National Post considers Mary Wept as the first piece of Biblical scholarship in comic form

“Christianity gets graphic: Chester Brown made the first piece of Biblical scholarship in comic form” / National Post / David Berry / April 11, 2016

It is tempting, particularly if you are remotely pun-inclined, to call Chester Brown’s latest, Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus, the spiritual successor to his stripped-down memoir Paying For It.

Where Paying was a plaintively forthright memoir of his years of experience with sex workers, a de facto argument for the humanity of the whole exchange, Mary Wept, helpfully subtitled “Prostitution and religious obedience in the Bible,” is the spiritual case for it, an argument that God is just fine with it, too.

And there is certainly some of that in the book, which is built out of Brown’s interpretations of specific Bible stories and, of course, some pretty thorough and voluminous notes about why and how he chose his particular parables and scenarios. But the book also begins with the story of Cain and Abel — a famous Biblical story, sure, but maybe not the first place most of us would go looking when we’re wondering about the Bible’s thoughts on paying for sex.

The story of the murderous brother is a pretty perfect introduction for what turns out to be a much grander project on Brown’s part, though: taking us through his own philosophy of Christianity. Leave it to someone of his very particular mind to have snuck in a whole theory of belief in the clothes of a prostitute.

“Despite all these intelligent people trying to understand who Jesus really was, there still isn’t really an agreement on it,” Brown, quietly but fairly excitedly explaining his book in the back room of a Toronto coffee shop, says. “Various Biblical scholars will say they know, but everyone is contradicting each other. I have an idea I think makes sense, but I’m not 100 per cent sure. It’s that mystery that keeps me wanting to read these things. What did Jesus really believe? What was he teaching? What was going on there?”

The thing he is referring to is not just the Bible, although that tends to be where a good many Christians stop on the subject. Brown, who describes himself — currently, he adds with the haste of someone who has turned this over in his head more than a few times — as a Christian who doesn’t really believe in the divinity of Christ, also has a penchant for what you might call advanced Bible study: how and why the texts we now consider divine got that way, and the competing interpretations and theories that were left by the wayside.

Excepting a certain airport-potboiler code by another guy named Brown, historical Bible study doesn’t often make its way into the mainstream, but suffice to say that there are respectable arguments to be made for everything from Jesus as prophet of an impending apocalypse to him as semi-charlatan who faked his death to fulfill Jewish prophecy.

“I started to have my doubts when I came across a book called The Passover Plot,” says Brown, who was of course raised Christian. “I was at a friend’s house and read the back cover, which explained the thesis, which was that Jesus arranged his own crucifixion — he was attempting to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies, and had himself drugged on the cross to appear dead, and that explained the resurrection. At 10 or 12 years old, it was that realization that, hey, that makes more sense than what I’ve been told in church. It totally freaked me out.”

It’s been a long and book-filled road from there to here for Brown, but Mary Wept is in pretty much every respect his contribution to the debate, surely the first piece of Biblical scholarship in comic form.

And as much as it has some powerful things to say about prostitution — besides showing a long history of perfectly acceptable prostitution, Brown also makes a case that both of the important Marys in Jesus’s life were sex workers — the underlying message here seems to be that God favours those who challenge him, who take the miracle of creation and show Him how it can work better. And you thought prostitution might be controversial.

“That was something that I thought I’d noticed in several Bible stories, but I really got a foundation for it when I read The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, by Yoram Hazony,” Brown explains. “He makes a convincing case. And he’s an Orthodox Jew: so at the same time as he says that God finds favour with those who oppose him, he thinks that we should closely follow the Torah and the laws of Moses. It’s interesting. He tries to reconcile it, though I don’t really buy that.”

That combined spirit of inquiry and incredulity might be the best one for approaching Mary Wept: it is above all a challenge to its readers to turn their thinking around, to look beyond accepted teachings and actually wrestle with this wisdom and what it might have to teach you. And God love it for that.

“I find I can apply Christian teachings to my life and find meaning in them,” says Brown, explaining how it is he can maintain both a belief and a restlessly critical mind. “I think the biblical guys were trying to make sense of this the same way I am now. Even the gospel guys, they didn’t know Jesus. They heard stories and they were trying to understand them.”


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