Mother of All the Living: Reinterpretations of Eve in Contemporary Literature

By Cornell, M. Doretta | Cross Currents, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Mother of All the Living: Reinterpretations of Eve in Contemporary Literature


Cornell, M. Doretta, Cross Currents


When the contemporary search for women's voices in spiritual traditions began in the last quarter of the 20th century, many women found a dearth of representation in religious literature, both in the founding scriptures and in theological texts. Carol Christ, for example, speaks, in Diving Deep and Surfacing, of her classes in Religious Studies at Yale:

        Gradually I began to wonder whether I had a different
        perspective on theology because I was a woman.... It began to
        seem crucially relevant to my situation that theologians had
        been men. If theology were written from a male perspective and
        my perspective was female, that might explain why my professors
        and student colleagues--all but one of them male--often failed
        to understand my perspective on theological issues. (1)

One aspect of the difficulty was that even when women did appear in these texts, they were presented in ways that women found strange and alienating or blatantly distorted to support patriarchal assumptions about women. The extremes of the choices faced by religious women seemed to be (a) abandoning the religions on which they had based their lives, in order to be true to their own experiences of divinity and spirituality; (b) submitting to an understanding of themselves that denied their own experiences; or (c) re-reading and re-interpreting the scriptures to rewrite theology and spirituality, incorporating women's lived experience.

Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza sees the latter work as essential for women, whether or not they adhere to an organized Biblical religion:

        Western women are not able to discard completely and forget our
        personal, cultural, or religious Christian history. We will
        either transform it into a new liberating future or continue to
        be subject to its tyranny whether we recognize its power or
        not. (2)

The necessity for such transforming--for telling women's part of the history--lies deep at the heart of women's spirituality in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. As a result of her search over the years, Carol Christ came to the conclusion that "Women's stories have not been told. And without stories ... she cannot understand herself.... If women's stories are not told, the depth of women's souls will not be known." (3) In her introduction to "She Unnames Them," Ursula Le Guin says something similar: it is in the retelling of our most essential myths that we learn the truths of our existence: "Myths are one of our most useful techniques of living ... but in order to be useful they must ... be retold." (4) The re-telling, she adds, must include a seeing differently, so that we can be aware of the ways in which the old narratives have formed our ability to see and to understand others, the world, and ourselves.

Marilyn Sewell proposes a similar necessity to see everything, including ourselves, differently, in her introduction to the "Re-Mything" section of her anthology Cries of the Spirit:

        Women are now revising these myths in order to expose the hidden
        and terribly destructive messages inherent in them. Only as the
        old patterns in our consciousness crumble are new patterns
        possible. Let us take a hard look at the canonized mythology
        that has kept us from spiritual wholeness. Let us tell our
        untold stories. (5)

Elizabeth Johnson sees the dangers of failing to re-imagine the stories as even greater; the persistence of the religion itself is at stake. She cites Wolfgang Pannenberg's "penetrating analysis of the dynamics of the history of religions," declaring that "religions die ... when they lose the power to interpret convincingly the full range of present experience in the light of their idea of God." (6) Johnson states that feminist theology exemplifies "faith's search for understanding . …

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