Mary of Nazareth and "I Do Not Believe in Atheists."
By John Taylor; 2011 Apr 23, Jalal 13, 168 BE
Our local Super Video store is casting off its old VHS cassettes, giving piles of them away for free. Many films are therefore coming my way that otherwise might never do, including a copy of "The Message" (the only Hollywood movie about the life of His Holiness Muhammad, which I searched for many years and did know they had). One of the castoffs is "Mary of Nazareth," which I watched the other day when ailing with the latest bug imported from the kids' school.
The movie is entirely pious in intent, often cloyingly so. It traces the life of Mary from the time of her betrothal until she is taken in by John, the beloved disciple, at the bidding of her Son from on high on the cross. I was interested to learn that Mary was a babe, a real beauty, kind-hearted to all, lovely in every way. And well she probably was. The Bible does not seem to dwell on things like that, though it does say something about where the eyes are, there is the heart. As a male, it helps a lot to see her portrayed as a babe.
Anyway, the script leaves out the agony that, the Qur'an tells us, she suffered when impregnated by the Holy Spirit. More surprisingly, it glosses over the aspersions on her character after she claims her pregnancy was prayer induced rather than the usual cause. Joseph takes her in and that is that. The Qur'an has her despairing, begging God to take her life, in the face of the vicious bullying that she must have got when she claimed to have been "known" of God in the full Biblical sense. The movie has her keeping it quiet, which, come to think of it, would have been the wise thing do, considering the circumstances. She does not even tell Joseph, she waits until the Holy Spirit, in the form of a spotlight, tells him Himself.
But one good thing about seeing the movie is that it points out something I had not realized from just reading the sparse Biblical account of her life -- that Mary had been put into dire danger of death-by-stoning when she got pregnant out of wedlock. Joseph just had to say the word, and that was the end of her. This puts in a different light the scene where, later on, Jesus sits writing on the ground while, in order to test him, his enemies come to him with another accused woman (as portrayed in this film). The woman is less innocent this time than His mother had been, of course, but still, it is as if Jesus was writing the story of his mom, of the calumny and backbiting that had assaulted her when he was in her womb, right there in the dirt -- a story of a sainted mother accused unjustly. (Now we know from many studies that such trauma in pregnancy has long lasting effects on the lives of babes in the womb.) So, they ask what should they do with her? He replies, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." This says a lot more about condemnation, guilt and innocence, and forgiveness, than if you hear the story in isolation from his origins.
The film also puts the scene where Jesus as a twelve-year-old wanders off into the temple and when upbraided for leaving his parents, replies, "You should have looked for me in my Father's house." Joseph is hurt by this, for it implies that he is not Jesus' father ... as indeed he is not, he realizes painfully. Again, you miss that in any other account of the story. And again, when Jesus later on to his followers denies his family, saying his real bros and sisters, moms and dads, are those who follow the will of God. You see it from the family's point of view. To be a member of a holy family, you have to take your relations on faith even more than us not-so-holy-family members do.
Some movies are justified by one scene. Memorably, for example, Mel Gibson's Hamlet was pretty negligible throughout, except for the one scene, the final fight scene, which was better done than I have ever seen it portrayed. Leave it to an action star to do a fight scene well. Watch that movie just for that one miserable scene.
Similarly, there is one scene in this film that is truly unique and memorable, and which worked so well that I found myself in tears, not fully knowing why. It justified the whole movie, which otherwise is just a pretty mediocre retelling of the life of Jesus. This is the scene where the female followers of Jesus, who had been hanging back out of reverence for her, come to Mother Mary and share their spotty backgrounds with her and she tells them, oh, just watch it for yourself. When they get up to walk away and ask permission to walk with her and she replies, "Why should I not walk with my sisters?" Well, the next several scenes get all blurry from annoying tears filling your eyes.
I have been auditing a rather strange book called, "I do not Believe in Atheists," written by a guy who after he debated some of the new atheists decided that their arguments are fanatical and dangerous enough to warrant this book.
I Don't Believe in Atheists by Chris Hedges
Listening as far as I have, I am reminded of a fellow who uses a shotgun to kill a mosquito in his own house. After a few shots, it no longer matters if he got the bug or not, what matters now is the destruction he is doing to his own dwelling. Or perhaps I should not say a shotgun but a bazooka or some other anti-tank weapon that shoots out a massive fire backwards even as it sends a missile forwards. Essentially, the result is that in order to destroy the contemptuous attacks of atheists on religion, he totally destroys any reasonable basis for believing in God. He may not believe in atheists, but it is not clear that he is on the side of God either, or even understands it. Let me distill his argument to clarify what I mean.
This anti-atheist holds up belief in original sin as the essence of religion. He writes, for instance, that:
"Those who insist we are morally advancing as a species are deluding themselves. There is little in science or history to support this idea."
Anyone who believes in moral progress is a dangerous fanatic, liable to turn into a Hitler or Stalin, or some other monster ready at any moment to tolerate any amount of violence, law breaking and bloodshed in order to uphold his or her favorite utopia. Humans are sinful, ever subject to falling down into sin again. Humans may progress in science and every other way, but moral improvement is utterly out of the question. Life and moral progress are like a race where you fall down at any time, except that if you fall, you are dragged right back to the starting line. A few saintly people fight rear guard actions against evil authorities, defiant fellows like Martin Luther King or Gandhi, but even they do not bring us forward, they are essentially just making an heroic gesture in the face of relentless evil. There is no way humans will ever get beyond sin.
This kills the mosquito of atheism effectively enough -- assuming it does not fly out of the way -- but it absolutely demolishes any basis we might have for hoping that religion will do any good in the world. It sets on fire any hope that God can make us better, morally or socially. As the Qur'an puts it, "They chain up the hands of God." (Q5:64) That is just what the New Atheists are doing; like wild dogs, they tear away at the flesh of a helpless god whose hands are chained up, who is completely helpless to defend himself.
Having just watched "Mary of Nazareth," I am reminded of the scene where Judas kisses Jesus in order to identify him to the Roman soldiers, who then arrest him. Original sin is a kiss of Jesus. Christians who buy into it think they are loving their Lord, but in reality they walk not to the cross but straight to the tree on which Judas hanged himself.
Think about it. If we are irredeemably sinful, if we and our entire generation are born in sin, then no amount of suffering or effort will ever get us out of the muck. Despair, ye fools. Mary suffered all those hurtful accusations for nothing. The cross was just another vain gesture in the face of inexorable evil. The promises throughout scripture of a better time in the end are false. Faith, hope, charity are pipe dreams.
Once again, the movie Mary of Nazareth juxtaposes two scenes from the life of Jesus in a way I had never thought of, which say volumes about the falsity of original sin. It shows Jewish leaders and followers shouting at Pilate unashamedly, "We have no king but Caesar!" They are, in effect, denying God. Their God is chained up, a no-account slave of the worldly power of Caesar.
Then Pilate turns to Jesus and says, "Why are you doing this?" And Jesus replies, "What I do, I do to demonstrate the truth." And Pilate says, "What is truth?" He denies knowing what he is doing. This denial is the mirror image of what the Jewish leaders just did. He denies his only justification for being there. If power is not wielded by those who know what they are doing, truth and right are vain, progress is a pipe dream and power is its own justification. Secular denial mirrors denial by the so-called sacred. Both are corrupt power, both cause the suffering and death of God's Son.
It is absurd to think that God can be chained up and left to be eaten by wild beasts. What is being denied here, by believer and New Atheist alike, is not so much God as the nobility and worth of our human station in relation to God.
As Aristotle put it, Man by nature desires to know. And surely we want to know in order to gain power to make things better. Our nature as human beings is invested in progress and improvement. That is what approaching both God and truth are all about, for heaven's sake.
Baha'u'llah teaches this too. If you are not serving all humankind, you have not attained your human station. This is in the Lawh-i-Maqsud, where He says, "That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race." (Tablets, 163) He explicitly connects belief in the possibility of progress, especially moral progress, to becoming human, how much more to belief in God.
"All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. The Almighty beareth Me witness: To act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man." (Gl. 214)
He goes on to point out that one reason we teach the Faith is to tell Caesar what the truth is, why God created us, and why it is important to hold to His truth.
"Say: O friends! Drink your fill from this crystal stream ... Let others partake of its waters in My name, that the leaders of men in every land may fully recognize the purpose for which the Eternal Truth hath been revealed, and the reason for which they themselves have been created."