Pop culture may attribute it to Dan Brown. But fascination with Mary Magdalene is centuries old. That said, were it not for Brown’s bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, Kathleen McGowan’s The Expected One likely would not have had the draw to hit bestseller lists. Of course, McGowan’s back story on the novel and the press it received didn’t hurt.
Simply summarized, McGowan claims to be a descendant of Mary Magdalene. The Expected One is, according to her, based on her life and experiences. She has said that using fiction as a vehicle to tell here story allows it to be told more fully without risking exposure of her sources. She originally self-published the book in 2005 although she says she began working on it in 1989, 14 years before The Da Vinci Code was published. The vanity press edition came to the attention of publishers and ultimately was purchased and released by a division of Simon & Schuster with an initial press run of 250,000 copies. Though not in Brown’s league when it comes to dialogue and moving a tale along, McGowan does a sufficiently passable job that whether you accept her claims is largely irrelevant.
On the surface, the story is straightforward. Maureen Pascal is the author of a book examining the truth about women ill-treated by history because it was largely written by men. Mary Magdalene is one of her subjects and shortly after being given an unusual ring in a Jerusalem shop, she begins experiencing visions. When the dust jacket photo of her book shows Pascal wearing the ring (as does McGowan’s dust jacket photo on The Expected One), she comes to the attention of Berenguer Sinclair. Sinclair is a wealthy, mysterious resident of the Languedoc region of France who is a fount of esoteric and Gnostic knowledge and an expert on Mary Magdalene.
With Sinclair leading her on an exploration of art, iconography and historic personalities as diverse as Nostradamus and Isaac Newton, she learns of the strongly held belief that Mary Magdalene not only moved to France following the crucifixion of Christ, she wrote her own gospel before her death. Sinclair believes Pascal is “the expected one,” the female descendant of Mary Magdalene legend says will discover the hidden scrolls written in Mary Magdalene’s hand.
Of course, da Vinci makes an appearance. Yet it comes almost as a slap at Brown’s story. Rather than being included in Sinclair’s list of artists devoted to Mary Magdalene, da Vinci is an outcast. Sinclair even warns his houseguests not to “spoil this evening with talk of that man or his work.” Still, there’s plenty of secret societies and a Gordian knot of theories and threads to go around. At times, it seems as if McGowan is trying to come up with a unified field theory of esoteric Biblical versions and theories.
There is, naturally, the premise of a Mary Magdalene and Jesus being husband and wife. McGowan, though, adds a different twist that serves as a basis for an additional and crucial level of conflict that will undoubtedly carry through to future books in this planned series. There is also discussion of Mary Magdalene’s role in the church. It is accompanied by views that St. Paul turned Christianity from its true meaning into a religion in which women were regarded as second-class citizens. There is an interesting exposition – told through the Magdalene bible Pascal ultimately finds – of the life of Jesus Christ, one that seems to borrow from Gnostic traditions. There is exploration of the view held by some sects that John the Baptist, not Christ, was the true Jewish messiah. All these intersect and intermingle in various forms of internecine rivalry, murder and plots within plots involving secret societies, the Vatican and personal relationships.
The Expected One does not match the pace of The Da Vinci Code, to which it will inevitably be compared. Likewise, the premise of a married Christ with descendants will not seem new because of Brown’s work. Still, McGowan does a workmanlike job crafting the story. She precedes the chapters with excerpts from hidden and unknown gospels and breaks each chapter into portions short enough to keep the reader interested while still detailing enough information and action to keep the plot moving along. Although making up the bulk of the book, the Pascal story is largely a forerunner to Mary Magdalene’s story of her life, Jesus, John the Baptist, Judas, Salome and King Herod. That biblical version incorporates not only alternative theological thought – some may call it heresy – but also new perspectives on familiar Bible stories, particularly the miracles performed by Christ. McGowan also incorporates events propounded by others in obscure documents in the past.
The Expected One is not a rehash or spin-off of The Da Vinci Code. It can stand on its own and those intrigued by the latter’s approach toward traditional New Testament ideas may find McGowan’s work equally appealing even if not as deftly executed.
Heresy is in the eyes of the beholder.
Kathleen McGowan, The Expected One