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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Mary, Called Magdalene

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As some of you know, I'm a Godless Heathen. But I'm inexplicably drawn to books, both fiction and non, regarding religious history, religious figures, or religious doctrine. I find them incredibly interesting from a historical and anthropological standpoint and I think that being spiritually detached affords me a certain objectivity when reading them. I've read quite a few, and my "to be read list" contains countless more. Because of this, it has been suggested that I am "searching", that I have a "need"... a "yearning". Could be. But I prefer to think of myself as a recreational theologian rather than a lost sheep.

Anyway, I've just finished Mary, Called Magdalene, and I thought I would share my thoughts for the benefit of my fellow bibliophiles.

Initially, I found myself completely absorbed by this book. I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the religious beliefs of this period, (namely Judaism) and the zeal with which they followed ritual practices to remain "clean". I also enjoyed learning about the region of Judea and having all the places I'd learned about in Sunday School brought to life as bustling enclaves of industry and commerce. It was interesting to read of Antipas and Tiberias and Caesar; how they ruled by caprice and how their people were subject to their whims.

It pleased me to encounter characters that I knew, such as Zaccheus, and the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof, and Joseph of Aramathea, and the woman with the alabaster jar and to read of them as ordinary people, rather than sketchy figures in a dry religious tome. It gave me a warm fuzzy of familiarity that stayed with me through much of the book.

In terms of detail and facts, I cannot find fault. Obviously, Ms. George did exhaustive research. I'm sure there were instances when she had to rely on her imagination to fill in the blanks, but she did so in a manner that was seamless in it's authenticity.

The characters, sadly, were lacking in depth and interest. I really wanted to read about Jesus the man and I wanted read about his disciples as living, breathing people. And of course, I wanted to hear about Mary's relationship with Jesus, as well as how and why she became branded for eternity as a whore. I did. Attention was given to each of these and the facts were presented painstakingly. But I found the characterizations to be pat, perfunctory and bland.

Strangely enough, the appearance of Jesus is where things begin to go bad.

I expected a strong, heroic, and somewhat romantic figure. I expected to be captivated by him. I expected to be devasted when he met his brutal end. But Mrs. George's character arc does him an injustice by portraying him as little more than your average zealot. He isn't compelling, or inspiring and his preaching comes off as mildly deranged ranting rather than divinely inspired wisdom. I wasn't affected much by her Jesus. I didn't really even like him.

The crucifiction, which I would have thought a pivotal point in the story, was incredibly anti-climactic. It was written in a strangely dispassionate fashion that left me thoroughly unmoved.

Mary alone was fairly well developed and I did get a sense of the woman she might have really been. I felt genuine pity when she was afflicted with demons, joy when at last they were exorcised, and outrage when her family cast her out for choosing to follow Jesus. I felt her anguish at being denied access to her daughter. I liked some of the apostolic elements, particularly the correspondance between Mary and Elisheba, which really underscored the tragedy of their separation.

Reading this book was not a complete waste of time. But it was not the sweeping, engaging and illuminating epic that I wanted it to be. I only paid a couple dollars for it on Half.com, so I can honestly say it was worth the price I paid for it. Nothing galls me more than handing over $20 for a book only to find that it stinks.

I didn't pay $20 and it didn't entirely stink so I guess I came out on top. Make of that what you will and read at your own risk.

6 Comments:

  • At 2:24 PM, Blogger Tater and Tot said…

    I, too, love having Biblical characters brought to life. I am generally more of a reader than a movie watcher, but I have to tell you of a movie that I saw this past weekend. One Night With the King (http://www.8x.com/onenight/) was an incredible movie about the story of Queen Esther. The costuming, the setting, the colors, the actors, the translation of the story, really all of it, was much more than I had expected! I hope you have a chance to see it.

     
  • At 2:28 PM, Blogger Jess Riley said…

    A well-balanced review! You know, I am now suddenly peeved at the good money I shelled out for hardcover books I never even finished. (The Historian headlines this list.)

     
  • At 2:46 PM, Blogger Rock the Cradle said…

    I'll head to the library for this one, then. But first I need to check out The Gnostic Gospels. Are you familiar?

    I finally read your Godless Heathen post and felt like yelling "SISTER!" In the non-religious sense of course.

    I posted about my own agnosticism a while back as well:
    http://rockingthecradle.blogspot.com/2006/07/white-baby-girl-jesus.html

    Always glad to get recommendations for reading in this matter. I find our need to create meaning endlessly fascinating.

     
  • At 3:29 PM, Blogger jen said…

    didn't entirely stink = damn good review.

     
  • At 4:24 PM, Blogger sunshine scribe said…

    As a fellow godless heathen ... I was really interested to read your take on this. Thanks.

     
  • At 7:15 PM, Blogger bubandpie said…

    I remember when I studied The Idylls of the King in school, much criticism of the poem centres on Tennyson's inadequate characterization of King Arthur. Instead of being good and noble (as he's clearly intended to be), he comes across as peevish and self-righteous. Good characters are incredibly difficult to write, I think. Villains, tragically flawed heroes, sympathetic characters who win our pity more than our admiration - all these are far easier to write than a pure, noble, passionate, good man.

     

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