Melvyn on Mary: the big is­sues

The Church of England - - LEADER & COMMENT - Peter Mullen

I have been an ad­mirer of Melvyn Bragg FRS; FBA; FRSA; FRSL; FRTS ever since I read his ro­man­tic novel The Maid of But­ter­mere in 1987. It is a de­light­ful tale from the pre­sen­ter of renowned and eru­dite tele­vi­sion and ra­dio se­ries such as The South Bank Show and In Our Time, and with such strong emo­tional con­tent that we have surely found in Melvyn the Bar­bara Cart­land of the Lake District fells. All this and he still man­ages to con­trib­ute mag­nif­i­cently to Labour Party funds and re­tain such a lux­u­ri­ant head of hair. So I was not sur­prised to dis­cover that a ro­man­tic such as Melvyn has been a life­long devo­tee of Mary Mag­da­lene. In­deed he pre­sented a BBC doc­u­men­tary about the lovely lady at the most sa­cred hour on Good Fri­day. Some of what Melvyn says about her prompts me to ques­tions.

He be­gins by ask­ing: “Was Mary Mag­da­lene a saint or a pros­ti­tute?” I had not thought ei­ther oc­cu­pa­tion pre­cluded the other. It’s rather like ask­ing if she was a saint or a sin­ner; but all the saints were sin­ners be­fore their sanc­tity was be­stowed upon them by God. St Peter for in­stance – the rock upon which Christ built his church – de­nied Je­sus three times and watched him go to his death. I’m sure Melvyn doesn’t share the er­ro­neous opin­ion that saints are peo­ple who are su­per-plus-good by their own striv­ing: as if they made a very spe­cial ef­fort to be­come saints. They didn’t. Many of them were down­right weird. Oth­ers, such as St Paul, were former per­se­cu­tors of Chris­tians. Mary Mag­da­lene was a saint, by the grace of God, to whom much was for­given be­cause she loved much.

Melvyn says that he set out to tr y to find out the true Mary from un­der all the leg­ends and myths. How did he get on? Well, he is very hon­est. He found that the task was “tan­ta­lis­ing and elu­sive” in the course of which he dis­cov­ered only “faint but per­sis­tent tracks.” When I heard him say this, I feared it was only the sort of plea for ex­cuses we are ac­cus­tomed to hear from those who have made for­tunes pre­tend­ing to have found the lost Ark of the Covenant, or even Noah’s Ark it­self but whose ac­tual find­ings turn out to be (to put it po­litely) in­con­clu­sive.

Where I think Melvyn’s com­mend­able en­thu­si­asm spoils his in­ten­tions is when he says, “The sev­eral women fol­low­ers of Je­sus, as close to him as the 12 male apos­tles, have been rubbed out of his­tory.” That is a pre­pos­ter­ous state­ment. Ar­guably, more has been writ­ten about Chris­tian women down the cen­turies than about the men. The Gospels them­selves present the women in a much bet­ter light than the male dis­ci­ples who run away ter­ri­fied for their own necks when Je­sus is ar­rested. It is the women who take him down from the cross and lay him in the tomb. And it is Mary Mag­da­lene who is first wit­ness to his res­ur­rec­tion.

And on this glo­ri­ous fact there are fas­ci­nat­ing things to be said – not least the place ac­corded to women by St Paul con­trasted with that given to them in the gospels. St Paul’s let­ters were writ­ten years be­fore any of the four gospels and yet they make no men­tion at all of Mary Mag­da­lene and the

other women who were com­pan­ions of Je­sus. Yet we find that all four gospels, far from “rub­bing out” Mary, re­in­state her and give her pride of place. The women dis­ci­ples were all might­ily re­spected from the first days of the early church, and Mary Mag­da­lene was given the ti­tle Apos­tle to the Apos­tles be­cause she had been the first to see Je­sus risen from the dead.

Half­way through his won­der­ful pro­gramme about Mary, Melvyn sud­denly seems to be seized by a fit of anti-his­tor­i­cal petu­lance which leads this nor­mally even-tem­pered and even-handed man off the rails. He be­comes quite wild: “What then for the celibacy which has led the or­gan­ised church into so many abuses and crimes and dis­torted lives? What then for the sub­ju­ga­tion of women which has re­pressed and down­graded them so ef­fec­tively for so long?”

I’m not even sure what he means. Is he re­fer­ring to for­ni­ca­tion and ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity among priests? Or child abuse? Is it this al­leged “sub­ju­ga­tion of women” – which ac­tu­ally never hap­pened – that led the church astray? At the very least, it is a strange con­clu­sion for Melvyn to have drawn.

Sud­denly, Melvyn lays aside the af­fa­ble pre­sen­ter’s role and tells us what he really thinks. In­stead of pre­sent­ing Mary, he starts talk­ing about him­self. He men­tions, “…the res­ur­rec­tion which I came to think wholly im­pos­si­ble and the ex­is­tence of a per­sonal God un­be­liev­able.” Oh dear! And is that all Mary’s fault as well? He can’t be­lieve Chris­tian doc­trines but he thinks they make “mag­nif­i­cent metaphors.” On that score, I’m only sur­prised they didn’t make Melvyn a bishop.

And, sure enough, he soon lays his cards open on the ta­ble: “The seven de­mons cast out of Mary have been well-ex­plained by re­cent aca­demics as likely symp­toms of a form of ner­vous break­down.” God bless “re­cent aca­demics”!

And what makes their anachro­nis­tic “ex­pla­na­tion” more per­sua­sive than the gospel’s ver­sion? Yes, mod­ern crit­ics are for­ever telling us that the gospel writ­ers were “men of their time.” What they don’t ad­mit to is that mod­ern crit­ics too are men of their time. When will mod­ern schol­ars, as well as ded­i­cated am­a­teurs such as Melvyn Bragg, get it out of their heads that just be­cause some peo­ple lived a long time ago doesn’t mean they were stupid?

He says, “The gospels are – mi­nus mir­a­cles – rea­son­ably con­vinc­ing ac­counts of a unique man and his fol­low­ers.”

Ernst Re­nan, Ru­dolf Bult­mann: thou should’st be liv­ing at this hour! How can we be rea­son­ably con­vinced by the gospel writ­ers if more than half of their ac­counts are ei­ther lies or fool­ish delu­sions? Would you be­lieve any­one who wrote like that? In fact the mirac­u­lous deeds of Christ and his claims to be no less than the Son of God on earth are the cen­tre and pur­pose of the gospels. There was no air­brush­ing of the real Mary Mag­da­lene out of Chris­tian his­tory. Next to Je­sus him­self, she is the most com­mand­ing fig­ure in the gospel.

“The first day of the week cometh Mary Mag­da­lene early, while it was yet dark, unto the sepul­chre.” Lis­ten to those words, dear Melvyn, and in them you can hear the hotly rac­ing foot­steps of the woman who was closer to Our Lord than any man.

The mirac­u­lous deeds of Christ and his claims to be no less than the Son of God

on earth are the cen­tre and pur­pose of

the gospels

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