Books

Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus by Chester Brown

Comics artist Chester Brown makes a provocative argument that Jesus’ underlying message was anti-authoritarian, pro-woman, and pro-sex work.


Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus: Prostitution and Religious Obedience in the Bible

Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
Length: 280 pages
Author: Chester Brown
Price: $21.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-04
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The eclectic work of Canadian comics artist Chester Brown reflects nothing as much as it does the activity of a restless, inquisitive mind.

His work drew particularly widespread attention with publication of the controversial yet bestselling 2011 graphic novel, Paying for It, wherein he chronicled his own experiences with sex workers (he advocates reclaiming the term prostitute, as he explains at some length) and makes an argument for the decriminalization of prostitution. He continues with the theme in his latest book, coupling it with his long-standing fascination with religion. Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus offers cartoon retellings of several Biblical tales, selected for their association with prostitution as it is depicted in the Old and New Testaments.

His new book is interesting not so much for what it says about prostitution, but for the broader reinterpretation it offers of the values depicted in the Bible, particularly the New Testament. Brown’s suggestion, which he articulates at length in an Afterword and in meticulously-cited endnotes, is as follows.

Jesus’ mother Mary was a prostitute, which influenced both Jesus and his brother James. It helped to shape Jesus’ broader beliefs about respecting all people, regardless of class or race or occupation, and also his strong respect for women. Jesus was also anti-dogmatic, focusing on broader messages about finding spirituality in one’s own self, as opposed to the elaborate strictures of complicated holy books, and about the centrality of love rather than obedience.

After his death, his brother James – who was more ashamed of his mother’s background – took a leadership role in the fledgling church and placed greater emphasis on rules and rituals akin to the dominant forms of Judaism at the time. This led to a schism in the early Church, suggests Brown; with some communities of followers adhering to the pro-woman, love-thy-neighbour-not-thy-rulebook attitude; and others intent on a more traditional interpretation that subjugated women and imposed rules on followers. Subsequent church leaders, like Paul, picked and chose from both sides, ultimately reshaping the faith into the form it holds today, and one in which women’s autonomy was subjugated to more conservative patriarchal norms.

Brown admits this is largely pure speculation, but finds tantalizing suggestions that at least elements of this framework could be true. He does believe strongly that Jesus’ kind attitude toward prostitutes was, originally, much more than mere kindness or charity – that it was an overt endorsement of women’s rights. Women had, by Jesus’ time, suffered a steady erosion of their rights and autonomy under an increasingly conservative Judaism, and prostitutes were among the few women in Jewish society who retained any autonomy, although they were harshly treated and looked down upon by religious leaders and other patriarchal elements of Jewish society.

Jesus’ association with prostitutes was originally, argues Brown, an outright endorsement of women’s rights in opposition to Judaism’s patriarchal norms. This was taken up, suggests Brown, by some communities of followers, some of whom may have actively promoted prostitution as part and parcel of promoting women’s autonomy. He points to the example of the city of Corinth, which is chastised in letters written by the more conservative Paul for the promotion and active engagement in prostitution of the Christian communities there.

Brown makes another theological argument: that the Bible has a distinct anti-authoritarian streak. God is depicted in the Old Testament as a strict taskmaster, yet there are numerous instances where those who disobey God are instead rewarded. What’s that about? Brown suggests that the message is one that encourages people to think for themselves rather than follow social norms and conventions. He argues this was a message that resonated with Jesus, whose teaching, suggests Brown, also pushed a message that pursuing pleasure was a greater good in life than pursuing money, prestige or other material gain.

In support of his arguments, Brown takes several Biblical tales and presents them in what he suggests reflects their original form, and one consonant with the themes he’s proposed. He also makes strong and well-researched arguments -- in his Afterword and in the extensive notes section -- outlining why these revisions might more accurately reflect the original form of the stories.

An illustrative example is the ‘Parable of the Talents’/ This, like other parables, appears in varying forms in the different Gospels, but essentially it involves a wealthy man who gives his slaves some of his money to safeguard. In the conventional version, two of them invest the wealth in various ways and increase it, and are rewarded by the master when he returns. One of them buries it and does nothing to increase it -- doing what his master ordered, which was to safeguard the money -- and is angrily sent off to prison when he returns it to the master with nothing more to show for it.

However, notes Brown, there are other versions of the parable referred to in historical texts citing other, now-lost Gospels. An early Christian historian of the third century AD, Eusebius, recounts how the Parable is told in one such version. There, one slave invests the money, one buries the money, and one spends the money on prostitutes and other pleasures. When the master returns, he criticizes the one who invested the money, imprisons the one who buried the money, and embraces the one who spent it all on prostitutes and pleasure.

This, argues Brown, sounds more like a real story (why would the other versions feature three slaves, yet with two of them both doing the same thing and investing the money? Why not just have two slaves in the story?). It also accords with his interpretation of Jesus’ message – that saving money or even working to increase your wealth were not proper ways to spend your time in this life. Rather, you should focus on spreading love and joy, as best represented by the slave who spent all his money on prostitutes and flute-players.

Well, it makes for an interesting argument. Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus is a short and quick read, containing several such compellingly argued retellings and reinterpretations of Biblical stories from both the Old and New Testaments, told in Brown’s trademark style of simply illustrated cartoon boxes coupled with casual, contemporary dialogue. It’s an easy and enjoyable read, but the reader would do well to read the Afterword first. Many of the stories will be less well known to current generations, and so the point of the story -- along with the significance of Brown’s retelling of it -- will be lost to many contemporary readers. The Afterword helps put it all in context, and explains the background behind each of Brown’s choices of stories (originally he’d intended on doing some of these as one-off cartoons, until he realized he had the makings of a book with a common theme).

Reading the Afterword first will help reduce a great deal of potential confusion on the part of the reader. The extensive notes section will be appreciated by more scholarly or religiously-affiliated readers who’d like further background on the inspiration and sources for Brown’s interpretations.

Less an argument for sex worker rights, and more a tantalizing challenge to contemporary interpretations of early Christian values, Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus is essentially a thought-provoking theological essay surrounded and illustrated by cartoons. It’s a worthy addition to Brown’s increasingly diverse body of work and a great illustration of the intellectual potential of comics to make powerful social and historical arguments.

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