After Eden image

After Eden

In March 2016, 23 volunteers entered ‘Eden’ – 600 acres of remote countryside on the western coast of the Scottish Highlands. British TV channel, Channel 4, was conducting an experiment in creating a new utopia. The participants were cut off from the outside world and left to fend for themselves for a year, all the while filmed and monitored by the production company.

Initially the plan had been to broadcast regular episodes on the community over the course of the year, but as things began to unravel Eden quietly disappeared from the schedules. Then, earlier this month, Channel 4 broadcast a summary of the experiment over five evenings. Watching these episodes felt almost as much an endurance exercise as taking part in the experiment itself but I put myself through it. 

Rather than utopia, Eden panned out exactly as Christian theology and anthropology would have predicted: the essential sinfulness of human beings quickly displayed itself as conflict predominated over cooperation. Like watching a car crash in slow motion there was a gruesome fascination about the way group members squabbled for control, tensions rose and factions formed.

Of particular interest was the way in which sex differences quickly asserted themselves. The greater physical strength of the men led to a group of men pushing for them to do ‘manly roles’ (chopping wood, fishing) while the women were expected to do ‘womanly roles’ (cleaning the camp). As modern women, the women objected to this sexual stereotyping, but without the social structures provided by modern society struggled to resist it. The men began to talk about the women in a degraded, sexual, manner; which again was unsurprising for men raised in a pornified culture but removed from the constraints of politically correct speech society imposes. Without the institution of marriage the men had no investment in honouring the women. Without children to nurture the women had no investment in being housekeepers of the camp. In a telling scene a woman yelled at one of the men, “You are the most horrible group of men I have ever met.” The reality is they probably weren’t – they were just men, who had been taken out of the normal constraints of society and were revealing what most men actually are. Only ten participants lasted the whole twelve months of the experiment and the consensus was that rather than Eden, a hell had been created. (A good description of the background to the show and its gory details can be found in this report in the New Yorker.)

Eden offered a fascinating insight into the confusion our culture experiences about what it means to be a man or woman. The fundamental differences between the sexes were undeniable, even as the women (and a few of the men) tried to deny them; while the absence of generally accepted norms about sex roles created massive tensions in the group. A common argument in modern culture is that differences between the sexes are essentially social constructs; Eden demonstrated that it is in fact social constructs that allow sexual differences to be minimised. Without social structures, assumptions, and modes of shaming for nonconformity, when men and women are exposed for what they actually are the truth is plain: men and women are different emotionally and physically, but identical in their slavery to sin.

Watching Eden was not an enjoyable experience but it did make me think again about how the local church should operate. Churches are meant to be little colonies of heaven; they are meant to display something of God’s shalom. The only way they can do this though is when members of the community recognise and repent of their personal sinfulness and seek to live together in conformity to Christ. It is when we have done this that together – men and women! – we are able to know peace and cooperation rather than conflict and competition. Eden was unpleasant but it was also a demonstration of why we need the gospel. That wasn’t the target Channel 4 was shooting at but the truth always has a way of making itself known.

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