Sure, National Public Radio did not publish novelist Colm Toibin’s novella, The Testament Of Mary; it was published last month by Scribner. But NPR seems to love it. No, make that: NPR really loves it! There was a very sympathetic November 13th feature, “‘Testament Of Mary’ Gives Fiery Voice To The Virgin”, then a glowing November 14th review, “A Vengeful Virgin In ‘The Testament Of Mary'”, then an excerpt from the book, and (finally, for now) an interview with Toibin, “A New ‘Testament’ Told From Mary’s Point Of View”, posted today. I’m not sure how many NPR pieces there are about the Pope’s new book, but I doubt it’s more than three, at the very most.
What is Tolbin’s gimmick? And, yes, it is a gimmick, no matter how literate, thoughtful, deep, anguished, and intellectual NPR tries to make it sound. Here are some of the pertinent bits of information, gleaned from the ever-informative NPR pieces:
In his new novel, The Testament of Mary, Irish writer Colm Toibin imagines Mary’s life 20 years after the crucifixion. She is struggling to understand why some people believe Jesus is the son of God, and weighed down by the guilt she feels wondering what she might have done differently to alter — or ease — her son’s fate.
Toibin grew up Catholic and, for a time, considered joining the priesthood. This changed upon his arrival at university, however, when exposure to new people and ideas soon led him to lose his faith. “I suppose I had been moving toward it without knowing,” Toibin tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross, “but, yeah, it went very quickly.”
It was around this time, too, that Toibin acknowledged his homosexuality. Growing up, he says, “there was no word for it,” and he describes his feelings as “absolute confusion.” It was after meeting an openly gay friend at university, he explains, that “I moved very gingerly from between being a very conservative boy from a small town and being out with some friends.”
And from the review:
The work is pointedly not called a gospel — good news — but a testament — a giving witness to, an attestation. “I was there,” she says. And, having seen the Crucifixion, the Mother of God tells the apostles: “I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it.”
Much of the elegance of this novella comes from its language, which is poetic but spare, much like cryptic music of the Gospels. And, as in the Gospels, understatement and implication are used to great effect. Most expressively, the name “Jesus” is never used — not once. Neither is Christ. Instead, Mary calls him “my son” or “him” or even “the one who was here.” Part of this is her pain — she cannot bear to say the name — but part of it is also a refusal to contribute to the narrative of the man named Jesus Christ.
Toibin leaves the most important questions unanswered: Did he cure the sick? Raise the dead? Turn water into wine? Mary only hears stories.
And from the author himself:
“I am interested only in her voice and what somebody like her might have said had the time arisen 20 years after the Crucifixion to speak for once. But those large questions over what’s right or wrong, or over should things have happened one way or the other really don’t interest me. I’m concentrating entirely on the tone and texture of this woman’s voice on this particular day.”
That said, Toibin knows his Mary may not sit well with some Christians.
“I do realize that this is not ideal if you pray to the Virgin Mary, as a lot of people do, or if you worship her,” he says. “On the other hand, a book is closed; you have to open it to read it. And also, I am a citizen of the European Union and indeed I am in the United States at the moment where the freedom to imagine and publish is one of the things we have all worked for over a number of centuries. And so I am insisting on my right to imagine how she might have spoken on a given day. But I would also insist on someone else’s right not to open the book”
Where to start? I’ll keep this short, as I am teaching a Bible study tonight—a study in which we actually read the Bible and take it seriously as both a historical text and an inspired, God-breathed text. I mention that, of course, since Toibin doesn’t seem to give much thought to either. Like Dan Brown and a million Brown clones, he is apparently content to deconstruct away to his heart’s content—and for what purpose? The fact is, there is a huge elephant in the room (well, several elephants, but I’ll stick to one): if Jesus simply died and never rose from the dead, Toibin would not have any material to deconstruct for the simple reason that what we know about Mary is most likely directly from her own lips (especially when it comes to Luke’s Gospel). And does anyone really think the early Christians would have held Mary in such high esteem is she was a bitter, angry woman who denounced them? Or, more to the point, that the early Church would have even existed if Jesus had never risen from the dead?
In short, without having read his book, to me it certainly appears that Toibin has not, in fact, taken the Gospels seriously, nor has he spent any time taking seriously the historical scholarship about the Gospels (compare that to Benedict XVI, who continually cites the works of various scholars throughout his Jesus of Nazareth books). In addition, he doesn’t even seem to understand some basic things about Marian devotion, as evidenced by the reference to people who “worship” Mary (I knew all about those people before I was Catholic; oddly enough, I’ve not met any of them since!).
Toibin might be a far better writer than Brown (really, who isn’t?), but at the end of the day, he tears a figure out of historical and theological context and hijacks her for his own ends, acting as if he is the sensitive and enlightned soul while insulting the devotion of those who love Mary, tossing aside the serious work of scholars, and directly assaulting the person of the Virgin Mary. And, no surprise, NPR is there to laud him for it.
UPDATE: Another thought, related to my remark about the Pope’s new book: here are some actual headlines that ran after the third Jesus of Nazareth book was published: “Killjoy pope crushes Christmas nativity traditions”, “Pope sets out to debunk Christmas myths”, and “Pope bans Christmas”. None of this was true. In fact, the headlines are essentially slanderous; they completely misrepresent the book and the specifics of what Benedict wrote. Meanwhile, Toibin’s novella, which might be even less historically accurate than The Da Vinci Code, is being praised up and down as a profound work of literature. The NPR review, for example, concludes: “Lovely, understated and powerfully sad, The Testament of Mary finally gives the mother of Jesus a chance to speak. And, given that chance, she throws aside the blue veil of the Madonna to become wholly, gloriously human.” This is sophistry of the most disgusting sort, as the novella is not about the mother of Jesus having “a chance to speak”, but a former Catholic attacking both belief and fact without concern for anything but his emotional vendetta. It is simply sickening. And we mustn’t overlook that this isn’t, in the end, just an attack on the Theotokos, but on Jesus Christ and his Church.