In her seminal 1976 work, Alone of All Her Sex, Marina Warner traced the roots, growth and appeal of the cult of the Virgin Mary. At the beginning of a chapter titled “The Penitent Whore”, she mused: “A myth blends with the history of a people and a community, and gives it a certain perspective on its origins and destiny.” Myths, like Christ’s birth or the founding of Rome, become engrained in the fabric of society, and in this way are made real. Thus the myth of the Virgin Mary continues to have literal consequences, and, “together with [St. Mary Magdalene], typifies Christian society’s attitudes to women and to sex.”
This myth is one that cartoonist Chester Brown seeks to redefine in his new book Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus. He wants to change our perspective on the origins and destiny of Christian attitudes—and, by extension, Western attitudes—to women and to sex. The book is a rare and bold examination of prostitution and religious obedience in the Bible. It lays out the view that Jesus was pro-prostitution, his mother was a sex worker, and God doesn’t necessarily want us to obey his laws.
Brown begins by plunging his readers into a series of seemingly unconnected Biblical vignettes: the story of Cain and Abel is followed by episodes from the lives of Old Testament women, intermixed with parables and scenes from Jesus’ life. All are depicted in Brown’s clean and colloquial style, elegant black and white drawings accompanied by statements of startling simplicity—“Ruth seduces Boaz”—that tempt the reader to assume the selection of stories is as guileless as its design. But behind them lies a complex and nuanced argument. Brown delicately encourages readers to notice the thematic associations between chapters.
So the first story of Cain and Abel resonates with the final Parable of the Prodigal Son, both becoming tales of disobedience rewarded: in the former, God chooses Abel’s unlawful sacrifice of a lamb over Cain’s crops; in the latter, a father celebrates the son who spent all his money on prostitutes instead of his more obedient son. It’s an artful answer to the question Brown has set himself: “does God want us to obey him?” No. Brown quotes Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture: “God admires and cherishes those who defy the decree of history and who dare to better things for themselves”. In Brown’s interpretation of the Bible, God rewards those who choose to act freely.
The Old Testament women who are featured in their own chapters turn out to be taken from Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and, of course, the Virgin Mary. While only the first two actually sell sex in the Bible, Brown does a convincing job at imagining how the others might be perceived as prostitutes. With sensitivity and flair he visualises their limiting circumstances and inner workings. In one moving scene, the widowed Ruth creeps through the night to seduce her future husband, wondering: “What will he think of me? He’ll think I’m a whore.” Just as with the parables, these parables make implications by association: by the time we reach the story of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, we should know what’s coming.
Brown’s method mirrors what he suggests Matthew was doing in making the unusual decision to include women in Jesus’ genealogy. Brown even gives the gospel writer a comic strip of his own, where he spells out his imaginary thought process: “Many of my fellow Christians are against prostitution, and they don’t want to hear the truth. […] I know how to hint that Mary was a whore. I’ll invent a genealogy for Jesus.” It’s an argument that Brown borrows from scholar Jane Schaberg’s The Illegitimacy of Jesus, deftly replacing sexual promiscuity with sex work.
But all this is only revealed at the end; if, like me, you don’t know your Bathshebas from your bathtubs, the de-contextualized vignettes might leave you feeling lost. Here is another woman who happens to sell sex, and here is another man who spent all his master’s money on sex workers and was rewarded. At a certain point, a reader might want to ask, So what? It is only in the Afterword that Brown draws a clear “connection between all these stories of whores and whoremongers”. Here, and in his copious notes (which make up a third of the book), Brown does the real heavy lifting of his argument. As well as laying out the reasoning behind his headline positions, he describes the schism in the early Church over prostitution and offers up fascinating details—such as the premise that feet are often a euphemism for the penis in the Bible, or that a mistranslation is responsible for our view of prostitution in some passages—that reveal the depth of his knowledge. The notes are rich with this sort of detail, a welcome contrast to the sparseness of the comic itself.
It’s also in the notes that Brown explains the most notable absence from the comic: Mary Magdalene, the most famous Biblical prostitute of them all. Under Brown’s pen the Virgin and the Whore switch places: the first Mary becomes a pre-Christian holy prostitute; the latter is absolved of any involvement in the profession. It’s not as radical as it may seem—indeed, the Orthodox Church holds the position that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute—and anyway, Brown changes his mind in the notes. But in the comic, another Mary from the Gospels, Mary of Bethany, is the “sinner” who anoints Christ (a conflation of this Mary and the Magdalene is what originally caused the persistent myth of “the penitent whore”). This is the scene of the comic’s title: Mary weeps over Jesus’s feet and dries them with her hair. The reverent darkness of the scene, where faces are obscured and only words shine, can perhaps be explained by Brown’s interpretation of “feet”. It’s a tender moment, where a sex worker is revealed as one of the holiest of agents.
Brown’s last book, Paying For It, was a fascinating and persuasive argument for the decriminalisation of sex work: a memoir from the unusual perspective of a john. Since that book was published in 2011, Brown’s home of Canada has implemented the Nordic Model, criminalising those who pay for sex, and similar laws are being considered all over the world, from France to the UK and US. Now more than ever we need a bold voice that challenges the standard perspective on sex work. Brown is at his most vehement when he writes, “Non-Christians who believe that their dislike of prostitution is rooted in secular reasons are fooling themselves,” later calling them “blind”: “[their] secular reasoning has been influenced by Christianity.” Well, yes—like lots of other things in Western culture.
It’s hard to say whether this book will be a compelling argument for today’s non-religious, or even religious, anti-prostitutionists. But Brown has once again produced a graphic novel of rare and striking intelligence. It tackles the subject of sex work from a fresh and surprising angle and challenges more than one myth along the way.
 I have tried to follow Brown’s use of language relating to sex work in this review, and tended to use ‘prostitution’ where it felt anachronistic to use ‘sex work’, a term couched in a modern understanding of labor rights.