Saturday, August 25, 2012

Adams and "The Other Mary"

I know I don't post here nearly often enough. My studio will be finished in a couple of weeks (look for postings here and on FB) and I should be able to settle into better habits.

The following article is about the premier production of John Adams "The Other Mary" - and the article muses about who exactly that was. It is clear that they are referring to Mary Madeleine, who they note as one of Jesus' closest disciples and the woman that saw him resurrected at the tomb - "woman, why weepest thou?".

Just to make my position clear before posting the article: I firmly believe that Mary Madeleine was the spouse of Jesus. There are a number of reasons, based on the teachings of the Christ at we are sent to this earth - among them are:

  • Obtaining a mortal body which can then, like Jesus' be resurrected.
  • Taking upon ourselves necessary ordinances such as baptism.
  • Being married and fulfilling the commandment to Adam and Eve to replenish the earth.

Of course there are more. Jesus made it clear that his baptism was to "fulfill all righteousness" - in other words, without writing at length here, Jesus was required as a mortal (though the Son of God) to fulfill all those things that mortals are here to do to. That would include at least marriage and, probably children. That, of course, does not sit well with many Christians; but it is, of course, part of my testimony of the reality of Christ and his position in the Godhead.

So when composer John Adams' new oratorio-opera "The Gospel According to the Other Mary" had its world premiere in May at Walt Disney Concert Hall, it touched off a lively discussion among a handful of religious scholars and bloggers. At issue is a matter that has divided biblical students for centuries and once prompted a ruling by Pope St. Gregory I the Great.
In Adams' oratorio, which has a libretto by acclaimed avant-garde director Peter Sellars, the other Mary of the title is Mary Magdalene, Jesus' most steadfast female disciple, who was present at the Crucifixion and later beheld the risen Christ. The Adams-Sellars work also identifies Mary Magdalene as the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom the Christian savior raised from the dead, according to the New Testament.
(Adams' piece, which received strong reviews from The Times' Mark Swed, Alex Ross of the New Yorker and others, will be presented in a fully staged version next year at Disney Hall.)
But according to Jack Miles, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "God: A Biography," the Gospels make clear that Mary of Magdala (a.k.a. Mary Magdalene) is not the sister of Martha and Lazarus. That Mary is Mary of Bethany, another woman entirely, Miles said.
What's more, Miles wrote in an email to The Times, the Gospel of Matthew (27:61) refers to yet another Mary who was sitting opposite the crucified Jesus' tomb with Mary Magdalene. She, not Mary Magdalene, is the real "other Mary," wrote Miles, a Pasadena resident and former Times book editor.
Miles wasn't the only onlooker to raise questions about the oratorio's conception of its central character. Several readers, including a Southern California pastor, also sent emails to The Times asserting that Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the so-called other Mary are three people.
Yet like the Richard III of Shakespeare's play, the Julius Caesar of Handel's opera, or the Jesus ofAndrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera, the biblical characters depicted in "The Gospel According to the Other Mary" are dramatic creations and musical avatars more than strictly historical figures.
In an interview before his work's premiere, Adams said that in constructing his version of Mary Magdalene he wasn't relying solely on biblical accounts, which he described as sketchy and "fractal." Rather, Adams said, he viewed Mary Magdalene as "an archetype of a woman who's had a hard past." In a sense she is a universal female figure, an Everywoman who transcends any specific time and place.
Sellars said that although "our fact-oriented age" demands concrete, empirical answers, the life and identity of Mary Magdalene, like those of many religious figures, is shrouded in profound mystery.
"So often we put spiritual matters in very materialistic terms, like, 'Now wait a minute, where did she grow up, and what school did she go to, and what kind of car did she drive?' And the Bible doesn't include any of that stuff," said Sellars, who'll direct the staged version of the work.
"For me, the reason we approach this material with poetry and music and exactly not with theology is because then it begins to yield some of its meanings and become more approachable for a wider range of people, possibly, and become a kind of mirror in very surprising and diverse ways that are not theologically oriented."
In contrast to her New Testament counterpart, the Mary Magdalene of Adams' oratorio inhabits a space that extends beyond the minimal words that the Gospels devote to her. Sellars' libretto incorporates writings by Native American poet and novelist Louise Erdrich, Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos and the influential Catholic journalist-social activist Dorothy Day. Mary Magdalene (sung at Disney Hall by mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor) gives voice to a number of these women.
"Dorothy Day is absolutely not Mary Magdalene. And Rosario Castellanos is certainly not Mary Magdalene," Sellars said. "And yet what's beautiful is the most private and intensely personal thoughts of each of those women have spoke something that creates a shared experience that reaches across centuries."
Sellars also pointed out that the libretto deliberately refers to the main character "Mary Magdalene" only in those instances where she is called that in the Gospel of John.
"What's so marvelous is the verse in John that names the women at the foot of the cross, there are always three or four Marys standing there," Sellars said. "And so that's the other reason why the title is 'Other,' is it's the other Mary, whoever you want to call her, however you want to construe her. It's the woman who's not Jesus' mother."
Questions about whether the "other" Mary is one woman, two or three date to the earliest centuries of Christianity. In the traditions of the Eastern Church, which dominated the Balkans, the Middle East, Asia Minor and Eastern Europe, the three women were regarded as distinct and separate.
But by the 6th century, Western church traditions identified Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany. Pope St. Gregory I (c. 540-604) endorsed that view also. But some modern religious scholars have continued to challenge it.
Miles acknowledged in an email that countless artists have used varying degrees of poetic license in their depictions of biblical personages.
"If a playwright wanted to make Jesus Mary of Magdalene's son for the purposes of some dramatic effect, he could do so," Miles wrote. "Both the legal and, at this late date (which is to say after 'Godspell' and 'Jesus Christ Superstar' and 'The Life of Brian' and so forth), even the popular traditions of our country pose no obstacle whatsoever to his doing so.
"By the same token, however, I can at least speculate that the libretto [of Adams' work] would not have suffered much if Martha of Bethany was merely a friend of Mary Magdalene's rather than her sister," Miles added.
Sellars said that he was not "in any way dismissing or discounting the serious work of theologians who have really debated fine points to try and articulate the details that are inherent in these texts."
"At the same time, there is something that is not going to reveal itself to any kind of parsing," he said. "And that is the immense mystery of what is being discussed."

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