But there’s a whole history of those who have taken the idea more literally, and Brook Wilensky-Lanford has provided a highly entertaining compendium of quests to locate this ideal in Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden.
The author hails from a lineage of scientists, and the book is instigated by her discovery, in 2004, that her Great Uncle William, a mainstream doctor, had counted high on his list of passions the search for a physical place on Earth that could be called Eden. “Was it all a joke?” she asks. “Where was the Garden of Eden supposed to be? How were they going to get there?”
Desire to discover this place, coupled with the conviction that such was a legitimate task with a concrete goal, turns out to have afflicted many besides Great Uncle William. There was William Fairfield Warren, the first president of Boston University, who was convinced Eden would be found in the North Pole. Warren was clinging to the pre-Darwinian Christian concept of man on a long slow decline from an original perfection at the Creation; Adam’s Fall was the starting point from which issued this vale of tears, and in order to recuperate the terrible loss of separation from God, one had to get back to that basic starting point. Another Eden-quester was Friedrich Delitzsch, who at the turn of the last century pointed out that not only the Eden narrative but some other choice Old Testament stories, like Noah’s Flood, could be traced to ancient Babylonian sources. His assertion has been widely accepted by biblical scholars since, but at the time it was an apostasy to suggest the stories were not the direct word of Yahweh.
Some of the Eden seekers Wilensky-Lanford profiles are just kooks, but their stories serve to underpin the general and implicit observation of her book, which is that the human mind is capable of all sorts of wild interpretation, and the need to nail down “truth” is often a fundamentally quixotic enterprise. While most of the searchers are looking for something concrete, to basically put a latitude and a longitude on paradise, the Mormons have arguably been more adaptive. After first declaring Eden to be found in Jackson County, Missouri, this location became problematic when the Mormons were kicked out of it. Evincing some impressive stretching of the concept, Joseph Smith located a post-Eden stop for Adam and Eve after the Fall: in Adam-ondi-Ahma, also in Missouri. From this place they were also ejected. In recent years, the Mormon take on Paradise and its after party is that these are ideas, in fact, and not specific places at all.
When she turns her attention to the Creation Museum in Kentucky, with its high-gloss dioramas of literal bible interpretations, Wilensky-Lanford is at her best. She observes that most Eden-asserters have collateral spiritual or emotional agendas attached to their paradise scenarios, but here she finds only the promise that believers will avoid the nasty H-E-double-toothpicks the rest of us are scheduled to suffer for eternity. The creationists, in the end, offer an impoverished view of spirituality. Paradise Lust is a really fun book and begs the question of what we’re looking for, after all.