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.

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