The Catholic Bishops will not endorse the theology embedded in Colm Toibin’s novel, The Testament of Mary. Nor will any Protestant bodies. Indeed, religious conservatives such as Mark Shea (see here) are particularly defensive about the book’s depiction of a decidedly non-traditional Mary. He derides the book as “Catholic-hating detritus,” a “viciously dishonest little screed,” “a torrent of invective against the gospel through his Marian sock puppet,” that does for Mary what Dan Brown did for Jesus.
The comparison with Dan Brown is inapt in many respects. Most significantly, Toibin is an outstanding writer, twice shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, not the kind of writer who produces one-damn-thing-right-after-another page turners, however inventive.
I would think that anyone less defensive than a Christian conservative would recognize that the book’s heretical views make for a better novel: surprising, independent, unpredictable, and fresh.
Most important as Susan Stabile argues in an excellent review of the book (see here), “I like the encouragement to try to go beyond the little we have in scripture about many figures – including Mary – to try to understand what they must have been feeling. The book is a reminder that the figures about whose lives we read only snatches in the Gospels were real people with real – and complex – emotions.” That is exactly right. A preoccupation with heresy misses the invitation to think about the humanity of Mary and the provocation to think about how she experienced the life of her son, especially the crucifixion.
Indeed, I would argue that reading The Testament of Mary is a form of prayer. It is not possible to read the book without wondering what Mary was really thinking. When Jesus was 12 and Jesus told her he was to be in his Father’s house, she did not understand. How did she understand the crucifixion? As a mother, did she come to think it was worth it?
There is a wonderful prayer site, sacredspace.ie (run by the Irish Jesuits but useful for Catholics and Protestants alike) which in addition to encouraging meditation and dialogue with Jesus, and commenting on gospel passages, promotes the kind of reflections of time, place, and emotions that inhabit Toibin’s book. It is ordinarily not easy for many of us to do. Insofar as Mary is concerned, Toibin’s book makes it impossible not to think about the life experience of Mary during a time period in which she is given Biblical short shrift.