Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus is a strange, effectively touching, and surprisingly rigorous exploration of prostitution as found in the Christian bible. After doing extensive research on the subject, Chester Brown offers his graphical reimagining of the prostitute stories from the bible. Besides the tales of Rahab, Tamar, Ruth, and Mary of Bethany, we also get scenes from the lives of Bathsheba, Mary, Mother of Jesus, Cain and Abel, and others. Some of these stories seem out of place with the rest of the collection (e.g. Cain and Able and Job), with no apparent link to prostitution. But with them, Brown is sharpening one of his main points about following the spirit versus the letter of the law of religious obedience, a theme which runs throughout the book.
The meticulously rendered stories, eleven in all, have a strange, disarming innocence about them. There are moments of truly felt compassion and generosity encoded in some of these panels. But the comics are really only half of the book. The second half, over a hundred pages, contains all of the notes from Brown’s research. I found it an absolutely fascinating look, not only into the academic research and religious texts that he cites, but into his own thinking, and his confirmation biases. The whole book feels more like a captured thought process, a research notebook, than a typical narrative or expositional work. That’s part of what makes this book so unique and interesting to me, but it may turn off others for the same reason.
Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus is basically Chester Brown’s presentation of his belief that Jesus did not condemn prostitutes or prostitutions and that it is very possible that his own mother, Mary, may have been a prostitute. Or at least pregnant with a baby that wasn’t Joseph’s. Brown makes his case by looking at translation drift/censorship of key words from the bible, by reexamining all of the passages about prostitutes, by citing modern scholarship, and by offering his own speculations.
In many ways, Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus is a follow-up to Brown’s highly acclaimed Paying for It, “a comic-strip memoir about being a john.” The cynical or faith-invested reader might easily dismiss Mary Wept as a very overwrought justification for Brown’s embrace of prostitution and sex work. One uncharitable Amazon customer went in an entirely different direction with “it’s finally apparent to what extent Chester Brown thinks he’s Jesus.”
Messianic complexes and personal justifications aside, I found Mary Wept extremely engaging and thought provoking. It is eccentric, ponderous, and beautifully rendered books like this that renew my faith in humanity. Or at least in humanity’s adventurous small press publishers.