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Mary Revisited

Scholars, artists, even filmmakers question traditional thinking about Jesus' mother and offer updated images of a real woman who could have lived today.


Millions of people say she is the most influential woman who ever lived. Now, two millenniums after her death, they want to know everything about her. Mary of Galilee, the mother of Jesus, is in the midst of a make-over as Scripture scholars, historians, artists and movie makers update her image for the 21st century.

This time, the heated debates about her title as virgin mother and the accuracy of her story as told in the Gospels hardly get mentioned. The curiosity about her is far more basic. Her newest board of examiners wants to know what she did all day, and what it was like to be the mother of Jesus. Some of their most powerful new impressions of her come from comparisons of her problems with those of the underprivileged today.

"There has been a big change in our idea about Mary," said Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who co-produced "Mary Mother of Jesus" with her son Bobby Shriver. The TV movie airs Nov. 14 on NBC with Pernilla August as Mary and Christian Bale as Jesus. "This happens with political leaders too. Generations later, we see them differently," she said.

The movie follows the biblical account of Mary's life, but some scenes are imagined--she teaches Jesus about his Jewish faith, for example. And she doesn't try to hide her feelings, which rarely surface in the Gospel accounts. Unlike her usual veiled hair, she appears in this movie as the earthy type with long, loose hair.

"In the past, people didn't dare to construct a story that showed Mary getting angry or anything like that," said Bobby Shriver. "She's always been a one-dimensional character."

That isn't to say the older images of her are being tossed aside. When mural paintings of the Virgin of Guadalupe were desecrated last month in Los Angeles, the families who placed them on the walls outside their shops launched a loud protest. At about the same time in New York, a portrait of the Virgin Mary with elephant dung attached to her dress spurred New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to threaten a shutdown of the Brooklyn Museum of Art exhibition that included the painting, by British artist Chris Ofili.

While other divine and saintly figures from Jesus to Moses and St. Paul have undergone highly critical reevaluations in the last decade, the update of Mary didn't start out as a "tear down." Instead, she is being respectfully escorted off a pedestal that has kept her from living as full a life as modern historians and Scripture scholars are currently reconstructing for her.

Revisionists Create Mary in Their Image

The complex figure that Mary is emerging to be has some things in common with those who are piecing together her new profile. They live in a cultural melting pot, and she becomes a model for religious diversity. Raised a devout Jew, transformed into an early Christian, honored as the mother of a prophet in the Muslim Koran, she seems as comfortable in an interfaith culture as any contemporary Californian.

Muslim scholars point out that Mary is the woman most often mentioned in the Koran, and they make more of this than scholars did in the past.

"There is some debate in Koranic studies as to whether Mary is a prophet, since God only talks to prophets," said Zayn Kassam, a professor of religious studies at Pomona College.

Protestants are taking her outside Catholic and Orthodox Christian circles--where she has always been venerated--to create a more prominent place for her in their own, less emotive traditions. At Yale Divinity School, an Episcopal seminary in Connecticut, music and liturgy professor Margot Fassler is teaching a course and writing a book on religious rituals in honor of the virgin.

"Every culture has to find Mary for themselves," Fassler said. "Today there is the feminist Mary and the right-wing conservative Mary among others. She's always been our way of figuring out what we need."

By far the most gripping images of her come from Mexican and other Latin American theologians who see Mary in light of their own countries' struggles for justice.

"The parallels between Mary and Third World women are almost scary," said Elizabeth Johnson, a theologian who teaches a course about Mary at Fordham University in New York. "She lived in an occupied country, her son was killed by the state, she was a refugee at one time. They see her as a village woman who had a tough life. Through it all, she kept faith with her calling in novel and dangerous ways. As so many of them do."

Much of the latest research springs from an urge that Johnson also feels.

"I want to bring her off the pedestal and reweave her into the fabric of men and women's lives," she said.

Scripture scholars are asking perhaps the most troubling questions about her. In taking a closer look at details about Mary found in the Gospels, they see challenges to her faith as well as her personal safety. A scene in the Gospel of Luke shows Mary finding her lost child in the temple after three days of searching with her husband, Joseph.

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