In This Episode
Remember that time Joe Jonas had a Purity Ring and then…didn’t? That’s the Virgin Mary’s fault. Sort of. The most famous woman in all of Christianity is a virgin — or is she? Phill is joined by feminist theologian Meggan Watterson for a chat on Biblical revisionism and the real miracle of the immaculate conception.
Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media, This is Unholier than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardi. If you’re listening to this episode on Christmas Day, let me just say, wow! Merry Christmas, y’all! And to those who do not observe Christmas: happy almost making it to the end of this incredibly dastardly god-forsaken year, you’ve got one week left, so buckle up. Last week, we debunked all sorts of myths and fallacies about the star of Christmas: one Jesus Christ. This week, though, I want to talk about the woman who made all of this possible: Mary. You might know Mary as the miraculous virgin who defied all the odds to give birth to her baby boy. Of course, that baby would then become the son of God—spoiler—and go on to shape world religion and politics for centuries. No gig. Mary is a beloved figure. All over the world, pilgrimages are made to places where she is believed to have appeared. She also holds ubiquity as the most prominent woman in the Christian faith, a religion that’s pretty much all about the guys. But just like there’s been some intense revision about Jesus Christ, I was wondering what the Bible really says about Mary. Is it revisionist about her, too? In other words, in the famous words of Tai from Clueless is Mary a virgin who can’t drive? To help me find out what may have been lost in translation, I’m welcoming my friend, the feminist theologian Meggan Waterson, who’s the author of the fantastic book I cannot recommend enough, “Mary Magdalene Revealed.”.
Phillip Picardi: Meggan, thanks for being here.
Meggan Waterson: I love seeing your face. I love being here with you. So thank you.
Phillip Picardi: Likewise. Well, we’re talking just ahead of Christmas, which obviously means that people are all over are going to be celebrating the divine birth of Jesus Christ, our savior. And there’s been a whole lot that’s been made about the immaculate conception of Jesus. And of course, a lot of that revolves around this idea that Mary is a virgin, which essentially makes Jesus’s birth itself a miracle. So I’m just wondering, I know that you refer to yourself as a feminist theologian, and I personally take umbrage with the idea that we need to revere virginity. And I’m wondering if you interpret the birth of Christ and the miraculous birth of Christ in the same way that it’s been taught by Christian churches all over the world.
Meggan Waterson: So it’s a brilliant question and it’s a very critical aspect of what Harvard scholar Karen King refers to as the ‘master story,’ so that idea of the Virgin Mary becoming not only Virgin, but immaculate, the ever virgin. So it’s really important to look at who that story is serving, right? The agenda behind that story. That whole idea of Mary being virginal didn’t actually happen until the fifth century. There was a council called the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. where Mary was declared the Theotokos, which is just Greek for God there. So Mary went hundreds of years before the church was instituted. There was a form of Christianity in the wake of Christ that practiced a form of Christianity we really don’t know that much about, and we don’t really see that much in practice, but it was absolutely an imperative in this form of Christianity that women were seen as equals. It was the idea that Christ was the liberator. Not this blond, blue eyed white man who’s going to judge a woman for having sex or having an abortion. This was more the vision of a Christ who was Middle Eastern and cared most about the liberation, meaning the understanding that we all as humans know that no matter where we ranked on the Roman hierarchy of existence—so no matter where we were in terms of external power—we all possessed an equal power with love. Like that, we are that love, and that renders us all equal. So that early form of Christianity that was practiced before Christianity was institutionalized in the fourth century would have had nothing to do with this idea of women, virginity, purity, because that’s about power. That’s about dominance, right? That’s not about seeing clearly with the eye of the heart.
Phillip Picardi: Right. It is interesting to hear that once upon a time, Christianity was the religion of outsiders, and that’s what made it have such a widespread appeal. And what made it catch on with such fervor. Right?
Meggan Waterson: Right. And these early Christians before the fourth, fifth and sixth century when it was institutionalized by, beginning with the Emperor Constantine, these early Christians were sentenced to death if they confessed that they were Christian. That’s how radical it was. That’s how much of a threat it was to the Roman hierarchy of power and the idea of power. No one could be greater than the emperor. And here Christ was saying, actually, there’s something that’s greater than any one of us. And it makes the first the last, and the last first. And it’s this power that is God or that is love that exists within all of us, equally.
Phillip Picardi: So if this is the master story, how did people in that early version of Christianity, how did they understand that Jesus was the son of God? How could the son of God be brought about by just a plain old regular birth by a woman who wasn’t a virgin? You know what I mean? [laughs]
Meggan Waterson: Well, I mean, to me, that makes the story so much more potent and so much more, so much more real. Right? Because if we look at our own human existence, it is this crazy cocktail, this mix of divinity and humanity where this crazy, broken, devastated ego, which so many of us are feeling so much these days, where our personal identity is being challenged or is being ripped away. So we are that ego, but we’re also this resilient, divine, true love that blazes through all of these moments. We are both. So for me, the reality of what it is to be human makes so much more sense with, uh, the played out, the experiential, the truth of what that would be for a human woman, right? Like for the blood and the mess of birth, for any woman who’s actually given birth knows it is such an absolutely unbelievable paradox of divinity and terror in giving birth. So for me, it makes so much more sense that she would be human, that she would have had sex, that she would have been marginalized. She was a teenager. All these things. That she had so little power, she had so little personal power. Of course, that’s who God would be born to. The woman on the margins, the teenager who’s abandoned and without home and is seeking shelter. Of course, that’s where the divine would come through, is that woman with so little personal power. That’s the paradox.
Phillip Picardi: I love that interpretation of it, too, because we talk a lot about the miracle of childbirth, right? That any child born healthy and in this world also is considered a miracle by just like our common language. That’s how often people talk about childbirth. But also the miracle of this particular story being that a bunch of strangers came together to celebrate the birth of this child and to help this new mother in this inconceivably difficult journey and this exile that she was facing at the time. A bunch of strangers came together to form community and celebrate with her, as you say, offer her shelter, offer her gifts. And that is a miracle in and of itself because all of those people were coalescing and coming together on this, on this fateful night to celebrate the birth of this child, even though society was telling them to do anything but. And that is miraculous.
Meggan Waterson: But we don’t want to strip that story of the humanity, right? We don’t want to distance that story from any one of us by making this something that only happened once, in the first century, and to the Ever Virgin. We want to remember that each one of those wise men, each one of those, including Joseph, who had to really let go of his own egoic identity when Mary was pregnant, before they were married. They each had to show up in a way which I think is the most powerful interpretation of it, or the most powerful way to see this story is that each one of them was being guided by something inside of them to show up for this displaced woman. And that, to me, is kind of the uncelebrated power, the courage it took for Mary to say yes to the Angel Gabriel. Like in so many of the icons, it’s like Mary is way down here and Gabriel is like looming large above her, and he’s like this huge angel in gold with like a gigantic trumpet. And I can understand that interpretation, but I think the experience of it was something so much more discrete, so much more subversive. It was more the voice of love inside of her. It was like a surge of light from within our heart, telling her that this is a child that’s meant for her. This is a child that’s meant to be born to her. And I love that she had to say yes to it, that she had to say yes to that voice inside of her. And I feel like that’s what every one of those community members did to show up. They said yes to that same surge of light, to be there part of that divine story which is all about our humanity.
Phillip Picardi: Yeah, that idea that the divinity and humanity are connected is something that is so lost in interpretation in this very crucial story. Because even if you’re not a Christian, you know, I think one of the things that is kind of hard to understand about Christmas is that even the teachings of Jesus and how Jesus practiced his life, he wasn’t just trying to say I’m the son of God. He was trying to say all of us are children of God. Right? And in a way, by making Mary this holy, miraculous virgin, we also strip her of her humanity and we place her on this pedestal. And in common parlance, we would say that this pedestal is known as the Madonna complex, right? It literally comes from Mary. And I’m wondering what you think the Madonna complex and the virgin-ization of Mary did to women all over the world. What did the church insinuate by crafting this particular mythology around Mary?
Meggan Waterson: Well, so I mentioned the agenda behind that master story. What ended up happening from the fourth century to the sixth century was this sort of classic stereotypic dichotomy of creating Mary Magdalene as the penitent prostitute and Mary of Nazareth, Christ’s mother, as the Ever Virgin, the Immaculate Virgin. So what was created was this polar opposite, which is impossible for any human woman to identify with. And what this established, because during that time, the church had a very clear agenda to take spiritual power and spiritual authority away from women, so that story helped to distance women from the possibility of being able to hold positions of power. Those two stories, where it’s you are the impossible, immaculate Ever Virgin—not just that she gave birth without sin, she was also born without sin! Like it kind of added on over the years. And then Mary Magdalene, rather than being Christ’s companion, which is how she is referred to in many of the texts that were not included in the formal canonization of the Bible in the fourth century, all these other scriptures refer to her as Christ companion. And so instead of being his spiritual equal or maybe his successor, she became the penitent prostitute. The detrimental complex that was created then for women is either you’re the virgin or the whore. Even if you’re not Christian, that still has had an impact on women’s capacity to know and experience their own sexuality. And it’s also about very clearly for me in the way I see it as a feminist theologian, it’s not about purity at all. It’s about dominance. It’s about power. And that’s what I see being played out in the structure of the Ever Virgin and the penitent whore.
Phillip Picardi: Right. And by cleansing the story of sex, because if you’re saying that Christ was born, the son of God was born with no sex being involved, it also reinforces the idea that carnal desire is sinful, that sex is somehow not holy or not pure, and that has repercussions for both men and women, Right? By understanding if Jesus could exist in this world and we know nothing about his sex life, if we know nothing about his real relationship with Mary Magdalene, how also do men reckon with sexual shame?
Meggan Waterson: Absolutely. When I was in seminary, that’s definitely one of the moments I remember most, was when I was talking about how, of course, Christ would have had to have had sex, because if he came to really transform all of human existence, if the idea of salvation really is true or the idea that he came to experience everything, to bring love to everything that it means to be human, of course, you would have had to have had sex. And like, just silenced the room. And this woman turned around like the hairiest eyeball I’ve ever seen in my life. Like just to suggest that Christ was the sexual being was a radical suggestion, but to me, how could he not? Because he was fully human and fully divine. He was both. So of course he would have had to come and experience everything that it meant to be human. So to me, it’s a given. And also it’s important to remember or recognize that the whole idea that sex is sinful, that concept didn’t exist in his incarnation, like when he in the first century, that didn’t exist. That didn’t, that wasn’t formed until the fourth century, the idea that sex was sinful. So that came hundreds of years after he was crucified.
Phillip Picardi: Interesting.
Phillip Picardi: Yeah, something I’ve often thought about, like the idea that we revere childbirth, we revere reproduction and procreation, but we don’t ever revere the act of reproducing or of having sex. It’s a very, it’s very complicated. How can you enjoy the fruits of your labor without also finding the miraculous things that could exist in the labor itself, you know? [laughs]
Meggan Waterson: Exactly. Exactly.
Phillip Picardi: So there’s this thing that’s come out of the Virgin story, which is commonly known as purity culture. I’m wondering if you can help me trace a little bit of the Christian church’s teachings around purity culture, and what you think the long term effects have been that are either positive or detrimental towards the church’s development.
Meggan Waterson: So during this crazy COVID time, I’ve been binge watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And then I went on to Angel.
Phillip Picardi: Excellent.
Meggan Waterson: So profound. There’s this quote that I love from Cordelia in Angel, where she says, If a male body was needed for sacrifice and holiness, the world would be atheists just like that.
Phillip Picardi: Yes.
Meggan Waterson: What she’s pointing out is this whole idea of holiness and sacredness being around the virgin female body, that has nothing to do with purity. That’s the truth of what we might understand. That’s if we divested of the misogyny and divest the whole idea of purity with dominance and power, is if we reframe that as a clarity of heart, because then sex truly is sacred, because we’re clear at heart, we’re actually present in our body when we’re having it. And that’s what makes sex holy. Is that presence. Not who we’re having sex with or when or why.
Phillip Picardi: Yeah. There is this constant reinforcement of this idea that our sex lives somehow taint us from our full potential as human beings. So if I’m to understand what you are saying, what I think I’m gathering is it’s possible and maybe even beneficial to understand one’s sexuality, whether that is having sex or not, whatever your sexuality is, but to be fully in touch with the divine means, to also be fully in touch with your body and what your body’s desires are, that those are coming from—according to your interpretation—that those desires may also be coming from a divine or spiritual place.
Meggan Waterson: Absolutely. In the Gospel of Mary, what’s so profound about it is that the fragments of it that we have begin with, there is no such thing as sin. And this is something that Christ is teaching to Mary and all the disciples. There’s no such thing as sin. And the powers that he reveals to Mary in his gospel that we all contain, the powers later become the seven deadly sins when Christianity is institutionalized. But in Mary’s gospel, there’s simply powers. So there are aspects of what it means to be human that can hold us in their grip. But if all we need is the presence and awareness in our heart of what’s actually true for us. So we want to return to what’s true for us, which we contain our own answers of what’s true for us. We can’t find it outside of us. Not even in a priest or a guru or an Imam. We actually contain our own truth and our own sacred dialog with what’s true for us, from within us. So the most critical thing for us to constantly do is to return inward to the heart. But that means being ferociously embodied, right? And trusting that the body doesn’t lie. So this idea that sex is sinful didn’t come till the fourth century and was institutionalized for a reason. And as the church really rid itself of women and sort of created the the power structure and the hierarchy that mirrored the Roman Empire much more than the early forms of Christianity, the exclusion of women also included the exclusion of the wisdom of the body. So that was detrimental to both women and men, to all of us, to exclude the wisdom of what we can only know through our body.
Phillip Picardi: I wonder if the church actually wanted to honor Mary, what would the church look like today?
Meggan Waterson: Oh, my goodness. Well, I recently came across this image by Tim Okamura. He’s this incredible Brooklyn-based artist and he has an image of Mary that is like a young African-American teenager in poverty and the title of it is “Courage” and there’s this butterfly flying around her and the beauty and the power—the image returns what’s sacred to what’s been seen as vulnerable and powerless. And it returns that divinity that’s always been there, that true power of what it means to reconstitute the world. Women, no matter where we rank on the system of power in our social structures, we reconstitute the world. And, so with our bodies. And so I think for me, at the very least, there would be a radical equality in terms of who speaks on behalf of, who preaches on behalf of, the divine. But also for me, which has always been my struggle with getting ordained, it’s really going back and adding other narratives to that master story, really adding in voices and adding in the humanity, giving Mary back the power of her own body and the wisdom, the courage that she faced by saying yes to that angel in her heart. So I would love to see it. I mean, it excites me to think that that would be possible. It would be to add more of these stories and to really see the power of what that would be like to have the master story added with all of the women, all of the Marys throughout the centuries who have existed and what they have to say about what it’s like to give birth to God.
Phillip Picardi: Wow. Well, that was a beautiful and very powerful answer. Meggan, thank you so much, as always, for your wisdom. I can’t stress enough how much the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, your book really changed a lot of things for me and opened my eyes to a whole different world of possibilities that I, I really never thought of before. So thank you so much for your work and for your time today.
Meggan Waterson: Thank you.
Phillip Picardi: Y’all, the end of this episode means the final episode of Season 1 of Unholier than Thou. Thank you. Thank you for listening. It’s been a true joy to publicly display the trauma of my religious upbringing and education with all of you. But no, on a serious note, the best thing about the show has been reading the incredibly heartwarming comments, messages and reviews from so many of you who have said the show has helped to better reflect or even change their points of view on faith. I’m grateful to you for listening. I’ll be back soon for the next season of the show with some great new surprises. And in the meantime, maybe you can give me an early Christmas present by giving us a five star rating and review, so even more people can take a listen. And as always, you can find me on Instagram at PFPicardi. I’ll see you in 2021, hopefully in a post-pandemic Joe Biden America. Until then, stayu blessed.
Unholier than Thou is a Crooked Media production. Brian Semel is our associate producer. Sidney Rapp is our assistant producer, with production support from Reuben Davis. Veronica Simonetti is our sound engineer and editor. The theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa, and the show is executive produced by Me, Lyra Smith and Sarah Geismer. Thanks for listening.