As an aspiring novelist, I’m always thinking about how to write stories and characters who reflect my faith, without being so overtly religious that only Catholics would want to read it. This means that these days, I read fiction with eyes toward craft.
Late in 2010, I read two novels about Mary. In the past, I’ve been disappointed by books about Mary because they treated her with such profound reverence that we couldn’t ever really identify with her as a person. I’ve found her flat and uninteresting, which seems a crying shame.
These new novels have quite the opposite problem. The Handmaid and the Carpenter came highly recommended, but like many others, I was disappointed. I was prepared to see a less immaculate Mary than the one I have grown up with, but I was sorry to find Joseph portrayed as so filled with doubt.
I found myself distracted by language. All the characters spoke contemporary English…except the angels, who spoke King James. This has always annoyed me–it seems to me that if an angel is going to speak to you, it will be in your own language, not in some thither and thy Shakespearean language. But maybe that’s just me.
Most of all, it was the end of the book that bothered me: a Joseph on his deathbed, still doubting; a Mary who had born a number of other children to him. Perhaps I’m the uninformed one, but I understood that passage about Jesus’ “brothers” to be a matter of translation, that the actual word in the original language signified “kinsmen” more than “sibling.”
So when I stumbled across Girl Mary in the library, I hesitated. But I really would love to read a book that deals authentically with Mary while still respecting Scripture and tradition, so I checked it out. Girl Mary was really interesting to read, a real page-turner about the interactions between Mary, Joseph, Pontius Pilate (who is a superbly interesting character, interacting with them long before his moment of hand-washing shame).
On the other hand…the story takes on a very different shape than the one we know. The story is told through a lens of sexual identity, both human and divine, and although I liked how the characters were searching for their purpose as “made in the image of God,” I was uncomfortable with the portrayal of God as masculine, incapable of understanding femininity.
The thematic progression was interesting and ended in a pretty satisfying place, but it seemed to limit God to something, I don’t know…less than. Mary calls down lightning on her enemies. And of course, Mary and Joseph have a wedding night, during which Jesus is conceived. It was a very well-written book, but somewhat disturbing on a faith level.
The thing that strikes me most in both of these attempts to novelize Mary is that contemporary writers can’t seem to wrap their brains around virginity. Sex is so integral a part of our modern psyche that the culture at large, and sometimes we ourselves, lose sight of the fact that sexuality is more than having sex. As a Catholic, as a mother, as a writer who wants to use prose to make the world a better place, this bothers me. I want to write the story that will make people smack themselves in the forehead and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Maybe someday I’ll manage it. More likely not. In the meantime, I’ll keep looking for an authentic Mary in fiction.
How about you? Have you ever found one?
Kathleen Basi is a stay-at-home mom, freelance writer, flute and voice teacher, liturgical composer, choir director, natural family planning teacher, scrapbooker, sometime-chef and budding disability rights activist. She puts her juggling skills on display at www.kathleenbasi.com.