New film Mary Magdalene is an admirable effort to clear the reputation of the most tainted woman in Christian history (next to Eve). It’s a dip into arcane biblical literature for sceptical moderns who probably have neither the patience nor taste for it. And it’s a somewhat bizarre choice to succeed director Garth Davis’ celebrated Lion.
It also makes for awkward viewing in a time of #MeToo because its Jesus—associated, as he is today, with a church often considered the antithesis of all that is enlightened—treats women so well that he shames not only the highly patriarchal culture of his time but our own progressive, supposedly liberated era as well.
Rather than lord it over women, abuse and intimidate them or pressure them into sex, Jesus chooses instead to lift them up. Mary begins the film an oppressed figure, accused of demon possession for her independence of spirit. Yet Jesus sees her clearly and takes her seriously. He listens to her and values her presence. But it’s not just Mary he treats this way. When one woman in the film tells Jesus that “our lives are not our own”, he claims for them a spiritual autonomy that, if nourished, can challenge the oppressive patriarchal norms of their day.
And yet none of this is a prelude to Jesus marrying Mary, à la Dan Brown, or falling in love as per the standard Hollywood romance. As director Garth Davis pointed out, “Mary the harlot” to “Mary the wife” swaps one sexualised narrative for another, and he was interested in recognising Mary in her own right. Women are seen and heard by Jesus, recognised as full human beings with needs and desires of their own—the very opposite of objectification.
Mary Magdalene’s depiction of Jesus’ radical treatment of women is largely true to the Jesus of the Bible, though the film’s apocryphal (that is, extra-biblical) elevation of Mary above all the other disciples is rather unorthodox. But even if this aspect of the film is awkward for traditional believers, sceptical viewers might find themselves, to their surprise, wishing that modern men would treat women the way Jesus did. They might even entertain the outrageous thought that following Jesus could be liberating.
That is, of course, if not for the well-documented sins of the church. Domestic violence scandals, the abuse of children exposed in the royal commission: both attest to the failures of plenty of Jesus’ followers to live up to his example. Even Mary doesn’t escape unscathed. The film’s coda notes that Pope Gregory labelled Mary Magdalene a prostitute in 591; a slur that would prove hard to shake for nearly 1400 years, until the Vatican quietly cleared her name in 1969.
Despite these glaring institutional and individual failures, there remains something compelling about Jesus that Mary Magdalene and its eponymous protagonist has eyes to see. If, as he claimed, Jesus also happens to be God, then he’s infinitely more than a feminist ally in the battle of the sexes. He’s the one who establishes a redemptive pattern of relationship between men and women: one of mutual respect and recognition. And one that appealed to so many women in the ancient world that they flocked to the early church in such great numbers that Celsus, a second century critic, derided Christianity for being a religion of the weak.
Even if Jesus is not the Son of God, he treats women so well that the average viewer may be forgiven for wishing he was. For the sceptical Westerner to make that leap, if not of faith, then of desire … now, that’s awkward.
This article first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.
Justine Toh is senior research fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.