Saturday, February 09, 2008

A Taste of Paradise

Do you like Bounty Bars? In the TV show 'The Mighty Boosh', one of the characters visits a tropical island and starts eating coconuts, shell and all. 'These things are amazing,' he exclaims, 'They taste just like Bounties!' before adding, 'The chocolate's a bit weird though.'

The advertising slogan for Bounties is, 'A taste of paradise' and the makers of Bounty sponsored another TV programme, Paradise Island. As we bite into a Bounty we're supposed to feel that we're been transported to a tropical paradise, with warm seas, hot sand, blue skies and scantily clad young men and women. That's what the Garden of Eden was like – scantily clad young people running around and having fun without a care in the world. Except that the Garden of Eden was not by the seaside and the taste of paradise in the Garden of Eden was not a Bounty bar but an apple.

When God forbids the man to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge it's for the man and woman's own good. Living in paradise means they don't need to know anything, because they already have everything they need. God understands that once they begin to realise there might be something more to life, they won't be in paradise any more.

In the story, the serpent is able to tempt the woman because it persuades her that paradise is a bit dull. Being outside paradise will be dangerous and unpredictable. Instead of being the same every day, life will be changeable and change is risky and chaotic, but – of course – it's also exciting and challenging.
Julian Barnes captures how the woman must have felt in one of the chapters of his book, 'The History of the World in 10½ Chapters'. A man from Leicester dies and goes to what, at first ,seems like heaven. Leicester City win the FA Cup every Saturday, and he gets to play in the match and score the winning goal. He also gets to eat his favourite food all of the time, and when he gets a round of golf he gets a hole in one every time. At first he feels as though he's gone to paradise but, after a while of course, it becomes unbearably tedious.

Falling in and out of paradise is a bit like falling in and out of love with someone. To be in love, and to be completely happy when we are with a particular person, is like being in paradise. But if that feeling begins to wear off, the temptation to stray beyond that relationship, and to seek something new and different, is like the temptation faced by the man and the woman in the garden.

Unfortunately, the reason God gives to explain why the man and the woman can't eat the fruit isn't really true. The snake points out that God has told them a white lie. The fruit isn't really poisonous. It's dangerous, but only because it will open their eyes. And this temptation appeals to the woman because, of course, the thing which makes human beings unique is our curiosity. Animals aren't curious but we are, and so the woman falls for the temptation.

The serpent also lies, but it tells a wicked lie designed to cause mischief. It tells the woman that knowledge is the way to get wisdom and that it will make her like God, whereas we know that the knowledge of good and evil doesn't make us wise or God-like at all. We just have to think of President Clinton, a very clever man who went to Georgetown, Oxford and Yale – three of the world's most prestigious universities – but his behaviour around pretty women was anything but wise. Knowing that something is right doesn't always persuade us to do it, and knowing that something is wrong doesn't always prevent us from doing it.

As Paul says in his Letter to the Romans, this is partly because human beings make mistakes. We give in to temptation, just as the man and the woman did in paradise. But it's also because knowledge and wisdom are two entirely different things. Wisdom depends on a mixture of things – experience, insight and enlightenment or revelation, that moment when God is able to make us aware of some greater truth which would otherwise have been beyond our grasp. Knowledge, on the other hand, is fed by curiosity. It can be combined with wisdom but it needn't be.

People sometimes ask, 'Is this story true?' Well, in so far as it charts the moment when human beings became different from the rest of the animal kingdom, and at once both superior and inferior to the other animals around us, it is true. Whoever they were, the first truly curious person started us on the path of scientific and material progress, but they also destroyed the paradise from which human beings had first emerged.

St Paul claims in his letter to Rome that, if the first man and woman had never left paradise, no one would ever have died. That's a claim which is impossible to take at face value, even if the underlying event which the Garden of Eden story relates is basically true. But if he's talking about spiritual death, it's a different matter. Without their natural curiosity and its tragic consequences human beings would not have been separated from God and death would not have become final. In the Bible the word 'sin' means that same separation from God which the first man and woman experienced when they were thrown out of the Garden.

Animals are content with their lot. They don't expect things to change very much. But human beings are restless. That can be a good thing, when it causes us to strive to make things better. But it can also be a bad thing when it makes us want more than our fair share of what's going, and Paul recognises that this restless curiosity about life, and this desire for change, marked the beginning of our separation from God. But, says Paul, there has been another epoch changing event in human history – and that is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Just as the start of our thirst for knowledge caused our separation from God, so this new revolution - ushered in by Jesus - makes it possible for us to be put right with God again.

Paul is at pains to explain to his readers that Jesus had to be a human being, albeit a very special one, in order to rescue us from our very human predicament. For this same reason, Matthew also believes that Jesus had to be tempted in all points as we are.

So Matthew tells us that Jesus was tempted by the need to get back to a kind of paradise – to the feeling that all his wants were being satisfied - though the Devil is very subtle here, tempting him not with the promise of luxuries but simply with his hunger for bread. To be truly faithful it seems we must trust God to provide for us, even when we are hungry. But if we followed that idea to its logical conclusion we would never plan for our retirement or buy any insurance, so perhaps this temptation is a matter of degree. We shall not live by bread alone but, of course, we do still need bread, so I guess Matthew is simply asking us to keep things in proportion and remember that there is more to life than material things.

Then Jesus was tempted, like the first man and woman, to take unnecessary risks, trusting in God to save him from the consequences of his own folly. This is the temptation to which the people in charge at Northern Rock gave in when they took stupid risks and trusted in the Bank of England to bale them out if things went wrong. Bankers may live recklessly, but Christians should not. This is why we cannot join our voices to those who say, 'But global warming may not be our fault, or it may not be as bad as some scientists are predicting.' Even if these things have a slim chance of being true, we are not supposed to gamble with destiny by continuing to pollute the earth.

Finally, Jesus was tempted by the promise of power. He knew, however, that power for its own sake is not worth having, and that power won by political scheming or brute force is always fragile and can be lost just as quickly as it was gained.

So let us pray that we may not be led into temptation as we say together The Lord's Prayer. Our Father...

(For the Bible studies behind this entry see the previous post.)

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