When Truth and Tradition Collide

Books, Spirituality

CoverSince my last post, I’ve been doing a lot of interviews about Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow. There are some questions everyone asks me, such as, “How did you come up with that title?” Around Christmas time, everyone wanted to talk about the not-a-barn where Jesus was born, and a particularly fun interviewer wondered what kind of music I choose when David isn’t in the car.

At some point in every interview–often after some levity and laughter–the host gets serious and asks me, “Why did you write this book?” That should be an easy question, but I break into a sweat every time I start to answer because it is impossible to edit my life into a five-second sound bite. (Or an entire blog post, as it turns out!)

I was a “good kid.” I grew up in the Bible Belt and experienced Believer’s Baptism twiceat ages 8 and 9–because my family switched denominations. From the fourth grade, I attended church Sundays and Wednesdays, did my “quiet time” every night before bed, and followed every rule every day. Such societal structures reinforced my Type-A personality, set me up for academic success, and gave me a constant awareness of and connection to God.

My spiritual foundation was first shaken in my late teens. I took religious studies courses at Rhodes College, and for the first time I was learning from people who did not believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God–but who knew more about it than any Sunday School teacher I’d ever met. In my first semester, my eyes were opened to everything that is “wrong” with my beloved Bible, all the contradictions, textual errors, and historical inaccuracies.

For the next several years, I described my faith as schizophrenic. In class I was learning and regurgitating biblical facts that threatened to undermine my biblical faith. Many of my classmates abandoned Christianity as they learned there was no apple in Eden, Moses parted a reed sea, Jericho was destroyed long before Joshua got there, Goliath (probably) wasn’t nine feet tall, there is no whale in the Book of Jonah, and Jesus was three years old when the Wise Men showed up. But I still had my quiet time every night in my dorm room. My faith in God never wavered, although my understanding of Him did.

After four years of keeping my academic side separate from my spiritual side, a conservative Jew put me back together. While studying Exodus 19 (where Moses goes up and down Mt. Sinai umpteen times with the speed of The Flash), Dr. Schultz highlighted all the places the Hebrew text repeats itself. The class already knew he would say the copied lines are evidence of multiple authors being involved in the creation of the text, but we didn’t expect him to then use those so-called errors as evidence in favor of God’s presence in the creation of the chapter.

His logic was simple: no writer or editor would ever “make the mistake” of including contradictions, errors, or inaccuracies in the final version of any text, let alone a divine one. There’s no way the thousands of scribes who followed them would then leave the “mistakes” uncorrected. God must be responsible.

This is a bold stand for a PhD to make because the first question anyone would ask him is, “Why did God do that?” No matter how many theories anyone ever proposes, the answer will always be, “I don’t know.” And that’s an uncomfortable statement for any human.

Maybe there’s a little Type-A in all of us. We like to know what is true and what is false. How things work, and why things happen. To that end, we humans might prefer that God have an annual conference call with all of us where He answers questions, gives instructions, and maybe chastises those who disagree with our personal opinions.

But that isn’t how God has chosen to interact with us. He is a God of relationships. He wanted to walk with us in the Garden of Eden forever; He did walk with us for awhile two millennia ago. He wants us to know Him, and that means reading His words, spending time on the hard parts, discussing them with Him in prayer, and debating them with others in fellowship.

Sadly this very quest for truth and the heart of God can lead to dissension in the churches. We must hold lightly to our own revelations because the stubborn adoption of one human’s idea over another’s causes denominations to divide. These Christians  insist those Christians aren’t Christians. A nine-year-old girl wonders why a dunk is better than a sprinkle when she knows her God hasn’t changed.

God wants us to study His word for ourselves, but remember that the mystery is in the text by His design. It helps us to keep coming back to discover more about Him, and as we know Him better, we want to share Him more. So that is why I wrote my book(s): I love God and His Words, and I want to share that with everyone. I want people to know they are as empowered to study the word of God as any theologian, and that it is okay to ask questions of His text and our traditions. (He can take it, and the church needs to be more self-reflective anyway!)

In time we will all be right and wrong about nonessentials, but disagreement must not divide us. As Jesus said, we are to

“Love the Eternal One your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is nearly as important, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The rest of the law, and all the teachings of the prophets, are but variations on these themes. (Matthew 22:37-40)

Exploring Mary’s Magdala

Archaeology, Books

Magdala1This summer I had the opportunity to spend several weeks in Israel digging at Tel Shimron and then touring the rest of the country. My husband and parents joined me for the second less-dusty part of the trip, but I still managed to wear them out traipsing to tel after tel in the blazing sun.

Toward the end of our trip, we stayed 4 days in Tiberias, on the west coast of the Sea of Galilee. About 20 minutes north of our hotel sits Magdala, a city most famous as the hometown of Mary Magdalene.

Standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee next to a replica of a first-century fishing boat, it is easy to imagine Jesus and His disciples docking at Magdala’s port (Matthew 15:39) before taking a short walk to the synagogue to preach as He had throughout Galilee (Matthew 4:23).

Archaeologists have discovered that Magdala first became a city around 200 B.C.E. By the time Mary was born, it had grown into a prosperous fishing village with a distinctly Jewish culture. It boasts the oldest synagogue discovered in Galilee to date, and the frescoed walls and mosaic floors preserved in several buildings survived flooding, conquest, and a major earthquake. Four high-quality groundwater-fed ritual baths further indicate both the importance of the Jewish religion to daily life and the city’s great wealth.

Magdala2The current excavation of Magdala began in 2009 when contractors preparing the foundation of a new building stumbled on the remains of a 1st-century synagogue. The dig is now jointly sponsored by the Israel Antiquities Authority and Mexican universities, Universidad Anáhuac México Sur and Universidad Autónoma de Mexico. It was seen by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 and is visited by more and more Jewish and Christian tourists each year.

Once excavation and restoration are complete, Magdala will be a dazzling example of maritime society in the ancient world. Today visitors can enjoy a mostly do-it-yourself tour thanks to helpful diagrams and historic facts presented throughout the site. We spent about 2 hours there–which is probably twice as long as was needed–and only paid about $5 per person. Tour guides are sometimes available at no additional cost, if your timing is just right.

I was pleasantly surprised to see how dedicated Magdala’s scholars are to “rehabilitating” Mary Magdalene’s reputation. Since naming my next book after her, I find myself increasingly aware that too many Christians–myself included–grew up believing Mary was a castanet-playing, blue-eye-shadow-wearing prostitute. The Bible actually describes her as a wealthy woman who was among Jesus’ most devoted followers:

[Jesus] went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities—Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons. . . and many others who provided for Him from their substance (Luke 8:1-3 NKJV).

Alongside Magdala’s dig site is the Magdalena Institute, a nonprofit inspired by the figure of Mary Magdalene that seeks “to highlight issues of human dignity–with an emphasis on the dignity of women–and contributions of the feminine genius in both religious history and facets of life today.” Many scholars would argue that the denigration of Mary by Pope Gregory the Great (and the subsequent fifteen centuries’ teachers and preachers who solidified her identification as a prostitute) is the result of historic misogyny in the church; the Institute works from the same place where Mary walked and Jesus may have preached to make sure no woman is marginalized because of her gender.

Women are smart and capable of studying and understanding Scripture, but too often we are offered emotion-based ministries seeking to make us feel good about our relationships with God and others instead of Scripture-based lessons that can actually help us know God better.

Revealing how history and traditions can (and too often have) incorrectly influenced the reading of the Bible is my goal in Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow and future books. I want to strip away the Sunday school stories and dig into Scripture itself, for only in Scripture can we meet the risen Jesus, as did Mary Magdalene before us.

Who Cares about “Blue Eye Shadow”?

Archaeology, Books, Spirituality

The title of my next book, Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow, is not so much a statement of fact as it is an acknowledgement of how easy it is to mischaracterize biblical figures.

Technically, Mary could have worn eye shadow, as it has existed for thousands of years. In Egypt and Babylonia, where many cosmetics originated, eye shadow had not only a decorative purpose but was also thought to protect sensitive eyelids from the sun and insects. Minerals such as malachite would be ground into a powder like today’s popular “mineral makeup” and smeared directly on the skin with rigid spatulas.

Archaeologists have found makeup containers and tools in Israel, so it was used by God’s own people. But the Bible suggests that makeup was not worn by everyone as it may have been in other cultures. When makeup is mentioned in the Bible, it is associated with evil and sexually immoral women. For example, Jezebel–another biblical character whose name is synonymous with prostitution–wore makeup (2 Kings 9:30).

The association of makeup with prostitution is ancient and enduring. As recently as the twentieth century, polite Western society equated actresses, dancers, and even opera singers with loose morals. To this day I worry that I might “look cheap” when I wear heavier makeup for an evening out or in front of a camera.

The Bible never says that Mary Magdalene “painted her face” (KJV) as Jezebel did, so why did popular culture lump her in with immoral women for so long? (Yes, if you read or watched The DaVinci Code, then you already know the answer.) In the sixth century, Pope Gregory I was bothered by the fact that the “sinner” who washed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50 was unnamed. So he tried to “fix” God’s Holy Scripture by assigning her story to the next female named in the text. Since Gregory was the church’s supreme authority on earth at the time (and Protestantism was still a century away), no one questioned his word.  And then the rumor grew, as they tend to do, and the sinner became an adulteress who became a prostitute.

MaryMagLeonardodaVinci.jpg

Her artistic portrayal as a sexually immoral woman was common by the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci skipped the makeup in his c. 1515 topless, red-haired portrait of her, but I suppose no one is looking at her face in this particular masterpiece.

Mary Magdalene has endured centuries of slander simply because her story begins in Luke 8:2, a mere two verses after Jesus’ highly aromatic pedicure.

Many traditional artistic depictions of Mary Magdalene imply that she was a prostitute by “painting” her face with garish makeup. Our 1980s Sunday School felt boards were among the worst offenders; the Mary Magdalene paper doll was always the prettiest one, thanks to her bright clothes, heavy jewelry, dark tan, and dreamy batting eyes. I remember a  golden castanet in each hand too. But that Mary would have fit better seducing the shah in One Thousand and One Arabian Nights than visiting Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning.

Such false traditions are incorrect and can undermine our interpretations of Scripture. They need to be recognized, debunked, and shelved under Fiction; but that is difficult to do when untruth is “common knowledge” that has been immortalized by artists and is believed by Bible teachers themselves.

If Mary wore eye shadow–and I doubt that she did–it was to repel insects and UV rays, not to attract men.

My Next Book

Books, Spirituality

The first time I spoke with my then-soon-to-be editor at Harvest House Publishers, she asked me, “What would you love to write next?”

I fumbled and rambled in my answer. The truth was I had decided the previous week that I was done with publishing. I wasn’t, at that moment, passionate about much of anything. So I told her about the book I had optioned to another publisher back in 2014 as my intended follow-up to Barren among the Fruitful.

At that time–and to this day–I saw among many Christians the tendency to know what they believe but maybe not why they believe it. I think this condition is perpetuated by two things: an unwillingness or inability to read the Bible in its contexts, and an accidental elevation of religious traditions to the level of biblical Scripture.

My book would teach readers the importance of historical, literary, and cultural contexts when interpreting Scripture; encourage them to explore the text and question their traditions when the two are contradictory; and remind them that the Bible is God’s complex and mysterious revelation of Himself to us. It is not to be shelved with self-help books, magic-8 balls, history and science textbooks, or even the church’s sermons, hymns, confessions, or creeds.

By the time we said goodbye an hour later, I had talked myself into writing that book. There was one potential problem: the manuscript I’d outlined was heavy. Heavy topics can make boring books, and no one wants to read a boring book! Could I make the material educational, accessible, and entertaining for a postmodern, speed-obsessed, Netflix-bingeing population?

We are almost a year away from readers being able to answer that question–and your answers are the only ones that matter! As of today, the manuscript is complete. The book is about to be typeset, and the cover will be designed soon. As October 15, 2019 nears, I’ll share snippets of the book, but until then here are a few chapter titles that I hope will make you curious to read more:

  • George Washington Was No Cherry Picker
  • Indiana Jones and the Buried Scripture
  • Seeing Cinderella’s Slipper Clearly
  • Macbeth and the Self-fulfilling Prophecies

If you want to learn about that leather-bound, ribbon-marked, so-called book on your shelf and you enjoy myths, histories, novels, or watching Sheldon in syndication; then I think you’ll find something to love in Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow: How to Trust the Bible when Truth and Traditions Collide.