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.

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.

Seriously, the Worst Book I Have Ever Read


I wrote a couple posts some years back about the worst book I have ever read and the absolute worst book I have ever read.

Well, I managed to read something that makes those two look like shining literary achievements: the infamous Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James. The only reason I read it was to blog about it here, and yes, it is just as terrible as everyone said it was.*

I’m not sure who thought it would be good to actually publish this book and elevate it from the ranks of terrible fanfiction. Someone with a sick mind or a crazy sense of humor, I suppose. I didn’t make it all the way through the Twilight series, but I was heckled into watching all the movies, and I could tell right away that Fifty Shades is Twilight fanfiction. I intensely dislike fanfiction, but that’s an unpopular opinion that I won’t get into here, and that was only a very minor reason why I hated Fifty Shades so much.

The reason I hated Fifty Shades is because it is about abuse and mind control. Our poor naive main character, Anastasia Steele, hardly knows enough about the world and about sex to consent to anything, much less the craziness she is subjected to by our hero (villain?), Christian Grey.

If someone has to get you to sign a contract to be with them, that relationship surely cannot be good. If you are a person who never cries (as Anastasia supposedly is), then the relationship surely cannot be good if you’ve been crying daily since you met the guy. If the guy repeatedly says, “You have a choice to sign the contract,” then constantly shows up and seduces you, thus weakening your emotional resolve, you don’t really have a choice at all, and surely, this relationship cannot be good. If the guy refuses to give you space, gets wildly jealous at the slightest overture of chaste friendship from a male friend, tracks your location remotely, buys you grossly expensive gifts that you have no hope of ever repaying him for, and even admits to you that he is “fifty shades of f**ked up,” then the relationship is blatantly not good for you and you need to run away faster than you ever ran in your life.

By the end of the novel, Anastasia realizes this and ends her relationship with Mr. Grey. I was happy about this, but at the same time, I realized that this is a money-making series. I’m sure that the other books have her realizing how depressed she is without him and running back to him. I don’t have much intention of reading these other books, but I can guess what happens based on the plots of other romance novels: Anastasia manages to “fix” Mr. Grey, get to the bottom of his messed-up past, and turn him into a kind, compassionate man.

Reality check: This would never happen in real life. People’s fundamental deep, dark issues cannot be “fixed” by a romantic partner. A guy like Christian Grey needs a long-term therapist and possibly even a stay in a psych ward. He needs to understand that one cannot run a true relationship like a business contract. I can only hope that the readers of Fifty Shades are mature enough to understand this.

What I learned from reading this appalling excuse for a romance novel: nothing of any use. It only reinforced my prevailing belief that people are weird, and sometimes the weirdness is so extreme that it should be hidden and never shared.

*Interestingly, all three worst books I’ve ever read are romance novels. I don’t dislike the genre, but I like romance better when it is embedded in a different plot, not as the main plot itself.