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The First Love Story

The First Love Story by Bruce Feiler
Mar 20, 2018 | 336 Pages
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    Mar 21, 2017 | 336 Pages

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“Feiler plunges into this thicket with verve, intelligence and style. He’s done a miraculous thing, the literary equivalent of breathing life into a figure made of clay—taken a story I’ve been hearing since services were held in the old sanctuary and made me experience it again as if for the first time.” The New York Times Book Review

“Exhaustively researched, lyrically written.” Washington Post

“A fascinating treatise on the impact of Adam and Eve on human thought in the Western world.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Feiler shows how Adam and Eve have always been and continue to be mutable, rebooted through the ages to suit their times like comic book superheroes. By investigating the history of these re-imaginings, Feiler tracks the evolution of how people have thought about relationships between humanity and God. He focuses on the artists and intellectuals who have subverted mainstream religious dogma and found, in Adam and Eve, radical inspiration for what it means to be human, and what it means to love—which are the same thing, really…Feiler’s chapters are stuffed with interesting people and concepts. They move briskly, delving into every iconic moment in the first couple’s short tale, each an opportunity to examine a different wrinkle of love: collegial, romantic, sexual, familial, extramarital, the blush of youth, the pale of twilight.”The Rumpus 

“A convincing case that mankind still has much to learn from the first human beings… It’s a thought-provoking odyssey, and by its end it is hard not to nod in agreement.”USA Today

“This may be Feiler’s best work yet. A wonderfully readable, powerfully presented look into the influence of the original love.” Publishers Weekly

“An eye-opening look at one of the most famous stories of all time. The First Love Story is a provocative journey that reconceptualizes the tale of Adam and Eve as not one of sin, but romantic love. The First Love Story also serves as a history of love itself—how we comprehend it, and how we express it. Eloquently written, Feiler’s book forces even the most experienced of religious scholars to rethink our understanding of sacredness and profanity.” —Reza Aslan, author of Zealot

“With his characteristic insight and grace, Bruce Feiler has painted a revealing portrait of the archetypal human story of love, temptation, betrayal, and endurance. There is much to learn and ponder in these pages.” —Jon Meacham, author of Thomas Jefferson

“The First Love Story is full of wit and wisdom. In charting the story of Adam and Eve, Bruce Feiler unfolds the history of love itself, showing how our sense of guilt and discomfort coincides with our experiences of passion, commitment, and joy.” —Andrew Solomon, author of Far from the Tree

“Somehow Bruce Feiler has taken what may be the most mulled-over story in western culture and not only found something fresh in it but found something compelling, inspiring and—perhaps most amazing of all—timely. He guides the reader across rich and varied terrain—archaeology, art, literature, psychology, history, theology—with the grace, wit, and wisdom we’ve come to expect from him.” —Robert Wright, author of The Evolution of God

“A wise and nourishing book that shows how the first story is really our story.” —Rabbi David Wolpe, author of Why Faith Matters

“Adam and Eve, dismissed as merely allegorical by some, derided as a relic of fundamentalist belief by others, are revealed by Bruce Feiler in his fascinating new book, as not only relevant to our modern understanding of love and community, but absolutely essential.  As he has shown in his books and television series, Mr. Feiler has the unique ability to introduce readers to the insights of art, history and theology in a way that makes a seemingly hidebound topic come alive and the oldest of Bible stories seem fresh, inspiring and even exciting.” —James Martin, SJ, author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage

“Read from Bruce Feiler’s The First Love Story and your eyes will be opened to love in all its messiness and mystery, struggles and sacredness, uncertainty and wonder. This book is filled with life affirming wisdom that is accessible, authentic, and profound. You will never think about Adam and Eve or love in the same way again.” —Rabbi Irwin Kula, author of Yearnings

Author Q&A

What inspired you to write this book?

The conversation around my dinner table! I live surrounded by women. I have adolescent daughters. I have a working wife. And like everyone else, I’m just terribly confused about what the rules are for how men and women relate to each other these days. I’ve spent the last decade trying to figure this out—in my New York Times column, in my last two books, etc. I’ve basically been asking the questions: How do modern families work best, and what are the guidelines for successful relationships?

Then, about four years ago, we were on a trip to Rome and I had the brilliant idea to take my sleep-deprived daughters to the Vatican. See some art! It didn’t go well. “My feet hurt! This is boooring!” Finally we made it to the Sistine Chapel. “Look up!” I said. One of my girls glanced at the image of Adam and God and said, “Why is there only a man?” Then her sister pointed out something I’d never seen before. “Is that Eve under God’s arm?”

And that’s when it hit me. Since antiquity, one story has stood at the center of every conversation about men and women. One couple has been the battleground for human relationships and sexual identity. That couple is Adam and Eve. If I wanted to understand how we got here and where we’re going, I had to understand them. Specifically I wanted to know: What can history’s first couple teach us about relationships today? Can they be the role models we’re looking for?

But no one thinks of them as a love story. Were you worried about that?

No one thinks of them at all! Adam and Eve are the basically forgotten patriarch and matriarch of the Bible. People either dismiss them as fairy tales—they’re made up; we’ve moved on. Or people dump on them for ruining life for the rest of us. Adam and Eve (but mostly Eve) have been almost universally blamed for being selfish, lustful, disgraceful, and for single-handedly bringing shame, sin, and even death into the world. It’s the biggest character assassination in the history of the world. And it’s a complete shame. If you go back and look at the story—and look at how everyone from Michelangelo to John Milton to Mary Shelley in Frankenstein to Mark Twain to Mae West looked at the story—what you discover is that the story is sending an entirely different message. It’s about connection, commitment, resilience, togetherness. It’s about love.

Wait, Frankenstein is about Adam and Eve?

Yes, who knew? I certainly didn’t. In the story, Dr. Frankenstein is God; he creates the monster, that’s Adam. And the monster is terribly lonely. He embodies that amazing line in Genesis that’s the theme of the entire story: “It’s not right for humans to be alone.” The monster even learns to speak by reading Paradise Lost, which is the first major work to depict Adam and Eve in love. So the monster goes to Frankenstein and says, “I’m Adam! Make me an Eve.”

You visit some pretty amazing places in this book: The Garden of Eden in Iraq, Jerusalem, the Galapagos. How did you decide where to travel, and what were the most startling things you learned in those places?

Unlike Walking the Bible, where I climbed Mount Ararat looking for Noah’s Ark, crossed the Red Sea, and climbed Mount Sinai, there aren’t that many places where Adam and Eve actually walked. So with this book I made a different decision: I would visit places where writers, artists, political leaders, and pioneering women grappled with the story. My favorites were 1) Michelangelo, of course. Being in the Sistine Chapel alone was one of the great experiences of my life. 2) John Milton’s home, where he wrote Paradise Lost totally blind and made Adam and Eve into a love story. 3) Seneca Falls, NY. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who started the women’s movement with Susan B. Anthony, was almost lost to history because she defended Eve and was ousted from her community. This is an amazing story, almost entirely unknown, and will make anyone furious with the way Eve (and her defenders) have been treated over the years.

That brings up an interesting question: You mention your daughters and your wife. Do you think history’s misrepresentations of Eve have affected the way the women in your life see themselves?

Absolutely. The whole idea that women are secondary was first justified by claiming (falsely) that Eve was created from Adam’s rib. The whole idea that sexuality is dirty was first justified by claiming (falsely) that having sex got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden. The whole idea that women should serve men was first justified by claiming (falsely) that that was Eve’s punishment from God. We all live under the shadow of those readings even if we don’t realize it.

But here’s what’s interesting—and to me, inspiring—about what I learned. Nothing has been more aggressively, even violently, discriminatory against women than organized religion. Now that religion has become voluntary in Western society, who could blame women for running the other way. Instead, women are consistently more religious than men, are more involved in spiritual activities, and take greater responsibility for passing on values to their children. And they’ve done this just in the last thirty years or so—starting with something that seemed unimaginable: reclaiming Eve as a hero, an icon for women everywhere. This is my favorite part of The First Love Story and what I most want to tell my daughters: You get to write your own story, just as the first woman did.

How did working on this book affect your own faith?

It made me realize there’s promised love in the Bible as well as promised land. We think of the Bible as being about commandments, about ways of living your life, about land. But we don’t think of it as being about interpersonal love—and we certainly don’t think of Adam and Eve in this way. For me, recognizing that the Bible opens the story of humankind with a story of togetherness, connection, and sticking with each other through difficult times, like getting kicked out of Eden and losing your child, was really eye-opening and comforting. The story’s message is: The only thing strong enough to counter the pain of life is the reward of living life with another person. To me that makes the story more relevant to what I’m struggling with on a daily basis.

So how did this affect my own life: It taught me that the way to hold my own family together in the face of busyness, exhaustion, 24/7 social media, even my own bumbling, is to make it my priority. My phone didn’t teach me that message. The oldest love story of all taught me that lesson. And for that I’m very grateful to Adam and Eve, and willing to move them from the back of my mind where they were forgotten to the tip of my tongue where they can keep me grounded every day.

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