MARY MAGDALENE IN THE MEDIA:
First, a new essay (via Bible and Interpretation News
), which I find irritating not so much for what it says as for its supercilious tone that implies criticism of the current state of affairs without explaining what's wrong with them or how the author would fix them.
A Quite Contrary Mary (Beliefnet)
Like Jesus, Mary Magdalene is now the subject of a cultural makeover. What agenda do feminist scholars have in mind?
By Kenneth L. Woodward
Some excerpts, with my comments interspersed:
When it comes to Biblical figures, it is not enough to say that every generation entertains notions already imagined and discarded by previous generations. In the case of Mary Magdalene, the news is not what is being said about her, but the new context in which she is being placed--and who is doing the placing and why. In other words, Mary Magdalene has become a project for a certain kind of ideologically committed feminist scholarship. That's the real news.
True enough, and an interesting sociological observation. Woodward discusses these scholars at length in paragraphs that I'm not going to excerpt, but which make a thought-provoking read.
But is not hard to guess what is going on now. For several years I have kept an anthology of selections from the various world religions that on the cover invites the reader to choose from them those that they find appealing and thereby "create your own scriptures." That anyone would package this material, I thought, was indicative of one wind blowing in the mixed weather pattern of contemporary American religion. The operative assumption is that all sacred texts are of equal value and the reader is free to make sacred those that provide personal appeal. (Karen Armstrong, who calls herself a �serial monotheist,� does much the same thing.) It is the ultimate in consumer-oriented religion, of course, and has the added advantage of bypassing the authority of any community as to which texts count as sacred and which do not.
. This is a problem? It should be replaced with what exactly? We live in a free market of religions in which they all have to compete for adherents. People can join whatever they want or make up whatever they want. I like it that way, thanks.
And the next step? That is already upon us in the form of a new book from Harvard's Karen King, "What Is Gnosticism?" which aims at showing the great diversity among Gnostics�true and pluralizing Gnosticism --fair enough--but also at divesting Gnostics of their opposition to orthodox Christianity, thereby dissolving the very category of heresy. In short, if there is no error, then anything can be true. How very American. How inclusive and nonjudgmental. And in this age of postmodernism, so Now. In this kind of environment, even the figure of Mary Magdalene can be prostituted for polemical purposes.
Heresy only makes sense in the context of a specific faith community and the boundaries it chooses to draw around itself. And given the history of heresiology and the policing of heretics, I think the category profits from some serious watering down. I hardly think it will be "dissolved" for those to whom it matters, but I'm thankful that they don't run things anymore - at least around here. There's no danger of any inclusive, nonjudgmental, dissolving of the category of heresy in, say, Iran right now, is there?
Mr. Woodward doesn't seem to get that there is a position between anarchy, where anything and everything can be true, and dogmatic imposition of orthodoxy: letting people use their own critical faculties to decide for themselves what they think is true and what they want to treat as sacred.
I don't always agree with the feminist scholars he is talking about and he makes some legitimate criticisms of them, but I think that last sentence is a cheap and tacky shot.
Second, Karen King replies to some of Woodward's substantive criticisms in "Letting Mary Magdalene Speak"
(also in Beliefnet and also via Bible and Intepretation News). Two excerpts:
Early Christians intensely debated such basic issues as the content and meaning of Jesus� teachings, the nature of salvation, the value of prophetic authority, the roles of women and slaves, and competing visions of ideal community. After all, these first Christians had no New Testament, no Nicene Creed or Apostles Creed, no commonly established church order or chain of authority, no church buildings, and indeed no single understanding of Jesus. All of the elements we might consider essential to define Christianity did not yet exist. Far from being starting points, the Nicene Creed and the New Testament were the end products of these debates and disputes. They represent the distillation of experience and experimentation�and not a small amount of strife and struggle.
One consequence of these struggles is that the winners were able to write the history of this period from their perspective. The viewpoints of the losers were largely lost since their ideas survived only in documents denouncing them. Until now. The recent discoveries provide a wealth of primary works that illustrate the plural character of early Christianity and offer alternative voices. They also help us to understand the winners better because their ideas and practices were shaped in the crucible of these early Christian debates. The Nicene Creed, for example, was never intended to be the full statement of Christian faith�after all, it does not ask Christians to affirm anything in the teachings of Jesus even though they were of fundamental importance to faith and practice. Instead every article of the Creed was formulated as a hedge against views that were considered to be wrong.
Far from suggesting that religious claims are always true and can offer no errors, this perspective insists that communities of believers need to engage critically with their tradition and be held responsible for how they appropriate it. Although nothing can guarantee that people will live wisely and morally, an account that includes all the historical resources of tradition might create a surer basis upon which theological judgments are made. An accurate historical account will not ensure that the figure of Mary Magdalene won�t continue to be prostituted for polemical purposes as she has been for centuries�but it does restore some dignity to this important woman disciple of Jesus.
Finally, on a lighter note, Monica Belluci
, who plays Mary Magdalene in Mel Gibson's The Passion
, has recently been quoted as saying that the movie is very . . . um . . . well . . . Oh heck, go and read it yourself. I have not been able to verify the quote in the Mail On Sunday
. As if Mel didn't have enough controversy on his hands.