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More believers factoring the feminine into faith

Christmas celebrates the birth of a male savior, but a huge number of faithful this season are examining the role of women in the story of Jesus and asking questions about an emerging underbelly of Christian history.
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Christmas celebrates the birth of a male savior, but a huge number of faithful this season are examining the role of women in the story of Jesus and asking questions about an emerging underbelly of Christian history.

Ron Medvescek / Staff
ofSt. Mark's Presbyterian Church co-wrote a study guide about the unnamed women in the Bible. She describes the need for a male and female sense of God as a "deep, deep longing."

Theologians, Christians, book groups and faith leaders across Tucson are finding that the notion of Jesus Christ, a male, being the son of a male God and growing up to preach his message with male disciples ignores the true role of women in the Bible's stories.

Long-held views on Christ's life, such as his exact relationship with Mary Magdalene, are being challenged in popular culture by, among other things, the success of the book "The Da Vinci Code" by Dan Brown, which has been on The New York Times' bestseller list for 39 weeks. Plans are in the works to make the book into a sleek Hollywood film.

"I think that the desire to have a belonging, a full and complete sense of God that's both male and female, is a deep, deep longing. It has surfaced periodically throughout the church's history and it's surfacing again now," said the Rev. Sue Westfall, a pastor at St. Mark's Presbyterian Church, 3809 E. Third St. Westfall co-wrote a study guide last year about unnamed women in the Bible that was distributed nationally within the Presbyterian Church U.S.A.

"It's really an amazing cultural phenomenon," said Susan Manker-Seale, a minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Northwest Tucson, 3601 W. Cromwell Drive. "Sometimes I forget, being immersed in this, that most people don't know all these stories about women in the Bible. I think the fascination of 'The Da Vinci Code' is that this stuff has been suppressed and there is another side or two or three to all these stories."

"It Girl" Mary Magdalene

"The Da Vinci Code" is a mystery about the murder of a curator at the Louvre in Paris. The story follows a Harvard symbologist and a French cryptologist as they try to uncover the meaning of a secret society called the Priory of Sion, whose members included Sir Isaac Newton, Botticelli, Victor Hugo, and da Vinci. The Louvre curator has apparently sacrificed his life to protect the society's most sacred trust: The location of the Holy Grail.

One of the villains in the story is a member of Opus Dei, a very real Vatican-sanctioned sect of the Roman Catholic Church, which has come under criticism for its conservatism, though the group's founder, Josemaría Escríva de Balaguer,was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 2002. Opus Dei this month issued a scathing response to the book, calling it a distortion of the historical record of Christianity and the Catholic Church, as well as a "bizarre and inaccurate" portrayal of Opus Dei itself.

Locally, the book's success has inspired book group discussions, sermons and continuing education. Discussions range from debates over whether Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child, as "The Da Vinci Code" suggests, to whether male leaders of modern Christianity intentionally rewrote history to all but eradicate the role of women in both the Old and New Testaments. In particular, Brown's book says the Vatican was responsible for perpetuating the notion that Mary Magdalene was a repentant harlot. Nowhere in the Bible does it say she is a prostitute.

One of the most intriguing aspects to readers of "The Da Vinci Code" is that Mary Magdalene is represented as the Holy Grail - not the sacred chalice Jesus drank from at the Last Supper, but the metaphorical chalice who held his daughter, Sarah. The book claims Sarah's descendants are still alive.

The subject found its way into last week's Time magazine; onto a U.S. News & World Report cover titled "The Jesus Code"; into an ABC special titled "Jesus, Mary and Da Vinci" that aired last month; and was the Dec. 8 cover of Newsweek, which called Mary Magdalene the year's "It Girl."

While most biblical experts say there's no evidence that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were ever married and had a daughter, the more popular viewpoint is that Mary Magdalene was at the very least one of his disciples, in addition to being the first witness to his resurrection.

Initiating dialogue

"Da Vinci Code" readers such as Charles Grabiel, a retired chemist who lives in Tucson, say the book brings to light important theological and societal questions, including the book's characterization of Opus Dei's fundamentalist mentality: The sect demonizes nonbelievers as the enemy.

Sylvia Thorson-Smith, a newly retired professor of sociology and religious studies at Grinnell College in Iowa, who recently moved to Tucson, found the book a "phenomenal" read. But at the same time she is distressed that its key theme, the idea of women being shut out of the Bible stories, is new to so many people.

Critics of the book's facts, including the bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson, Gerald F. Kicanas, caution that many of its assertions about Christian history are without merit.

"It's a fiction account. I don't know that I would recommend it, but I think for what it is, it's a fiction story of some suspense," Kicanas said.

The Rev. Andrew Greeley, a noted author and sociologist, says that though skillfully written, the book is nearly all fantasy. In a review in the National Catholic Reporter, Greeley also noted the importance of the Virgin Mary as a woman in the Bible and, in particular, the story of Christmas.

Similarly, Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, a Cleveland-based organization that calls for full participation of women in the Roman Catholic Church, said the book has no historical or biblical reliability. But Schenk, who was in Tucson last year to lead a forum about the inclusion of married people and women in the Roman Catholic priesthood, thinks "The Da Vinci Code" has triggered important dialogue.

"It's long overdue. Once you realize that women and men are equal, you begin to notice where they are not," Schenk said. "If children see only men in sacred roles, they will infer therefore that men must be better than women. This is not of God. We need to find ways to have both men and women in sacred roles."

The feminine re-emerges

While the role of women in the Bible has been a subject of scholarly study since the 1970s, Schenk sees its current position in popular culture as a way of opening discussion about long-held values and policies not only in Christianity in general but in Roman Catholic Church doctrine, such as the men-only rule for the priesthood.

At Manker-Seale's Unitarian Universalist Congregation, a monthly mystery-book group decided to talk about "The Da Vinci Code." Rather than the group's usual handful of attendees, 27 people turned up to talk about the book on a Thursday afternoon. The session was so spirited that a second meeting was held the following week.

Among topics discussed was the suppression and distortion of history that led to the loss of the sacred feminine. They spoke of goddess culture, of black Madonnas believed to be representations of Mary Magdalene, and about people in Provence, France, who believe a pregnant Mary Magdalene once lived in their ancestors' midst.

"I've often thought that Bible stories are metaphors rather than actual events,'' said book group leader Barbara Hinkley, a retired school principal. "And with the political and social climate we live in now, I think people find this book to be a breath of fresh air. I do definitely think we need a re-emergence of the feminine right now."

The dialogue is not limited to Christianity. On Dec. 8, a popular University of Arizona Judaic Studies lecture at the Tucson Jewish Community Center focused on new interpretations of Eve. The guest lecturer was Carol Meyers, a professor of biblical studies and archaeology at Duke University. Meyers argued that biblical sources alone do not give a true picture of ancient Israelite women because males wrote the vast majority of scriptural texts.

"One of the things I do is try to get people to realize that a lot of what people think is in the biblical story is really post-biblical tradition," Meyers said in a telephone interview. "If enough of the work that scholars do finally makes it into the popular realm, we have a chance of overturning some of the misogyny, the ways women have been ignored that are not intrinsic to the Bible."

Thorson-Smith said she hopes the success of "The Da Vinci Code" and an apparent general interest in Christian history will lead to lasting re-evaluations of biblical stories.

"We've lost a generation of women who have abandoned mainline religions because they haven't been hearing what female scholars have been unearthing for a generation. The good news is that here it is on the radar screen again. We have another opportunity to tell the story and do the work."

* Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at 573-4134 or