NPR Deeply Enjoys 'Playing With Fire' with 'The Basic Tenets of Christianity'

December 6th, 2012 11:31 PM

As if a puffy seven-minute-plus story on Morning Edition wasn't enough publicity for Irish novelist Colm Toibin's abrasive takedown of the Virgin Mary, NPR's Terry Gross offered another promotional 45 minutes on Monday's Fresh Air. There's nothing NPR likes better than taking this humble, devout disciple and transforming her into some sort of bitter Real Housewife of Nazareth.

Toibin was encouraged to read passages from this vicious little Bible-shredding screed, about how Mary couldn't stand the sound of her own son's preaching: "my son would insist on silence and begin to address them as though they were a crowd, his voice all false and his tone all stilted, and I could not bear to hear him." Gross asked the obvious softball. Ahem, you know this sounds like you want to push Christianity down and steal its lunch money?

GROSS: So before I go any further, I want to say you're really playing with fire in this book, because a lot of people will see it as blasphemous. I mean, you're saying that Mary didn't believe her son was the Son of God and she doesn't really believe his disciples. The disciples who are staying with her to protect her, she kind of thinks what they're really doing is to protect her against telling her story to other people because her story is inconsistent with their story. So everything that you're saying is so contradictory to the gospels and kind of contradictory to, you know, the basic tenets of Christianity.

TOIBIN: Well, I suppose there are two things there. One, the first, is that I'm a novelist. And my job is to imagine and to create character and there's a long tradition of this. In other words, George Moore, who was an Irish novelist, wrote a novel called "The Brook Kerith" which he published in 1916 in which he deals with the fact - not the fact, the fiction that Jesus survived the crucifixion and ended up in India.

You know, someone like Jose Saramago, the Portuguese novelist, has written a book called "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ," in which Jesus has a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. So it's not as though it has not been done before, but even if it hadn't been done before I would have felt an absolute right as a novelist to see this character as my invention and as to work with that as truthfully as I could within the terms I had set myself.

And I suppose the second issue is that I'm a citizen of the European Union in which such freedoms are allowed and absolutely accepted by everybody. So that I don't really see any difficulty there.

GROSS: Has anything surprised you about the reaction you've gotten so far?

TOIBIN: I suppose what surprised me about Ireland, the response in Ireland, has been the ease and the mildness of the response. That there has not been any difficulty.

Europe is not exactly up in arms over Toibin trashing the Virgin Mary, perhaps because they can't stir very many people to even bother turning up at church on Sunday. Faithful Protestants wouldn't have a problem with a more earthy, sinful Mary than Catholics believe in, but even they aren't going to buy into a bitter, hateful Mary who thinks the Apostles are intolerable goons. Gross somehow couldn't ask if Toibin would find the same "mildness of response" if he lashed into Mohammed in a novel that bitterly reimagined the story of Islam.

Gross never lined up a critic -- from Europe or America -- to challenge Toibin's arrogant caricature. Gross has established over a series of NPR interviews that she's interesting in taking Christianity apart like George Tiller took apart a baby. So she pushed Toibin leaving Catholicism once he became a homosexual:

GROSS: So just getting back to your church experience for a moment. When you decided to basically part with the church and not practice Catholicism anymore, if I'm putting that correctly, how did it feel to lose religion when religion had been such an essential part of who you were? Did you have a void in your life? Did you have a hole that you needed to fill? Did you have to search someplace else for the kind of meaning that religion can provide?

TOIBIN: I suppose I did in that I was really terribly interested in poetry. You know, I would have been by that time have found somebody like Wallace Stevens to be terribly important for me and indeed, the portrait of W.B. Yeats, and other American poets like Robert Lowell, so that I was reading poetry very seriously, and I was reading fiction almost for its poetry. And so yes, I suppose a life, I mean very intense reading of books and poems and also the discovery of classical music, and all of that simply fill the gap and so that I didn't feel a void. The void was filled so deeply and seriously by painting, and to some extent, but not as much as by literature and by music.

GROSS: And the language and the music of the church was part of what you loved about it, so you're kind of consistent with that.

TOIBIN: Yes. I remember in Barcelona buying a record of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" and finding that extraordinary, I mean really powerful and sort of using that in a way to have I suppose what I might call now a spiritual life. But I didn't call it that then. I called it pleasure then.

GROSS: So you call what you have now a spiritual life?

TOIBIN: I think that if you have a deep engagement with music or with poetry and you have to sort of question what that does or what that means, I think that one of the things it does and one of the things it means is that it offers you a sort of nonmaterial way of having your life or a way of having certain transcendence or a way of living in the world properly so that you take full pleasure or advantage from the nonmaterial things in the world.

This, in some sense, lands right where the average NPR listener lives. “Spiritual life” is defiined as immersion in the arts and humanities, a pursuit better suited to the intellligent person who’s sophisticated enough to know God is “rubbish,” as they suggest elsewhere in the interview. Gross kept pushing Toibin on Catholic resistance to the Libertine Left:

GROSS: So now that you know you're gay and you're, you know, you're out and you're living the life of a gay man, could you ever seriously go back to the Catholic church knowing that the church hasn't really budged on the issue of homosexuality?

TOIBIN: I think I could. I mean I think that the church has many mansions and there are many ways of being in the church. And just because this particular group have these very rigid rules and this particular group of popes have these rigid rules doesn't mean that if you had a relationship, say with the ceremony of the mass or indeed, with the idea of eternal life or with the figure of Jesus on the cross, that you should allow men such as that - ordinary men and sometimes very bossy men - to interfere with you.

GROSS: Because the church is such a big part of Ireland where you grew up, are you angry with the church?

TOIBIN: No. No, I'm not. I got a lot from the church. I mean, in other words, that idea of beauty, that idea of ceremony, that idea of I suppose community. But I did get to understand that there is an element in all of us, I think, that wants to boss and bully other people around. I suppose the church came to mean that at a certain point for a lot of people, I mean for a lot of women, and indeed, for gay people, that you had these very bossy men standing very rigidly telling you what you should and shouldn't do and I got to feel an immense dislike for that sort of exercise of power.

GROSS: So it was that exercise of power and not your understanding of Catholicism that...

TOIBIN: I think Catholicism is much grander...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

TOIBIN: ...than the mere exercise of power by a number of men who happen to be alive at the moment.

In other words, leftists always believe that human beings are perfectible, even Catholic bishops, who might eventually rule exactly like those liberal Episcopalians...or so they hope at NPR.

PS: Jeff Giles at Entertainment Weekly pens this incredibly stupid ending to his short book review of Toibin: "Tóibín's Mary does not believe Jesus was the son of God. That, understandably, will be a deal breaker for some readers. But if your faith is strong enough to accommodate one artist's alternative vision, Testament is a spellbinding, surprisingly reverent book. A-" Surprisingly reverent? That gets an F.