Art and Blasphemy
I recently got to live-tweet the final dress rehearsal for San Francisco Opera’s new opera, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene by Mark Adamo. For the record, I like this new work in many ways and I am completely smitten by the performance of Sasha Cooke in the title role. I’m looking forward to seeing it again as part of our season tickets.
But I’m not here to write a review of this new opera, I’m interested in an interchange that took place over twitter while we were at the dress rehearsal. One of my brother tweeters expressed surprise at his personal discomfort when the love scene began between Yeshua (Jesus) and Mary Magdalene. A priest in San Francisco then responded to his tweet by tweeting: “San Francisco could use a few more prayers than usual today. We have a blasphemous opera showing at our beautiful opera house. Pray for us!”.
Ugh. Obviously this priest hadn’t seen this opera (we were among the very first to see it beyond those working on it) and his use of the word “blasphemy” which means “insult” is of course, incendiary . . . and unfortunately predictable. How many times have religious leaders shouted “blasphemy” anytime anyone suggests that Mary Magdalene had any sort of special relationship with Jesus or that Jesus had any special love for her?
Getting to the “truth” of Mary Magdalene is pretty difficult and that’s probably why so many fiction writers such as Dan Brown in the Da Vinci Code and now Mark Adamo in his new opera become fascinated by her. Just like the game of “telephone” which I was raised to call the “gossip game”, we don’t have much of an accurate idea of who she was or what role she played in the early church because so much has been lost in the telling, re-telling, writing, copying, translating, and re-translating of her story. Even as we read the scripture at Mira Vista church last Sunday in both English and Spanish, the details changed. The NIV translation in english did not include the detail that Mary Magdalene and some other women financed the ministry of Jesus and the disciples and yet, in the Spanish version of Luke 8: 1-3 these details are made more clear. Just this simple exercise of reading the Bible in more than one translation and language helps us to remember that we do not know what we do not know!
There are also many, many traditions about Mary Magdalene beyond the Bible that we aren’t familiar with beyond the idea that she may have been in an intimate relationship with Jesus. The famous fourth century theologian, Augustine referred to her as the “apostle to the apostles” because she is the only recorded witness to the resurrection listed in the Bible. There are also many miracles that have been associated with her.
The painting attached to this article hangs in Grace Cathedral just outside the chapel in the South transept. It depicts one of the more amazing stories about Mary Magdalene that most of us don’t know and yet we honor every year. Here’s the story from Wikipedia:
For centuries, it has been the custom of many Christians to share dyed and painted eggs, particularly on Easter Sunday. The eggs represent new life, and Christ bursting forth from the tomb. Among Eastern Orthodox Christians this sharing is accompanied by the proclamation “Christ is risen!”
One tradition concerning Mary Magdalene says that, following the death and resurrection of Jesus, she used her position to gain an invitation to a banquet given by the Roman EmperorTiberius. When she met him, she held a plain egg in her hand and exclaimed, “Christ is risen!” The Emperor laughed, and said that Christ rising from the dead was as likely as the egg in her hand turning red while she held it. Before he finished speaking, the egg in her hand turned a bright red, and she continued proclaiming the Gospel to the entire imperial house.
So every time we dye eggs at Easter, we have been unknowingly honoring Mary Magdalene. Given this utter ignorance that most of us have about this woman of faith, how can we insult her or commit blasphemy by trying to imagine her as a real person? Our ignorance of her contributions to the early church is more disturbing to me because it reminds me of how much we do not know about the women who came before us.
Art helps us imagine that which cannot be known through empirical research. Through our creativity and artistic endeavors, we can come to a greater understanding of so many things. I was deeply moved by watching the characters of Mary Magdalene and Miriam, the mother of Yeshua, react to the crucifixion of Jesus during Adamo’s opera. It allowed me to visualize, in three dimensions, through the bodies of two brilliant singing actresses, what the relationship between Miriam and Mary Magdalene might have been like given the depth of their common loss. Some of the best moments of this opera were when these two women who loved Jesus in person sang in duet. Their artistry inspired me to love Jesus all the more myself.
But religious leaders running around shouting “blasphemy” isn’t very helpful and doesn’t really take our faith seriously. Most of what we know about Jesus and his disciples comes by way of Biblical writers who sought to inspire us to believe. That’s art, not history too and that is just fine with me.
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