The Reasons I Love and Hate the Movie Mary Magdalene

This little site continues to twist and morph day after day. You guys get more involved and participate day by day. After I created the new suggestion box (which you can find on the bottom of this screen, or here) the way I have normally worked to find movies for you has totally changed. Usually 80% of all movies that I have brought to the site to discuss has come from my scouring and looking for interesting movies to tip you guys to. (Which used to entail reading lots about festivals like Sundance, Santa Barbara, etc, as well as independent movie news sites, etc.) But now? Geesh. I’d say now? I probably find 20% – I think it might have flipped upside down. Which, is super cool that you guys are also into this independent thinking man’s movies thing as well. So good on ya, you guys. Pretty cool.

Today, ironically, this movie comes from “Sinner”. And boy did they bring a good one.

The reason? That’s because Sinner has brought us a totally different kind of movie to discuss.  I mean, seeing as though time traveling loops, and crazy sci-fi, and mind blowing closed box, and fantastic dialogue movies, and just tripy craziness movies, are more my thing. But today, today we got a movie about Mary Magdalene. And since I’m a pretty outspoken Christian, I thought it’d be cool to do a couple things with the breakdown of this movie. First, I figured we could just talk about it and point out the areas where it did and didn’t follow the facts of the Gospels. And second, talk about the overall heart of the movie, and its intensions… or perceived intensions anyway.

As a disclaimer, if you are a Christian, and you are looking to tell me whether you should watch this movie and its hereticalness. That isn’t going to happen. We will grapple with the movies details and we will celebrate the really fantastic things it does (of which, there are many) and I will also call out the more curious things (which there are a couple) so that we can talk about them in toto and in part. But I’m not going to tell you what to think about this movie. And if you are an atheist, and you are hoping that I will come through and lay waste to Christian traditions or thought for the last 2 millennia, I’m not doing that either. But I will give you both an honest wrestling with the ideas and the content of this movie with the hopes of nudging both factions towards the other. Because I think there is a lot to be learned from this film.

The Biblical Account of Mary of Magdala

First, it has to be said, that there are just so many Mary’s throughout the Bible. And even more complicated, is that just in the three synoptic gospels (which is just a fancy, LOOK AT ME, sort of way to say, Matthew, Mark, and Luke) there are at least six Marys? Crazy! Anyway, we have our Mary of Magdala. We’ve got Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary the mother of James the less (there were two disciples named James (SEE! More name confusions happening) and this disciple was the son of Alphaeus). We’ve got Mary of Cleopas (who was seen only at the cross).

And then there was Mary of Bethany. In the accounts of Luke and John, they point out that Mary of Bethany was a sinner (Luke), and in John, he recounted the story of a woman named Mary caught in the act of adultery. The Pharisees assumed stoning would be the correct move, and Jesus scribbles in the sand, looks up at them all, and asks for those of them that are without sin to throw the first rock. They all dumped the stones and went on their way. Here’s the problem, throughout history, Mary of Magdala and Mary of Bethany got inextricably conflated with. (It began with the Pope apparently in 500AD… but Google it if you want to know more.) It is Mary of Bethany that would later anoint Jesus with really expensive Chanel perfume before his death. And Mary of Bethany was an amazingly thankful woman who was saved from so much (as was I).

Now, Mary of Magdala was fairly well off. How do we know? Well, she was called out in Luke 8:1-3, as one of the women that traveled with the disciples and other women that funded his ministry. Here, let’s look at the verse:

“Soon afterwards, He began going around from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God. The twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means.”

Man, we learn a ton about Mary of Magdala in these few verses. We also learn about the other women of this small coterie. Thing one we learn is that the 12 disciples were regularly with Jesus, but they were also always accompanied with these women. I’m sure that there were always people that tagged alone, and that came and went. But the main group that was the support infrastructure that made the Jesus Tour happen? It was these women. They paid for the tour buses, they paid for the stage, the stadiums, the lights… it was these women that really kept this show going. And why? Well, because their lives had changed irrevocably for the better. The Magdalan was demon posessed. And the wife of Chuza? She had been healed by Jesus of some significant illness. These women were sold out. Completely.

To be clear, it is my working theory that Mary Magdalene was not caught in adultery. She also didn’t anoint Jesus feet before his crucifixion. That was Mary of Bethany. But Mary Magdalene was demon possessed, and had the demons exorcised. She was also fairly well off, well off enough to be noted as a contributor to this road show and made it financially happen. Ok?

An In Depth Walk Through of the Movie Mary Magdalene

The opening few minutes of the movie sets up Mary as a trapped woman, that the community is arranging a marriage for. She’s being told to marry a man who’s wife died, who needs help caring for his children. We see that she is all kinds of stressed out about this new development. And truth be told? Though obviously made up, it isn’t outside the realm of reasonable. If she was a fairly well off woman, she would definitely be pushed to match with a husband. So, while fictional/unsupported, it seems to match the culture of the day.

But then when Mary stresses out over this social pressure, she heads to the synagogue and prays (breaking social norms for women in the synagogue outside of Saturday) and she appeals really to anyone that will listen. And then she meets Jesus which brings us to a showdown between the town of Magdala and Jesus over Mary’s desire to follow him. And Jesus makes it clear that daughters will be separated from fathers. Sons will be separated from mothers:

“For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be the members of his household. ‘He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life will lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake will find it.”

Oh. That is way way too spicy to be Jesus. He can’t have said that! Jesus was meek and a withering violet. Uh. No. Look it up yourself. Matthew 10. It’s even more violent in context. But what is he saying here? Why don’t I give you another time he said something like this and we can walk through both:

“You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and they will put some of you to death, and you will be hated by all because of My name.” Luke 21:16-17

In these two passages (and there are many more) Jesus is basically saying that there will be people that are so opposed to Christ, and to His ideas, that they would express real rabid hate towards these followers of Christ and His ideas. And at the end of the day, we are to follow in spite of them. Obviously, it is better for the mother AND the son to follow Christ. But if not? It is going to get ugly. And we see this conflict in Mary’s life, as she turns away from her brother, father, as she chooses to follow Jesus. And though we have no indication it happened… it could have.

But What Do You Long For?

There were so many just rapturously amazing details in this movie. One of them is in the middle owas when Jesus asked Mary what she longed for. And Mary is just like – I just don’t know… She is really considering it.  The community thinks Mary is demon possessed, and Jesus is talking to Mary’s heart. What is the desire of your soul Mary? And then she answers, “To know God.” And Jesus says to her, there are no demons here… rest in the light.

So there is goodness here, and there is craziness here. Could it be that Mary’s demons were her inability to obey socially, the mores and the demands placed on her socially? Just a misperception? Maybe? But there were so many very specific examples of demons being cast out of people throughout the Gospels that you have to take that into account:

A mute man has a demon cast out, and he is able to speak, Luke 11:34. Demons were proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah and he was forbidding them from speaking, (Mark 1:34, Luke 4:41, Mark 3:11, Luke 4:35, etc. etc.) We learn there are different kinds of demons, Mark 9:29. And 1 Peter 5:8 states that Satan roams about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour. So yeah. But this is so unpopular an idea. This idea of a spiritual realm. This idea of demon possession. It is the stuff of horror movies, and that’s about it within popular culture.

But I adore this interaction between Mary and Jesus… what do you desire? What is your heart’s cry? And if you were honest with yourself, and could understand what you really need, what you are really wanting… it would be this answer too. “To Know God.” This is the God shaped hole within all of us – to steal a phrase from Pascal.

The Confusion of the Disciples

One of the things that is really well portrayed is the disciples’ utter cluelessness. And by utter – I mean, absolute. It was very very rare that the disciples and Jesus were on the same page. If ever. I mean, just look at this one example right here. Jesus was letting the disciples know they were heading into Jerusalem, and that he’d be killed. Here’s how that went down:

“Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. “For He will be handed over to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again.” But the disciples understood none of these things, and the meaning of this statement was hidden from them, and they did not comprehend the things that were said.”

Jesus literally spelled it out for them, and they still didn’t get it. Why? Well, the movie Mary Magdalene would have you believe it was 100% because the Jews saw the coming Messiah as a warrior and a liberator from the Roman rule. Think about it, for the previous what? 800 years the Jews knew one form of hostile take over after another. The Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and then the Romans? You’d be looking for a military savior too if that had been your history. So, when Jesus tells them his time has come, and that he’s heading into Jerusalem to fulfill his purpose? It’s all about upheaval and uprising in order to throw off the military dictatorship that has its boot on their neck. Right?

But was this 100% of their confusion? This was the Jews’ confusion, for sure. I mean, even today this is the disparity between Christianity and Judaism. What’s interesting is that Christianity agrees with Judaism on Christ’s second coming (at least I believe it does, sort of – I mean, the Jews believe the very first thing that the Christ will do on the Temple Mount when He comes is that He’ll sacrifice the red heffer. But from a Christian standpoint, obviously Jesus won’t sacrifice because he was the final sacrifice. It’s why the tabernacle has been destroyed, it’s why… Uh. I think I am digressing on my digression. Whoops. I find this stuff interesting. My bad.), it just disagrees that it is His only coming.

But the disciples weren’t just confused about Jesus as the military leader. They were regularly confused about anything and everything. Confusion about keeping the children from Him. Confusion about what Jesus was asking about the bread and the fish. They were sure He was a ghost as He walked across the waters of Galilee. They marveled after being sent out that even the demons were afraid of them. They didn’t know why He would talk to the woman at the well in Samaria. His parables regularly baffled them and required Jesus to go back over them in private.

Let’s put it this way. Where were the disciples on Golgotha as he hung on the cross? No there, that’s for sure. And in the intervening 3 days while he was dead, where were they? Fishing. They went back to their original vocations. They had quit. And where were they when Jesus rose from the dead, and the tomb was opened? Definitely not there. They were hiding from the Romans who they were sure would crucify them as well if they were caught. Please don’t think I believe myself to be better. I would have been just as confused and baffled as they were. For sure.

The Clarity of the Woman Surrounding Jesus

Another aspect that I really enjoyed about the movie Mary Magdalene was how it indicated that Mary understood things that the other male disciples did not. While I don’t believe Mary traveled with the men by herself – but instead was joined by Joanna, Susanna, and others – I do believe it was the women in this group that had a much easier time understanding what it was exactly, that Jesus was doing. Why? Well, it felt like they actually listened to the words coming out of His mouth, and not just the assumptions they had about what the Messiah would be like.

One of my favorite interactions between Christ and a woman, was his conversation with the woman at the well in John 4. She was the pariah of the town because she had had five or six husbands. And yet, Jesus tells her that He is the Messiah that had been prophesied about. That He was the one that would change the way all of it would work. And yet? She was a Samaritan woman. Jesus really shouldn’t have been talking to a woman by himself. Better yet, Jews didn’t talk to Samaritans at all. Of any gender. Heck! They didn’t even walk through Samaria. Instead, they chose to walk the long way around. If a rich American white pastor needed to pass through the ghetto in order to get to a meeting, and he accidentally found himself in a conversation with an African American woman, would he stop to have a serious conversation about her need, her heart, and the spiritual things that really mattered? I really really hope so. But, you’ll have to forgive me for being a little dubious.

Jesus cared passionately about all the people that he ran across. And He regularly blew up the standards and mores of the day in order to do the right thing. And unsurprisingly, it was the women that really got his message and understood the significant change He was bringing. (So much so that I really believe that the book of Hebrews was written by Priscilla, a significant woman of the early church. Want to read more about that?) The movie Mary Magdalene, really grabs ahold of this key detail. But instead of calling out this missed understanding of the gospel and the key impact that women had, the movie leverages this information as a wrecking ball. They literally salt the earth, and leave the disciples behind as casualties of war. Which, is a complete mis-representation of what happened at the end of the gospels. But, we shall get to that in good time my dear friends. Trust me.

Jesus Was Not An Unknowable Mystic Yoda

There was so much to enjoy about this movie, and I still have a long way to go in that regard. But I love the cluelessness of the disciples. The desire for a conquering king. And the contextualization of these historical events and understanding the Roman and Herodian impacts on their daily lives.

But one of the biggest problems I have with this movie is Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Jesus. This Jesus sits and stares at the sky. Declares that we are to listen to the silence. He faints when healing people. This is not the Jesus of the Gospels that I have read. I have even heard many within the Christian circles say that Jesus never answered questions. He was aloof. And I got so annoyed with this I counted. And of the 120 or so questions Jesus was asked (depending on how you count them), he answered all but 4 or 5. And a couple of those were prophesied that he wouldn’t answer.  (Like the prophesy in Isaiah 53:7 that says, something like, ‘like a sheep led to the slaughter he will not open his mouth…’ or some such? Feel free to look it up for yourself.

Let me make this super clear. The angry mobs that asked Jesus horribly angry questions… He answered those. The Pharisees and the Sadducees? The guys that would eventually kill him? Yeah, he answered all those questions too. The women he had conversations with? Yup. The incredibly confused disciples that thought that the Messiah would do a conquering hero thing? Yeah, he answered all those too. So where exactly does this aloof, and non-responsive Jesus come from? Because that isn’t the Jesus I see in the Bible. Dunno. And it literally drives me to drink its such a crazy, and unfortunate misrepresentation of the guy.

The Miracles of the Movie Mary Magdalene

I think we see three miracles in the movie Mary Magdalene. Can’t remember. Four? First miracle we see/don’t see, is Mary’s demon possession. Which, may not be popular, but I already said, happened. In spite of that. We witness someone healed of an eye problem of some sort. And then a dead man coming back to life.

Throughout the New Testament, and the Gospels, there are tons of miracles happening. Left and right. So many, one of the gospel writers said something to the effect of, “I suppose there aren’t books enough on the entire planet to record all His deeds.” (Looked up the reference later, you are welcome, John 21:25). I think there were something like 40 unique miracles that Jesus performed, and almost all of them were recorded more than once in each of the 4 gospels. Which is cool, because you can see them from different vantage points and with different details. We got, Lepers, blind people, mute people,

What is really fascinating about these portrayals, is that in this movie, when Jesus starts healing, people go nuts. But wouldn’t that be how it would go? If you know of a man, today, that all your friends are saying, they saw him heal a dead man, and a leper, and a mute woman, etc etc.  And if you had a horrible sickness or illness? You would bum rush that guy tomorrow. You wouldn’t care if you made him lick a toad’s butt, you’d be there yesterday, and it would be crazy. And to be honest, I hadn’t really thought about that before. And so when the disciples tell the little kids to get back, to get behind the ropes – like bouncers at a pub – it probably meant that it was their job to keep the scene calm. Keep the situation calm at all times, keep it orderly. “YES! I SAW THAT DEAD GUY… but you really have to stay over there in this line. Ok? No yes, I know that that guy was once blind. Ok. FANTASTIC. But really, if you don’t stand behind the ropes, I’m going to kneecap you buddy!” hahaha.

But the gospel was never about the miracles. Yes, it was about God coming to earth. But it wasn’t about the big slot machine in the sky dispensing lottery tickets while he was here on earth for a short time. It was 100% about the good news of the gospel – of our opportunity at salvation and forgiveness.

The Passover & Missed Opportunities

One of the really amazing thing that Christ did while he was on earth was his redefinition of the traditions within the Jewish faith. The Jews would say that they broke the religion. But Jesus would say that their traditions were always pointing to this eventuality. For example, the Passover? Israel in captivity in Egypt placed blood from a lamb around the posts of their doors to indicate that they were the elect, that the angel of death was to PASS OVER their residence, and allow their firstborn live. And Jesus, at his conducting of the passover with his disciples, He conducts it like a betrothal between his followers and himself. So it swivels from a death avoidance celebration, to a betrothal celebration. It’s all about God’s covenant with us. He paid the dowry. “Isaiah 62:5 ‘As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.'”

And when Jesus heads into the temple for the celebration of the Passover, the film makers are so excited about the sense of scale and the sense of scope, they drowned out the impact of Christ in that day and the message He was bringing to the people of earth. Sure, Jesus was just one of many who claimed to be the Christ. But Jesus was the only one that healed and foretold of His death and resurrection. Jesus was the only one that told of Love incomprehensible awaiting us from the Father if only we turn to Him and ask forgiveness of our sins. But Mary Magdalene is more interested in gender politics than it is about the message of good news. It is more excited about some of its ‘clever insights’ than it is about what this story is really all about. Which, is the greatest love story ever told – and that is the story between you and your creator.

Final Thoughts on the Movie Mary Magdalene

Oh I really really enjoyed this movie. I loved the truths that it brought to bear about Christ’s time on planet earth. He came with a story of God’s love for us, and it was a really unapologetic story at that. He came for us, shared the message of salvation. And asked that we ask what it is that we really really long for in this life. And if we long for relationship with our God and creator, He is there to give it to us. He made away to reconcile an imperfect individual back to his perfect God.

But instead, Garth Davis was more intent on telling a cool story of Jesus’ ideas about gender neutrality. That he loves us, male and female independent of this fact. Which is cool. I love that about this story and about the Gospels. But the story of salvation through His work on the cross is infinitely more important than his gender neutral approach.

As the movie ended, it rolled to credits before Mary Magdalene became the apostle to the apostles, and shared the good news of Christ’s resurrection. We didn’t see doubting Thomas’ face when he saw the holes in His hands, His feet, and His side. We didn’t see Jesus come to them on the shore of the lake, and call His disciples back to Him after His death and His call to them to preach the gospel to all the world. We didn’t see Peter turn the corner and preach his amazing sermon at Pentecost about how we had killed the Messiah that had been prophesied (Acts 2). Yes, the disciples didn’t get it, but they eventually got it. And to not tell that entire story is to short shrift us of the whole story.

I really really enjoyed this movie. The passion of it. The insights. The nuance of the historical context. But it definitely had an agenda. If you can see through that agenda, it really is a fantastic movie to experience.