My father, who is no longer living, had a very interesting experience when he was a child, almost a hundred years ago now. He actually saw the female evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson, in person, preaching in Indiana where he grew up.
McPherson entered her sanctuaries sometimes by flying in over the heads of her audience, suspended on a harness and propelled by cables. But the effect on her audience was electrifying; my father told me that some in his family were convinced that she was more than a human being--a kind of angel.
McPherson's story came to a bad end when she threw over her career as a preacher and was caught in a sordid affair, but the effect that she had on her followers at the height of her career cannot be denied.
Likewise, I have always thought that Marie Osmond has borne herself remarkably well over the years of her career, considering that when she and her brother Donny Osmond were superstars, she was the virtual Virgin Marie of the LDS Church. I am sure that the pressure on her was immense--conduct herself as a role model at all times--and the speculation on who would win her favor in marriage must also have been ever-present and probably embarrassing. Over a long career she has actually conducted herself with considerable dignity, though, as has her brother. I have nothing bad to say of either of them, but rather I point out that women who enact religious role models have a tough row to hoe.
Thus the identity and the role of the Mother of Jesus has been both scrutinized and mythologized to a point where it is doubtful that we will ever learn anything concrete about her. Certain Christian groups refuse to accept the fact that she died and was buried; her status as the sacred vessel for the Son of God seems to dictate that she get even more special treatment than she got when that son was born.
Bringing Christianity into the real world would not mean the destruction of everything we believe, contrary to the threat that it seems to present to those who want to cling to all the mythology that separates it from ordinary human beings. This idea has the same appeal as all legends and myths, which is that it gives us something to look up to. But to have heroes is all very well; what we do not need is a systematic presentation of ideas that exclude ordinary people from relating to faith.
In my last article I discussed how the entirety of Christianity is encapsulated in two parables, that of the Good Samaritan and the other, the story of the Prodigal Son. Anyone who read the article might have reflected at the time that there seems to be a good deal more to Christianity than that, and I wouldn't argue from one point of view. I have no problem with the stories and beliefs that are found in one faith tradition or another; they evolve over time and no one individual is responsible for a silly story about all the flowers on earth blooming on the night that Jesus was born, for instance. And it does no harm to believe something like that.
But when the early Church came up with the idea of the Virgin Birth in the Second Century--well after anyone who had lived in Jesus' time had passed on--the idea of women's ideal being a virgin mother presented a problem to women. Virgin births do not occur; that was the problem. It does no good to reiterate the story or point to other stories of virgin birth in Scripture or mythology; the fact is that women don't reproduce by parthenogenesis, but by conception.
That was an outgrowth of the rising tide of Greek philosophy that came into Christianity as it spread through the Roman Empire. The dualism of Neo-Platonic philosophy stressed the evils of the flesh and the world, and the response of early Church fathers was to excuse Mary from all that dirty stuff like sex and birth--it was even taught that Mary gave birth through her ear canal.
Nonbelievers castigate belief in the Virgin Birth as just one of many religious myths, few of them realizing--as few Christians realize--the huge insult to women that it represents. If sex, pregnancy and childbirth were beneath the mother of Jesus, one wonders what extent of misogyny that really represents as women die in childbirth. It is actually reasonable to ask why all women are not able to receive this great gift.
And the early Church was not able to stop embroidering the image of Mary, once they got started. To those who were fascinated by her, she seemed to embody qualities that might portray her as someone who was more than human. The collision of Christianity with the religion of the Druids, who worshiped a Great Mother, resulted in a wholesale transfer of the divine from the Pagan mother to the Christian mother before anyone really noticed it. The Church based in Rome tried to subsume the Druidic Christians in England for centuries, culminating in the two-generation struggle between the Pope and the English Monarchy and ending with the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
But meanwhile, the famous "Hail Mary" prayer became almost a daily part of Catholic worship, referring as it does to Mary as "mother of God." More ideas emerged, such as the supposed ability of Mary to tell Jesus what to do, as though he were perpetually her child instead of a grown man.
Contrast that mushrooming tradition with the outright rudeness that was shown to Jesus when he returned to Nazareth to preach. Everyone in Nazareth would have known the circumstances of his birth, and when they referred to him as the "son of Mary" in Mark's Gospel, it is clear that no one bothered to soften their contempt either for Jesus or for Joseph, who by that time was widely acknowledged not to be Jesus' father.
I have written what is, I believe, the story of Jesus' conception. Simply put, it appears that Jesus dropped hints that there was an incident in which "a strong man" broke into the house of another and made off with his property. In another story Jesus alludes to a victim who "fell among thieves" and was left on the side of the road (or made his way there), bloody and beaten. Two Jewish men passed the victim by, but the third, a Samaritan, aided the victim by leaving him at an inn with some money to pay for his care until the Samaritan should return.
I believe that this victim was a woman, and that she was Mary, abducted from her home by an unknown man who may have been a Roman or a Jew, but certainly did not live in Nazareth (or who was willing to give up his life there, for he could not have returned). I believe that Mary was rescued by the passing Samaritan, who went on his way and, having learned her name and where she lived, gave that information to her family.
I like to believe--though it is impossible to know--that it was Joseph who brought his bride back home after the incident. Unlike some theologians, I believe that Joseph was a real person and that he could be called a man well ahead of his time. Joseph was entirely different from the men of his day--or any other--who expected women to please men in every way and were unforgiving even of overwhelming incidents such as abduction.
Joseph, to put it in a nutshell, did not blame the victim. He knew who had done wrong, and he knew that Mary was not guilty under the Law. So he married her, and became the all-time role model for stepfathers forever. He must have realized early on that Jesus was a remarkable child. Somehow he took his role as stepfather so seriously that Jesus was able to envision God as absolute, unconditional love. Joseph was the model for the father of the Prodigal Son.
Right now there is yet another abuse scandal going on in American Christianity, as the Sovereign Grace Ministries reel under the impact of a scandal of sexual and child abuse within their organization. One of their associates, Lou Engle, has been a leading figure in exporting homophobia from here to Uganda, where their "kill the gays" bill awaits the courage of some head of state to sign it into law.
Hilariously--or at least ironically--another of their associates, Joshua Harris, wrote a book about chastity entitled I Kissed Dating Goodbye, touting their true-love-waits teaching. Meanwhile many of their preachers and members had embarked on lives of physical and sexual abuse, mostly of women and little girls, usually couched in terms of chastity and obedience. Men were inspecting their wives' and daughters' clothing purchases to make sure they were modest, and inflicting corporal punishment on babies less than a year old--with objects such as sticks and straps. This is all coming out now as victims begin to take their complaints to the authorities. I am strongly tempted to treat the whole story with sarcasm, as you see, but in fact those victims are real people and in some cases, lives were lost. Damage done to survivors cannot be undone.
We see that we have not come very far down the road from Nazareth, with incidents like this recorded in Scripture:
“'If you were Abraham’s children,' said Jesus, 'then you would do what Abraham did. As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the works of your own father.'
“'We are not illegitimate children,' they protested. 'The only Father we have is God himself.'
But Jesus said to them, 'If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say.'" [John 8:31-43]
I point out in passing that, given this perfect opportunity, Jesus made no claim to be the literal son of God, born of a virgin. The crack about not being illegitimate was in the middle of a theological conversation. Likewise, when Jesus was in Nazareth, this was his reception:
"Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.
“'Where did this man get these things?' they asked. 'What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?' And they took offense at him." [Mark 6:1-3]
Those who compiled the Gospel According to Matthew were so annoyed by this passage that they rewrote it. And again I mention in passing that this Gospel clearly refers to Jesus' brothers and sisters, in plain language, contrary to those who wish to portray Mary not only as a virgin mother but as a lifelong virgin.
St. Paul knew nothing of a virgin birth, and his only reference to Jesus' birth was that he was "born of a woman, born under the Law." So as I believe, it is time for the Church to give up the deliberate and obvious myths that serve no one, and as the Catholic Church is presented with an opportunity to begin some serious reform such a a married priesthood, perhaps a fresh wind will begin to blow through Christendom and clear the air of things that may be regarded as dogma by some, but in reality are holding the Church out of the real world.