In his remarkable tracing of The Rise and Fall of Adam and Eve (W.W. Norton, $27.95), Stephen Greenblatt, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Swerve, presents a history of the central creation story of Western culture and pays tribute to the power of story itself in shaping what it means to be human. Intended to explain the origins of life, the nature of good and evil, punishment, shame, gender roles, moral responsibility, and much else, Adam and Eve from the first have raised as many question as they’ve answered. St. Augustine struggled for decades to make a coherent orthodoxy out of a Biblical text riddled with inconsistencies and contradictions, but refused to relinquish his faith in the material’s literal truth. Milton also had an “obsession” with the first couple, but understood them in a new way. Focusing on their relationship as domestic partners he wrote Paradise Lost as an investigation of marriage and companionship. Like Dürer, he made Adam and Eve real people, not symbols. For Greenblatt, whose chapters on these two artists are as beautiful and heartfelt as they are scholarly, the Renaissance marked the pinnacle of Adam and Eve’s cultural life. With the Age of Exploration new geological and ethnographic information began to surface that was “incompatible with belief in Adam and Eve,” until Darwin’s theories finally replaced Genesis as the pre-eminent creation story. Yet Greenblatt and many others continue to find a “peculiar satisfaction” in the 6th century BCE myth. As Greenblatt notes, “it was a breath that brought Adam to life, the breath of a storyteller,” and it’s storytellers—and critics—that keep him going.
The aim of Garry Wills’s powerful little book, What the Qur’an Meant (Viking, $25), is to teach readers about the real Islam as it is laid out in the Qur’an. “Living with fear is corrosive,” Wills writes. “Ignorance is the natural ally of fear.” He finds beautiful parallels between various canonical writings, as well as some poignant differences. Many Hebrew prophets appear in the Qur’an, with Abraham figuring prominently as the rebuilder of the Kah-bah shrine in Mecca. In the Qur’an, Adam and Eve are both tempted together. But Eve is unnamed, as are all other women, with one exception: Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Qur’an considers Moses and Jesus to be the two most important prophets prior to Muhammad, who stresses peace between the three faiths as well as obedience to one God. It is Allah who works through all of them. Conversely, Jihad is found nowhere in the Qur’an and the word Shariah appears only once, in reference to Muhammad following Allah’s path. This is a scholarly but thoroughly absorbing book which will make an unusual gift for anyone seeking new ways to revive their faith over the holiday season.