Thursday, October 8, 2015

Reading in Layers: Making Sense of Mary

An idea was brought up toward the end of class about things making or not making sense that I wanted to explore further because I think it can help clarify some of what is going on in the text. The question of why some things “made sense” and others didn’t also helped me to focus in on the way in which my approach to the readings affected my understanding of them.

            When I read a new text, particularly when I know it is for class, I try to put together what is being said into a coherent argument. I want to make sense of what I am reading and I get frustrated when things do not seem to fit together correctly and I can’t. I assume that there is something that I do not understand, and sometimes this is true. Sometimes I just do not get it; but sometimes the things that I am trying to piece together really do not fit. This is not to say that they do not make sense, but that their pattern is obscured when viewed from the single argument lens that is my default.

            A large part of what makes these texts difficult for me is that there is so much built in contradiction, and it takes a while for my mental eyes to adjust. Just to start with Mary being the virgin mother presents in itself and all the imagery and association that come with it a paradox. Many of the descriptors attached to Mary are actually in some way opposites. Her womb can contain that which Heaven cannot. These contradictions make her a very powerful figure, but they also make her very difficult to grapple with conceptually. She is also often not the primary concern of medieval writers. Statements that seem strange when considered from a purely Marian perspective gain meaning when placed in the context of the author’s thoughts on Jesus.

            Aside from the built in paradox of Mary’s nature there is also the lack of unity in the arguments put forward about her that can be discombobulating . The cannon of literature concerning her was written by different people, at different times, in different places, with different influences, and for different reasons. The arguments they make are not all working toward the same goal and some of them are almost certainly going to be contradictory. The Christians where in the protracted and messy process of trying to define themselves. During and after this process they  “smoothed” things into at least an outward semblance of coherence, but this is sometimes only skin deep, and it can crack under close examination.

            Each of the writers whose work we have read, wrote in a specific political context to further a specific aim. Often this takes the form of writing against a specific group or practice, such as the Gnostics, or the “heretical” actions of the Arabian women. For the most part they laid out their arguments about who and what Mary is to counter the claims of rival sects which they saw as threatening or false, rather than to build a single coherent picture of who Mary was.  There is more than one way to praise Mary that is not involve female priests and the offering of proscribed cakes, and there is more than one argument for Jesus having a corporeal form.  While this method of triangulation could provide a fairly unified picture of Mary given enough time and examples, early on it leaves a rather scattered image.

            All of this is made even more uncertain because although the early writers were trying to craft a new Christian tradition and were working in what would become a New Testament space, most of the references to Mary they use come from an older tradition, seemingly shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. There appears to be some divine or divine adjacent female figure associated with an older form of worship onto whom Mary is being mapped. This can be difficult to pick up on because modern readers are not attuned to that tradition. It is also unclear what level of knowledge the early church fathers had about this tradition. They where probably aware of it in some way, as they were much closer to it in time, and they seemed to recognize the worship of the Arabian women as being in some way connected to this older practice. Were they aware enough though to connect the lingering of practices such as those “heresies” with their own desire to cast Mary as the new Eve opposite Jesus’s Adam? This older tradition provides some of the best clues as to why Mary shows up as she does, but it also obfuscates through its far reaching permutation and the difficulties in fully assessing and calibrating for its affects.

            The last of the major argument threads are the ideas about Mary mapped out by the Church fathers from their meager facts, collected past practices, and current political needs. These are sometimes easier to deal with because they are intentionally created to be coherent and unifying, However this polished exterior can lull a reader into forgetting that these ideas to are living works created out of a specific set of circumstances, and whether or not they end up as the official church position on an issue, very few of them started out that way.

            The idea that Mary as the new Eve is an example of all of these strands coming together. For the typology to work Mary’s virgin status must not be questioned, it is also an idea that is not just about her, the Jesus/Adam parallel is important as well. He argument is politically expedient in the moment because it counters that Gnostics by strengthening the Christian claim that their God is the God of the Hebrews. Mary’s role here as part of a mother and son “ruling” pair refers back to this older tradition that can be glimpsed in Song of Songs and again in some of the early Christian hymns. Tying it all together with Mary becoming the bringer of new and eternal life just as eve had brought forth death becomes a doctrinal argument on original sin and salvation based around typology.
All of these various strands of thought surrounding Mary come together in one place and while they do not exactly work together, they at least work in parallel. On some occasions these points of inflection become far more fraught and contradictory. The sum of these crossroads of ideas and agendas “make much greater sense” when first considered as a group of separate parts.

- M. Coker


  1. I think that you hit on something important here: “These contradictions make her a very powerful figure, but they also make her very difficult to grapple with conceptually.” So much of the Scripture that was used to develop a sense of who Mary (and Christ!) was is steeped in metaphor. The Song of Songs, the Psalms, and a lot of the Wisdom tradition are poetry, not prose, and, not originally intended to serve as the exegetical bedrock of systematic Christian theology.
    Metaphor, especially metaphor drawn and developed from disparate texts, is powerful and affecting stuff. It spurs the imagination and, as you, I think, very rightly point out, can be contradictory. I don't think you're the only one to grapple with a systematization of these metaphors and poetry (I know I do, too, for one); that's exactly what's happening in the debates which we've read. Powerful people with a lot at stake in how to read these contradictions struggled to make sense of things that weren't always intended to make sense conceptually. The readings surrounding the Council of Ephesus are excellent examples of this grappling being played out on a grand stage.


  2. There are a lot of interesting issues regarding Mary and contradiction that you've pointed us to here, but I wonder if you might have benefited by going one step deeper and asking if these contradictions tells us something specifically about the irruption of the divine into creation and Mary's role in this. This was hinted at to me by your comment that the apparent contradictions surrounding Mary make her powerful, yet difficult to confront conceptually. Might we not broaden this to a wide swathe of the Christian understanding of the divine? Christ as human and man, the all powerful creator who died, etc. Does this speak to a sort of sloppiness? Or the different agendas of the authors? Or perhaps to the fact that the central pillar of the Christianity these authors espoused was fundamentally a mystery? (maybe all of these!). They used Mary to illuminate this sort of question, perhaps we can as well.

  3. This is exactly the sense of mystery I was hoping you would draw out from our texts: they do not make sense if we are looking for systematic arguments, but they can (I think) make sense if we see them as a process of interpretation, a grappling with metaphors that themselves cannot be collapsed into system but which seem to require such systematization even as they elude it. It is important for us as readers to pay careful attention to our authors' efforts at "smoothing," rather than taking the "smoothed" tradition as given. RLFB

  4. As we grapple with what it means to study Mary and in finding her importance in these readings, it is the fact that we are grappling with the differences that allow for greater depth. She is a virgin who gives birth, a paradox of incredible power when studying it as you stressed. I agree with that Mary’s power comes from her ability to be the exception the rule, able to hold what heaven could not. But it is this vein of thought that leads me to push you to look further at why you are stumbling upon some of these readings. There is no one writer on Mary and no one tradition which could lead to a confusion if looking at Mary as one such subject. However, the differences in time and authorship do not need to be contradictory. Mary did not “smooth out” the messy theological questions, many found her more confounding, but rather, she was a living and breathing answer in how to show Jesus as both man and divine, as containing what had never been before, by being in receipt of these values from his mother. Not to the same extent of course, just like how any child is not identical to their parents, but Mary allows for Jesus to be the savior to answer prophecy and the covenants of old. What Mary is for Christians may change but never become parallel to each other but rather branch out from the one fact, Mary herself, and this may be just as powerful a part when studying Mary as all the differences.
    - A.Graff