Beware of Coehlo’s ‘feminine face’ of God

By  Dorothy Cummings, Catholic Register Special
  • August 13, 2007

{mosimage}The Witch of Portobello by Paolo Coelho, translated by Margaret Jull Costa. (HarperCollins, softcover, $29.95 list).

The blurb on the Advance Reader’s Edition of The Witch of Portobello invited me to “discover why Paolo Coelho ranks with J.K. Rowling and John Grisham as one of the world’s most successful writers.” I thought that was a good clue to what was between the covers: magic and suspense, soon to be sold in an airport near you. The kind of work that, when Graham Greene wrote it, he dismissed as “an entertainment.” Meanwhile, Greene’s “entertainments” are studied in English literature classes, and John Grisham’s are not and probably never will be.

Nevertheless, like most people, I enjoy a nice light witchcraft story.

I raised an eyebrow when I read the traditional “meaningful quotes” after the title page. The first read “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for those who turn to you. Amen.” The second, artfully given a page of its own, was a King James rendition of Luke 11:13, “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?” That, I thought, was a funny way to begin a witchcraft story.

The form of the narrative, however, was a pleasant surprise. The narrator begins by stating that instead of writing a traditional biography, where “the biographer’s view of his subject inevitably influences the results of his research,” he will transcribe what eyewitnesses have told him. Thus, there are several narrators, ranging from “Heron Ryan, 44, Journalist” to “Nabil Alaihi, Age Unknown, Beduin.” Each recounts his or her experiences with the heroine of the book, a Lebanese-British woman named Sherine Khalil or, as she prefers, Athena.

{sa 006133880X}Of course, this bias-free approach is a sham. Coelho draws his characters as he wills, and although he appreciates the mystical side of Catholicism, it is obvious that he has a bone to pick with ol’ devil church. Overall, The Witch of Portobello is a nice light snack, but occasionally I found a piece of anti-Christian gristle. An English character muses about the persecution of witches by the Inquisition in the 16th and 17th centuries. Given that the Protestant Reformation was in full swing in Britain by the 1530s, Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries is one place where you can’t blame the Inquisition for persecuting people. Henry VIII, Mary, Elizabeth I, et al, did just fine on their own. And even more damaging to the book, Coelho does the unforgivable by creating a cardboard priest, a useful idiot who befriends the then-Catholic Athena and then — without prior warning — refuses her Communion because she has agreed to divorce her husband. The priest doesn’t want to do it, but “Christ’s words are not always in accord with the laws of the Vatican.”

Well, Coelho’s made-up scene is not in accord with the laws of the Vatican either, since merely contracting a divorce doesn’t get you excommunicated. As a Catholic, Coelho should know that. The scene is pivotal, but it’s cheap. Anything having to do with ordinary Christianity in The Witch of Portobello is pure, inedible cardboard. Catholicism, for Coelho, appears to be something to be mined for the “good bits,” including its devotion to the female Blessed Virgin Mary.

It didn’t take me very long to realize that this is not a witchcraft story. It’s a goddess worship story. Idle people long for a religion that will invite them to do whatever they like and give them mystical powers. Like The Da Vinci Code, The Witch of Portobello purports to find and celebrate the feminine face of God. Straw-man Christians are mocked for thinking of God as a rule-giving “man in the sky,” and the Earth Mother is celebrated for: hmm. Being of the earth rather than “above” the earth, if I have that right. Like Coelho, Earth Mother’s adherents don’t believe in happiness. They believe in “Will.” They are rewarded by the “Mother” for breaking rules and by doing favourite activities deliberately badly.

I am sure Coelho doesn’t mean for his Earth Mother to sound demonic, but as I read the monologues of Athena’s teacher Edda, the hairs stuck up on the back of my neck. Ancient pagan goddesses were sometimes nasty pieces of work. And so are Coelho’s three most important female characters, Athena, Edda and Athena’s student Andrea, once they get bound up in magic. For one thing, they certainly lack appropriate teacher-student boundaries. For another, they abuse their influence and assume responsibility over others in a creepy way. As one narrator recounts:

A foreign couple with a map asked Athena how to get to a particular tourist spot. She gave them very precise, but totally inaccurate directions.

“Everything you told them was completely wrong.”

“It doesn’t matter. They’ll get lost, and that’s the best way to discover interesting places. Try to fill your life again with a little fantasy; above our heads is a sky about which the whole of humanity — after thousands of years spent observing it — has given various apparently reasonable explanations. Forget everything you’ve ever learned about the stars and they’ll once more be transformed into angels, or into children, or into whatever you want to believe at that moment. It won’t make you more stupid — after all, it’s only a game — but it could enrich your life.”

Well, that sounds all very pretty, but now there’s a helpless footsore couple lost in London with a grudge against the English and a little less faith in humanity.

As Christians who have studied their faith know very well, male and female imagery for God is just that — imagery. God is beyond gender, which is a creaturely limitation. Male imagery does indeed take pride of place for us, as the Word took on human flesh and that flesh was male. The Jewish Jesus spoke of Father, Son and Spirit, and taught us to say “Our Father.”

However, we are taught that both woman and man are in the image and likeness of God, and our scriptures liken God to a woman groaning in child birth, a mother nursing an infant and Jesus to a mother hen who wished to gather her chicks under her wings. My hope is that young Catholic readers who enjoy this book are aware that if they seek “a feminine face” for God, alien goddesses and rites will not lead them towards the Divine Love longing for them.

(Cummings, of Toronto, is a PhD student at Boston College.)

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