Not Your Mother: An Autopsy on “The Testament of Mary”

Colm Tóibín’s book won’t tell you anything about Mary. It will tell you plenty about its very sad and very angry author.

With zombies all the rage (pardon the pun, 28 Days Later fans) there are all sorts of helpful instructions out there for dealing with them. One illustration of sundry methods for dispatching zombies pictures a man with a gun pointed at a drooling old woman shuffling toward him. His hand covers his face as he weeps in grief and hesitation. The caption reads, “Shoot, you fool! She’s not your mother anymore!”

I think of this as I contemplate the latest piece of Catholic-hating detritus to wash up on our shores from the Emerald Isle. The past 20 years have not been good to Irish Catholicism. The Isle of Saints and Scholars, having withstood Viking hordes and centuries of English oppression and sectarian strife, could not withstand the most insidious attack the devil has sent against the Irish: economic prosperity. Has corruption in the Church aided and abetted the vicious turn against the Faith there? Sure. Abusive and corrupt clerics bear very serious responsibility for the hostility to the Church in large measure.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Sin—very serious sin—has always been present in the Church, and Catholics who knew and understood their Faith did not therefore abandon it. Still less did they try to solve the problem of human corruption by telling lies about God, Jesus, and Mary. Time was when Irish Catholics knew that God, Jesus, and Mary were their best friends in a mad world.

That’s gone now. Ireland sold its soul for a brief period of Celtic Tiger prosperity and got two things in return: a media class that is now totally cloned from post-Christian England’s culture of casual anti-Catholic blasphemy, followed by a bursting economic bubble that has left it with neither man’s friendship nor God’s consolations. All it has left is spite, blasphemy—and profound sadness.

Into the midst of this devolution of the Country That Used to Be Ireland comes Colm Tóibín, the issues-filled author of (ahem) New Ways to Kill Your Mother, to deliver unto us what NPR breathlessly calls “A New ‘Testament’ Told From Mary’s Point of View”: his novella The Testament of Mary. It’s a book that fills a profound void—in the twice-annual need of God-haters in corporate publishing to find some sort of media phenomenon that will insult and blaspheme Christianity for Easter and Christmas.

Tóibín is the man of the hour, doing for Mary what Dan Brown did for Jesus: turning her into a blank screen upon which the author can project current cultural and personal obsessions for 30 pieces of silver. Tóibín, it will shock no one to know, is an ex-Catholic homosexual who “once contemplated the priesthood” (that clause is mandated in the standard corporate biosketch of every embittered ex-Catholic screed writer), but jettisoned his faith when he went to college and came out as gay.

In terms of content, the book is a by-the-numbers hatchet job written in sensitive, spare, and poetic diction for the delectation of UK and New York Chattering Classes and dipped in a bath of relentless, willful sadness and bitterness. The basic premise is that it has been 20 years since the crucifixion, and Mary is one nasty hag, sounding for all the world like a nun in iron grey, short-cropped hair and sensible shoes who has seized the microphone in a We Are Church group process breakout session and is now on the third hour of an extended free association monologue, grousing bitterly about the patriarchy. 

Bravely facing the applause of the UK and New York media, Tóibín advances the absolutely original thesis that Jesus was totally misunderstood by his corrupt, repressed, knucklehead disciples, who got all het up about him for no particular reason and did the whole “Son of God” schtick after his death. Tóibín’s Mary lives alone in Ephesus, relying on these disciples for her daily bread, marinated in judgmental bitterness, and filled with sullen contempt for everything. This Mary has no belief in her son’s divinity, natch. He is described as something of a charismatic kook, propelled along to his doom by his “misfit” disciples, whom Mary can’t stand. They are a pack of losers in need of a guru who would, today, be living in their moms’ basements, viewing porn on the Internet while scowling at women they pass on the street and muttering, “Slut!” Mary is stuck with them—they are her “guardians,” since she has nothing. She is kept under a sort of cultic, Scientology-esque house arrest while devotees, who inexplicably regard her as a figure of reverence instead of the sullen old crone she is, come to feed her and babble their Moonie encomiums of devotion. Meanwhile, Mary can’t bring herself to say Jesus’ name. At one point we have an exchange in which some dumbbell disciples show up and are told they can’t sit in a chair she deliberately leaves empty for her son (recalling the Jewish tradition of the empty chair for Elijah at Passover). They, of course, resolutely declare that Jesus will return. She bitterly and stubbornly declares he will not, and the interview concludes with Mary pulling a knife on them and threatening to come in the night and murder them as they sleep. The dumbbell disciples are nothing moved by this altercation and go cheerily on their way in blissed-out idiocy. We are to believe that from all this, the cult of Mary—the beautiful saint and consolation of sinners—arose. And they say atheism requires no faith.

She tells various stories familiar to us from the gospels, but covers them all with a sepulchral gloom. So, for instance, we get the story of the raising of Lazarus, but when Lazarus comes back to life, he howls in anguish at the curse of life restored and remains a sort of enfeebled invalid. For this Mary, death is “fullness.” Everything, but everything, is covered in a black pall. Life is a horror, death is a goal, but Jesus’ death is one more occasion of pessimism worthy of a cadaverous 19th-century German philosopher.  Tóibín’s Mary is an enemy of almost the entire human race, and she includes herself in the orbit of her contempt because she ditched the crucified Jesus out of fear for her own precious skin. She hates herself, the disciples, and the whole lie of the gospel. Her son’s crucifixion was not “worth it.” The resurrection, we are told, is the fruit of a dream she and Mary Magdalene somehow magically shared, which the pious head-case John took to be a sign that Jesus was somehow still alive. At the end of the book, pious Christian morons show up to repeat, like autistic savants, various passages of scripture or creedal formulations, or to yark at her about her virginal conception of Jesus (another lie, we are assured). They are impervious to her fierce denials.

The only respite she has from her unrelieved contempt for all things Christian is her pagan neighbor Farina, with whom she goes to worship Artemis, the goddess of the hunt who is “radiating abidance and bounty, fertility and grace,” there in the great temple of Ephesus. 

Cute. Hail Artemis, full of grace. Get it?

By the end of the book, Mary has abandoned her Jewish heritage (she never believed the Jesus stuff to begin with, so she didn’t abandon that), and resigned herself to the fact that these determined cultists and their cockamamie story of resurrection will spread while she will die. We bid her farewell as she prays for death to the many-breasted goddess, with an ever-so-subtle lesbian undertone. She sounds for all the world like an Episcopalian matron who had her consciousness raised by reading Eat Pray Love and is now auditing the Queer Theory portion of the Women’s Studies course at Ephesus Community College.

The blurbage on the book tells us this is “a portrait so vivid and convincing that our image of Mary will be forever transformed.” Um, no. Here is some reality: The claim that The Testament of Mary is the Christian story “told from Mary’s point of view” is a total lie. The Blessed Virgin Mary known to us from, you know, the people who knew and loved her and spoke of her with great tenderness and love in the New Testament is nowhere in sight in this—one must be blunt—viciously dishonest little screed. What can we learn about Mary from this book? Absolutely nothing whatsoever. This is the Christian story told entirely from Colm Tóibín’s point of view, using a figure called, for convenience, “Mary”, as a sock puppet for the author’s torrent of hatred against the Church and, in the end, against Jesus. Because, of course, the thing about Mary is that the thing is never about Mary. 

The structure of reality is this: Mary is inextricably bound up with her Son. What we say about her ultimately redounds to what we say about him. So when enemies of Christianity in the early centuries claimed that Mary had had sex with a Roman soldier named Pantera, the slam wasn’t really directed at Mary. It was directed at Jesus. When Nestorius demanded that Christians stop calling Mary “Theotokos” (that is, God-Bearer or Mother of God), the point was not to say something about Mary, but to deny that the man Jesus was God the Son. When the Church spoke of the Virgin Birth, the point was that Mary’s virginity was a “sign” (according to Isaiah) that her Son was “Emmanuel” or “God with us.” In short, all Catholic doctrine concerning Mary is really a commentary about who Jesus is—and therefore about who we are, since Jesus does not just reveal the Father, he reveals us to ourselves.

The Testament of Mary intuits this, just as the dragon does in Revelation 12. And so, as the dragon tries to destroy both the Woman and her Son, so Tóibín opens his mouth and spews out a torrent of invective against the gospel through his Marian sock puppet since, for him as well, Mary’s life is totally referred to Christ’s. Through his zombie Mary—in love with death, rage, and despair as the real Mary was in love with life, peace, and hope—he hopes to stamp down the dirt on a dead Jesus’ grave. He dresses the whole assassination attempt on the Risen Jesus in highly literate prose that, like the kiss of Judas, professes love, but delivers a profound wish for death to our Lord.

J.R.R. Tolkien once remarked on the idea that the gospel was a sort of true fairy story:

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the “inner consistency of reality.” There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.

Colm Tóibín’s trajectory is a tale of apostasy that is now so common in cultured despiser circles that it’s become boring and utterly predictable. It is, in its own way, as formulaic as (and, truth to tell, is modeled on) an Evangelical testimonial of the sinner who was on the path to hell, doing drugs and fornicating, till one day he hit rock bottom, found Jesus, and experienced liberation. Only everything in the secular tale is inverted and the hero of this tale is freed from the sins of faith, hope, and love to embrace sexually indulgent pride and experience—as this novel so eloquently attests—sadness and wrath. The Testament of Mary will tell you not one thing about Mary. But it tells you plenty about the heartbreaking and horrible consequences of perverting one’s gifts to make war on the Source of all happiness. As Thomas Merton observed:

All that has been written about the Virgin Mother of God proves to me that hers is the most hidden of sanctities. What people find to say about her sometimes tells us more about their own selves than it does about Our Lady. For since God has revealed very little to us about her, men who know nothing of who and what she was tend to reveal themselves when they try to add something to what God has told us about her.

That, in the end, is the autopsy report on The Testament of Mary. May God yet forgive and save the eternally precious soul of the profoundly sad and angry author of this tragic, worthless lie.

[Editor’s note: This review was slightly revised on December 11th.]

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About Mark P. Shea 0 Articles
Mark P. Shea is a popular apologist, author, speaker, and blogger. He is the author of several books, including The Da Vinci Deception, Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did, By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition and This is My Body: An Evangelical Discovers the Real Presence. Visit his blog Catholic and Enjoying It!