21st Century Literature discussion

The Testament of Mary
This topic is about The Testament of Mary
2013 Book Discussions > The Testament of Mary - The Absence of God? (January 2013)

Comments Showing 1-37 of 37 (37 new)    post a comment »
dateDown arrow    newest »

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Are we surprised that Mary doesn't seem to pray for God's help and assistance?

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
The question had not occurred to me until you raised it, so I guess not.

My question while reading this was: Why did the author write this? What do you think?

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments I found it a very strange book. Whilst there were several imaginative takes (the story of Lazarus and the turning of water into wine, for instance), which rang very true, most of the time I was left thinking, "I don't think so..." So, in short, I'm not sure why it was written and what it was really about.

Do you think Mary was unnecessarily harsh on herself, and others?

message 4: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Oh! There is an interview where he reads part of the book. (Very small parts.) And he talks about the inspirations. It's wonderful.


message 5: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments In what is clearly proof of the divine, the library has my copy! I can pick it up today!

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Thanks for this. So, there is a God. I knew it!

message 7: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Take that agnosticism! Take that!

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Thanks for posting the link, Deborah. It is a wonderful interview. It sheds much light on the book, and the author's reasons for writing it.

message 9: by Casceil (last edited Jan 14, 2013 08:23PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Over in the thread for Chapter 8 of the Master, we are discussing how much the author conveys by suggestion. One thing I found very interesting about the interview was the author's explanation of John's goals, and why he was trying to bend Mary's story in certain directions, based on the power of certain images in great paintings. He wanted powerful images for the new religion, and some images were just more powerful if the Madonna was present (even if maybe she wasn't there at a particular event). The book never "tells" you this, but there is a lot of suggestion.

message 10: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments I am halfway through. Oh, I didn't expect it to be so wonderful, so deft and beautifully done. I didn't expect to like it so much. I couldn't make any traction on The Master. I'm still struggling in chapter two.

With regards to the question at hand, why she doesn't ask for help from God, I reflected, (only about ten pages in) that God had not been very kind to Mary. Impregnates her, gives her a son, takes him back. Thanks!

You can see the allure of Artemis. Also, I think that there are plenty of women who would have had an easier time as the virgin mother of God. Maybe someone who liked crowds and strangers.

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments I've never seen Mary in this light. But you're right. Mary can't have been very impressed with God - after all, what did he do for her that could be construed as positive and life affirming if all he’s given her is trouble? This portrait of Mary does suggest that she was hardly well suited to the role. Unless God wanted someone shy and self-effacing.

Do you get the impression she's been overpowered by grief? Or is she just plain angry?

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Casceil, I suspect is exactly it. Are you disturbed by what John and the other followers are trying to do, or is it understandable, given that they believe Jesus was the long awaited Messiah? Are they entirely self-interested?

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
I think John was caught up in his cause. Assuming that he was trying to make the message more powerful, he could probably rationalize small misrepresentations (like Mary being at the crucifixion to the bitter end when she actually left early, because Mary would have been there if she could have, if she hadn't been afraid for her life. People can talk them themselves into all kinds of things. Mary, on the other hand, doesn't understand why John would want to change the details, and she resents his efforts to exploit the horrible things that happened to her son.

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments It can be argued that Tóibín has been true to his source material when he suggests that the relationship between Mary and Jesus is irritable and not loving (as tradition would have it!), but has he gone too far when positing that Mary thought her son "out of his mind"? Do you think - according to this book - that she even likes him?

message 15: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments I think we often most impatient and even annoyed by those we best love. It may not be nice but it makes it feel true.

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments I agree.

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
I think the parent-child interaction between Mary and her son comes across as very believable. It's not that unusual for parents to look at their adult children and shake their heads, and think the adult child is "crazy." Most parents hold very high standards for their kids. If my son was claiming to be the Messiah, and getting in trouble for it, we might have a somewhat irritable relationship, too.

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments I wouldn't appreciate my son telling me he was Son of God, either! Particularly if I suspected the repercussions were going to be dreadful - for all concerned. Which - for this Mary - they were. I cannot imagine, of course; because my children have never come up with such 'wacky' notions. But, I come back to the absence of any relationship with her God. I was, and still am, very surprised by this.

Is this really the story of Mary? Maybe it is, if we take the view that what has been handed down to us is a fabrication - nothing more than someone else's agenda.

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
The author seems to be almost trying to leave open the question of whether Jesus was really the Son of God. There is no reference to Mary knowing. If the Annunciation ever happened (when the angel is supposed to have told Mary what is coming), Mary seems to have forgotten it. Christ does work miracles, but they seem to be downplayed. Mary's apparent lack of any relationship with God does suggest that Mary, at least, does not believe her son is the Messiah.

message 20: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments I think the author shows an erosion of the relationship with God. Look at the sections that refer to her memories of Sabbaths with her husband and son before the messiah issues. That too seems very human . Many people turn to or from faith in the wake of tragedy.

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
Good point, Deborah. Maybe Mary's faith was shaken by the crucifixion and surrounding events. She says it was not worth it, and she seems to resent how her son has been/is being exploited.

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments When, in the New York Times Mary Gordon reviews this book she writes "Mary, the mother of Jesus, has given Christianity a good name. None of the negatives that have made Christianity a byword for tyranny, cruelty and licensed hatred have attached to her. She has been free for centuries of the “blame Mom” syndrome, representing endless patience, loving kindness, mercy, succor, recourse."

This rather sets the record straight, doesn't it? But if you were writing Mary's story would you have done it like this? I don't even like this Mary - let alone this version of her son!

message 23: by Daniel (new) - added it

Daniel I'm late to the party, and now there's so much discussion to catch up on!

I'm not sure why this was written either, or what was the point of it. It holds so many comparisons to The Master, if only on account of the introspective nature by which we enter the mind of the character. But where The Master seemed impeccably researched, this seems shoddy and off-the-cuff. I have so many factual, cultural and historical issues with the content that I want to scream!

Going back to the original question, I was surprised and disturbed by the absence of God. Even if Mary wasn't impressed with God, surely there should be some mention in the narrative—whether positive or negative. Casceil also pointed out that the Annunciation wasn't even hinted at (which stuck out to me as well). That's a pretty big omission, and I'm not quite sure how to process the raft of assumptions left by that knowledge vacuum.

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Daniel wrote: "But where The Master seemed impeccably researched, this seems shoddy and off-the-cuff. I have so many factual, cultural and historical issues with the content that I want to scream!"

I agree. Is this because he wanted to write a 'story' that was only loosely based on the Gospel narratives?

Even if Mary wasn't impressed with God, surely there should be some mention in the narrative—whether positive or negative.

Indeed. Isn't God central to any 'story' about Mary? Maybe he didn't want to incur the wrath of the Catholic Church (in particular) more than he clearly did? But, why not go the whole hog? In for a penny, in for the pound…

message 25: by Daniel (new) - added it

Daniel Sophia wrote: "I agree. Is this because he wanted to write a 'story' that was only loosely based on the Gospel narratives?"

That certainly puts it in a different light. I can appreciate the intention if that was the case, even if the effect is totally lost on me.

Sophia wrote: "But, why not go the whole hog?"

My thoughts exactly!

message 26: by Deborah (new)

Deborah | 983 comments Have we talked yet about Mart, ostensibly a devout Jew, breaking the first commandment?

message 27: by Daniel (new) - added it

Daniel I think your "ostensibly" caveat is probably a big part of the response. Tóibín certainly glosses over a lot of assumptions in this book. It works for the purpose of digging straight into Mary's psyche, but it's aggravating when the reader considers these omissions and hidden premises to be vital to understanding the intent.

From a literary perspective, I think this works as a symbolic shunning of the Jewish God on account of what happened to her son. In an even broader take, Artemis can be considered as a sort of prototype of Mary. Artemis was highly revered in Asia Minor (now Turkey) and—although this is a crass and possibly antagonistic way of putting it—many of the beliefs, traditions and festivals associated with Artemis in that area were simply swapped over to Mary when Christianity came to town. There's a lot of metaphorical meat on those bones, but it's unfortunate that so many obstacles are placed in the way.

From a more pragmatic point of view, "Temple" wouldn't mean anything but Jerusalem. Moreover, I stagger at the thought of any self-respecting first century Jew taking on the gods of their political oppressors.

And now I've gone ahead again and written another response longer than Tóibín's entire novella. It's an excellent question though. What are your thoughts on the issue?

message 28: by Daniel (new) - added it

Daniel Deborah: I just listened to the link you provided at the top of this thread. What an astonishlingly erudite man. I feel like an uncultured cretin in comparison. I really should have listened to this before reading the novella, because it gets at a lot of the "why" behind the book. It still doesn't work for me, but I gained a lot of appreciation for what he was attempting.

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Daniel wrote: " It still doesn't work for me, but I gained a lot of appreciation for what he was attempting. "

I quite agree. It doesn't work for me, either. but it really is worth listening to his 'why'.

message 30: by Lily (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2436 comments I just finished Meryl Streep's lovely reading of this book (only 3 CDs, although I found myself repeating). I share the confusion expressed here by several of you about what Tóibín was trying to do with this book. I'll come back tomorrow and listen to the link to an interview with him that you have posted -- thank you.

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments I look forward to hearing what you think. I can imagine Meryl Streep's reading must be rather wonderful.

message 32: by Lily (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2436 comments Thanks so very much for the link to the Tóibín interview and reading! It was so insightful.

Sophia -- I'll try to come back with a comment or two about the book itself. Thank you for the invitation -- assuming you meant more than reaction to the podcast. ;-) Yes, Meryl Streep's reading was wonderful and it was fun to contrast her voice with the author's own reading and his good Irish voice. Since it is so short, I do recommend the recording to anyone who has read the book and is willing to revisit the story. As Colm suggests, Advent can be an appropriate season for such reflections!?

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Thanks for the suggestion. A curious choice for Advent if the Church got it all wrong! *smiles* Look forward to hearing more from you.

message 34: by Lily (last edited Nov 25, 2013 11:48AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2436 comments Sophia wrote: "A curious choice for Advent if the Church got it all wrong!"

Sophia -- not sure what the "all" is in your comment -- and I'm not asking for clarification.

Faith, spirituality, religion, theology, ....., whatever name I give to a particular part of my life journey I have always found to be full of as much mystery as elucidation. Still, I have acquaintances who can trace parenthetical commentary on erudite interpretations and scriptural passages through millennia of scholars -- sometimes to the point of wondering if one is discussing the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, sometimes in amazement at the conversations humankind is capable of conducting across the ages. (A process I find analogous to tracing scientific discoveries, e.g., on evolution, through technical journals.)

In recent years, I have read or listened to the work of men like Marcus J. Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Bruce Chilton, Elaine Pagels, ..., as they have attempted to reconstruct for the modern mind the world in which Christian faith was born. For me, Colm Tóibín's book was a fictional extension of that type of reconstruction. I didn't find it particularly engaging or challenging, but more meditative on what Mary might have pondered in her latter years as "God-bearer" (Gk, theotokos). It seemed a little too modern at points -- I didn't feel as if I was reading an account from someone who was an archeologist or even one who had poured over ancient manuscripts. But, perhaps especially from the voice of Meryl Streep, it "worked" as a thoughtful meditation on Mary's humanity. Certainly it was more readable than Blessed One, much as I respect the work of its lead editor, Beverly Gaventa and would even encourage perusing that work if one's interests so inclined.

Last night, one of our congregants who is an art scholar gave us a wonderful slide tour of early Nativity Art. What a way to start the season of preparation! An oratorio of Christmas music will follow in a couple of weeks.


Ending with a Rembrandt drawing, with so much wonder and interpretation in between:

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments I'm intrigued to note that we are on a similar journey. Thank you for the images. I particularly like the Byzantine icons.

I admired Toibin for tackling the story of Mary, but I can't say I liked his book very much. To my mind Mary lacked any profound depth. I can appreciate that Mary may well have been well and truly hacked off by this stage, but did she harbour no tender feelings towards her son, who had suffered such a humiliating and painful death?

I will definitely listen to Meryl Streep; that may well renew my faith in this pithy little number (!)

message 36: by Lily (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lily (joy1) | 2436 comments Sophia wrote: "I can appreciate that Mary may well have been well and truly hacked off by this stage, but did she harbour no tender feelings towards her son, who had suffered such a humiliating and painful death?..."

While I heard Mary wondering if her son's choices had been worth it, I didn't walk away from the recording with the sense she lacked tender feelings towards him. I have returned the CDs and don't have the text so can't quote you anything to counter-position your reaction. Maybe it was the poignancy and fear and hurt that Streep was able to convey with her voice to which I reacted more than the words themselves.

I wish I could share more deeply the presentation from last night. I sense you would have enjoyed it, Sophia. Our speaker talked a fair amount about the extent to which artists have extended our mental images of the basic nativity stories in the Gospels. She had us start by closing our eyes and creating our own images, then proceeded to describe the evolution of many of the iconic elements incorporated and created by artists through the centuries -- including the animals from Isaiah, not the Gospels. The constancy in their inclusion was startling. She also pointed out the many ways of presenting Joseph, from his position in an overall piece to the expressions on his face to his portrayed age. She suggested that artists had made the wise men of the Gospels "kings." And those are only the tip of the considerations. She stayed totally with the nativity and did not stray into either the Annunciation nor the flight into Egypt nor the presentation in the temple.

Sophia Roberts | 1324 comments Artists (and I include writers) have a lot to answer for! Angels didn't have wings until the 4th century.

I must look at this book again - once the lady to whom I loaned it has returned same. I certainly picked up that she felt hurt.

back to top