Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Documentary: Secrets of Mary Magdalene

Last night as I was settling in with my TiVo of the season opener of The Sopranos, my cell phone rang. It was my BFF, and she was seriously excited: there was a documentary about Mary Magdalene on the local PBS station right now! Secrets of Mary Magdalene is a 50-or-so minute look at "the most misunderstood woman in history." Boasting experts such as Susan Haskins, Elaine Pagels, Jane Schaberg and Dierdre Good, the show was not short of academic heavy hitters. I abandoned Tony, Carmela, Janice and Bobby at the lake house, and settled in for a different kind of fun.

But, oh, the cheese of it all. Complete with a breathless, historical-thriller soundtrack, silly-looking recreations (complete with one scene of a rather spoon-chested Jesus kissing Mary on the mouth and another of a tarted up Mary Whoredalene eating GRAPES), and a hatchet-like editing job that allowed none of their experts to really get into the meat of her area of specialization, the whole thing was a disappointment. I mean, does anyone seriously think the anointing of Jesus by the unnamed woman (Hey! NOT Mary Magdalene!) is an enacting of the hieros gamos? I felt like I was reading The Mists of Avalon-- a great read because it's fiction, people, not history!

The documentary had its good points. It did attempt to make some sense of the fact that Mary Magdalene shows up at "every significant moment" in Jesus' life (debatable, but I'll accept it for the moment) and yet her role was downplayed to the point of her becoming associated with prostitution for more than a millennium. It also gave a nod to those who don't want to lose what one expert termed the "therapeutic fiction" of that idea... the approachableness of the saint, the idea that, if she could be a faithful disciple of Jesus, we all can. Now, this is a very Roman Catholic notion, and the same one which leads directly to things such as Mary MOJ Co-Redemptrix theology. But I see the point.

Another wonderful aspect to the documentary was its use of art. It was like what one of my professors called "roller skating through the Louvre." The use of some paintings that are quite well known, as well as many I had never seen before, gave the whole thing a visual richness that was quite pleasant.

I suppose my problem with the documentary boils down to its unwillingness to sort the wheat from the chaff where Magdalene is concerned. Are there not certain things we can say about her definitively? Elaine Pagels shocked me by asserting that, far from cementing Magdalene as apostola apostolorum, the resurrection encounter in John's gospel shows just the opposite-- that Jesus, having not yet ascended, is not commissioning Mary at all. Rather, Jesus (apparently-- I had never read the passage this way) ascends to his Father after this encounter so that he can breathe the Spirit on the disciples when next they meet in the upper room. The end result is that Mary's encounter is inferior to the disciples', indeed, she cannot be considered a disciple at all.

This is not my reading, but I'd hate to have to go toe to toe with Pagels to debate it. I was looking, in this visually sumptuous doc, for some serious analysis, which dribbled out here and there, side by side with choice bits such as "Mary's not a goddess. She's more like a sister." Well, OK then. That's one reading. But my preferred reading is that she is the pre-eminent witness to both crucifixion and resurrection, and therefore a Mother of the church.

But hey. That's just me.

I wonder how Tony and Carmela and Janice and Bobby's game of Monopoly turned out?


Alex said...

Oooh, I wish I had been watching that instead of attending a worship committee meeting and then a property committee meeting. I will have to see when PBS is replaying so we can add it to our Tivo lineup.

Ann said...

Absolutely - I often think Pagels just likes the limelight so says these outrageous things in the guise of scholarship.

Iris said...

I wish I had the ability to be more articulate today- but that just pisses me off, Elaine!

MadPriest said...

My favourite book on the patron saint of the neighbourhood is "Mary Magdalene - Beyond the Myth" by Esther de Boer. Short - but it says all that needs to be said. Dirt cheap second-hand at

In the CofE eucharistic prayer there is a point where the priest says - "we join our prayers with the Blessed Virgin Mary etc etc." I always say "We join our prayers with Mary etc etc." People probably think I'm just being informal but never trust a mad priest - you never know what secret agenda he may be following.

Magdalene6127 said...

Thanks all! And Madpriest, the book is ordered-- much gratitude for the lead.


St. Casserole said...

I'm not sure I would have watched it. Glad to read about the program here.

more cows than people said...

i seemed to have missed all posts on wednesday... helpful review... if i ever have questions about mary magdalene i know who i'm calling...

and umm... guess my greek is shaky... hieros gamos? help...