Blogger of the Month for April 2006
Jim West Interviews Lesa Bellevie
Editorial Note: Lesa Bellevie is the author of the weblog The Magdalene Review at http://www.magdalenereview.org/.
JW: First, would you mind telling us who you are and what you do?
LB: My name is Lesa Bellevie. I’m a two-career working mother of two sons, a teenager and a toddler. From 9 to 5 you’ll find me testing computer software, but my passionate avocation is researching Mary Magdalene. This is probably an odd way for me to have come to Biblical studies and textual criticism, but my interest in these areas now extends far beyond this one figure. Having been raised with a rural American, charismatic, tent revival form of Christianity, I’ve always been Bible-oriented, but as an adult I’ve taken a much more academic approach to scripture.
JW: Thank you. Now, describe, if you would, your blog, how you got it started, and why.
LB: In 1998 I launched the website Magdalene.org to present information about Mary Magdalene in art, literature, scripture, legend, and popular culture to the online community. This project has been a primary focus for a number of years, but because my goal with that site is to present information that is as unbiased as possible, I needed an outlet for discussing my own perspective on Mary Magdalene. To that end, I started my blog, The Magdalene Review, in November 2005. My stated objective with the blog is to track the many references to Mary Magdalene in the media, but on slow news days I enjoy posting my thoughts on various aspects of Mary Magdalene scholarship. Sometimes I focus on topics very relevant to Biblical studies, sometimes on areas of a more broad concern. It’s fun to post odd bits of trivia once in awhile as well.
JW: Would you say that interest in Mary Magdalene has been aided by the Da Vinci Code phenomenon?
LB: That would be a fair assessment, yes, but it would be a mistake to assume that there was little to say about her before The Da Vinci Code was published in 2003. The explosive enthusiasm we’re seeing now is a fad, but I anticipate that the level of interest in Mary Magdalene will remain higher than it was pre-DVC even after the mania fades. Before DVC, there was already a burgeoning Mary Magdalene movement, small, disorganized and fragmented; the ideas propelling this were some of the same used by Dan Brown in his novel. Far from being driven entirely by the “sacred feminine” contingent, though, interest in Mary Magdalene was also being stirred up by Christian organizations such as FutureChurch that lobby for female ordination in the RCC. So what Dan Brown’s book did in this regard was make a lot of people aware of something that had actually been going on for some time.
JW: What informs your view of Mary? By that I mean, is your perspective purely informed by the available sources or do you also draw from pseudepigraphal materials?
LB: One of the reasons I think I make a decent observer of the entire Mary Magdalene phenomenon is that I don’t have a vested interest in any of the views of her currently in circulation. I think that she can be identified as an apostle based on the canonical gospel accounts without bringing later texts into the question, but Gnostic texts do round out our view of how she was appreciated by some early Christian communities. I am sympathetic toward some of the more mystical approaches to Mary Magdalene today, but it’s crucial that those ideas don’t pollute our understanding of history. I find it unfortunate that in the course of promoting heterodox views, some people find a complete revision of Western history necessary. It’s a sad example of “the tail wagging the dog.”
I feel that our best chance of understanding Mary Magdalene as an historical person comes from the canon. It’s important not to overestimate what we can learn from the gospels, however; my frank opinion is that we know next to nothing about her, even now. Much of my interest in Mary Magdalene comes from how she has been perceived for the last 1900 years. Rather than asking the question, “who was she?”, often I find the more appropriate and revealing question to be “who do we THINK she was?” Shifting the focus from Mary Magdalene’s identity to our perceptions of her identity can be quite revealing.
JW: Has the Church been wrong in its view of Mary?
LB: To the extent that the Church has identified her as a reformed prostitute, yes, I think that is incorrect. There is no scriptural basis for such an identification. In 1969 the RCC shifted its position on Mary Magdalene, choosing instead to identify her as a disciple, but in practice, many priests, pastors, and other church leaders still think of her in her traditional role as penitent. Protestants, of course, don’t usually take their lead from the RCC, so she is still known by her traditional identity to many.
This is a fairly complex issue that I’ve tried to dig into a little bit in my blog. Although it’s commendable to correct a 1400 year old error, it’s also asking people to reject a well-established, meaningful tradition that still speaks deeply to many. More than a thousand years of rich thought, art, and legend has grown up around Mary Magdalene in her role as pentitent. From a cultural point of view, I think it would be unfortunate to simply discard all of this because it is politically unpopular. This doesn’t mean we should try and digest a lie, but it’s very apparent that the RCC can promote other traditional but legendary ideas while fully acknowledging that they don’t occur in scripture. It’s worth examining what the difference is in this case.
JW: How would you describe her to a modern reader?
LB: On my blog I’ve added a tagline in the format of a faux dictionary entry. I define the word “magdalene” as “a woman who has never been a subject of no controversy.” This is perhaps the best way to think of her today. Of the countless ways Mary Magdalene has been appreciated during the last almost 2000 years, one thing that has always been true is that she is rarely treated with indifference. We know that she was a follower of Jesus, that she was the only common witness to the crucifixion, entombment, and resurrection, that she might have been finanically independent and that she was healed of seven demons, however one wishes to interpret that. This is the foundation of what we know about her as provided by the gospels, but even these things are subject to a great deal of debate.
JW: You have a book on Mary in the “Idiot’s Guides to…” series. How did that come about?
LB: Alpha Books, the division of Penguin that publishes the Idiot’s Guide series, wanted to put out a book about Mary Magdalene. They sent an agent out to look for an author, and I was approached for the project. At the time I was considering another title that had been offered to me, but the Idiot’s Guide was much more visible and gave me the opportunity to cover a lot more ground. Alpha gave me 12 weeks to write the book, during which I also worked full time, led a continuing education discussion series on The Da Vinci Code at a local community college, and organized a small international Mary Magdalene feast day celebration. My husband kept our family afloat during that time, and as I’ve taken on more and more Magdalene work, he has been instrumental in helping me make it happen. We both need a vacation!
JW: As you may or may not know, there was a good bit of discussion among the bibliobloggers after the SBL annual meeting about the seeming lack of females blogging. How would you explain this apparent lack of interest amongst female scholars to blogging?
LB: I’ve not been part of this conversation overall, entering it only to provide some humorous relief, but I’m aware of the questions that have been asked. My curiosity is about female bloggers in general; although statistically there are now more women online than men, I don’t know what the ratio is for bloggers. Before asking why more women scholars aren’t blogging, it might be productive to ask why more *women* aren’t blogging. An AlterNet article from last year (“Ten Reasons for Too Few Women Bloggers”) digs into this question a little bit, and confirms my view that the dearth of women bloggers has some connection to the unequal ratio of men and women in the technology field. As a software tester I can attest to the fact that early adopters of technology tend to be male, and blogging is still a relatively new activity. I’m sure more women scholars will start blogging eventually.
JW: Do you think there’s an inherent sexism in biblical scholarship against women?
LB: That’s a very difficult question to answer given that I am an amateur in the field. I personally haven’t come up against any sexism in my interactions with male biblical scholars, but my exposure to people working in the discipline has been limited. I tend to find it annoying when a pro-female argument is automatically classified as “feminist,” but that seems to be a problem with individuals rather than an entire field of studies.
JW: Do you know of other female bloggers in the area of Biblical Studies that you could recommend to us?
JW: Now to change the subject a little- what are your hobbies?
LB: My husband and I are bibliophiles. We spend a lot of time scouring used bookstores for titles in our areas of interest, particularly collectible editions and out-of-print volumes. Primarly we focus on the humanities and social sciences; we rarely read or collect fiction. When we aren’t maintaining our library or reading, we enjoy watching movies and keeping up with our favorite television shows (”Lost,” “House,” “24,” and “My Name is Earl”).
Occasionally I also enjoy hobbies that result in a tangible finished product, such as knitting, sewing, beading, cooking and that sort of thing. There is something about engaging my hands in busy work that is deeply satisfying. Neither my work in the software industry nor my Mary Magdalene work often result in a product that can be held and admired, so finding ways to express creativity free of intellectualization and having something to show for effort expended sometimes helps me feel more grounded.
JW: Which of the “biblioblogs” do you read and which do you find most engaging?
LB: Those I read most frequently are Mark Goodacre’s NT Gateway Weblog, Stephen Carlson’s Hypotyposeis, Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed, and Horace Jeffery Hodges’ Gypsy Scholar. Since I find the Gospel of Luke quite intriguing, I also try to keep up with Richard Anderson’s Kratistos Theophilos. Recently I discovered Matt Page’s Bible Movies Blog, which I’ve added to my blogroll. Occasionally I make a pass through the whole Biblioblogs list, which I need to do again. You’ve added a lot of new titles since I went through it last.
JW: Finally, what would you like to tell our readers about yourself that they would find unusual? Have you an odd hobby or are you a movie star or do you sell baked goods? ;-)
LB: I’m not sure what would qualify as unusual. To most people, the depth of my interest in Mary Magdalene and early Christianity itself is unusual, but I anticipate that many Biblioblog readers have similar passions. I just think of myself as an ordinary person who is perhaps well-positioned for transmitting academic views of Mary Magdalene to popular readers, and if I’m lucky, vice versa.
JW: Thank you, Lesa, for your time. And thank you for your responses. Your blog is tremendously interesting and we appreciate your good work.
LB: Thank you so much for including The Magdalene Review on Biblioblogs, and for the opportunity to talk about my projects.