Friday, January 16, 2015

‘Adoration: Mary of Bethany – The Untold Story’ (Book Review)

Practically everyone has heard of Mary of Magdala or “Mary Magdalene,” whose reputation has grown from popular books like The Da Vinci Code and from recent speculation about the contents of the Valentinian gnostic text known as the Gospel of Philip. But Mary of Bethany, associated with “the other Mary” (Matthew 27:61, 28:1; c.f. Luke 24:10), has not enjoyed much time in the limelight, save maybe the recent (and not terribly well-received) The Gospel According to the Other Mary (2013) by composer John Adams. Her relative unpopularity should be a surprise to those of us who grew up attending Sunday School because the stories of Mary versus Martha (Luke 10:38-42), Lazarus being raised from the dead (John 11), and Mary anointing Jesus (John 12:1-11) are considered core curriculum for any age.

Well, as it turns out, Mary of Bethany has a fan, and a mega-one at that. Author Martha Kilpatrick, a blogger for Get Along with God and founder of Shulamite Ministries, believes that “Biblical characters are to be our intimate mentors.” She puts action behind her words with a poetic reinterpretation of Mary’s life in Adoration: Mary of Bethany – The Untold Story (SeedSowers, 1999). I wish I could tell you great things about this book, but while I agree that biographies of the early saints can make inspiring reading material for Christians, I was truly disappointed with Kilpatrick’s sub-par work.

The first indication of bad things to come was the author’s “Statement of Faith” that took the place of a proper book dedication. In it, she claims to be Jesus Christ’s “Shulamite” (referencing the standard translation for the feminine version of Solomon, which the female character in the Song of Songs is called). In other words, she identifies herself as the Messiah’s personal lover – either literally or figuratively – and this belief is fundamental to her faith. (Even more so than the resurrection, apparently, since that’s not even specifically mentioned!)

As I guessed, further reading reveals how this sort of bridal mysticism plays into her retelling of Mary’s story, where the sister of Martha and Lazarus has a special, intimate (although not sexual) relationship with the Savior. In the Bible, Martha complains that Mary is listening to Jesus’ teaching instead of helping her in the kitchen, but Jesus verbally corrects her. In Adoration, what is one short line of praise for Mary from Jesus is embellished into a dramatic story of two sisters in perpetual conflict. Mary becomes the angelic virgin and Martha the evil whore (although not literally, of course) in this classic but tiresome dichotomy.

Mary is reserved, patient, obedient, and spiritually in tune with Jesus. Martha is brash, jealous, confrontational, and controlling. They’re like the hero and villain in a child’s book. And because Kilpatrick is blinded by her own brand of Mariology, she can only see the sisters in this way. Every opportunity is taken to tarnish Martha’s reputation and criticize her for being demanding and trusting in her own knowledge. The author is especially cruel when she gets to Lazarus’ death. Because Martha’s every motive, word, and deed are suspect, her daring proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah and the Son of God, which should serve as proof of her own profound understanding and faith, is ridiculed. Even in that glorious moment, Kilpatrick wants Martha to be shamed. Instead, I think the author should be ashamed for going to such great lengths to demonize a saint.

Now, maybe you don’t mind a little “artistic license” when it comes to retelling Bible stories. I would agree within limits, and I believe Kilpatrick went far beyond those limits. To worsen the reading experience, her poetry is unimpressive. It’s poorly-written prose, broken up in imitation-poetic fashion, making it difficult to read. And I am being nice.

Also, the author was rather sloppy about her research, relying too much on her own imagination. Even though minor references to ancient Jewish burial customs appear all over the Bible, she prefers to believe that the hired mourners were really disciples of Mary, eagerly following their religious guru everywhere. From just Martha’s complaint, Kilpatrick concludes that the family was poor, since obviously rich people would have servants to tend to kitchen duties. Really? A poor family can’t afford to feed so many guests. Poor people don’t have family tombs. They can’t afford to hire mourners. And they really can’t afford to save any money, let alone store a year’s wages in the form of inedible perfume.

Speaking of which: I’ll also be contentious over her line about pure spikenard being a “sweet oil.” I don’t think anyone who has actually gotten a good whiff of the stuff could’ve written that line with a straight face. Kilpatrick is just caught up in her imaginative storytelling, writing sensual lines about Jesus and Mary sharing the scent (pun intended). It apparently never occurs to her that Jesus would’ve likely had to wash when entering Jerusalem for the Passover feast. No, He has to be comforted with Mary’s ointment even to His last breath.

Yes, I know Kilpatrick was just trying to be romantic. She wanted a dramatic story and got one by creating a villain and bending the truth behind the details. The result is a childish spoof that makes a beautiful story ridiculous. All I can say is that her carelessness shows that she seriously needs to put more thought into what she writes. I still think Adoration had a lot of potential, but the poor execution earns it a Fail.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.

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