NYT Style Mag 'T': No to the 'Cult of the Virgin Mary,' Yes to Ground Zero Imam

Besides treating Wikileak founder and secret-spiller Julian Assange as a pop icon, the Holiday edition of the Times style magazine "T" also features a couple of religion related pieces. The stranger, surprisingly heavy one was "Immaculate Perception - Exploring the Cult of the Virgin Mary" by Holly Brubach, a retrospective on a 1976 book, "Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary." (Accompanied by "Madonna of the Village," a painting by Marc Chagall.)

Brubach made it clear where she stood on Christianity and the Catholic Church's role in "stunting women's growth and curtailing their lives."

At a time when the weight of scientific evidence would seem to call into question the Bible's account of history and the God who set it in motion, the Virgin Mary enjoys a kind of free pass. As the third-century Christian theologian Tertullian wrote of the Resurrection, "It is certain because it is impossible" - a notion that might well apply to the virgin birth; such a conundrum that it elevates Mary to a safe place, beyond logic.

In "Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary" (Vintage Books), Marina Warner predicted Mary's eventual, seemingly inevitable demise. Written at the height of feminist optimism and published in 1976, Warner's scholarly survey of the shape-shifting that Mary has undergone over the past two millennia methodically dismantled the legend, which had served as an instrument of oppression, stunting women's growth and curtailing their lives.

Brubach also dissected Catholic dogma on the Virgin Mary and again linked it to oppression of women in the form of the church's "bizarre fixation" on virginity.

The dogma that has grown up around Mary will come as a surprise to anyone outside the Catholic church, even - or particularly - to those already familiar with the New Testament, in which she makes scant appearances and speaks no more than a few lines. (Full disclosure: I was raised Presbyterian.) How did such a minor character in the Bible come to be so omnipresent? How did a mere human get promoted to the realm of divinity, where she lobbies Jesus on our behalf while he in turn pleads our cause with God the Father? How many intermediaries do we need? If all creation were a corporation, the layers of middle management would seem to indicate that the chief executive is aloof and disengaged, sequestered in a penthouse office or spending afternoons on the golf course....The Second Council of Constantinople, in 381, proclaimed Mary's "perpetual virginity." In 390, Pope Siricius declared Mary an "inviolate virgin" - that is, not only before conception but throughout her pregnancy and childbirth. So fervid is this bizarre fixation with Mary's "closed gate," with her womb as an "enclosed garden," that it begins to seem pathological, less about virginity itself than about some unspecified, free-floating terror that inspires it.

Another, frothier, far more favorable "T"-mag story on religion ('tis the season?) was James Carroll's interview of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the religious leader behind Cordoba House at Park51 - the infamous Ground Zero mosque.

In keeping with Times practice, the profile from Carroll, a former Catholic priest who quit the church and now writes a liberal column for the Boston Globe, was soft focus and supportive. "The Gift of Reconciliation" left out questions about the propriety of building a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero, the shadowy foreign funding of the project, and the imam's controversial statements that put his claim of being a "moderate" Muslim into question.

In 2001, Rauf told CBS's '60 Minutes' that the U.S. was partially responsible for the September 11th attacks. "I wouldn`t say that the United States deserved what happened. But the United States' policies were an accessory to the crime that happened." The Times' Anne Barnard rushed to make excuses for Rauf's belief as being just one "clumsy" remark in a lengthy interview which his opponents unfairly latched on to.

Carroll avoided the term mosque, referring to the project as "a center of reconciliation two blocks from Ground Zero."