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The Passion of Mary Magdalen
Elizabeth Cunningham
Monkfish, 620 pages

The Passion of Mary Magdalen
Elizabeth Cunningham
Born in 1953, Elizabeth Cunningham is a direct descendant of nine generations of Episcopal priests. She grew up hearing rich (sometimes terrifying) liturgical and biblical language. Graduating from Harvard-Radcliffe in 1976, she resisted the temptation to go to seminary to study for ordination to the Episcopal priesthood. The possibility was especially tempting because at the time ordination of women was not allowed. When the church ruled in favor of women's ordination a few months later, she heaved a sigh of relief and went on writing The Wild Mother, her first novel, a radical re-telling of the story of Adam, Eve, and Lilith. She lives with her husband and children in an Enchanted Wood in New York's Hudson Valley.

Elizabeth Cunningham Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

Well, The DaVinci Code movie has come and gone, and conservative Christians have had to find something else to complain about as attacking their faith. In case you've been hermetically sealed somewhere for the past few years, The DaVinci Code is a mediocre thriller about uncovering a Catholic Church conspiracy to withhold the "truth" that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and the son of God has descendants. Ordinarily, perhaps, this wouldn't be getting all that much attention if author Dan Brown didn't claim his fiction is based on historical evidence.

Given that the Bible is a result of human editorship in which, like war, the winners of theological disputes are the ones who get to determine what does or does not go in the official record, it's a little hard to dispute whether Jesus may or may not have married Mary, or even had a sexual relationship, based on scriptural evidence. It doesn't say he did, but it doesn't say he didn't. So-called documentation to the contrary has about as much veracity as, well, the original source material. It's all open to interpretation. The idea of the son of God partaking of the flesh is blasphemous to some; on the other hand, if the whole point of a god taking human form is to experience physical incarnation, and thus better understand his creation, you'd might think it a requisite corollary.

To certain spiritual and political leanings, the balancing of male and female natures into a single divinity is a more attractive theology. It doesn't help matters when established religion ensnares itself in its hypocrisies and scandals in which its usually male advocates prove all too human. Which might have something to do with the popularity of a novel with a premise in which said established patriarchy suppresses the "truth," though Dan Brown certainly wasn't the first to suggest this (see, for example, the Gnostic heresy). Nor the last, if the publishing world sees potential profit in it. Though it hasn't reached DaVinci proportions (and doesn't seem likely to), a recent novel (actually a reprint of a self-published work that pre-dates The DaVinci Code) by Kathleen McGowan presents a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary and subsequent cover-up supposedly based on historical evidence. She should know, because she claims ancestry to Jesus and Mary.

I haven't read this book. I have read The Passion of Mary Magdalen by Elizabeth Cunningham, who makes no claim about providing "truth," but rather employs one of the über-texts of Western civilization to tell an engaging story. Consequently, purely as a storyteller, she achieves more "truth" than all the ones who claim to be presenting it.

Actually, Cunningham's concerns extend beyond Gospel mythology to encompass Roman antiquity, Celtic lore, the cult of Isis and goddess worship in general, primarily the notion of whore-priestess as feminist empowerment. This is The Mists of Avalon approach to retelling myth from a female perspective in which the venerated deeds of the male hero could never have happened without a woman's participation, but which role gets erased by patriarchal hegemony. It's also highly entertaining.

While the Catholic Church has officially ruled that Mary Magdalen was not a prostitute, this general perception underpins Cunningham's premise. Before she became known as Mary Magdalen, Maeve Rhuad was an exiled druid, captured by Romans and sold as a slave into prostitution. The first half of this fairly thick book concerns Maeve's first person adventures both as a whore in the high-class brothel called The Fig and the Vice and as the personal consort of Paulina Cladii (apparently an actual historical figure). Maeve's eventual release from bondage along with some plot foreshadowing ends in a trek to Palestine and the founding of the Temple Magdalen, where whoring is a form of goddess worship. Her reunion with Jesus (the origins of which more about later) then begins the story you might expect, in which the fragmentary mention of Mary in the Gospel stories are expanded to show her key role. For example, that wedding where Jesus turned water in wine? That was the wedding of Jesus and Mary.

The risk of any historical fiction -- let alone one that traffics in religious matters -- is that it's extremely difficult to avoid modern attitudes and language, particularly when your setting is two thousand years ago. It's like in the movie Spartacus when actor Tony Curtis speaks the line of Roman slave Antononus "Are you afraid to die" in a Brooklyn accent... it makes suspension of disbelief a tad unlikely. Cunningham sidesteps this by not even pretending to have her narrator write as if she and the events are of a particular time. Maeve seems to be speaking as some sort of immortal, or at least not time-dependent, entity, who is knowingly translating events into popular idiom and indeed relishes in anachronisms. Which lets her get away with such funny lines as this when the alcoholic Paulina, upset that the wine has run out, is told that Jesus has made more.

Paulina took the cup from Joseph and dipped into one of the jars for herself. Eyes closed, she lifted the cup to her nose and inhaled the bouquet. Then she took a sip, well, more like a gulp.

"My savior!" She opened her eyes and gazed at Jesus with pure adoration. Then she opened her arms to embrace us all. "L'cahim, y'all! Party on!"

That's going to put off some readers, and not just the devout. I find it rather part of the novel's charm. At the same time, it's not just wisecracks (though there are plenty of that) from a decidedly wise ass narrator, there's also some at least semi-serious spiritual speculation, without becoming pompous or pedagogic, or getting in the way of telling the tale. Another pitfall Cunningham avoids is handling the character of Jesus, which she does quite well. (Whether intentional or not, the fact that we have to wait until almost halfway through the book until Jesus appears is itself a nice little trope on the coming of Christ.) Jesus may be the son of God, but he's also the son of Man, and, consequently, subject to doubts about God's intentions for him and a bit scared of the intended outcome. In other words, a very human Jesus. Which is perhaps what makes him more real than the official version.

Of course, in Cunningham's telling, Jesus wouldn't have been anything without Mary/Maeve. That's a part of the mystery that got left out that Cunningham very nicely depicts in a highly amusing, and more soulful way, than the source material.

"Beloved," Jesus said after at least one eternity. "Will you go tell the others?"

"What shall I tell them?"

"Tell them it's all right. Everything is all right. I'm going ahead to Galilee. I'll meet them there."

"Why can't you tell them?"

"They wouldn't be able to see me or hear me. Not yet."

"What makes you think they'd believe me?" I objected. "Hey, just because you died and rose again, does that mean I get all the hard jobs now?"

He burst out laughing. (There is no sound more beautiful than that man's laugh.)

"Maeve, do you know how much I love you? Listen, cariad, I can't explain everything. Explanations are not a good idea anyway. Remember thatů"

Arguably, Jesus also wouldn't have been anything without Paul, and, you guessed it, there is forthcoming volume in the Maeve Chronicles that promises to tell us how, no doubt, Paul screws up the message despite Maeve's best efforts. Actually, The Passion of Mary Magdalen is the centerpiece of the trilogy. The prequel, Daughter of the Shining Isles, presents Jesus's "lost years" -- what exactly happened between the period of his birth and when he started his ministry -- as the start of the relationship with Maeve in druid college, the events of which prefigure the crucifixion. The prequel is currently out-of-print, and Amazon reports prices of $60 and up for used copies. Don't buy them, as publisher Monkfish plans a new edition in April 2007, just in time for Easter.

That'll be a resurrection not only worth anticipating, but one that will even happen as planned.

Copyright © 2006 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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