Chester Brown raised eyebrows with his 2011 work of graphic nonfiction, Paying For It, which depicted his own sex life with prostitutes and argued for greater acceptance of sex work, including the legalization of prostitution. His new graphic novel, Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus (Drawn and Quarterly, April 2016), retells familiar Bible stories (plus one of his own) and argues that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a prostitute, and that Jesus spoke approvingly of prostitution.
Brown uses both scholarship (the book has more than a 100 pages of explanatory notes) and speculation to retell the Bible stories in a new way. One key to Mary Wept is the genealogy of Mary in the Gospel of Matthew, which includes only four women, all of whom were involved in some sort of sexual impropriety. "That all four of these women in some way relate to Mary implies Mary is a prostitute," he said. Brown devotes a chapter to each of these four women and then, in an original story, shows how Matthew might have been inspired to include them.
He also tells his own versions of other stories, including an alternate version of the Parable of the Talents (based on a lost gospel) in which a servant spends his master's money on prostitutes instead of investing it—and is rewarded for doing so.
What was your intention in creating Mary Wept? What do you hope the reader will take away from it?
The main point in the book is that Jesus approved of prostitution and had a connection to it that his followers tried to cover up after his death. There’s also a side point that Jesus did not think it was important to follow the laws of Moses—or any laws.
Have you found other writers pursuing this line of thought?
I’m not aware of anyone who interprets The Parable Of The Talents the way I do, or of anyone who contends that Jesus recognized the social benefits of prostitution, or of a modern writer who argues that the Virgin Mary was a prostitute.
What is the meaning of the epigraph that opens your book: "Bring me the stone the builders have discarded. That one will be the key”?
The saying indicates that something that seems unimportant to supposed experts can turn out to be very important. In various versions of the saying, the stone becomes the capstone or keystone for an arch or a cornerstone for a building. I’m quoting Lynn Bauman’s translation of the version of the saying in The Gospel Of Thomas, and she sees the stone, at least in that source, as symbolizing a key that unlocks spiritual insights.
I’m using it as an epigraph because the Nazarean version of the The Talents had been discarded by those who “built” traditional Christianity, and it’s still being ignored by biblical scholars, but it inspired me to create Mary Wept.
This is your second book that centers on prostitution. Why is this such an important topic for you?
Sex-work is an important topic for me in the same way that homosexuality is important for homosexuals. Back when homosexuality was illegal, it was particularly important for gay writers and artists to create works that made it possible for the straight world to understand the perspective of non-heterosexuals. Our governments are oppressing those of us who are involved in the sex-for-pay demimonde. If one is being oppressed, one should speak out if one can. And the roots of that oppression are in the Bible. I’m attacking those roots.
In the afterword, you refer to an argument that the highest form of charity is to give someone work so they can earn money. How does that relate to prostitution?
You're giving the prostitute dignity if you are hiring them as a prostitute as opposed to just giving them money charitably, and frankly, if you're hiring them as a prostitute you are probably giving them more money than if you were giving them charity.
I don’t think sex is a bad thing. I don’t think enjoying sex is a bad thing. I think God wants us to enjoy sex, and I don’t think it's wrong to give people money. I see one particular sex worker regularly, and I know that the money I give her benefits her, that she's happy, that this money helps her. And I see that as something that's good for both of us. So I don’t think I'm going against God's will in doing that.
Are you afraid the provocative nature of your story will get in the way of the point you are trying to make?
I'm sure most Christians are going to reject the book outright, although I might be surprised about that. We are actually having the Toronto launch in an Anglican church, and the guy who organized it asked the minister if she wanted to be onstage interviewing me and she said yes. I said "If you are offended by it and want to pull out of participating in the event, I would understand completely." She read the book and sent me an e-mail saying to her surprise she really enjoyed it and it sounded respectful and well informed, although she disagreed with some of the interpretations.
I was surprised by how positive her reaction was. I don't expect that is the reaction of most Christians; I think most Christians are going to have a negative reaction. But this is no longer a completely Christian culture. A lot of people have doubts, and I think a lot of people will be receptive to what I say in the book.