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Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary


Just for starters, let’s talk about getting the record straight.

For example, before you go see The Da Vinci Code—you already know all about it anyway—rent Peter Mullan’s 2002 movie, The Magdalene Sisters. It’s a depressing-as-hell film, but unlike The Da Vinci Code, it’s based on facts.

The Magdalene Laundries or Asylums were begun in 19th-century Britain and Ireland, and run by the church, as part of a movement to rehabilitate prostitutes by teaching them a trade. Over time, though, the aims changed and the Laundries became, essentially, places of hard labor, abuse and virtual imprisonment for unwed mothers and “impure” girls.

But apart from the scandal and the sadness of such a sad chapter of women’s history, there is the trouble with the name, “Magdalene.”

These Laundries were named for Mary Magdalene, and why not? Ever since Pope Gregory the Great, in 591, had conflated her identity with the unnamed adulteress whose stoning Jesus prevents, history has cast Mary Magdalene as a harlot. In art she is the fetching-looking one, with red hair and revealing clothing. In hagiography, she is the matron saint of reformed prostitutes and other fallen women.

Imprison a couple thousand girls in asylums named for a woman falsely cast as impure and it’s not worth more than a passing reference in encyclopedias. Write a book which embroiders on the age-old legend of Mary Magdalene as the mother of Jesus’ child and you’d think Rome was falling all over again.

The fuss over The Da Vinci Code is absurd. If Dan Brown hadn’t made so much money for such a poorly-written book, I would feel sorry for him.

After all, what does it really come down to? The book doesn’t make any claims. The movie, in which Tom Hanks is uncharacteristically hunky-looking and Audrey Tautou wears the kind of high heels that let you run faster and jump higher than the other kids, doesn’t make any claims either.

Unlock the Code! exhorts the movie’s trailer. But the movie is not the stuff to challenge either faith or history. It’s no more than a spirited set of games, a romp through Paris, a fast-and-loose embroidery on the ages-old Mary Magdalene cult popular in medieval France.

And it ends up asking the same question as the old Clairol hair-color ads: Did she or didn’t she? (Only her savior knows for sure.)

According to the medieval French legend, Mary fled for France with Lazarus, best known for having Jesus raise him from the dead and tell him to “come out,” and his sister, Martha, best known for her home-keeping skills. Plus ca change, plus la meme chose.

It was there, in Provence, that Mary Magdalene was able to live the life she wanted for her family, pre-dating Peter Mayle by many centuries. There are other Magdalene legends, too. In one Eastern Orthodox tradition, Mary travels to Ephesus with Jesus’ mother, where they continue their ministry as teachers.

In another legend, she goes to Rome and meets with Emperor Tiberius, who won’t believe the story of the resurrection; he said it was more likely for an egg to spontaneously turn scarlet than for a man to return from the dead. So Mary Magdalene picks up an egg and right before his eyes it turns flaming red!

So why all the uproar over The Da Vinci Code? I saw it with a friend who is not Catholic but claimed it was offensive to Catholics and who doesn’t practice any kind of traditional faith, but thought it gave Christian faith pitifully short shrift.

I don’t see that in the movie and I never did in the book either. It plays with a legend and it seems to me that legends are the stuff that kindles faith. Proof has never really meant much; it’s stories that convince people.

For women, it’s kind of tiresome that the chief stories that have made Mary Magdalene most noteworthy over the centuries are related to her gender: Was she a harlot? Was she a reformed harlot? Was she Jesus’ wife? Did she bear Jesus’ child? These legends overshadow the facts that she was an ardent follower of Jesus, an active participant in his ministry and probably a woman of some wealth.

And in The Da Vinci Code, more time is spent debunking the tradition of her as a prostitute than there is in amplifying the gospel’s record of her as the first witness to the resurrection—and the witness who tells the incredulous apostle Peter about it.

But The Da Vinci Code is no pernicious treatise of lies. All those Web sites and books and study guides designed to shield the believer from Dan Brown’s bankrupting of the faith are missing the larger point: Faith isn’t a matter of setting the record straight; faith is a matter of setting wonder in motion.

And in spite of the book’s bad writing and the movie’s over-seriousness, if The Da Vinci Code starts people wondering the great “what if?” questions, then it’s jump starting the possibility of faith in a way that some churches can’t do in a month of Sundays.

—Jo Page

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