May 2003

Kitsch, culture and the laughing Madonna

Tina Beattie

Tina Beattie, author of the recent book God’s Mother, Eve’s advocate,* teaches theology at Digby Stuart College, University of Surrey, Roehampton. Here she describes her move from a Protestant upbringing which was suspicious of Mary to a Catholicism whose symbolic femininity ‘led me for the first time to seriously consider the significance of being a woman in the eyes of God’.

In the new production of Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House last year, the revolving set included a large statue of the Virgin Mary mounted on the backdrop. Whenever Donna Elvira and the Don’s other jilted women were on stage, lamenting their betrayal and plotting his downfall, the set revolved so that the Madonna stood high above them. She was an enigmatic presence – too cryptic perhaps for non-Catholics in the audience – who seemed not only to be watching over the women, but to be colluding with them. She reminded me of medieval miracle stories, in which Mary was a passionate defender of wayward sinners, pleading their case before the court of divine justice even as Satan prepared to carry their souls off to hell.

Critics sometimes point to such stories as evidence of the corruption of the medieval Church, when Mary’s mercy was pitted against Christ’s anger. But this might be to impose a modern, Protestant perspective on a different spiritual world, by seeing Mary as a threat to the divine prerogative of Christ and a competitor for the hearts and souls of the people, rather than seeing her as she has always been in Catholic doctrine and devotion – part of the fullness, the promise and the mystery of the incarnation.

When I first considered converting to Catholicism seventeen years ago, my Presbyterian sensibilities made me alert to any evidence of Mariolatry. I was living in Zimbabwe at the time, and was becoming increasingly frustrated by the evangelicalism of the church to which I belonged, when every question or struggle seemed to be met by a rather glib quotation from Scripture, or, even more disturbingly, by an assurance that the person I was speaking to was praying for me and had received some special message or sign on my behalf. Why, I sometimes wondered, couldn’t Christ just speak to me direct, the way he seemed to do to everybody else? Paradoxically, this is not unlike the challenge that many non-Catholic Christians pose to Catholics: why pray through Mary and the saints, why not just go straight to Christ?

Communion of faith
The answer is that we are part of a communion of faith, in which the dead no less than the living are our friends in Christ, and we can pray with them and ask them to pray for us. This is especially true of those whom we recognise as saints, who in their earthly lives manifested particular qualities, virtues and spiritual insights that make us aware of the transforming presence of God. And if any human being’s life was transformed, graced and sanctified in Christ, that human being is surely Mary of Nazareth, Mother of God.

My Zimbabwean experience had also made me aware of the extent to which the Protestant churches were implicated in the racism of that country’s history, and most of the white Christians I met there in the early 1980s were still deeply resistant to the fact of black majority rule. Few of the churches at that time showed any real desire for integration or reconciliation, and this contrasted with the active role that the Catholic Church had played, during and after UDI, to bring about a more just and equal society. It was a time of hopeful new beginnings when Robert Mugabe spoke eloquently about the need for reconciliation and appealed to whites to help to build the new Zimbabwe, and there seemed to me to be a contrast between the Catholic Church’s capacity to respond to and actively take up this challenge, and the grumbling resistance of many white churches. In the current tragedy unfolding in that country, and in the terrible failure of Mugabe to bring to fruition his early visions and promises, it is important to remember where the seeds of racial hatred were sown, even while insisting that two wrongs never make a right.

Key player
All in all, though, I believed that I was attracted to Catholicism by the depth and riches of its theology, and by the Church’s commitment to social justice. I was also deeply drawn to the charisma of Pope John Paul II, who, in those globe-trotting days of his early papacy, was making the Catholic Church a key player on the international stage, even though I was suspicious of the institution of the papacy. So when I eventually approached a priest and began to attend the RCIA evenings, I thought I had my motives clearly sorted out, and neither the papacy nor the Virgin Mary was high on my list of attractions.

Indeed, so suspicious was I that I nearly dropped out altogether, when the leader of our RCIA group took us into the dimly lit church one evening to explain the meanings of the different statues and pictures. He pointed to an icon in the Lady Chapel and said, ‘That’s called our Lady with the Perpetual Sucker.’ Thinking it was an image of Mary breastfeeding Christ, I rang him up the next morning and said how shocked I was that Catholics called Jesus ‘the perpetual sucker’. After his initial bewilderment, the penny dropped. It was of course an icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.

I sometimes ask myself what it was that began to change my mind about Mary. I think it is in no small part due to the fact that, having finally been received into the Church, I found myself in an environment surrounded by maternal feminine symbols. For the first time in my life I was made conscious of the relationship between my gender and my faith, not in terms of playing out the role of the submissive evangelical wife (which was always something of a parody for me), but in terms of being invited into a language of prayer and spirituality that related to my life and my experiences.

A year after my becoming a Catholic we moved to Bristol, and I began to explore the contours of my newfound faith in my local Catholic church. The dusty Madonna in the Lady Chapel, trampling on the serpent and holding her baby in her arms, spoke to me of that combination of dread and tenderness that a mother feels when her children are very young. At the back of the church there is a painted sculpture of the Pietà – Mary cradling the body of her crucified son, looking helplessly up to heaven with tears running down her face. I used to go to that statue awash with the guilt and grief of the bad days of motherhood. With the struggle of trying to adjust to a new country, a new faith and a new way of life, I had begun to feel like the old woman who lived in a shoe. To light a candle and kneel in front of that grief-stricken mother consoled me. She was there for me, and in some imperceptible way she had moved from being the greatest obstacle to my becoming a Catholic, to being the greatest reason for my doing so.

Symbolic femininity
It was Catholicism’s opening up of symbolic femininity that led me for the first time to seriously consider the significance of being a woman in the eyes of God. My years in an evangelical church had left me steeped in the Bible, and I began to see new meanings and promises in the biblical text, as well as new difficulties. In Britain, I was in a cultural environment where women’s issues were often at the forefront of political and intellectual debate, and I began to mix with women who had been through three decades of feminist formation. And when I became a mature student, I was introduced to feminist theology. I started to look at my newfound faith through more critical eyes – never with regret, but with questions that I had not asked before.

After eleven years of studying and writing theology, I feel I am only beginning to glimpse some of the complex – and sometimes contradictory – weaving together of meanings, images and devotions that constitutes the Marian tradition. But I also realise that I am much more susceptible to the ‘bells and smells’ of the Catholic tradition than I initially acknowledged, not only in the Catholic liturgy, which is I believe pervaded by a profoundly maternal feminine sensuality associated with Mary and the maternal Church, but also in the widespread influence that Catholicism has had on Western culture, art and aesthetic sensibility. That operatic Madonna was only one manifestation of the many ways in which, in our ostensibly post-Christian era, Mary continues to incarnate Christ’s story as a question and a presence among us. I believe that this is true even – or perhaps especially – when she appears in ways that offend many Catholics.

Mary is rightly called the Mother of Sorrows, but perhaps we should also remember that she is the mother of carnivals and fiestas too. Marian devotion has always bubbled with laughter as well as with tears, with the exuberance as well as the anguish of human experience. And I sometimes like to think that there is a ripple of Marian laughter at the heart of our postmodern culture, a delight at the opportunities she has to bring her Son among us in new and surprising ways, by stealth and cunning or by a wise, maternal understanding of our humanity in its capacity for humour as well as for grief.

In Bristol there is a media centre and arthouse cinema which sells Catholic kitsch in its shop. There are bottle bags bearing images of the Immaculate Heart and the Sacred Heart, candles in tins decorated with the Virgin of Guadalupe, and fridge magnets of the Immaculate Conception. The dedicated secularists associated with contemporary British culture would no doubt interpret this as the ultimate in postmodern irony. Catholicism is parodied along with everything else, and it becomes part of the appropriation of the cultural and historical paraphernalia that gloss the postmodern void. But Catholicism is as much at home with the vulgar as with the sublime, and Mary is as capable of making her presence felt in the mass-produced tat of the market-place as in the world’s great art galleries. There is a rich capacity for self-parody in the Catholic tradition, sometimes in the form of the iconoclastic seriousness of a Luis Buñuel or a Salvador Dali, sometimes in the apparently mocking defiance of a Madonna or an Andy Warhol. Parody, irony and satire demand familiarity and understanding of what is being deconstructed or challenged. Only a Catholic understands why Madonna would call one of her CDs ‘The Immaculate Collection’. And why would anyone with absolutely no interest in or understanding of Catholicism want a fridge magnet with a picture of a traditional Madonna underneath the words, ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Mood Swings’ – my latest acquisition from that cinema shop?

Iconic presence
In other words, in taking on Catholicism and seeking to reinvent it as postmodernism, I think contemporary culture has met its match. The Madonna is an iconic presence who is pregnant with history, meaning and promise, and throughout the Christian tradition she has been the most versatile and mutable of symbols. She is not a monolithic cultural artefact that can be dismantled or evacuated of meaning. She is the ripple of incarnate grace in the world – enigmatic, pervasive, funny, tragic – who like all great artists knows that sometimes one must play the clown and the jester to communicate the deepest questions about life. Catholicism cannot be outwitted by postmodernism, simply because the woman who seduces, entices and compels the postmodernist imagination is also the mother who incarnates Christ anew in every generation, by her subtle capacity to elude the restrictive boundaries of any doctrine, dogma or ideology that would seek to contain Christ either by closing him in or closing him out.

But if Mary appears primarily in the guise of the mocked and mocking Madonna in Western secular culture, she is alive in many different ways among the faithful of the modern world. More people go on pilgrimages to Marian shrines such as Lourdes, Medjugorje, Fatima and Guadalupe than at any other time in history, and those same images that form the ironies of secular postmodernism remain redolent with the prayers, tears and hopes of many millions of the world’s people. The Mother of Sorrows invites us to spiritual contemplation on the sufferings of Christ, but she is also a symbol of solidarity and comfort to a generation of mothers whose children have disappeared, having been tortured and killed under the tyrannies of late twentieth-century politics, particularly in Latin America.

Potent presence among the poor
To recognise the many ways in which Mary remains a potent presence among the poor and the marginalised, it is important to challenge the pervasive and sometimes subtle sense of superiority that often pervades Western educated attitudes towards religion. I think it is probably difficult for any convert from Protestantism to fully accept the ways in which Catholic devotion to Mary covers the full spectrum of human experience from the most bizarre to the most exalted. I still cringe when I see Madonna-shaped plastic bottles of holy water complete with screw-top crowns, and I feel a sense of irritation when confronted by the childishness of the ways in which some Catholics speak about Mary. I find it humiliating for adults to be willingly infantilised in the name of faith, not least because I think this induces a sense of ethical torpor as well as spiritual immaturity.

But then I find myself confronted with an awareness of my own capacity for spiritual and intellectual élitism, arising out of a deeply Protestant sense that worship and faith should be restrained, moral, rational and sensible. One of the reasons why Catholicism continues to thrive in Latin America and across much of Mediterranean Europe is because it is not confined and restrained by religiosity, as Christianity is in so many Protestant cultures. The boundary between religion and culture is much more permeable, so that it is almost impossible to say where Catholicism ends and culture begins. The symbols of the Catholic faith continue to decorate the roads and buildings of continental Europe, with the Madonna smiling down from the geranium-tousled façades of a million European terraces. The carnivals and festivities of the Catholic world constitute spaces of liminality, where believers and non-believers alike encounter one another in spaces created but not controlled by their religious significance. The débâcle of the Dome could only happen in a country that is profoundly ill at ease with its own religious identity, where people simply do not know how to position themselves in relation to Christianity with its vast cultural and historical claims upon us.

But I referred earlier to my respect for the riches of Catholic theology. However attractive Mary might be as a cultural icon, postmodern fashion accessory or focus of popular devotion, these alone do not have incarnational significance if her story is not also an intrinsic and central aspect of Christ’s story. If Mary does not belong in the most intimate possible way with Christ at the heart of that story, then the shadow of idolatry might well hang over the Catholic cult of Mary in all its diversity and plurality.

Focal point for reflection
From the time of the second century, Mary was recognised as a focal point for reflection on the person of Christ, and the doctrine of the incarnation became what it was through a growing understanding of the place of Mary in the order of salvation. The main Protestant objection to Marian doctrine and devotion has always been the relative insignificance of Mary in the New Testament, but if that is the case, then a similar question mark surely hangs over the doctrine of the Trinity as well. The doctrine of Mary developed hand in hand with the doctrine of the Trinity through a creative sense of analogy and typology in the interpretation of Scripture and, as Cardinal Newman so clearly understood, all subsequent developments in Mariology have arisen out of a growing awareness of the true meaning of the beliefs of the early Church concerning Mary.

As the virgin mother of Christ, Mary represents the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the incarnation. As virgin, she signifies the divine origins of the incarnation, as a creative act that came about by the power and will of God. Thus the incarnation interrupts the human story and transforms it from within through the redemptive power of God’s love incarnate in Christ. As mother, Mary ensures the full humanity of Christ and embodies him in the materiality and historicity of the human condition, so that the incarnation is also continuous with the human story.

Thus Marian doctrine emerged as a prismatic array of meanings that found their focal point in the biblical stories of creation and the fall in Genesis and the annunciation in Luke’s Gospel. The Church Fathers associated the story of God’s spirit hovering over the waters of creation in Genesis with the Spirit that overshadowed Mary in the conception of Christ. They sometimes referred to Mary as the ‘rational paradise’, indicating that Christ, the second Adam, was created from her virgin flesh just as the first Adam was created from the virgin earth of paradise, while acknowledging that Mary was a rational being who freely assented to her role in the incarnation.

From the time of the second-century writings of Justin and Irenaeus, Mary has also been referred to as the New Eve, because, like Eve, she faced a moment of radical decision for herself and the whole human race in choosing whether to obey or disobey God. But as the New Eve she was also seen as the first woman of the new creation in Christ, and therefore partner of the second Adam. When the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception was promulgated in 1854, Cardinal Newman defended it by arguing that the Catholic Church said of Mary what all Christians were willing to say of Eve – that she was conceived free from original sin.

The doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption extend the symbolic horizon of the incarnation by including Mary’s own conception and bodily resurrection within the narrative. Although these doctrines were promulgated in 1854 and 1950 respectively, their devotional and doctrinal origins can be traced back to the beliefs of the early Church, and Karl Rahner also recognised that they are the necessary corollary to the doctrine of redemption. If Christ is the redeemer, then there must be at least one person in all of history who is redeemed. Given that our redemption is hoped for in Christ, Mary alone is the perfectly redeemed who represents the fulfilment of Christ’s redeeming work, and in whom we find the promise of our own redemption. As the Immaculate Conception, she is the first creature of the new creation, and her freedom from sin is made possible by but also anticipates the coming of Christ through her. In the Assumption, she is bodily incorporated into eternal life in union with God, and in her we see the divinisation of all humanity. Although Mary is unique in creation because she is the Mother of God, she is also the prototype of every human being who is baptised and redeemed in Christ.

Men speaking for women
These are just some of the ways in which I think there is an unfolding coherence and depth to the Marian tradition in theology, doctrine and devotion. I have written extensively on the difficulties that arise from a feminist perspective with regard to the romanticisation of Mary and the stereotypes of maternal femininity that inform Catholic theology, not least in the postconciliar Church. Catholic images and beliefs about Mary still bear the marks of a one-sided theological tradition in which men have spoken for and about women, while refusing to allow women to speak for and about ourselves. Today, however, there is a growing number of theologically educated women – both Catholic and Protestant – who are looking anew at what Mary might mean for women in the Church. Inevitably, this will bring new challenges and new insights to the tradition, while also helping us to retrieve some of the neglected and forgotten aspects of that tradition. This is an exciting process that I believe has the potential to revitalise Holy Mother Church and enable her to carry out in a more effective and holistic way her task of nurture, compassion and care in the world.




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