Monday, February 19, 2007


The Reverend Thomas J. Euteneuer from Spirit & Life blog has a couple of bones to pick with the movie The Nativity Story.

[Disclaimer: I have not seen the movie.]

He's upset that young Mary was portrayed as being in pain during child-birth:

First and foremost, any portrayal of Mary as giving birth in pain is simply contrary to the Christian Church's long tradition of Mary as virginal before, during and after birth. In this view, Her intact physical integrity during birth was accompanied by a psychic integrity that admitted of no pains during childbirth in any form. That may be a surprise to some, but it is nonetheless the historical Christian view of this event. The movie's portrayal of Her childbirth is thus not the Church's mainstream understanding and qualifies as a strictly private interpretation of the event. In fact, the movie had a chance to contrast the painful childbirth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth with the miraculous birth of Jesus to Mary, and it missed the perfect opportunity to provoke a good theological debate!

What is a good theological debate? Perhaps it is unfair of me to suggest that it is a bunch of know-nothing ignoramuses utterly lacking in real-world knowledge yelling at each other "Is too!" "Is not!", but based on the justification Euteneuer gives, I think that (unfair or not) it is probably accurate. The winning opinion was that belonging to those with the loudest voice.

Think about it: what sort of evidence could the Church fathers have gathered to determine whether or not Mary experienced pain during childbirth? Mary herself was long-dead, and so were anyone who knew her. What sort of evidence could they have gathered?

There is no evidence they could have found, and so naturally they didn't have any. So instead of evidence, they fell back on reasoning.

Now, non-theologians would have thought about the biology of the female birth canal, and the transmission of nerve impulses, and the likely size of Jesus' head, and concluded that there was no physical reason to think Mary felt no pain.

But theologians don't reason like that. They start with their conclusion, and then reason backwards: Jesus was magical, right? He's God, or the Son of God, or both. (One wonders why Catholics never seem to notice that if Jesus is the Son of God as well as God, doesn't that mean that Jesus is his own father? Put it like that and, well, it just doesn't make sense.) How do we know he was magical? Because of all the magical things that happened to him, like being born from a virgin mother who felt no pain. How do you know she felt no pain? Because Jesus is magical, naturally.

Euteneuer explains the reasoning:

Biblical Christians should know that there is a Scriptural reason for this doctrine. The virtually unanimous opinion of the Fathers of the Church in the first six centuries was that Mary is the "New Eve," the necessary counterpart to Christ, the New Adam (cf. Rom 5:12-14). Just as the old Eve collaborated in the sin of Adam, so the New Eve, with the New Adam, reverses the original disobedience and undoes the curse brought upon the human race by the first sinners. That same curse also brought about the grim consequence of labor pains for all of Eve's daughters (cf. Gen 3:16), but the New Eve who broke the curse was not subject to its dictates.

Nowhere in the Bible does it say that Mary didn't scream like a banshee when Jesus was born, and nowhere does it say that God magicked Jesus out of the womb leaving Mary's (mistranslated) virginity intact. The justification given basically boils down to this:

A committee of theologians, secure in their ivory tower, said it was so.

Oh, Euteneuer doesn't quite put it like that, but that is its essence, with all the verbiage stripped away. There isn't any real evidence for the position, nor is there any convincing logical reason to think that Mary felt no pain. The theologians merely reasoned that, for no good reason, Mary was the New Eve (never mind whether Eve actually existed or not), and "everybody knows" Eve felt no pain (except when she did), so therefore Mary must have felt no pain, because God likes symmetry. Except when he doesn't.

But look even a tiny bit more closely, and the logic behind the reasoning falls apart. If Mary reversed the "original disobedience" and undid the curse, why do women still have labor pains today? How naive and illogical were these "Fathers of the Church" (notice that the Mothers didn't get a say?) not to notice that labor pains are still around? Since labor pains still exist, the whole argument falls apart: whatever Mary did, she didn't break the so-called curse, and if she didn't undo the curse, there's no reason to believe she was the New Eve.

No reason, that is, except that some guy said she was.

The reasoning behind the Church's opinion is more to do with mythology than reality or logic. The story of little baby Jesus popping out of virginal Mary while leaving her intact has more to do with the misogynistic Virgin/Whore attitudes of the early Christian Church, and of the myth of Pallas Athena being born fully-grown from the forehead of Zeus, than anything to do with a real woman.

But none of this matters to the Catholics reading Euteneuer's blog. Instead, we get comments like these:

"Does the Protestantism in the film mean that it should be condemned and boycotted?"

"Thank you for proclaiming the truth about the Blessed Virgin Mary. There are not many that are doing so. God Bless you!"

" could God-made-Man enter into the womb of anyone less than 1000% pure?"

"Portraying Mary with labor pains contradicts the divinely realed [sic] dogma of Our Lady's Immaculate Conception inasmuch as labor pains is a result of original sin"

Since labor pains are not a result of original sin, but of the relative size of the child's head and the woman's birth canal and the nature of mammalian contractions, the whole argument is silly. Millions of Catholics can be wrong. All the theologians arguing whether or not Jesus passed through Mary's body "as the light goes through a glass without breaking it" are doing nothing more significant than Trekkies arguing whether or not Captain Kirk ate eggs for breakfast on his fifth birthday. (Fried or scrambled?)

Theology. Don't talk to me about theology. Of the millions of words written and spoken by theologians, the thousands of man-hours spent in debate about angels on pins and whether or not Jesus every laughed, the people who died in agony because they thought Jesus was merely flesh made into a divine being instead of a divine being made flesh, is there one single thing of significance?

No comments: