As Religious Education teachers in Catholic or Christian schools, one of our greatest challenges is bringing the world of the Gospels to life in a way that makes sense to our students. It seems to me that many children and young people struggle to really understand what life was like for people, specifically Jewish communities, living at the time of the historical Jesus. How as educators are we best able to convey the complex nature of this culture and address ideas such as the roles of men and women, double standards and the impact of Roman imperialism on the Jewish people? When working with adolescents I commonly look towards fiction as a means for fleshing out this context and addressing some of the more subtle understandings of this culture that will lead to a deeper investigation of scripture.
Many years ago I was introduced to a method of reading scripture called Lectio Divinia. Essentially, the method requires a prayerful reading of the Gospels that requires one to emotionally invest in a story from scripture and process this in such a way that allows for you to be creatively present in the story. What we have with Chris Aslan’s book is a very sophisticated model of this. Having said this, I wish to emphasise that, from the outset, this is a story that can be enjoyed on many levels. In fact, while it will be deeply appreciated by those coming from a Judaeo-Christian world view, this book will also be enjoyed outside this realm purely as a work of fiction. Written in ephemeral prose Alabaster invites us into the world of a young Jewish woman Mariam (loosely identified as Mary of Magdala) who lives in a small village during the ministry of Jesus. Having suffered the death of her mother to a fever, Mariam, also endures the tragedy of her father’s leprosy and final ostracism, rape (in the absence of a male protector) and marriage to an abusive man. Of course many of these details, while being an accurate portrayal of the experiences of women during this time and context, are obviously creative imaginings when applied to the life of Mary Magdalene (for whom the Gospels only ever provide very general details of). Interestingly, Aslan elects to limit Mariam’s experiences of the historical Jesus to a couple of episodes, taking place over a few days, and the story never delves into Jesus’ crucifixion or resurrection, for which Magdalene is the first witness. Instead the story revolves around the origin of the alabaster jar and culminates in the moment of Jesus’ anointing with the precious oil by Mariam a few days before his death. While Aslan permits Mariam to develops a special ‘connection’ with the historical Jesus, he falls short in delving into the range of legends relating to Mary Magdalene, of course those which have drawn her as a fallen woman (prostitute), the ‘loved disciple’ and even the spouse of Jesus.
Within the Religious Education classroom the story has application for use in small excerpts to flesh out specific ideas related to life in the time of Jesus. Specifically, I would be keen to make use of the stoning scene or the chapter exploring leprosy. Alabaster, would be an ideal novel for senior students to use in independent study with rich parallels easily being drawn with the likes of Anne Rice’s, Christ the Lord or Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary. The novel could conceivably work well as a class text with advanced English students in the senior years.
Alabaster is a gift for lovers of history and the Christian Scriptures. It will certainly be finding a permanent place on my bookshelf as a wonderful resource for use with secondary students in the Religious Education classroom.
Tanya Grech Welden