On the cross of belief and unbelief
I found this a profound and unsettling read, which I am very ambivalent towards.
It is BECAUSE of the ambivalence, not despite the ambivalence, that I recommend it unreservedly, as it does what the best literature does, challenges and at times unsettles the reader, forcing them to think, question, re-evaluate, or even if just in a small way, look at something freshly, as if for the first time.
Here, Toibin looks at Christ, and some of the later events of his life, but through the eyes of his mother. Toibin’s Mary is far from the Gospel depictions. She is a very human, pragmatic, strong and self-reflective woman, and the thrust of Toibin’s viewpoint is that the reality, and the story told in the Gospels, is markedly different. In a sense, he suggests it is all ‘spin’ with the Gospellers, for their own reasons, involved in mythologising. Everything is open to question, including the Annunciation, the validity of the miracles and the political need for a Messiah.
And yet, and yet……….this is not just a debunking of Christianity, there are unanswered questions, for Mary herself, and of course for the reader. IS this a possible way in which it all happened? But can we explain everything in our lives away by what is rationally explicable, as far as the rationality of the times allows? Certainly, Toibin suggests a rationality here which accords with a 21st century perspective, but leaves unanswered the Lazarus story, unsettling Mary and indeed the modern reader.
This is not just a book however which might be of interest to fervent atheists – or indeed to Christians – it is a tender exploration into the heart of us, examining the flawed and fearful choices we make, the things we can’t forgive ourselves for, the weakness that leads us away from courageous acts – and the painful ambivalence of parenting. There is a subtext here of a relationship between Mary and her son which has gone wrong, a dysfunction, a son who has paradoxically become less loveable as he has moved out of the sphere of his parent’s values into a fierce certainty of his own rightness that is a little like arrogance. Particularly if his ‘rightness’, is not.
To add to all this thoughtful, unsettling, challenging focus of The Testament of Mary, there is a writer at work here whose ability to weave the art, the craft and the creativity of writing into a whole, is consummate. This book is short – but it packs density within it. There is nothing flabby or overwritten, and I got the sense that Toibin was mastering the push-and pull of a book’s journey, the ‘keep the reader wanting to turn the page but know when to slow the reader down to make them stay and reflect this’, astutely, and beautifully.