Elizabeth Cunningham,
The Passion of Mary Magdalen
(Monkfish, 2006)

Although baseless, 2,000 years ago Pope Gregory and subsequently, some church fathers and artists depicted Mary Magdalen as a prostitute. Elizabeth Cunningham, author of The Passion of Mary Magdalen and the descendent of nine generations of Episcopal priests, has also chosen to imagine Mary Magdalen as a prostitute.

Since the church fathers' motives in calling her a prostitute was to take away her power as an important figure in the life of Jesus, it is disappointing that a woman of the Christian tradition, Cunningham, would write a novel based upon this foundation. The women's movement has made great strides in the past decades, but this book does nothing to advance it. It's possible that the author hopes to cash in on the current interest in whether Mary Magdalen and Jesus were married. This may or may not be true, but portraying Magdalen as a prostitute is a medieval idea.

As the novel begins, Maeve, a Celtic woman, is naked on the slave auction block in Rome, where she is purchased for the purpose of becoming a prostitute. She ties her first customer up with a rope using Celtic knots, and they both enjoy the bondage. She has long red hair as artists have often shown her. In this book, friends often call her "Red."

The cover of the book is Mary Magdelen in a grotto, a suggestive oil painting by Jules Joseph LeFevre 1876. I suppose this sort of kitsch sells because people are attracted to the sensational. Kitsch comes from a German word meaning "thrown together." Cunningham throws together pagan and Christian stories with abandon, putting her own spin on them until some may believe they have been thrown a curve.

The author does for the New Testament what Anita Diamant did for the Old Testament in The Red Tent, a feminist fantasy of how things were, a "what if" situation that writers of romance novels are fond of, complete with raunchy details.

Our heroine, Maeve, had been raised by druid mothers, a clan of warrior witches, and she has some occult powers. Her background makes her attuned to the flight of birds, the salmon of wisdom, sacred pools and springs. Mary Magdalen's association with Christ is shown in the Bible, but many questions remain about her true nature except for what is told: that she was His devoted and faithful follower.

The book is a work of fiction that associates Celtic druid mythology and the Egyptian goddess Isis with Mary Magdalen of the New Testament, causing a confusion of goddesses. Much of the dialogue is crude. There is a lot of modern slang. She has Biblical characters such as Peter using words that cannot be used over modern airwaves. Some of the happenings include lesbianism, and a temple of sacred prostitutes in Magdala founded by our "heroine." By page 444 she and Jesus marry.

There are jarring anachronisms: Maeve thinks of Christ's temptation thus: "Yahweh killed all of Job's family and afflicted him with boils and made a wager that Job wouldn't curse him. I bet there's plenty of back room deals between those two that we don't know about: a naked light bulb overhead, the air thick with cigar smoke and whisky fumes, the sound of cards being shuffled and dealt."

If you are a Christian interested in Mary Magdalen, you might find the book offensive. If you were looking for the sacred feminine in this book, you may be disappointed. I certainly was.

by Barbara Spring
3 June 2006

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