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The Gilded Cage

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"Eden is a gilded cage, a trap if you’re there too long; albeit beautifully decorated with plants and animals. God’s agent is the snake who properly shows a way out. Eden’s pleasures are not lasting or endlessly desirable." 

Revd Sarah Parry, preaching at Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation, the online gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.

There was a problem with the audio recording of this sermon, but you can read the full script below:

Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17, 3:1-8

On the BBC news this Thursday was a lecturer from St Andrews talking about Covid and the increasing number of infections in the UK. He was concerned about the blame for the resurgence of the virus on young adults. He pointed out that this group have been encouraged to return to their colleges and places of work and to eat and drink out to help save the economy. He thought that not only have young adults been generally compliant throughout the lockdown but the majority of young adults support the introduction of new measures with increasing infections. What is missing is a strategic approach from government. I don’t know about you but to be honest I have also felt some irritation over the young people out in the parks, disregarding social distancing and even enjoying themselves! I’ve been happy to jump on the blame bandwagon. I really needed this reminder to hold back and think again and more carefully.

It’s not unusual for societies or even governments to look for scapegoats, especially when under pressure and in times of crisis. Often there are serious consequences. Holding back and keeping an open and flexible mind is useful and might give us new perspectives on this passage from Genesis. This story of Adam and Eve leaving the garden of Eden must be one of the most familiar passages of the bible. We come to it after thousands of years of commentary, art and culture. The story of a foolish Eve being led astray by the evil serpent and drawing Adam in ending in disaster and expulsion is deep in the culture. But this is a carefully crafted and dense passage set in the honed creation narratives of Genesis. The difficulty with this interpretation might be summed up in the question, Why doesn’t God seem sad about what has happened? If you have read or seen Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s ‘Good Omens’ that question is posed by the angel giving the flaming sword to Adam as they leave the garden. A gesture of sympathy. Something grates in the traditional interpretation.

Now this passage we can’t get to all of it in 15 minutes. I don’t quite know how I’m supposed to do justice to this passage in Genesis in the time, but we can consider some of it. Maybe some of other issues can be picked up in the discussion which follows.

I’m going to start with the things it is not. I remember as a small girl reading my children’s Bible of the wonderful garden of Eden that was lost forever and how I wished that Eve had kept her hands to herself and that paradise could be regained. But it is not a childish sentimental fantasy. It is not other things too. It is not a passage to tell us about Eden as a literal historical place or event. There are for example all kinds of geographical difficulties with the places listed in Genesis 2. The lord God plants a garden in Eden and at the same time a river flows out of Eden to water the garden. (v8 and 10) Trust the text it is carefully written, the ambiguity is deliberate. Nor is this passage about the subjugation of women or women’s inherent weakness in taking the fruit. In v6, Adam is with Eve and both eat and both their eyes are opened together. It is not about blame and its even less about viewing sexual desire as a consequence of the fall, the shame of nakedness is not about sexuality but about poverty. (In fact the word Eden means pleasure of a sexual nature there’s just no shame attached to sex in this.)

What is it about then? The broad setting is about relationships – between God, humanity and creation. Here in these verses in particular it’s the dodgy business of disobedience in the matter of growing up. According to Genesis, disobedience is at the heart of God’s good creation and I think that can be hard for us to accept.

How can I say that? Three things.     Firstly, This part of Genesis is essentially a poem with a strong structure to it.

It has inherent movement and development with each cycle carefully and beautifully crafted. There is a repeating movement of the relation between human and nonhuman creation but where God is present, then humans in more direct relation to the creator and finally of human relationship between humans. And this repeats nine times through the chapter. Our idea of Eden can feel very static, this is the garden where Adam and Eve are living happily until the big issue with the snake and the fruit. In fact, there is continuous movement and change going on part of which is eating the forbidden fruit. Like a child growing up through infancy, childhood, adolescence, there is constant change we need to recognise and we ignore it at our peril. Much as we would like to we cannot treat our teenagers as if they were toddlers. We live not only on solid ground but on the moving wave of time.

Secondly, the question about the serpent. Humans are not neutral when it comes to snakes. We are usually afraid.

In Frank Herbert’s influential epic Dune series, coming out in cinemas this Christmas, the serpent has become engrossed, giant worms ruling a desert planet and generating spice, a mind enhancing drug that lengthens life. They are terrifying. The humans in Dune recite a litany which begins ‘I must not fear, Fear is the mind killer. I will face my fear…when the fear has gone there will be nothing…Only I will remain.’

What might the fear be, Carl Jung says this, ‘The serpent shows the way to hidden things and expresses the introverted desire, which leads humans to go beyond the point of safety and beyond the limits of consciousness.’ Serpents are dangerous and to be feared but a necessary aspect of ourselves which lead us to living more fully.

So back in Genesis, according to the structure of the poem at the beginning of chapter 3 we have the human and the nonhuman which God had created. It’s worth clocking this because its telling us that the snake is the Lord God’s creature. We know through the repeated poetic cycles that God works through the non-human creation. The snake, specifically said to be made by the Lord God, must be seen as Gods agent. And the snake is crafty – a word loaded for us as sneaky or cunning. But I’ve described these passages several times today as crafted or honed, and I don’t suppose you took it as cunning or expected that I was describing Genesis in a negative way. You could say that I have been crafty in doing that, taking both meanings in one place. In fact the Hebrew word arum, can be used in this way but more often it means shrewd, particularly in terms of gaining wisdom. The serpent brings dangerous wisdom.

What do they learn as a result? They learn that in the Garden of Eden they are naked. What does this word naked mean? It’s the word arumim. It has nothing to do with the body or sexuality. It means poverty, lack or deprivation. They have nothing, they own nothing. Even those of us who sit lightly on our possessions have something. Now they know, Eden has become a place of deprivation.

Thirdly, whatever else is going on, the man and woman disobey the Lord God.

The garden was cared for and the beasts named following divine will but it was not a voluntary act. In that voluntary accord there must be an alternative, a known actionable possibility. The theologian John Hick writes – ‘Man can be truly for God only if he is morally independent of Him, and he can thus be independent only by being first against him!’ The primary disobedience is not just a liberating act but an essential work of creation. With choice comes judgement. In this respect humans become like God – as the snake said – and it is in the image of God, the story tells us, that it is the work of God to make us. The couple become co-creators of themselves.

It remains a contradiction, a paradox of God’s injunction. This is inescapable and part of the human condition and not an easy place. The choice one makes then is between two evils and is an essential feature of the human condition. It is not in the nature of life that we can go through it with clean hands. Creation is not an unflawed structure, rigidly maintained and thereby unstable but the vision of Genesis is of a dynamic system in which flaws can be accepted and corrected, with the acknowledgement of repentance  -  which means a return – and is our lifelong struggle in ebb and flow.

So where does this leave us? I’ve got a few thoughts about this.

I was meeting a friend of mine a while back in my garden for the first time several months after the Covid lockdown. She said to me, ‘I haven’t had to work, I’m in a lovely comfortable home and a beautiful garden, but I haven’t been able to go out and really it’s a gilded cage.’ In some senses Eden is a gilded cage, and would have become one if Adam and Eve had never left. It’s a trap if you’re there too long, albeit beautifully decorated with plants and animals. God’s agent, our agent is the snake who properly shows a way out.  The word Eden in Hebrew means pleasure and we need more than that to make us more fully human. Eden’s pleasures are not lasting or endlessly desirable.

Living with the lesser of two evils is a hard place. For myself, It was as our elder son was becoming too much for us to manage at home and we could no longer keep him safe. It was an evil both to keep him at home with the people he loves but with us all in physical and mental danger or to accept that he needed the additional support of a care home and live elsewhere. A very unpleasant and painful decision for us. In this our home had become a gilded cage, not intentionally and not obviously. Or I might say that the serpent offers the only possible way forward. I think I may have been too slow in coming to this realisation and letting go of a kind of fantasy Eden which our home represented.

Adolescence is the human home of disobedience. Placing ourselves as parents in our families and as a society is not easy to be the one that disobedience it done to but we ignore it at our peril. As a psychotherapist I am regularly confronted with the damage perpetrated by over punitive parents and the need for over compliant children. The damage is often deep and long lasting. Life is stunted and the consequences far reaching. It’s usually better to let disobedience have its accepted place.

I have an old book of illustrations at home. I bought it years ago when I was at college in Bristol. It has this lovely illustration about adolescence, called Getting it Done. It says There are three ways to get something done:

1 Do it yourself     

2 Hire someone to do it      

3 Forbid your kids to do it        

And that is pretty much the way of it. Accepting it with some humour probably helps the frustration.

In conclusion then, Living with our own serpent is dangerous and painful. You may know all too well the dilemma of living with the lesser of two evils or know someone who is struggling with this. You may know about living in a gilded cage and the fear of leaving it or know someone who is feeling trapped who cannot find even a serpent to help. You may have experienced too much punishment in your life or stood with someone who has been abused. As Christians in relationship to God through Jesus Christ and with each other there is the need to recognise what is happening in our own lives and in the lives of others and to be intelligently and emotionally understanding and merciful. Recognising our need for disobedience may help us and give us hope. After all God clothes Adam and Eve as they prepare to leave the garden. May God be merciful to us and may we be merciful to ourselves and to others.        

Amen.

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