Books

“The Bible Is Inexhaustible”

Chester Brown on his cartoon exploration of Jesus and prostitution.

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Drawn and Quarterly

Chester Brown’s Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus may be the most provocative comic book published this year. Beginning as a series of short Bible stories, many of them with a sexual edge—Tamar grappling with her husband, Onan, Bathsheba’s affair with King David—it gradually transforms into a polemic. Drawing variously on academic scholarship, apocryphal texts, and his own keen interpretative eye, Brown argues that Jesus’ mother was a prostitute—and that Jesus’ own appreciation of prostitution was suppressed by later authors.

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Though he tells familiar stories, Brown often pushes them in surprising—and sometimes even shocking—directions. In one especially memorable sequence, he suggests that the anointment of Jesus described in all four gospels may have been sexual. Jesus’ feet are central to some versions of the tale, and contemporary references to “feet,” Brown claims, are sometimes euphemisms for the penis. As with other details in the book, Brown defends this conclusion in a series of lengthy exegetical endnotes that capture both the scope of his inquiries and the shape of his own fascinations.

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Chester Brown.
Chester Brown.

Drawn and Quarterly

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We spoke with Brown about sex work, religious scholarship, and adapting the naughty bits back into the Bible.

Your central contention is that Mary was a prostitute. Why was this an important assertion for you?

It’s important because I’m someone who’s involved in the sex worker rights movement—at least to some degree, at least an ally in the movement. It seems to me that Christianity is the force behind the opposition to prostitution, starting with St. Paul. The condemnation of sex work and prostitution all comes from there. If I want to attack that sort of thinking, why not attack it at the root? Christianity.

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But I’m coming at it from a Christian point of view. I consider myself religious. I was raised in Christianity. I still respect the religion, but not that aspect of it.

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Paying for It suggests that your interest in early Christian history predates your first experiences with sex work. How did you get started on these issues?

I didn’t really become interested in prostitution until the late ’90s. That’s when I started paying for sex. I’ve been interested in early Christianity for basically all of my adult life. I began doing adaptations of the Gospels in, I would say, late ’86, and I would start reading books on Christianity as research for that back then. That’s when I first encountered Jane Schaberg’s book The Illegitimacy of Jesus, which was important to the central ideas in Mary Wept.

Your reading since then has been extensive. Can you point to any texts that were especially influential on you?

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John Dominic Crossan’s book The Power of Parable was tremendously important, because that’s where I encountered the alternate version of the Parable of the Talents that I explore here. That was really the trigger for me doing this book. I respect where he’s coming from, although he’d probably disagree with some of what’s in my book.

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Cynthia Bourgeault’s The Wisdom of Jesus was also really important for me. It had a chapter about Jesus being a sexual person and having some sort of sex life. She didn’t say anything about prostitution, but it gave me a way of understanding Jesus from a different perspective.

Was the process of creating this project different from working on the memoiristic and historical comics that you’ve published in the past?

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I think it was more fun. I think I’ve enjoyed doing this book more than I’ve enjoyed doing any of the books in the past, perhaps because I know the Bible quite well. When I was a kid, my mom would read Bible stories to us. I think I felt more confident with this material than I did with, say, Louis Riel, or even my own autobiographical story, which I should know inside out. I guess it’s that connection to the childhood aspect of the story—or the fact that I learned most of these stories in childhood. They feel personal in a way.

There’s a lot of nudity here—male and female—and probably a lot more explicit sex than people are used to seeing in biblical adaptations. Are you worried about the response to that at all?

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I think that people who are most likely to be offended by that are Christians, and they’re going to be offended whether or not there’s nudity, given the ideas that are expressed in the book. I almost think that nudity’s a side issue.

What about accusations of sacrilege more generally? Does that possibility trouble you?

Not really. I was more concerned when I published Paying for It. I hadn’t really been that out about paying for sex before that. When I was taking that book on tour I was concerned that I would be heckled, and that never happened. Maybe it’ll happen this time?

One of the most provocative moments in your book is the section on Jesus’ anointment. You suggest that it may have been a sexual act. In that scene you mostly linger on other characters. Given how much you reveal elsewhere, why not focus more explicitly on what’s actually happening?

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I don’t know what actually happened. There was some sort of ceremony going on, but it’s entirely speculative as to what the ceremony consisted of.

Are there any Bible adaptations outside of comics that have influenced you?

There are certainly ones that I’ve enjoyed. I enjoyed The Last Temptation of Christ by Martin Scorsese. I can even enjoy cheesier ones. I recently watched The Robe. I enjoyed it, even though there isn’t much to it from a theological perspective. I just went to see that new movie Risen. I enjoyed it too but don’t take it that seriously.

Are you drawn to any other interpretative debates?

Yeah, but I’d rather not say. The Bible is inexhaustible.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus by Chester Brown. Drawn and Quarterly.

See all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.

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