NPR Promotes Irish Author's Anti-Catholic Fable Deforming the Virgin Mary

MRC president Brent Bozell ripped The New York Times and the Washington Post in his November 17 column for their positive reviews of Colm Toibin's short novel "The Testament of Mary," which distorts the biblical Virgin Mary into an angry woman bitter at her son Jesus' crucifixion and filled with contempt for His followers. But these left-leaning rags weren't the only media outlets boosting Toibin's iconoclastic re-purposing of the Mother of God.

NPR boosted the Irish writer in an interview on the November 13 episode of Morning Edition. Correspondent Lynn Neary could have been mistaken for a publicist for Toibin as she unquestioningly forwarded his talking points on the book. Neary acknowledged that Toibin's warped version of Mary is a "controversial figure," but barely touched on how Christians - especially Catholics and Orthodox Christians - might be offended by his novel.

In his introduction to the segment, host Steve Inskeep claimed that "few writers have taken up her [Mary's] story, or tried to create their own version of the epic events of her life." Apparently, Inskeep is unaware of the poetry that has been written over the past two millennia on the Blessed Virgin Mary (ranging from the early Church Father St. Ephrem the Syrian in the 4th century A.D. to G.K. Chesterton in the 1920s). He continued that in his novel, "Mr. Toibin raises questions not only about the life of Mary, but about the stories that laid the groundwork for the creation of a church."

Neary first gave Toibin's back story on what supposedly inspired him to write his book - a trip to northern Italy, where he saw two paintings - one depicting the Virgin Mary's Assumption body and soul into Heaven; and the other of her greatest sorrow - standing at the foot of the Cross watching her son slowly die. The author claimed that he was "absolutely struck by the difference between the two images: one pure - the way they wanted her to be, arising, you know, into heaven; and the other impure - chaotic, cruel, strange, unforgettable."

Toibin actually misrepresented the painting of the Crucifixion. While the overall scene filled with tumult, there is calm at the center - the sorrowful mother gazing up at her son as the Cross is seemingly lost in a heavenly light. The painter, Tintoretto, could have been partially inspired by the motto of the Carthusian Order: Stat crux dum volvitur orbis - the Cross is steady while the world is turning.

The NPR correspondent continued that the novel's setting "takes place many years after the Crucifixion....She [Mary] has nothing but contempt for her son's disciples...from the moment she saw Jesus preaching to them." Neary added that "this Mary is neither pious nor pliant. Instead, she is filled with anger. Toibin says he based her voice in part on the fierce heroines of Greek tragedies - Medea, Electra, Antigone. Through her eyes, we see anew familiar stories of the New Testament - the wedding feast at Cana; the resurrection of Lazarus. Toibin says he used the Gospels as a resource until the beginning of the Crucifixion, when Mary first sees the crown of thorns."

This claim from the Irish writer about using the Gospels as a "resource" is dubious, to say the least. In first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the young woman of Nazareth completely accepted the message of the archangel Gabriel that she would become the mother of the Son of God: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word." In the second chapter, the prophet Simeon foretold her son's salvific ministry and her own sorrows when she and her husband St. Joseph presented Jesus in the Temple: "Behold this child is set for the fall, and for the resurrection of many in Israel, and for a sign which shall be contradicted; and thy own soul a sword shall pierce, that, out of many hearts, thoughts may be revealed." How did Mary react to all of these events in the early life of her son? St. Luke gave an answer at the end of the chapter: "And his mother kept all these words in her heart."

Toibin then made it clear, as he read an excerpt from his novel, that one of his goals is to completely undermine the Gospels and orthodox Christian theology: "I was there, I said. I fled before it was over. But if you want witnesses, then I am one, and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it." In St. John's account of the Crucifixion, Mary stood at the foot of the Cross until he "gave up the ghost." After her son rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven, she stayed in the upper room with the Apostles until the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.

Neary then acknowledged that "Toibin's Mary seems so unlike the iconic blushing virgin, or tragic mother figure, that has been handed down over the years, that some readers may find her almost unrecognizable. And, says Toibin, he knew even as he was writing the book that he was creating a controversial figure." But she decided to play two more soundbites from the writer before asking her indirect question about the possibility that "people of faith - people who believe in Christianity, would be offended by this book." She continued carrying water for Toibin for the reminder of the report.

It shouldn't be surprising that that NPR would go to such lengths to boost Toibin's attack on the person that the Catholic and Orthodox faiths teach is the model Christian. Terry Gross, host of the Fresh Air program, outed herself as an anti-Catholic during an August 2012 interview of Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio.

The full transcript of the Lynn Neary segment from the November 13, 2012 episode of Morning Edition:


STEVE INSKEEP: The Virgin Mary is one of Christianity's most familiar icons. For centuries, artists have depicted her from ancient frescos in churches to paintings by Renaissance masters to simple back yard statues. But few writers have taken up her story, or tried to create their own version of the epic events of her life.

Now, the Irish writer Colm Toibin does just that in his novella, 'The Testament of Mary'. In so doing, Mr. Toibin raises questions not only about the life of Mary, but about the stories that laid the groundwork for the creation of a church. NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY: Colm Toibin grew up in Catholic Ireland at a time when devotion to the Virgin Mary was widespread. But he found the inspiration for his fictional account of Mary's life not in Ireland, but in Italy. While on a trip to Venice, Toibin happened upon two very different works of art: Titian's 'Assumption', depicting a red-robed Mary being taken up into heaven surrounded by angels; and a painting of the Crucifixion by Tintoretto.

COLM TOIBIN, AUTHOR, "THE TESTAMENT OF MARY": And I was just absolutely struck by the difference between the two images: one pure - the way they wanted her to be, arising, you know, into heaven; and the other impure - chaotic, cruel, strange, unforgettable.

NEARY: It is the space between these two images that Toibin explores in 'The Testament of Mary'. This brief novella takes place many years after the Crucifixion. Mary is being watched over by two of her son's followers. She has nothing but contempt for her son's disciples - always has - from the first moment she saw Jesus preaching to them and heard a false note in his voice.

TOIBIN: She calls them misfits, only children - stammerers - men who could not look women in eye. And they – they sort of appalled her, because this – the – the language that they were using did not seem, to her, to be right.

NEARY: This Mary is neither pious nor pliant. Instead, she is filled with anger. Toibin says he based her voice, in part, on the fierce heroines of Greek tragedies - Medea, Electra, Antigone. Through her eyes, we see anew familiar stories of the New Testament - the wedding feast at Cana; the resurrection of Lazarus. Toibin says he used the Gospels as a resource until the beginning of the Crucifixion, when Mary first sees the crown of thorns.

TOIBIN: Then, I had to just leave the Gospels aside - leave all sources aside - and begin to imagine what would that be like if you had known this man as a baby; if you had nurtured this child; if you were a woman who had – who had nurtured him, to see him try to pick out, pull at the crown of thorns, and, actually, pushing the – the thorns in even further. So, I was trying to imagine it second by second, moment by moment, as though it had not happened yet.

NEARY: One of the disciples now taking care of Mary is John, who wants her to confirm the stories he is writing down in his Gospel. He wants to place a grieving Mary at the foot of the Cross. Mary knows her son's followers want her to help them, to tell the world that Jesus was the son of God. But she will have no part of it.

TOIBIN (reading from "The Testament of Mary"): I whispered it again, slowly, carefully, giving it all my breath, all my life, the little that is left in me. I was there, I said. I fled before it was over. But if you want witnesses, then I am one, and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.

NEARY: Toibin's Mary seems so unlike the iconic blushing virgin, or tragic mother figure, that has been handed down over the years, that some readers may find her almost unrecognizable. And, says Toibin, he knew even as he was writing the book that he was creating a controversial figure.

TOIBIN: Yes, yes - I realized that, sometimes, when I was working, that I was breaking glass; and, yes, I was aware that the figure speaking was not the mild woman of the paintings - the imploring or/and the very yielding woman that you see at the foot of the Cross, or that you hear about in the Gospels. That she was somebody who was deeply traumatized and very angry, and also, sharp and also intelligent, and also, ready to defend herself if necessary.

NEARY: The Gospel of St. John, of course, does not tell the story of Jesus according to Mary's testament. There are, says Tobin, two competing narratives in his book, and he insists that he makes no judgment on which is closer to the truth.

TOIBIN: That's too large a question for me. I'm interested only in her voice, and what somebody like her might have said had the time arisen 20 years after the Crucifixion to speak for once. But those large questions over what's right or wrong, or over should things have happened one way or the other, really don't interest me. I'm concentrating entirely on the tone and texture of this woman's voice in this particular day.

NEARY: Do – do you think it's possible that people who – people of faith - people who believe in Christianity, would be offended by this book?

TOIBIN: Well, in the end, she has to say that, from her point of view, when they're talking about those large questions of redemption - that all she has to say is, look, I was there. I saw the cruelty. I saw the hours passing. I can tell you one thing: it wasn't worth it. Now – now, I do realize that this is not ideal if you, for example, pray to the Virgin Mary, which a lot of people do; or if you worship her. But, on the other hand, a book is closed. You have to open it to read it.

And also, I am a citizen of the European Union where – and, indeed, I am in the United States at the moment, where the freedom to imagine and publish is one of the things we have all worked for over a number of centuries. And so, I am insisting on my right to imagine how she might have spoken on a given day. But, obviously, I would also insist on someone else's right not to open the book.

NEARY: The very least, Toibin says, he hopes that believers and non-believers alike will approach his portrait of Mary with an open mind, and will understand that he took his subject matter seriously. I wanted to allow Mary to speak, he says, in the same way that artists of the Renaissance wanted to paint her robes and her suffering and her yearning. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center