Observations on a Sacrilege - Intercollegiate Studies Institute: Think. Live Free.

Observations on a Sacrilege


Among the many dispiriting aspects of modern life, one of the most alarming is how thoroughly it inures one to sacrilege. Desecration and profanity are so much the hallmarks of contemporary culture that one quickly resigns oneself to their ubiquity, and the outrageous becomes the banal. And so, I confess, it was in the spirit of jaded cynicism—not with the high dudgeon the occasion indubitably demanded—that I read of author Colm Tóibín’s latest work, The Testament of Mary, a “provocative imagining of the later years of the mother of Jesus” and “a beautiful and daring work,” in the fawning words of NPR and the New York Times. One may wonder, of course, how “provocative” or “daring” it really is to cast aspersions on Christianity’s historical origins in these post-Brown, post-Serrano, post-Ehrman years. But the appetite for sacrilege appears insatiable among those whom Alisdair MacIntyre had in mind when he called the Times “that parish magazine of affluent and self-congratulatory liberal enlightenment.”

In brief, the theme of Tóibín’s novella is Mary’s supposed bitterness about her son’s crucifixion and her resistance to the Gospel writers’ attempt to appropriate his life and death. Mary Gordon, the Times reviewer, writes:

Throughout the novella, Mary is involved in questions of writing. She sees herself as a victim, trapped by men determined to make a story of what she knows is not a story but her life. The making of the Gospels is portrayed not as an act of sacred remembrance but as an invasion and a theft.

I have but one question: Did it occur to no one that Tóibín’s novel is every bit as much “an invasion and a theft” of his subject’s life and mind as—on his account—are the Gospels? Or is it morally acceptable to put one’s own words in the Virgin’s mouth when the aim is not to build up but to tear down? The question is rhetorical, for the answer is obviously “yes,” in Tóibín’s mind and the minds of his laudators. Gordon again:

Toibin [sic] the writer is at work to blast to smithereens some of the most treasured icons of the West. In his telling, Mary did not ask Jesus to turn water into wine at the wedding at Cana; she was, in fact, there only to urge him to come home, to keep himself from danger. Most important: she fled the site of the crucifixion before her son was actually dead. She was frightened, she tells us; she wanted to protect herself from the violence she knew would be unleashed. Her fear and desire for self-protection drowned her grief and sympathy for her son’s fate. “The pain,” she says, “was his and not mine.” So much for the Pietà. So much for the “Stabat Mater.”

The topic sentence in that paragraph is breathtaking in its nonchalance. When prizewinning authors “blast to smithereens some of the most treasured icons of the West” and are praised for doing so, how sure are we that we will enjoy life amidst the wreckage? But perhaps explosion is not the best metaphor in this case. I find it more accurate to think of Tóibín and his partners in desecration as cultural cannibals, blithely digesting, from within, their own civilization and ours.

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