A Quite Contrary Mary
Like Jesus, Mary Magdalene is now the subject of a cultural makeover. What agenda do feminist scholars have in mind?
BY: Kenneth L. Woodward
Something similar is, I think, happening with the Gnostic texts that support poor Mary Magdalene in the role thrust upon her as a leader of the church--and, if author Lynn Pickett is to be believed, as "Christianity's Hidden Goddess." At least the minority of feminist scholars pushing the Gnostic texts as equal in standing to those of the New Testament can argue that at an early period in Christian history they were available to Christians and occasionally read. From that it apparently follows that if you don't like the established canon, create one of your own. If the Gospel of Mary is just as authoritative as, say, the Gospel of Mark, then of course Mary Magdalene can be whatever today's feminists want her to be.
Were I to write a story involving Mary Magdalene, I think it would focus on this: that a small group of well-educated women decided to devote their careers to the pieces of Gnostic literature discovered in the last century, a find that promised a new academic specialty within the somewhat overtrodden field of Biblical studies, on which they could build a career. They became experts in this literature, as others become experts in the biology of the hermit crab. But unlike those who study marine decapod crustaceans, some of them came to identify with the objects of their study--in some cases, perhaps, because they had no other religious community to identify with other than that formed by common academic pursuit; others perhaps because they were in rebellion against whatever authoritative religious community nurtured their interest in religion in the first place, still others because they found in the Gnostic texts the kind of affirmation of inner divinity that their own New Age inclinations led them to.
It may turn out, of course, that what we are witnessing is the nurture of tender intellectual shoots in a rarified academic hothouse. Most feminists in the field of Biblical scholarship do sober work. Who, after all, is going to celebrate a Mary Magdalene put forward by a professor like Jane C. Schaberg of the University of Detroit-Mercy, author of a book claiming that the Mary the mother of Jesus was the victim of rape?
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.