In Not Your Mother, the Catholic apologist Mark Shea examines, with a good bit of rhetorical flourish, the Irish novelist Colm Tóibín’s inevitably praised (see Edmund White’s review in the Irish Times and the review in the Guardian) The Testament of Mary. He describes Tóibín as
the man of the hour, doing for Mary what Dan Brown did for Jesus: turning her into a blank screen upon which the author can project current cultural and personal obsessions for 30 pieces of silver. Tóibín, it will shock no one to know, is an ex-Catholic homosexual who “once contemplated the priesthood” (that clause is mandated in the standard corporate biosketch of every embittered ex-Catholic screed writer), but jettisoned his faith when he went to college and came out as gay.
In terms of content, the book is a by-the-numbers hatchet job written in sensitive, spare, and poetic diction for the delectation of UK and New York Chattering Classes and dipped in a bath of relentless, willful sadness and bitterness. The basic premise is that it has been 20 years since the crucifixion, and Mary is one nasty hag, sounding for all the world like a nun in iron grey, short-cropped hair and sensible shoes who has seized the microphone in a We Are Church group process breakout session and is now on the third hour of an extended free association monologue, grousing bitterly about the patriarchy.
Tóibín is a very gifted writer — see Shalom Carmy’s reading of his novel in On Literature and the Life of Torah — and his The Sign of the Cross: Travels in Catholic Europe is an intriguing and thoughtful book. His newest book is undoubtedly written with great skill and might be a fascinating novel if it were written about someone named Jane living in sixteenth century France, but still, it derives most of its effect from being an attack on Mary and through her upon Jesus, as Shea points out. It’s an easy way to create an instant effect, twisting the Christian story into its opposite. Christians, and especially Catholics, will naturally find it offensive.
And selective. Tóibín would not receive the same praise had he written so bitter a satire about Michelle Obama, grumbling bitterly about her husband and his agents, or some early feminist heroine, being kept away from the public by women corrupting her message for their own feminist ends. Not that he would. He and his world have their own Madonnas.