Problems with Depictions of Mary

Not too long ago, I finished reading A Lineage of Grace by Francine Rivers. The book is an anthology of five of her novellas, each about a significant female character from the Bible. (I hate to say “character” when these women all lived in the real world. “Character” makes it seem like someone invented them.)

The first four stories, about Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, were very good and convincing in the way they were written. I thoroughly enjoyed them, and they inspired me to stay closer to God and have faith. (I’m sure there were elements of those four stories that clashed with Catholic teaching, but to be honest, I don’t know enough about the Old Testament to recognize anything.) The fifth story, which was about Mary, the Mother of Jesus, bothered me for multiple reasons:

  1. There were four wise men who visited Jesus after his birth. I’m really not sure why the fourth wise man was necessary; in the Bible, there are only three wise men.
  2. Mary and her husband Joseph had six other children after Jesus: James, Joseph, Anne, Simon, Jude, and Sarah. I was always taught that Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Jesus.
  3. Mary was not assumed into heaven when she died, but she simply “went the way of all flesh” like any other human being.
  4. Mary was “a woman like any other, as impatient as her children.” No, she was not. She was extraordinary. As Catholics, we believe that God made Mary immaculate, as would be fitting for the mother of his only son.
  5. Mary was not sinless. Again, God made her immaculate. She was free from sin at conception.

I understand that the author is not Catholic and probably does not view Mary through the same lens. From reading the five novellas, I gathered that Ruth and Bathsheba were more free from sin than Mary, which is totally incorrect in Catholic theology (Mariology, to be more specific).

Would I read anything else by Francine Rivers? Sure. Her books are uplifting and refreshingly free from sex scenes. They also give a glimpse into the world as it was in the days when the events of the Bible occurred. But I will have to keep in mind that my beliefs differ from hers.

Top Five Books Read in 2019

Most of the books I read in 2019 were unremarkable or just plain bad. I don’t even remember reading the first 10 or so because I was in and out of the hospital with my son and going through the postpartum haze. But there were a few notable ones (in no particular order):

  1. The Three and Day Four by Sarah Lotz. I cheated a little bit because these are two books in the same series, so I’m counting them as one. They were so absorbingly creepy, and the author had a different sort of writing style that sucked me in. I already wrote about them here and here.
  2. The Dogs of March by Ernest Hebert. I already wrote about it here. What else can I say? It’s a classic.
  3. Donnie Brasco by Joseph Pistone. This is a real-life account of an FBI agent’s undercover years as a member of the Italian Mafia. Yes, there’s a movie, but I highly doubt I ever see it. The book was fascinating from a psychological perspective. Pistone has balls of steel. Read the book to find out why!
  4. The First Confessor by Terry Goodkind. This one had its faults, but overall, it was a good solid fantasy novel. It is part of a series, but you don’t have to read the other books to understand what’s going on. Goodkind always gets hate from fantasy fans, and I’m not sure why. His worldbuilding makes a lot more sense, and his stories (to me) are much easier to get into.
  5. The Last Suppers by Mandy Mikulencak. Set in the South in the 1950s, this book was about a woman who works for a prison, preparing meals for the inmates. She’s got some crazy stuff in her backstory, but everything is resolved neatly and poignantly at the end. I can’t say exactly why I liked this book; it was just a good, entertaining story. The recipes and descriptions of food throughout will make you hungry, too.

The Shepherd

I came upon a novel by Joseph Girzone, a former priest. Titled The Shepherd, it is about a man who becomes bishop and begins to reform his diocese, aided by a man called Joshua, who is suspiciously like Jesus Christ.

Never before had I seen anything by Girzone on lists of “Catholic books you must read before you die,” so I didn’t have very high expectations. He wrote a very successful series of books, all with the same Jesus character named Joshua. The Shepherd is part of that series, but I don’t have much intention of reading the rest of the series, and here’s why.

The writing was idealistic and unrealistic. The book was published in 1990, so things may have changed since, but I don’t think it is realistic to expect the bishop to be able to visit with parishioners as readily as the bishop in this book does. Today you have to get through his secretary and fight for a space on his busy schedule. I’m not sure if the bishop speaks to the pope as often as the bishop does in the novel. Bishops probably have to get through an army of administrative staff before speaking with him, but again, I could be wrong.

The book goes through a lot of what the bishop does (a lot of “tell” rather than “show”), and none of it appears to go wrong at any point. The bishop’s radical changes (more on this later) do make a lot of people angry, but when he speaks with them, they calm down and understand his reasoning behind the changes. In short, the bishop seems to be a “Mary Sue” character who gets what he wants with little opposition or conflict.

Now, about those radical changes… in the first half of the book, the bishop proposes married priests, female priests, reception of the Eucharist for non-Catholics, and a greater emphasis on social justice. He has great disdain for what he considers to be inflexible traditional practices. No wonder traditional Catholics do not recommend this book! The fictional pope, however, is on board with many of the changes that the bishop proposes to make, so in a way, this book seems almost prophetic. I can totally imagine Pope Francis as the pope character here.

The prevailing message of the book seems to be toward love and mercy. In the case of a priest who falls in love with a woman, the bishop’s solution is that the priest should be allowed to have both: his vocation to the priesthood and the woman’s love. So he asks the pope if this particular priest’s vow of celibacy can be renounced. (And the pope actually agrees to this.)

The reality is that you can’t have it both ways. When you become a priest, you choose one vocation (the celibate priesthood) while forsaking another (married life, partnership with a spouse). Same as when you get married: you choose your spouse while forsaking all other possible spouses and all other possible vocations. Vocations require sacrifice; when you choose one thing, you sacrifice the other. Isn’t that what Jesus did? Did he not sacrifice his life for us? He did not have to do that. He had free will, just like any other human being. We are supposed to model Jesus in our vocation, whatever that may be, and that involves sacrifice.

Another thing that bothered me about the book was the idea that non-Catholics should be allowed (and even encouraged) to receive the Eucharist at Catholic Mass. I understand the spirit behind wanting to make that change: being hospitable to others and making them feel included. But it makes no sense to allow people to receive when they may not understand exactly what (actually Who) they are receiving. If they desire to receive that much, and if they understand the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist and desire to follow it, they should become Catholic, because they are going against their own religion if they are basically Catholic in all but name, and if their own religion does not believe in the Real Presence. Not all religions are equal; if they are, then what is the point of following just one religion? Why not take bits and pieces of religions you like and create your own?

I know I’m opening a can of worms with all those questions, but that was what immediately came to mind as I read the book. The only other comment I have about the book was that it wasn’t good writing; it was more of a platform for the author’s feelings on what should be changed in the Church. He would have been better off writing a nonfiction piece.