The National Post has been publishing a series of articles titled “Beyond Belief”. A piece by Charles Lewis or Charlie Lewis (not the Charles Lewis of 60 Minutes and the Center for Public Integrity) titled “The Trouble with Mary”, featured at AL Daily, discussed the psychology and semantics of “belief” and “faith”. Lewis found a psychologist who was said that faith in miracles and faith in the future are equally valid because they are equivalent subjective events. He found some theologians and Churchmen to explain the meaningfulness of belief in miracles. This was good journalism. Religion is a hard topic for the news industry to configure as marketable news. The political and criminal acts of people who belong to a religious group are news but their inner lives, including their beliefs, are beyond description in a news story. The philosophical rationalizations for religious belief are like book reviews – the justifications offered for people’s likes and tastes are usually meaningless outside the circle of people who care about those things.
The title of the story was clever. It was an obvious play on the title of the movie “There’s Something about Mary”, a satirical comedy of manners about sexual obsession and narcissism in modern romance. In the movie, Mary (Cameron Diaz), was an innocent and an idealist, although it may be more accurate to say that she was gullible and vapid. She had values relating to her own sexuality, dignity, honour and the good life, but her ideas of sexual purity were more Mary Magdalene than Mary Mother of God.
The discussions with conservative Protestant theologians were funny too. They were offering biblical excuses for ignoring the mother of Christ and the doctrine of the Virgin birth in modern sermons and religious discourse – it’s not biblical enough, it’s too RC. The quote from the liberal Episcopalian writer John Shelby Spong that “the story around Mary was a pure construct of a patriarchal Church that wanted to keep women passive and pure” is simplistic and historically wrong, but probably closer to the modern social truth. I think the story has lost its resonance, and that modern men and woman will not stay around a church that can’t get down to the business of affirming their identify, life-style and beliefs. Liberal Christianity affirms modern liberal beliefs. Conservative Christianity affirms modern conservative beliefs. The difference between liberal and conservative on feminist issues, is not that significant. Women do not learn about how to live as women by reading the bible or the catechism, and they don’t consciously model their lives on those stories – although some say they do.
The Virgin Mary was a powerful cultural symbol. It mythically separated the role of women as the objects of male sexual desire from fertility and motherhood. It celebrated the importance of fertile women for their fertility and for their social importance as mothers. It made femininity mysterious and powerful, in much the same way as the Goddess stories favoured by Wiccans and assorted New Age feminists. It gave women a degree of contol over sex and fertility, within the structures of societies in which sex usually led to pregnancy and dependency. It privileged women to require men to submit to many of their needs. And the virginity bit was, after all, as story about one woman. Nobody expected other women to permanently abstain from sex and motherhood.
The symbol has evolved. Wiccans and the New Age have embraced the Goddess, and for the rest of us, the modern ideal of fertile femininity is the Yummy Mummy, delightfully portrayed by Lizzy Ratner in the New York Observer, Epater le Bebe. Baby? Sure, everyone is having them. The Yummy Mummy not necessarily a MILF. The Yummy Mummy is focussed on her role as parent, but her sense of poise and self-possession is dependent on being able to present herself as having it all – looks, sexuality, security, competence – as well as being a devoted and loving parent. The Yummy Mummy’s sinister counterpart is the preening celebrity mother, captured by Judith Newman Moms gone Wild: Fame & Scandal in Vanity Fair.