Week 4, McLaren's Commentary

From Brian McLaren’s commentary on this text (used with permission) found HERE.

Chapter 4. The Drama of Desire


Genesis 3:1-13

Psalm 32

Philippians 2:3-11


Readers with a lot of religious background will bring many assumptions into the Genesis 3 text. Many will assume a traditional understanding of The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which posits “Good” and “Evil” as two fundamental and pre-existing (philosophers would say “ontological”) categories in the universe. Others will read into the figure of the serpent a lot of later theological data relating to the Satan, devil, Lucifer, etc. Readers are free to make these assumptions if they must, but I try to read the chapter more “cleanly,” without importing those familiar assumptions.


My reading in this chapter suggests that the categories of “Good” and “Evil” are not pre-existing, eternal categories. Initially, there is no evil; there is only good. Evil is created when by humans when we defect from or rebel against the good world and good Creator behind it. We choose to disassociate from and objectify “the other” and classify “the other” as evil. In this way, we break out of our fundamental relatedness with God and God’s good world. While God says, “It is good,” we say, “No, we judge this or that as evil.” This break in relationship is the essence of evil.


I intentionally choose to use words like evil and wrong in the text rather than the word sin. This is not because I am trying to soft-pedal or minimize sin, but rather the reverse. In many religious communities, the word sin has come to mean an infraction, often trivial, that puts us in danger of God’s wrath, from which we must be saved. Such a perspective trivializes sin and renders God an unmerciful perfectionist. In We Make the Road by Walking, sin is an act of foolishness, selfishness, and rebellion that puts us and others in danger. God wants to save us from the danger. God’s wrath is not against us; it is against what is against us. God is not a merciless perfectionist judge out to punish us; God is a compassionate and wise parent out to protect us.

This choice to disassociate, objectify, and classify one of God’s good creatures as evil gives the judge or accuser permission to exploit, desecrate and even destroy it. Almost anyone who has ever destroyed anyone or anything would say they were dispensing with something evil, so the diminishment or desecration are preconditions for destruction. Before a man sexually exploits a woman in lust, or a coal or oil company ecologically destroys a mountain and watershed in greed, or an ethnic group or nation colonizes and humiliates another in pride and hate ... the wrongdoer rejudges or revalues the person, watershed, or ethnic group as something less than “good” in the way the Creator valued it.


I doubt this alternative way of understanding sin will appeal to people who have been trained to see God as a stern father and humans as naughty boys and girls who need threats and punishments to keep them in line. Nor will it appeal to people who want to say, “Everyone is good, everything is fine.” But I think this a healthy and wise way to think about the moral “magnetic field” in our universe ... the moral ecosystem that I believe Genesis is trying to convey in its rich imagery and stories.


Again, this thinking is influenced by the work of Fr. James Alison and others in the field of “Mimetic Theory.” It also reflects the interest of “Integral Theorists” and “macrohistorians.” And it exemplifies a literary way of taking the text reverently and seriously without taking it literally.

This brief chapter can’t explore all the possible meanings of these rich, multi-layered stories. For example, there’s a way of reading the text that makes Eve the hero, not the villain. And there are fascinating questions that tease our curiosity. What is going on with God preferring blood sacrifices over vegetarian ones in the Cain-Abel story? Some will infer that there were instructions given about sacrifice that we aren’t privy to. Others may read this story as early evidence that God “chooses favorites,” setting up religions of favor and religions of disfavor. If that’s the case, it’s interesting to note that being favored by God marks one to become a victim, not a victor. It’s also interesting to note that the blood of the victim cries out ... which has a power of its own in the story. And the victor - who is also the murderer - suddenly finds himself fearing that he will become a victim too, and in response, God protects the murderer Cain in a way that the victim Abel wasn’t protected. All of this is to say that superficial readings of the text are all contestable, and there is more going on here than meets the eye of rigid interpreters with a narrow perspective.

The focus on desire and imitation will be a theme throughout this year of exploring the biblical library. It’s important to remember that we’re not saying desire and imitation are bad. We’re saying they are morally significant. We can imitate destructive models or constructive ones; we can live by destructive desires or creative ones.


This emphasis on desire will make many readers think of Buddhism, which also takes desire very seriously. Non-buddhists often misunderstand, I think, the way Buddhism speaks of desire. The desire that is to be avoided is what I’m calling “the desire to acquire,” desire that plunges us into a state of ingratitude and discontent and greed, desire that plunges us into rivalry with others. In this way, the Bible and the Buddha agree: acquisitive desire leads to great suffering.


In Buddhism, the alternative is often communicated as detachment, which isn’t, as I understand it, the utter absence of desire: it’s the presence of a higher desire ... the desire to know contentment, the desire to be free of greed, the desire to live in harmony rather than rivalry with others, the desire, in an ultimate sense, for enlightenment.


Jesus articulates this slightly differently in a different context. But the similarities are not insignificant, nor is the fact that both leaders did not set up a system of doctrines to be mastered and taught, but lived a way of life to be learned and practiced by positive imitation.