PLEASE DO NOT EXPECT A STRAIGHTFORWARD BOOK REVIEW, AS IN ALL MY READINGS I PLACE THEM INTO THE CONTEXT OF MY OWN LIFE AND EXPERIENCE AT THE MOMENT I AM READING THE BOOK, SO READ ON AT YOUR OWN RISK
The only thing I did of a personal nature on this October 2006 trip to Paris was to make one more visit to the Church of the Madeleine in Paris and, in every little spare moment, to read “The Expected One” by Kathleen McGowan (Touchstone, New York, 2006).
Regarding the Madeleine, I had always been fascinated with its central work of art, three angelic, winged beings seeming to be bearing aloft a woven basket upon which a very healthy looking, divine figure, Mary Magdalene with one breast bared in the Greek/Roman fashion, sits on her knees looking entranced as she is being carried into heaven.
On the wall behind and slightly above her, a mural depicts her next to Christ with her alabaster jar and other paraphernalia related to her richly anointing Jesus, a great symbol of her devotion and love.
And finally and magnificently, on the ceiling above, a famous painting shows her entering into Christ’s heavenly presence and being welcomed as the first among the apostles, still being borne aloft by angels, and with a sign saying that in her life she loved much..
I tried to picture all three of these works of art, and since my ceiling photo was not very good, I received permission from a Parisian photographer to display his photo of that ceiling, as long as I linked it back to his website (he sells his photos, they are magnificent, look at the Magdalene one (click here to go to the page where I posted it and see for yourself).
There are other noteworthy works of sculpture and painting in this church, including my good friend Joan of Arc (click here to go to my version of her life story written for young people) in a life-sized sculpture wearing her armor, and brandishing both her sword and her halo, a rather incongruous combination, but it all makes one think outside one’s comfort zone of convenient assumptions, and it reflects an uncomfortable reality about violence and religion that I also met during my recent visit (November 2006) to the Royal Monastery at San Lorenzo de El Escorial. There the switch between religious iconography in art, and the artistic celebration of war fought in the name of the very same religion struck me especially hard when I saw among these celebratory masterpieces one depicting the conquest and ‘pacification’ of my home town in the Netherlands, my birthplace, by the armies of Philip II of Spain. Another good reminder that religion and peace do not always go hand in hand.
The perfection of horror in the realistic portrayals of Christ’s suffering, especially on the cross, were also a good reminder that even in the realm of the Gods there is a requirement for and thus allowance for violence. Some of the portrayals were gruesome in their realism of how it must have been, and perhaps this is a good thing compared to the often stylized portrayals that make one almost comfortable with the instrument designed to inflict days and nights of torture leading to a very slow and painful death that is the cross. One wonders, however, if the message coming from such actions on the part of a God is not a mixed one: if receiving pain for others is a virtue, if self-sacrifice is the ultimate virtue, then receiving wounds and death in furtherance of that God’s influence is a virtue, and there we have the basis for crusades and other inhuman cruelty. Self-inflicted pain and suffering was/is also seen as a virtue leading to divine reward and approval and even gifts of the spirit, in this same tradition as well as others. It all causes one to think that perhaps the religions of the world reflect the world rather than some sort of perfect ideal usually styled “heaven.”
But now I am mixing up my thoughts from two trips, one to Paris, one to El Escorial in Spain which I intend to discuss separately. (If you just want to see the pictures from the Spanish visit and not read about it, click here).
Getting back to Paris and the Madeleine (who is also magnificently depicted in art in the Spanish royal monastery, of course), currently there is a great swirl of speculations about Mary Magdalene’s relationship to Christ. It caught my interest years ago when I read Baigent and Leigh’s “Holy Blood/Holy Grail” and later Margaret Starbird’s “Woman with the Alabaster Jar,”(click here to go to my short review) among others. More recently, this speculation was fanned into a mass phenomenon that has led to a new tourism boom for sites named and described in the Dan Brown fictional bestseller and movie “The Da Vinci Code.”
Building on this, a new bestseller expanding this same theme is Kathleen McGowan’s novel assigning three children to Jesus and Mary, a novel called “The Expected One” which I read in its entirety on this trip and enjoyed immensely. It is very well written. BUT, there was one small piece at the very, very end, after the story itself, that rubbed me the wrong way.
This recent set of fiction books is a very convincing mix of fact, fiction, and speculation wound up into thrilling action with characters that take on a life of their own. But alas, it is fiction, the world is simply not what it seems in these wonderful works of word-art. At least that is my opinion.
OK, I’m keeping you in suspense, sorry. The one thing I really did not appreciate about this wonderfully written and imagined book (it deserves its bestseller status) is its hint, after the novel has ended, that the author could have published this novel as a non-fiction work. McGowan hints that her research and her interviews with people in the know has shown the Mary Magdalene legacy in Southern France to be history, and that there may still very well be royal blood from Jesus and Mary flowing through many, many veins around the world. Her vision of this is well illustrated in the novel. Now, it turns out, she nor only tells the tale wonderfully well but she also believes its underlying premise is historical, factual!
I disagree, much as I want to believe this too because it is a very romantic notion she develops very well, and I like it as that, but that does not make it history. I liked the novel itself immensely. Nearer the beginning I thought she was getting carried away with this royal/divine bloodline business, but I was very pleased as the story progressed that she diffused that aspect by making and illustrating the point that this royal blood is quite widespread and does not make its bearers into anything special, except perhaps that in some cases it may make them more receptive to revelation and intuitional insights and may even enhance their artistic abilities. Well, that was agreeable enough and allowed me to thoroughly enjoy the story (I am a blood-peasant through and through, hence my sensitivity to the issue).
I do not believe that the holy/royal blood backbone of the novel is historical. Is it plausible? Sure. McGowan does a masterful job weaving a thickly tapestried and fascinating, even heartwarming tale on this theme. And she does it in such a way that it respects the few scriptural boundaries there are, and also explains many scriptural enigmas in such a way as to make them more understandable and humane by making some who are considered bad (in normative Christian interpretations) good, and some who are considered good, not so good, but she paints them richly as simply flawed characters, not as people who are evil at their core, as people just like us in other words. I like that. It is great story-telling, but it is not history.
McGowan’s book is roughly in the same genre as Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” but goes well beyond it in its treatment of the Mary Magdalene legacy in France and surpasses its painting of credible characters in which you invest emotions such as love and sympathy and understanding as you read it. I really enjoyed Dan Brown’s book, as well as the movie closely based on it, but it is fiction and makes no pretense to be history. (In fact I have enjoyed all four of Dan Brown’s books). In her sober look at the history behind the Dan Brown “The Da Vinci Code” book/movie, called “The Real History Behind the Da Vinci Code,” Sharan Newman (Berkley Books, New York, 2005) has a chapter on Mary Magdalene’s history (pp. 150-159) that suggests the French aspect of her life was a new idea created in the tenth and first documented in the early eleventh century, that before this myth was developed and spread, she was said to have perished in Alexandria, Egypt (where McGowan also has her sojourning for a while). Did she have a child by Jesus who could have moved west? I like to think so, I like romantic notions of this sort, but who knows?
I suppose what bothers me is that this claim to have written reality in the guise of fiction reminds me a little of the Joseph Smith creation of “The Book of Mormon.” That book was also written to weave a new tale into the loopholes of accepted versions of what is usually considered to be scripture. The Book of Mormon also answer a lot of scripture’s enigmas in a very clear way, and this helps convince the readers that this is a continuation of the process that has given us all of scripture, therefore it is just as scriptural as the Bible and just as trustworthy, if not more so because it is a more recent revelation. I think that part is correct actually: it is as scriptural as the Bible, but it is not history. The Bible (Old and New Testaments) in my view is historically correct as far as major places, times and events go. But its claims to divine inspiration and its claim to be a witness to supernatural events are the reflections of the experiences of its authors, their interpretations, in other words, and are therefore just as good, or just as incredible, as The Book of Mormon’s supernatural-event accounts. Of course the Book of Mormon also lacks a credible historical basis, but this is not important, it is a blend of history and fiction just as the Bible is, and the one having a firmer grasp on the historical parts does not make its supernatural claims any more credible.
Having once been a true believer in both the Bible and the Book of Mormon and the latter’s author as a prophet and revelator, for two decades of my adult life in fact, and having over a similarly long time come to change my mind regarding the credibility of all aspects of that belief, I am a bit sensitized to anyone retelling sacred history and claiming any special status for that retelling. It is how new religions and cults come to be.
So is McGowan designing a new religion? Is she a charlatan? Not at all, she is a master story teller and if a new religion, or a cult within an old religion, forms around her masterfully told her-story, so much the better: patriarchy will have no place in the new cult or religion and it promises to be a loving and thoughtful place to hang one’s spiritual hat. I am all for it, it would have as firm a basis as any other religion based on claims to special insight, plus it would loosen the burden of millennia of patriarchy and violence (emotional and physical) in the name of the patriarchal vision of God. It might be a great spiritual source of strength and healing for its adherents.
So what does this have to do with the Church of the Madeleine and its three depictions of the Magdalene? This church tells me there is already plenty here to contemplate about the special relationship between Jesus and this particular Mary, without worrying about how many children they had together. It is completely fair to meditate on these great works of art and to speculate about her special relationship with Jesus. No doubt the Gospel of Thomas saying Jesus loved her more than the other apostles and kissed her often on the mouth is not easily dismissible once one studies this art and its implications: these artists were of a similar mind regarding her and Jesus’ loving and intimate relationship.
The more orthodox viewpoints about Jesus and the curtailed non sexual nature of his humanity casts both him and her necessarily into a role most of us would feel uncomfortable with. It does not quite place them in desert huts as hermits, but it approaches that ‘ideal.’ The ideal that is reflected in the sad case of Saint Francis of Assisi continually tormenting his body to make it not want to be with a woman and have a family with her as his body apparently did. Somewhere along the way the picture of Jesus as an itinerant teacher surrounded by women as well as men has been lost. McGowan weaves this scripturally correct observation into her story and then tells stories from within that group of women, as assuredly there were such stories, adding these her-stories to his-story, in essence. Very well done, and very plausible, but not history because, as her character says several times, history is written by those in power who survive longer than those who are not in power and do not.
History is not written by those not empowered, and after Jesus, Christianity under Paul (or perhaps after, but still in his name) put on a Roman facade and put women back in their place so as not to offend the sensibilities of Roman men whose women stayed at home: Paterfamilias became reflected in the church’s structures and operating modes, in the East and the West.
McGowan weaves into her story this historically undeniable but overlooked point very skillfully: What, after al, is really wrong with Jesus and Mary M. being intimate? Nothing, unless somehow you have equated holiness with maleness and see all female intimate contact as subtracting from a man’s holiness. Of course the whole virgin birth myth partakes of that equation, and I was surprised, yet not surprised, to see McGowan never taking that one on straightforwardly. She talks about Jesus’ genealogy as if it were a straightforward inheriting from a set of parents. I was glad she did not make it a point one way or the other. If she did make a point one way or the other, I congratulate her on her ability to hide it well, because I missed it.
I am not a believer (but also not an atheist), so why am I walking around with fascination and awe written all over me, gawking at and meditating on art in cathedrals and churches and reading (fiction and nonfiction) books about Christian origins? I have posted reviews of nonfiction books as well on this same topic. Because it tells me much about the human condition and its power structures and its essential myths. And whether we are atheist, agnostic or true believer, we live by myth as McGowan rightly said several times. Our interpretation of reality, of life as we experience it, is our very own myth. Our truth is myth. All fact tends toward becoming illusion in our interpretation and explanation of it, most all our concrete ideas and notions of fact are myth. True myth, sure. True in its context of space and time and true to our perceptions and needs.
What does that mean? If your beliefs and your personal or organized religion sustain and feed you and make you a more effective and happier being in this world, then that religion and belief system is ‘true’ for you, and it is no one’s business to try to change your beliefs to mimic theirs. I do not believe in missionary work. I used to, but not anymore.
I do believe religions have an innate obligation to lay out their beliefs for outsiders to examine and to adopt if they feel it fits them. Nothing wrong with conversion when it is self motivated. And making people aware, which is the function of advertising, is legitimate. But to set out to convert someone to the ‘truth’ to ‘save’ them is what has led to a lot of bloodshed in the past and does so even in our time.
So, what do I think of Christ? He was the son of Mary and Joseph and felt himself called to bring his fellow, suffering, enslaved and abused Jews into a new way of seeing themselves and of experiencing God within themselves. I really like his teachings, for the most part, and where I do not I suspect someone has added something that does not belong there. Very convenient of me, I know.
So how do I feel about Mary being at least his girlfriend and perhaps his wife? It makes me more comfortable with the man, I can relate to him better. How do I feel about those two having offspring? I have no negative or positive opinion. If it happened, it happened. But I do not believe in any nobility, divine or otherwise, being passed on genetically: blood is blood, there is nothing intrinsically holy or even superior or inferior about it. People of all walks of life may be holy, in the secular sense of being very good persons who act with a great degree of compassion and love in all they do. That may reflect upbringing, and some genetic predisposition, but it has little to do with the pedigree of ones longer term genealogy.
Why this attitude? Because of my peasant roots: I am a peasant in the Medieval sense, and do not feel in the least inferior to anyone else in the world because of their family connections. I feel inferior in intellect to many, and stand in awe of the accomplishments of many. But that has little to do with ‘blood.’
So why do I read nonfiction and fiction works that reek of blood-superiority? Because they are fascinating. Some even thrilling. Besides I am under no obligation to believe what I read, neither are you, even reading this!
Never forget that is so. No one has a right to tell you what you must believe, no one speaks for ‘God’ or writes the ‘words of God’ in this world. No one ever has. No one ever will. That is my belief. All the human-made evil that is in this world is ours, all the human-made goodness in this world, and there is lots of it, is also ours. And my daily experience tells me that most people are good, some very good, but there are some who are not good, to put it very mildly.
Did the New Testament’s Paul say that all the evil he did was his, all the good he did was God in him? Nice rhetoric to put on a guise of humility with, but I disagree, obviously, unless the interpretation is that God is in us all and we are, collectively, all a part of God. Paul said as much at one point: in him we live and move and have our being. But that makes God us, thus evil as well as good. Fine by me. It is a different paradigm but one that is quite hopeful: goodness is in us, we have the power in us to make the world a good place for life, a good place to be alive. We are doing that quite well in some times and places, where people live well enough to set and work out their own vision of what their lives can and will be.
My world view and feelings about religion have a lot in common with McGowan’s. She is also critical of what Paul did to Christianity in the name of revelation. McGowan also lobbies for a different religious way of being, not seeing in others the power to save or damn us, thereby obliging us to a miserable obedience that historically has led to all sorts of abuses in both the religious and closely related secular sphere (when those two spheres get too close, watch out for your civil liberties!) McGowan, if she were to build a religion around her new vision of Christianity, she would no doubt be singing what I have always considered to be my song: “Let’s work on spreading a safe environment of opportunity to ‘be’ and to develop our being, across the globe. Let’s apply our intelligence to managing our selves, our biology as well as our intellect and our spirit, so as to improve the experience of being alive here for all that accompany us, oh so temporarily, on this unique ball in space.”
McGowan caused me to wonder if she was going to hint, as I was getting well into her book, that the world should bestow special recognition or even privilege on those of certain bloodlines. But I was satisfied that she also believes that this is an absurd notion, one that can easily become a root of evil, as it has been in the past when it meant privilege for a few and virtual slavery for others. We have been there, it was horrible for us peasants, let’s studiously avoid going back.
One of the documents that plays a role in Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code,” and one that I have a suspicion is also in the mind of McGowan when she writes in her Epilogue/afterword about having seen documents on the topic of the Magdalene bloodline, is in fact a document called “Les Dossiers Secrets” that Sharan Newman (“The Real History Behind the Da Vinci Code” pages 68-69) suggests was created in the 1960s (!) for the express purpose of tying someone’s family into this myth for the purpose of getting recognition for himself and his family as being doubly royal: (1) royal in terms of being of French noble stock and (2) also being directly descended from God! Potentially this could lead to a great coup and change history! Egyptian and Mayan kings ruled under such potent claims and were believed. Belief was mandatory unless one could accept slavery or death without too many qualms. But does writing it and filing it in a national archive make it a credible historical document? No.
Go read the book(s) I mentioned here, they will enrich your imagination, and your imagination is perhaps one of the more important sources of joy in this life. Imagination does not diminish or whither with age or depend on your income level or your toy collection or your bloodline.
Relationships are the other source of joy in life, they change over time but remain a source of joy as long as you live. One of the things I really liked about McGowan’s book is that through her imagination she restores Jesus’ and Mary M.’ and others’ humanity. She restores and amends their iconic, limited life experiences and retells their stories as whole human lives. Now their re-imagined lives are filled with the type of joy we also know in our lives, the joy of being well-loved by someone who understands and loves us back, emotionally, spiritually, and, yes, physically! This filling out their lives brings them closer to our experience, and hence our understanding. Wherever it is that McGowan’s story and history match or fail to match, and we will never really know, what is sure is that there was more to the human aspects of the lives of the two key historical people. And McGowan fills out that side of the story expertly in her very finely told story.
And that is the end of my trip report/book review for this October 2006 trip to Paris, a business trip. But as the next page in this series of book (a new book by Anne Rice) and art related observations shows, my contemplation on this subject did not end with the end of this trip.
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