Sunday, March 8, 2009

Where I've Been: Project II

After I finished Helen of Troy two weeks ago, I went to the library. I was following up two excellent suggestions from my sister, but as neither of them were in stock, I proceded to rampage through the stacks like a drunken sailor (or drunken English major at least), checking out books as lofty as The Iliad and as earthy as The First Assistant (sequel to the chick lit masterpiece The Second Assistant). When I got them all home, though, I realized that what I really wanted was something like what I'd just finished.

It's a familiar feeling to me as a reader, and most of the time, I wind up being S.O.L. Part of the charm of Donna Tartt's The Secret History is that there is nothing else like that book. Harper Lee, Olive Ann Burns, and Ross Lockridge have written one book each. The latter two are dead now, so there will never be any more. And I've read everything by Fannie Flagg and Tawni O'Dell to date. In this rare instance, though, I had a TBR lurking on my shelves from Margaret George, so I blew the dust off it, settled in, and finished it the other day.

Mary, Called Magdalene is the most surprising thing: a fresh twist on The Greatest Story Ever Told. It almost doesn't seem possible. If you grew up in a Christian nation, the story of Jesus is as familiar to you as the sun in the sky, whether you grew up going to church every day or whether you only hauled your butt there for weddings and funerals. I grew up with the latter tradition and still know the story fairly well. For a time, we were attending candlelight services at a local church on Christmas Eve. I loved the music and the candles, but when it came time to tell the story, I found it thought-provoking. I wondered what it must have been like to live through that. I thought about how awful it must have been to have your baby outdoors in a barn, with the animals. I wondered if Joseph felt ashamed that that was the best he could do for his wife and son, and how odd it must have been to have the shepherds and kings and everybody coming out to see you.

Margaret George must have had similar thoughts, because the book is a very human perspective on the lives of Jesus and of Mary Magdalene. There's only slightly more primary evidence for Mary Magdalene's life than for Helen of Troy's, so this is very definitely fiction. The first half of the book doesn't involve Jesus at all. It describes Mary's life in Magdala, growing up in a religious family that dries fish for a living, becoming a wife and mother at a young age. As with Helen, it's a richly detailed account of daily life during the first century (Mary and Jesus are roughly the same age). Mary's story takes a darker turn as she becomes possessed by demons. They talk in her head, they attack her physically, and they invite more and more of their fellows in until she overcomes her pride and seeks help. Everything fails -- until she meets Jesus, who drives them out easily.

It's at this point that the story becomes more familiar to readers. We meet all of the apostles, we hear the Sermon on the Mount, and we're present for the final, awful betrayal and crucifiction. But we get it all from a very human standpoint. There's jealousy over which of the disciples are most favored by Jesus, although he does his best to quash it. There's a subtle attraction between Mary and Jesus. Judas himself even develops an interest in Mary.

And there's plenty of doubt, confusion and sorrow over what the disciples sacrificed to follow Jesus. One thing I'd always wondered is how the disciples could have been so certain, and how they were viewed by their families and friends. After all, the followers of so-called Messiahs in my lifetime haven't met good ends: they generally wind up drinking poisoned Kool-Aid, serving multiple life sentences for the murders they committed in the name of their leader, and what-have-you. In George's novel, the families of most of the disciples had similar concerns. Mary's family disowned her and kept her from her daughter. Jesus's brother James was furious that he was now charged with the sole management of the family business while Jesus got to tramp all over the countryside. In the case of Peter, it was his eagerness to repudiate his family that caused the permanent rift. There were false Messiahs back then, too, and only over time did people come to follow Jesus.

Many times in the book, Mary and her fellow disciples doubt their ability to keep going. Sometimes they don't understand the message they've been given. Other times, they despair of making a difference at all. Towards the end of the book, in a letter to her daughter, Mary suggests that the true miracle was what Jesus brought out in the people whose lives he touched. All in all, the book is an amazing look at a familiar story, one that I'd imagine would please the faithful as well as semi-agnostics like myself. Winter's not over yet, and this would make an excellent per-Easter read.

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