If the world was saved by the death of Jesus, was it worth all the effort?
Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (see review here and here) is the latest in long line of English literature based on material from the Bible. It follows in the tradition of Lew Wallace, Robert Graves, Jenny Diski, Norman Mailer and others who have reworked Bible stories. What emerges is not necessarily the Church’s teaching. The material is explored as human experience rather than divine dictat.
Tóibín’s Testament tells the story of Mary, the mother of Jesus. It is both a novella and a play. In the latter, recently finishing its season at London’s Barbican (see review here) actress Fiona Shaw plays a Mary half-crazed with grief and severely critical of the position that she has been placed in by her son and his followers.
Tóibín’s is clear about his intention. Unlike the New Testament authors, he gives Mary a voice. He visualises her living in exile resenting the custody of her ‘guardians’. He tells her version of the events of the last few days of Jesus, using mainly material from John’s gospel and, in particular, the story of Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead.
As the play/novella continues, Tóibín is clear that he has an agenda. The Church has controlled the story of Mary. She is a victim. She never was a faithful follower of her son. She was taken away from the scene of his cross and lived the rest of her life deeply resentful of what his death has done to her. And most of all, Mary does not want to be a figure of adoration for giving birth to such a person.
In his (re)telling of Mary’s story, Tóibín offers respect to the Mary tradition whilst at the same time subverting it. In fact, you need to know something of the New Testament story, and subsequent Christian interpretation, to consider fully what he is saying. For those familiar with the bible material, it soon becomes clear that he has invented new characters, reordered events and constructed new ones. This helps him to make his point, allowing him to explore the relationship of Mary and her son in a fresh way. It permits him to dwell on a feature of Mary’s life which I personally have never considered: her grief over the death of Joseph, her husband. Her grief is for him. Not her son. And in its rawness she questions why her son – her son who raised Lazarus – did not raise her husband?
So I discover I had to go to the theatre in order to hear that question.
Does this mean it was not permitted by the Church? No; but it does suggest that it is sometimes easier to go outside the circumference of the acceptable to discover new, or if not new, different truth about what one’s considers as familiar.
This provokes an important decision for someone like me. I am a person who believes the canon of scripture has a sacred significance and am part of a tradition of people for whom it is a holy book. So what am I to do with this use of biblical material and traditional Christian interpretation?
I do not need to subscribe to popular iconoclastic attitudes to Christianity to allow that the Bible may be the Church’s book but the Church cannot control its interpretation. Its material is known. The tools of its interpretation have been various from the system of analogy favoured by the early ‘Fathers’ to the lens of feminist perspective which informs the likes of Toibin. We live in a time when authorised explanations and ecclesiastical institutions do not control the meaning of what is read or heard.
So there are choices to make. For instance do I allow the re-ordering of bible material for a contemporary author to make his point? New Testament scholars can do the same and justify their choices on linguistic or theological grounds – so can a contemporary, secular author do this for literary reasons? I believe so.
Another choice is more fundamental. Where do I consider that the voice of God can be heard? Or putting it another way if the Holy Spirit is like an uncontrollable wind will she not blow where she wishes? Or another, will not the challenge of the Gospel emerge where it will – church or no church?
For me The Testament of Mary was in the end not about playing fast and loose with the stories of Jesus. Rather it was about what you and I believe is the nature of God.
From beginning to end it is dealing with a fundamental question: if the world was saved by the death of Jesus, was it worth all the effort?
The character of Mary is unconvinced. It was not worth it. She states this at the beginning and the play ends the same way. The world is not worth what she had been – and is being – put through. She believes her son was plain stupid. He and his ‘misfit’ followers dupe themselves and others. She lives in a world without Grace; in a world incapable of living in Grace even if it is offered the salvation of Grace. And so, although this is not about God it is in fact all about God. Only a vicious malicious God could have created such a place and only the silly believe it is worth saving. Can there be any other conclusion?
There is a ‘yes’ to the question. But I wonder whether the Church has enough Grace to offer that ‘yes’ and be convincing.
Photo credit: Testament of Mary Brigitte Lacombe