seemed absurd to you at the beginning. So why this story and why now?
FEILER: For me, my process begins at my kitchen table. I live surrounded by women. I have a working wife. I have adolescent identical twin daughters. And we are discussing every day in one way or another the breathtaking changes in how men and women relate to each other. OK? We've got marriage declining, divorce increasing. We've got sexuality is much more fluid today.
But as somebody who spent a lot of time in the ancient world, I keep thinking is there nothing from the past that can't be carried over? There must be something. We were in Rome a few years ago. I'm like - take my kids to see some work, get some culture. It doesn't go well. My feet hurt. This is boring. I get them into the Sistine Chapel. I'm like look up, girls, I'm going to blow your mind.
And one of them looks up and sees Adam and God sailing across the ceiling and says, well, where am I in that picture? There's no woman. And then her sister looks up and says there's a woman under God's arm, and she says, well, is that Eve? And that's when I realized that this story has been at the heart of every conversation about relationships and family and sexual identity for 3,000 years. And we should be celebrating the story.
Instead, we have dumped on Adam and Eve, and especially Eve. I mean, Eve has been victim of the greatest character assassination the world has ever known. And so, yes, I have this kind of absurd notion even to myself is might Adam and Eve have something to tell us about this moment we're in our culture today?
MARTIN: But what gave you the insight that there could be another way to look at this?
FEILER: What I've learned is that sometimes what's in the original story is different from how we remember the story. So step one for me is to go back and let's look at the story of Adam and Eve. The first thing you discover is that there's two versions of the story, not one. And the second one is more famous, right? That's got the iconic moment - Eve being formed from Adam's body, Eve getting bored, going off eating the fruit. They're getting kicked out of Eden. They're having two children, one murders the other, then they come together and they have a third. That's the second story.
And it appears to be the way most people have talked about it, right? Who is God's chosen sex man or woman? But when you look at the first story, it's totally different because the first story on the sixth day God creates this ungendered human being and divides them into male and female. So what's true for the man is true for the woman. The whole thing begins in utter equality. So with this underpinning of equality what happened?
The answer organized religion got a hold of the story. And by organized religion, of course, I mean, men. And so they have this agenda. And one of their agendas is to dump on Eve. So let's just take that - one of the basic building blocks. You ask, you know, a hundred people this is what they're going to mention that Eve is formed from Adam's rib. Well, guess what? In Hebrew, it's (speaking Hebrew). That doesn't mean rib. That's used 36 times in the Bible. It means side. They're standing side by side. Eve isn't Adam's helper. They help each other.
So when you go back, and you look at the story, it's much more nuanced. And what turns out to have happened, what I discovered is there is this great kind of counter-narrative of artists and thinkers and writers who began to see it as a story of equality, and therefore that's what happened that allows us to be where we are today which is men and women standing equally before God.
MARTIN: I could argue that this is, perhaps, the most challenging of the books that you have asked people to kind of reconsider the biblical story. But I'm really interested to know how people are responding to it and if they feel appreciative that you've given this new opportunity or are people just kind of, look, you know, you can't change my mind about this? This is one of the arguments that some people make about why they've walked away from organized religion because they feel that all it really does is kind of provide the warrant for suppressing certain people and particularly women.
FEILER: There's a fascinating paradox to me about religion that we don't talk about a lot. And that is that nothing has been more aggressively discriminatory against women than organized religion. And exactly the moment in the last whatever hundred years, 50 years, 15 years where religion has become voluntary, who could have blamed women for running the other way?
Instead, what happened is that women have stuck around and reclaimed the narrative and rewritten these old stories so that today women by every measure are more involved in religion. They attend institutions more. They take the responsibility for passing on values to their children.
MARTIN: Is there any way that this rediscovery changed you?
FEILER: You said at the outset of this conversation that this story has been dismissed. I don't think that I thought a lot about this story or that I thought negatively about it. And I think that what it did for me personally was to remind me to go back to the source. You know, we live in this moment of DIY religion, and it's harder. It's just easier for someone to tell you these are the five things you have to do, and you're going to get into heaven and you're going to get into college and your marriage is going to work out.
But what I have come to believe is that you have to do the work yourself and to go back to this story, to peel away, look beyond all of the layers of accumulated, you know, kind of grit and negativity and go back to the story and it will speak to you, man.
MARTIN: That's Bruce Feiler. His latest book is "The First Love: Story Adam Eve, And Us." And he was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Bruce, thanks so much for speaking with us once again.
FEILER: Thank you. What an honor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.