In her article for the Daily Beast, Candida Moss writes that “Of all the miracles recorded in the New Testament, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ garners the most cynical attention.”
Upon learning that I teach at the University of Notre Dame, almost every atheist I meet will make a crack about Mary’s sexual history.
Since the earliest centuries of Christianity, Moss writes, conspiracy theorists have attempted either to explain away the mystery, or to embellish it, as in the Infancy Gospel of James, which tells the story of a doubting Salome examining Mary post-partum and finding her virginity intact.
Over the weekend, the Rev. Ruth Everhart took on the controversy in a piece for the Washington Post.
Church culture tends to be fixated on sexual purity year-round, but during Advent, I’m tempted to blame it on the Virgin Mary. After all, she set an impossibly high bar. Now the rest of us are stuck trying to be both a virgin and a mother at the same time. It does not seem to matter that this is biologically impossible.
Everhart is the author of a memoir, Ruined, which describes her experience of a brutal rape whilst at college, and the way that it affected her faith and theology, eventually leading her to ordination in the Presbyterian tradition.
I’m convinced of this: Mary is not responsible for what we’ve done to her story. Church culture has overfocused on virginity and made it into an idol of sexual purity. When it comes to female experience, the church seems compelled to shrink and distort and manipulate.
Maybe that’s why, more than a decade after I was raped, I became a pastor. I had to face down the demons. To do that, I had to live inside church culture. I had to come to terms with Mary’s story, and so many others.
Everhart’s article was soon picked up by conservative websites, whose cynicism towards liberal theology was evident in their commentary. Moss’s article includes the warning, “Don’t go there,” and concludes that
[when] it comes to Christian theology, as it does with yo’ mamma, Mary is both the most criticized and the most defended.
But as for Everhart, she has made her peace with Mary.
The world still needs to hear from Mary. What Mary gives us is the gospel — not a gospel of sanitized sexuality, but the gospel of incarnation. Or as it says in John: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory.”
Photo: Vergine orante, by Massimo Diodato – Photographed by the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art of Trento and Rovereto. Public Domain, via wikimedia