Newsweek turns maudlin

Newsweek5 29 06The cover story of the May 29 Newsweek is an oddity. Much of the story is driven by the popularity of The Da Vinci Code (both as pulp fiction and as popcorn movie), although Newsweek dispenses with most of Dan Brown’s alternative reality in a handy sidebar.

The story also is odd in that it calls the Magdalene an “inconvenient woman,” a sort of white martyr of the church’s patriarchy, even while it mentions that throughout church history she has inspired admiration and devotion.

Even in dealing with Pope Gregory the Great’s declaration that the Magdalene was the prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and her hair, Newsweek cannot decide whether the Pope was “attacking” Mary or holding her up as a model of penance:

It was only a matter of time before the Magdalene also came under attack. The moment arrived on an autumn Sunday in the year 591, in a sermon preached at the heart of the Catholic Church. Taking the pulpit at the Basilica San Clemente in Rome, Pope Gregory the Great offered a startling conclusion about the Magdalene: she had been a whore. Before she came to Christ, Gregory explained, Mary’s sins were manifold: she had “coveted with Earthly eyes” and “displayed her hair to set off her face.” Most scandalously, she had “used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts.” Looking out at his audience, a somber mass of monks, Gregory gave Mary a new identity that would shape her image for fourteen hundred years. “It is clear, brothers,” he declared: she was a prostitute.

But it was not clear at all. Gregory’s remarkable assertion was based on the idea that Mary was the unnamed “sinful woman” who anoints Jesus’ feet in the seventh chapter of Luke — a conflation many contemporary scholars dismiss. Even if she were the sinful woman, there is no evidence in any Gospels that her sins were those of the flesh — in the first century, a woman could be considered “sinful” for talking to men other than her husband or going to the marketplace alone. Gregory created the prostitute, as if from thin air.

The pope made his new Mary a reformed whore because he knew that the faithful needed a story of penance that was at once alluring and inspiring. The early Middle Ages were a time of tremendous social tumult — war and disease roiled nations and sent destitute women into the streets. Gregory’s church needed a character from Jesus’ circle who provided an answer to this misery, who proved that the path of Christ was an escape from the pressures of the sinful world. The mysterious Magdalene of the Resurrection story was peripheral enough to be reinvented. Finally, the church fathers were able to put the inconvenient woman to good use.

Newsweek interviews the familiar academic admirers of Gnosticism such as Elaine Pagels and Bart Ehrman. Karen King of Harvard offers some critical words about The Da Vinci Code as too retro:

The current Magdalene cult still focuses on her sexuality even though no early Christian writings speak of her sexuality at all. “Why do we feel the need to resexualize Mary?” wonders Karen King, author of “The Gospel of Mary of Magdala.” “We’ve gotten rid of the myth of the prostitute. Now there’s this move to see her as wife and mother. Why isn’t it adequate to see her as disciple and perhaps apostle?”

The story would have been more informative, and may have even offered a clash of ideas, had Newsweek interviewed Da Vinci critics such as Darrell Bock, Greg Jones, Sandra Miesel, or Amy Welborn.

At least we can be thankful the story doesn’t indulge in hysterical Gospel of Judas-style predictions that Sunday-school teachers will have to rethink the entirety of their message because a Gnostic text preaches Gnosticism.

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  • dk

    The Brown types out to mine the Kabbalah craze and Enochian magic, which gets into all kinds of interesting Jewish and Catholic apocrypha, some of which is referenced in the canonical books. And there are plenty of esoteric medieval and renaissance tie-ins. Using solid primary material and scholarship, you could make a conspiracy book that would be harder to dismiss. If you didn;t present it as fact but as accurately researched and at least plausible, religionists would tear their hair out about all the odd troublings stuff they don’t know about the past and would rather not know about. Like the Cadaver Synod, a real Hollywood moment nobody has ever tapped. Truth is stranger and more threatening than fiction.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd/essays Dan Berger

    I dunno about “threatening,” dk.

    The standard lines are “The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a display case for saints” and “The fact that the Church has survived such a parade of venal idiots seems pretty miraculous, doesn’t it?”

    But stranger, yeah. It’d have been very interesting had someone gone to Jaroslav Pelikan, hat in hand, and asked for his advice on the most cinematic moments in Church history. It’d have made for a lot of scripts, I think.

  • Maureen

    Why would it be troubling? I collect the weird and the nasty moments of church history because I am devout. Church history is fun! It’s freaky! It’s got everything! (Here Comes Everybody, in fact….)

    Chesterton perhaps presents the fun of the wild ride of Christianity best, but the rest of us like it just as well. The stakes are high, but the Lord is a heck of a gutsy player.

  • Hulse Vonn
  • Scott Allen

    Maureen, you’re right, church history is replete with Everybody hauling in their notions and agendas in an effort to steal the genuine article or come up with a convincing counterfeit. Their efforts, and subsequent failures, are a testimony to the worth and invincibility of the Word.

  • dk

    Not necessarily threatening to everyone. But my experience is that just about everyone has a certain historical narrative that bolsters their main beliefs, and it’s often not all that historically valid. (Lots of “seamless garments” we like to believe in with respect to our own church traditions in some quarters.) If you are a modern person with a faith formed in premodern times, critical history (or critical anything) presents special challenges. If you are thoroughly modern and faithless in the traditional sense, there are other challenges.

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