Harper Lee & Mary Magdalene

Reality & Myth Embedded in Go Set a Watchman

Wittingly or otherwise, the 89 year-old author Harper Lee has set off a firestorm with the release of her first novel – Go Set a Watchman written in the mid-1950s but released 55 years after her second book To Kill a Mockingbird. This new release turns the story of family patriarch Atticus Finch inside out.

Instead of the color-blind attorney of To Kill a Mockingbird, we now see an older Mr. Finch with clear vestiges of continuing if not hardened racism. All coming at a time when a now 21st century America that we thought might be post-racist  is again experiencing repeated instances of violent interactions between law and order and the nation’s African-American communities.

The story is fascinating not only for the re-take on the fictional Mr. Finch as villain (or perhaps realist), not hero. It’s fascinating on another level as well – for the interplay between the fictional child Scout now (or Jean Louise as adult) and the author Ms. Lee. A real life tale of mystery, perhaps intrigue.

All of which brings to mind a similar tale from two thousand years back – that of Mary Magdalene, devotee of one Jesus of Nazareth.

Parallels?

The details including the timing of the two stories are worlds apart. Yet there are interesting similarities:

  • It is difficult to know where the real world of Harper Lee merges with or diverges from the fictional world of Scout/Jean Louise. Similarly, it can be challenging to separate the reality from the myth of Mary Magdalene. Was the Magdalene the prostitute whom Jesus saved from stoning or was she the well educated daughter of a prosperous family who was possessed (or mentally ill) till encountering Jesus?
  • The men in the respective stories are both larger than yet inextricably part of the world in which they live. Are they heroic, or with feet of clay? Is Atticus a racist, realist, or hero? Is the Jesus of the beatitudes the same as the wild man who berated Jewish leaders, rampaged through the temple mount, belittled a non-Jewish woman, and cursed a fig tree? Was the man at the tomb just the gardener – or a resurrected friend?
  • What is the relationship of the women to the larger than life men in these stories? At the end of the day, is Jean Louise disowning or accommodating the vile characteristics she sees in Atticus? For Mary, is she merely a devoted acolyte (and financial supporter) or also romantically attached to her savior? Could there be any truth to the persistent rumors that they may even have been married?
  • And while there may be sexual overtones, isn’t the real action all about gender politics? Jean Louise standing up to father and boy-friend – both respected community leaders? Mary taking on the post-resurrection skepticism of the male apostles?
  • Bottom line, is Jean Louise the new hero or is she overly self-righteous and unaccepting? Is Mary Magdalene saint or sinner?

The Meaning of Mary

For a bit more perspective, let’s dive a bit deeper into the story of Mary Magdalene. Most likely, she came from the town of Magdala on the southwest coast of the Sea of Galilee.

After Jesus reportedly healed her by exorcising seven demons, she became a devoted follower. Along with other well placed women, she also may well have helped finance the travels of the carpenter from the Nazareth village and his entourage of male disciples.

The Magdalene was a doer, most clearly evidenced by her initiative to attend to the grave of her master at the earliest opportunity after death and the intervening Sabbath. This is where she takes center stage.

After the initial grave site visits, the disciples apparently return to their homes. Only Mary stays around the tomb site, where she then has her encounter with the assumed gardener, actually Jesus.

So, it was to the Magdalene that a newly resurrected Jesus first appears, as recorded by John’s gospel saying: “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

The conflict between the women including Mary and the disciples can be found in the New Testament gospels – especially in the accounts of Mark and Luke indicating that their accounts were received by the eleven disciples as “idle tales.” It takes the fragmentary non-canonical manuscript of what is today known as the Gospel of Mary to offer a more detailed counterpoint to male-centric Christianity. For this, let’s travel back to the resurrection – this time as told by Mary.

Mary’s account begins mildly enough. Upon issuing a commandment to “preach the good news of the domain” (much as is recorded in the four gospels), Jesus leaves them. The disciples “were distressed and wept greatly”. It is at this point that Mary takes command:

Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all and addressed her brothers: “Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts by irresolute. For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise his greatness, for he has joined us together and made us true beings.” When Mary said these things, she turned their minds toward the Good, and they began to ask about the words of the Savior.

Following this, Peter is reported as saying to Mary: “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than any other woman. Tell us the words of the Savior that you know, but which we haven’t heard.” Mary then begins to “report to you as much as I remember that you don’t know.”

After speaking of the secrets of what she terms the seven Powers of Wrath, Mary falls silent. At this point, gender surfaces as the real issue:

“Andrew said: ‘Brothers, what is your opinion of what was just said? I for one don’t believe that the Savior said these things, because these opinions seem to be so different from his thought.’

After reflecting on these matters, Peter said, ‘Has the Savior spoken secretly to a woman and not openly so that we would all hear? Surely he did not wish to indicate that she is more worthy than we are?’

Then Mary wept and said to Peter, ‘Peter, my brother, what are you imagining about this? Do you think that I’ve made all this up secretly by myself or that I am telling lies about the Savior?’

It is Levi (Matthew) who finally comes to Mary’s defense, rebuking Peter for his “constant inclination to anger” and for “questioning the woman as if you were her adversary.” Mary carries the day, with Levi leaving to “announce the good news” of a resurrected savior.

A New Paradigm?

The Gospel of Mary (at least with the manuscript fragments as currently available) ends here. Clearly, this non-canonical (and deeply heretical) gospel provides the most open assessment of the tension between the sexes that appeared early in the history of the Christian movement.

From both New Testament and non-canonical sources, the weight of the evidence available is clear. Without the Magdalene to carry the message of resurrection, there would be no Christian church. For women, the message of this gospel also is one of hope; Mary prevails over the objections of other prominent male disciples.

For Jean Louise, Go Set a Watchman comes with reconciliation between father and daughter. After all the disagreement and hostility, Atticus tells his daughter: “I’m proud of you.” And he dismisses the harsh words spoken in the heat of the battle with the comment: “I certainly hoped a daughter of mine’d hold her ground for what she thinks is right – stand up to me first of all.”

What is the legacy that Mary of two millennia past and Harper Lee of the 20th century have in common? It resides in the victory of a voice of justice, a woman’s voice that prevails over the male-centric voice of tradition, no matter whether right or wrong.

Neither succeeded in full. Mary Magdalene kept the nascent Christian movement together at a point when all was falling apart at the seems. But any hopes of keeping her man were lost in the process.

Harper Lee (aka Scout, Jean Louise) gains the recognition of Atticus that justice needs to prevail over continued segregation. But at the cost of a revolution – transitioned to a slow (perhaps unending) work in progress. As the sins of racism continue to haunt a nation known for freedom – even into this current 21st century.

These are tales of reality interwoven with myth. With Mary, the biblical and non-biblical evidence is clear that she brought the early disciples back together when they were ready to call it quits. But, just how special was the nature of her individual relationship that may have made all this possible?

With the contending works of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, we are left to ponder the inter-relationship of the author with the subject(s) of her stories. Who speaks for whom? Will the real 89-year old Harper Lee please tell us what we should really think?

Epilogue: Reality & Myth in Go Set a Watchman

We end on the note that Harper Lee’s first (and most recently published) book is titled from a passage in Isaiah 21:5-6 of the Hebrew Scriptures, with the directive to:

Prepare the table,
Set a watchman in the tower,
Eat and drink.
Arise, you princes,
Anoint the shield!

For thus has the Lord said to me:
Go, set a watchman,
Let him declare what he sees”

Obviously, Harper Lee has some affinity for the Hebrew Scriptures. So did Jesus, for whom Isaiah was clearly his most quoted source.

In the novel, the watchman (the declarer) is the grown-up Scout, Jean Louise. She calls her father and community to task – with a little help from her Uncle Jack. In the New Testament gospels, a case can be made for Mary Magdalene as the watchman who declares that the movement isn’t over but just getting started – with a little help from her risen savior.

And that’s it for now – for the rest of the story.

——————–

For a more complete account of Mary Magdalene’s role in the life and resurrection of her savior, click http://jesustheheresy.com/marymag.html

To check out our full web site, click www.jesustheheresy.com.

Advertisements

Campaign Tips from Jesus 2016

In October 2012 – at the height of the last presidential campaign – we offered seven (7) campaign tips from none other than Jesus of Nazareth – God in human form. While it is yet early in the 2016 electoral campaign, now may be a good time to go back to re-learn what Jesus said and did – all in the context of the next installment of America’s quadrennial drama.

7 Tips From Jesus

At the outset, let’s put a potential objection to rest. Jesus ran with the objective of losing, not winning – of virtually guaranteeing his execution. For a non-elite coming from out of the center of Jewish action, he pulled it off masterfully. For today’s campaigners, whether the objective is conquest or defeat, do it masterfully. So here, forthwith, seven tips from the master:

1. Keep it simple

Jesus mastered the KISS principle. Consider his most famous campaign speech – the Sermon on the Mount. As recounted by the gospel of Matthew, the first words out of the Jesus’ mouth were “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Like today’s putative front-runner, Hillary Clinton, Jesus ran a values campaign – centered on addressing the social, economic and religious inequalities of his day. Perhaps unlike Mrs. Clinton, Jesus recognized that corrective action comes from within the person as well as from sources external to individual resources, evidenced by his statement that “the poor will always be with you.” Conversely, Republicans have yet to figure out how to coherently address the widening gap between the haves and the have nots – perhaps the underlying domestic flash-point of the 2016 campaign.

2. Tell stories

Jesus used stories (known as parables) to convey complex ideas in terms to which everyone could relate. Even if he skipped a lot of detail in the process. The parable of the prodigal son reflects a universal theme and offers a clear message of hope for the future. The moral of the story is that God the father is always on the lookout and ready to accept his wayward children back home, no questions asked. Always a second chance.

Our presidential aspirants need stories that are real, that resonate, and that offer a hope worth reaching to achieve in the next four years (eight at best). In the midst of this nation’s greatest turmoil, Abraham Lincoln was the premiere storyteller – often to the chagrin of those around him. But his words and his actions – enigmatic though they often were – resonate to this day.

3. Stay on message

But be prepared to flex. It seems that Jesus had a set of stump speeches which were repeated in town after town, but varied to fit the needs and interests of the local listeners. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount becomes Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Matthew’s Jesus begins by saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” Luke’s Jesus says yet more simply “Blessed are the poor.” Amazing how the meaning can shift so radically with the deletion (or addition) of just a couple of words!

The message on everyone’s minds is the future of the great American experiment known as Obamacare. Not likely to be repealed but gobbling up 50-100% more of the share of gross national product than occurs in most other western nations.

With the late June Supreme Court decision, the now worn Republican message of repeal falls flat – and everyone knows it. Democrats can savor the victory but in the absence of fixes to further increase coverage, increase transparency, and make this affordable for the nation, our ship may yet be sunk. The message needed is the “how to” of the fix – and why others should come along for the ride.

4. Don’t suffer fools

Jesus certainly wasted little time with on those who aimed to bring him down for reasons of their own personal gain. He went after the religious and social leaders of his day. He was unafraid of using tough language when required, for example, calling out the leaders of his Jewish world as follows: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! … Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?”

A little bit of Chris Christie or, God forbid, even Donald Trump comes through in the seemingly off-hand remarks of this 1st century savior. But Jesus also backed up his ad hominem personal attacks with substance. In the encounter noted above, he was criticizing the way in which the supposed leaders of his day emphasized trivialities rather than paying attention to “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”

So, don’t be afraid to take the opposition to task. Be succinct in pointing out failures that are at odds with American values of justice and equality of opportunity. And take the blow-back in stride.

5. Go long

Even in advance of football season, most of us know what this means. Perhaps not as dramatic as the “hail Mary” pass, but sell the crowd on a vision for the long term. For Jesus, his kingdom was “not of this world.” The long bomb is the pass play into the kingdom of heaven.

Our candidates are more earthly bound, but the ability to clearly articulate how tomorrow can be better for us and our kids is pivotal to a successful campaign outcome. Seven years ago, Barack. Obama sold us on the “audacity of hope.” Before that, the great communicator Ronald Reagan used the metaphor of America as “shining city on a hill” to depict his vision for a country ever “stronger,” “freer” and “in good hands.”

Americans may yet yearn for a common vision, despite deep cynicism. The candidate who can communicate an authentic vision for this as-yet early 21st century period will stand out among the crowd. What will the vision be? Hard to tell but likely something akin to our nation as an ever more diverse and changing melting-pot, the rewards of work, and care for others at home and abroad.

6. Time the peak

Jesus had an incredible (if surprising) gift for timing. He know when and how to pull in a crowd and when and how to escape through a crowd unnoticed. He seemingly timed the climax of his career with a triumphal entry surrounded by the praises of the crowd into the streets of Jerusalem – only to be put to death a week later. That result could be viewed as disaster except that, for Jesus, death and resurrection were really the point of it all.

With a presidential race that looks for one party like a marathon and the other like a coronation, the trick is not too peak too soon and certainly not to peak too late. To get to the right place at the right time, humility helps. Picture Jesus’ masterful entry into the holy city on a donkey. Who on the D or R side of the field could pull this off?

7. Wrap it in love

As in 2012, if there is an Achilles heel for the current crop of candidates (whether the few on the Democratic side or the many on the Republican), this is it. The Democratic heir-apparent stands aloof; the Republican wanna be types are engaged but narrowly focused – like the horse that can see neither to the right nor the left.

Look to the example of Jesus. When arrested, Peter showed momentary bravery by slicing off the ear of the of the high priests servant. Jesus healed the ear. When crucified, Jesus prayed that God would “forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

And after resurrection, to whom did Jesus pay special attention? To Mary Magdalene who had ventured to attend him, to Peter who had betrayed him, to Thomas who doubted him.

Which of the 2016 crop will show this type of caring? Look for the candidate who will be gentle and magnanimous, sharp but patient, whether in victory or defeat.

——————–

To check out our full web site, click www.jesustheheresy.com.

And the Walls Come Tumbling Down …

Greece has defaulted on its debt to capitalist democracy. And the U. S. Supreme Court has now effectively dismantled pivotal underpinnings of western civilization by declaring same sex marriage legal in all 50 states.

What does this all mean for those who call themselves Christians in this 21st century removed from the Christ’s sojourn on this earth? Four observations:

1) Going forward, marriage will be defined by cultural whims du jour, rather than by what were once perceived as moral absolutes. Hold on to your seat belt for the agendas of polygamy, marriage between blood relatives, adult-youth liaisons, relations with non-humans (from the animal to robotic kingdoms) to periodically surface – for freedom of choice and equal rights under the law. Some (perhaps most) won’t make it far in our lifetime; others may surprise.

2) This drift to moral relativism continues to be driven by global technology promising even more startling cultural and political transformation in the decades ahead. It all began with the “pill,” for the first time disconnecting sex from procreation. In the years ahead, it may become possible to order up the right partner doing the things loved most as sex slave ex machina. And child-birth will bear less and less relationship to parentage – whether from purchased embryos or cloning a la Dolly the ewe. Who will make the decisions of what is acceptable versus out-of-bounds? And, for how long?

3) Those who have persecuted in the name of Christ will now get a taste of their own medicine. Expect followers of the way to garner little respect through the turmoil ahead – for two reasons:
a) The biblical case against homosexuality is overstated. There is no record of Jesus having anything to say (pro or con) on the subject. However, he clearly railed against divorce – a vice practiced all too often by those professing Christianity as well as those of other persuasions.
b) Like some of other faiths, Christians have spent the better part of 1,700+/- years devouring their own. When there is no love between fellow travelers, what can one expect from those further from the fold?

4) Bottom, line, marriage has a future only to the degree that the product can be demonstrated superior in a marketplace of ever more diverse and often personally satisfying alternatives. Those who espouse the heterosexual way can retake competitive ground only by living lives that yield demonstrable benefits for marriage versus the myriad of other lifemode options now available and preferred. Frankly put, same sex lifestyles are those with the sizzle today. Heterosexual relationships increasingly feel old-school, dull, and dissatisfying. We’ll know marriage is on its way back when lifelong, monogamous heterosexuals again emerge as the heroes rather than the doormats of the show.

For a more in-depth biblical reflection on an earlier U.S. Supreme Court ruling of two years past on same-sex marriage, see https://jesustheheresy.wordpress.com/2013/07/28/reflections-on-the-u-s-supreme-court-same-sex-marriage/

And for a tour of our full web site, click www.jesustheheresy.com