Lucas Cranach the Elder Adam and Eve oil on paired panels 1530
This talk isn't about art in any particular way, but since I've posted a talk at church I gave two years ago about Vincent Van Gogh here and got some supportive responses, I thought I would post the talk I just gave at church about marriage. Since my religion and my marriage play a large role in my artistic psyche, I think this blog is the right place to post this meditation, even if there aren't any paintings or painters (except for myself) referenced this time. Although the art critic/writer Rebecca Solnit does get a lengthy quote. . . So maybe there is more oblique art content than I first thought.
So, without further ado:
Why Marriage Between a Man and Woman is Ordained of God: for Joy
By Eowyn Wilcox McComb, presented in the RidgeCreek Ward, Murray, UT on January 24, 2018
In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes tells an origin story that goes something like this:
In the beginning, when the gods made humans, they made them with two faces, four hands, and four legs. And they made them in this form: man-woman, and sometimes man-man, or woman-woman. Humans became powerful, intelligent, and strong, so much so that the gods began to fear that their creations would rise up and try to overthrow them. So the gods met together and came to a decision: they would take the humans and split them apart, weakening them and leaving them lonely and desperate, restlessly wandering the world seeking their lost other half. Some of the broken humans longed so intensely for the rest of themselves that they became ill with loneliness, and sickened, and some even died. This story is the origin of the concept of ‘soul-mates.’
Aristophanes’ myth is perhaps one of the earliest stories to attempt to explain the passion that drives us together towards marriage. That marriage needs an explanation makes one stop to think. Most cultures have an origin story about the beginning of humanity, and most of those origin stories center on the creation and union of a man and a woman. On a physical level, this makes sense---in mammalian species there needs to be a male and female member in order to procreate and have offspring. But this does not require marriage, or loyalty, or fidelity. While some animals, like swans or many wolves, are monogamous and mate for life, many other animals, like mice or ducks, are promiscuous, sometimes violently so. So why do we humans practice marriage? Why do we have ancient origin stories about soul mates?
In “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” President Gordon B Hinckley and the first presidency of this church proclaimed that “the family is ordained of God. Marriage between man and woman is essential to His eternal plan.” How do we know this principle to be true except through the scriptures? When God gives us a commandment he wishes us to follow, he usually gives us a story about that commandment so that we better understand it. And what story is more archetypal on the subject of marriage than the story of Adam and Eve? Aristophanes had one story about how soul-mates came to be. We have another.
Adam and Eve’s story is of marriage and true love enduring. Let us turn to Genesis chapter 2, where I will paraphrase the story told there, and we can consider together the implications of Adam and Eve’s choices, and what we can learn from them:
In the beginning, some time after God made the world, he made a garden with a river that ran through it, which he called Eden, and in it he “formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul,” named Adam. Adam lived in harmony with the plants and the animals in Eden, which was a place of surpassing beauty. All of his needs were met for him, because Eden had every good fruit and vegetable. God gave Adam two tasks: to keep the garden and to name the many living beings within it. But something was lacking---there was a need that Adam had that was not met, and he did not know it. God saw this and “caused a deep sleep to fall over Adam, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; and the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh.” God gave Adam and his new wife two commandments: first, that they should “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Genesis 1:28), and second, that while they could eat freely of any tree in the garden, they should never eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for they would “surely die.” And while Adam and his wife kept the second commandment, the first commandment they could not keep, for they were innocent and ignorant and did not know how to keep it.
Now Lucifer disguised himself as a snake and came into the garden and spoke to Eve. The art critic and writer Rebecca Solnit wrote in her essay “As Eve Said to the Serpent”: “I always thought Eve and the serpent must have conversed at greater length than Genesis records. That the most crucial conversation in Judeo-Christian theology is between a woman and a beast suggests that the voices that count are not always those of the fathers. . . That talking and eating were Eve’s decisive acts suggests a kind of intellectual and corporeal exchange with her surroundings, a willingness to take in the new and the risky. Imagine Eve as one of the few scientists to discuss the long-term consequences of her acts before she began her apple-eating experiment. Imagine what she and the snake might have had to say to each other about becoming symbols and scapegoats, about how they would be represented and misrepresented, about what joys would rise like seafoam from the storms of history ahead, about what kind of places they would encounter and what it would take to make those places seem like home or Paradise.” Eve had not yet gained her name: “The mother of all living.” She had to make her risky decision first, all alone. After she spoke with the serpent, she realized that she needed to gain knowledge to ever progress or change or fulfill that paradoxical first commandment she had been given. She was the first human to desire knowledge, and the first to risk everything she had and lose her innocence to gain it. I have found through observation and reading and personal experience that gaining knowledge rarely makes life easier----it complicates our decisions and makes them a great deal harder-----but is worth every sacrifice for how it enriches life and opens avenues of thought and inspiration that were closed before.
So Eve partook of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, fruit described as “good for food, and... pleasant to the eyes, and... to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). And she was not selfish. She loved her husband, and offered him the fruit, and he ate it also, and “the eyes of them both were opened.” And so Adam and Eve fell from grace and were banished from the garden, and given toil and sorrow and pain for their punishment. And what we know of as time began, and children were born, and with their work came achievement, and with their loss came gain, and with their sorrow came joy.
For “Adam fell that man might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” I find it striking that in that famous scripture I just read, 2 Nephi 2:25, it is Adam who is named, and blamed, for the Fall, and not Eve. I think there is a reason other than gender-bias at work in making Adam responsible: we often focus on the difficulty, riskiness, and profundity of Eve’s choice, but we rarely focus on the great sacrifice Adam made when he chose to follow her and partake of the fruit himself. In one action, Adam gave up his home in the garden and his ability to walk and talk with God face to face----all to follow his wife into exile and spend the rest of his life working for the privileges he gave up to be with her. Is this not powerful? Adam knew God---he spoke to God----and yet he willingly gave up God’s presence out of loyalty to his wife. Adam’s example is complex: he chose his marriage before God, and yet his choice fulfilled God’s wish and commandment that he should “cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
While I often identify strongly with Eve as a fellow woman facing the necessity of making choices that rarely affect only myself, and who often has to resort to subversion to be able to act or speak in a world that strongly favors men-----still, when it comes to my own marriage, I identify more strongly with Adam. Eve made a choice without Adam that affected the direction of his life. This put him in the position of being forced to make his own choice, but one of reaction, rather than action. My marriage has followed a similar pattern: when I met Ryan he was finishing his master of bio-science at Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, California. He had already made significant life-decisions about his education and his career path, and he had also made the crucial decision to go very deeply into debt to achieve those goals. And those decisions he had made without me changed the path of my life after we got married. His debt affected us every day as we gave up (among other things:) meat and cheese, the internet, going out, new clothes or new anything, heating, and finally our car in our efforts to make ends meet. I learned to cook beans from scratch and bake bread to save money. I sewed my own clothes out of sheets and fabric that I found at the thrift store. I learned to make art in tiny spaces, with only a desk and a bookcase and an easel in a corner of the room as my studio. I had chosen not to pursue a Master of Fine Arts after I finished my Bachelor of Fine Arts at Art Center College of Design because I was afraid the debt would cripple my career as an artist. That decision I made turned out not to matter: Ryan’s career path led us out of the neighborhood I’d lived in all my life and the city where I had all of my career opportunities. Similarly, Adam had to sacrifice his comforts, his home, and his standing with God to follow his wife into banishment and hard work that he had probably never expected and in the beginning, surely didn’t know how to do. Why did he do it? Why did I do it? For love, for true love. For the chance to have joy together. In Moses 5:10, Adam reflected on his decisions and: “Blessed God. . . saying: Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy.” And Eve, reflecting on her own decisions in the next verse said: “Were it not for our transgression, we never should have. . . known. . . the joy of our redemption.”
The paradox of Genesis is that Eve and Adam disobeyed in order to obey. Lehi explains the importance of Adam’s choice to follow Eve in 2 Nephi 2: 22-23: “…Behold, if Adam had not transgressed he would not have fallen, but he would have remained in the garden of Eden.” And I would add here: remained there alone. “And all things which were created must have remained in the same state in which they were after they were created; and they must have remained forever, and had no end. And they would have had no children; wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.”
Let me return again to 2 Nephi 2:25: “Adam fell that man might be; and men are, that they might have joy.” Here, in one sentence, is laid out the plan of salvation and God’s purpose for us: We exist for joy, to be joyful. Teryl and Fiona Givens wrote in their book The God Who Weeps that “in a universe limited by the economy of the essential, joy is proof of surplus” (35), and perhaps, if you take this idea one step further---proof of God. For what other reason does joy exist except that God intends us to have it? What purpose does joy serve except to crown our lives and give purpose to everything else----all the suffering we have to endure in order to achieve and recognize joy at last. What other proof of love is there, than that it gives us joy? And what better proof that God loves us, than that his purpose for us on this earth, is to learn to cultivate and understand and have for our own selves----joy?
Marriage is one way to increase and multiply the joy in our lives. Love is the greatest source of joy, and marriage is, at its best, a test of true love and a way to develop more pure love and gain more joy. All the sacrifices I have made for Ryan are worthwhile because I love him, and that love gives me joy and the love he returns gives me strength to bear, or at least attempt to bear, our burdens. The love we have for each other is a choice, and is thus fragile, strengthened by time and sacrifice. The hardships we have faced together and will face together in the future are the special alchemy that transforms our love into a solid substance that binds us: true love. This said, I would like to assure you all that true love is not limited to marriage---love and joy are something all of God’s children can and do enjoy, through any and all relationships based in love. Any time we love a person, a place, an animal, a thing----we are following God’s path towards joy.
For after all, "which is the greatest commandment in the law? Jesus said. . . Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40). If we love, we are following God’s way, and are sure to achieve joy at last. The more love we have, the more joy we will be given. Of this I can and do firmly bear my testimony.
I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.