The Church of St. Stephen-in-the-Fields is a brick structure located to the east of Toronto’s Little Italy. The original architecture of its current building dates back to 1865, though various renovations and reconstructions have left it a patchwork of styles, and it is small and unassuming enough that it can easily be missed among the more modern buildings surrounding it. Mass for St. Stephen’s Anglican parishioners is held on Sunday mornings and noon on Wednesdays, but its doors were open late one Wednesday evening in April, when it hosted a launch party for Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus, the new book by cartoonist Chester Brown, published by Drawn & Quarterly.
Brown’s new work builds on the emotional and sexual ideas developed in his previous books I Never Liked You, The Playboy, and Louis Riel, the story for which he is best known. Brown’s 2011 book, Paying for It, was a memoir about his decision to give up on “possessive monogamy” and begin frequenting prostitutes exclusively. Mary Wept continues to explore his very vocal defence of prostitution, adapting and reinterrupting select stories from the Bible to suggest that several of its female figures, including Bathsheba and the Virgin Mary, were, in fact, sex workers.
Brown became aware of St. Stephen last year while shooting a music video there with his friend and ex-partner, broadcaster Sook-Yin Lee, and was impressed that the church’s pastor, Rev. Maggie Helwig, didn’t mind the inclusion of nudity in some of the video’s scenes. When it was suggested he launch his new book in a church, St. Stephen immediately came to mind.
Helwig not only offered the space, but agreed to take part in an onstage discussion with Brown and Alex Tigchelaar, a former sex worker and neo-burlesque dancer, who is best known as the sex-advice columnist Sasha Van Bon Bon. Brown was still worried Helwig might find his book offensive, and sent her a copy in advance, saying he’d understand if she wanted to pull out of the event after reading it. Helwig – the noted author of nine poetry collections, three novels, and a book of short stories – was unperturbed. “There’s a tendency in churches to think there’s things we can’t do here because we need to protect God or something,” she said to me. “I don’t think God is in any need of my protection. The book is thoughtful, it’s well researched, it’s deeply considered – it’s a good book. Once I read it I had no reservations whatsoever.”
The audience seemed to agree. On a good week, St. Stephen sees attendance of around 40, in a space that holds about 165. Brown’s event filled the pews on both the ground floor and the balcony.
“One of the problems I have with the Bible, as a sex worker, is that it can be read in a multitude of ways,” said Tigchelaar during the discussion that followed a brief reading by Brown. “Christians make these negative constructs of sex workers and then congratulate themselves for going against them. They say, ‘Jesus is so cool – he hung around prostitutes.’ And I’m like, ‘Why is that cool?’ When I hang around prostitutes I’m criminalized as a sex worker but when Jesus does it he’s a groovy guy who’s so great that he hangs around with undesirables.”
“One of the things I was trying to do with this book is show that there is another way to interpret some of these stories and do so in a way that’s positive to sex workers,” said Brown. “I don’t think that was his actual view. I don’t think he saw prostitutes as sinners.”
Brown, who is 56, was raised Protestant but started questioning aspects of his faith in adolescence. In his early twenties, after beginning a relationship with a Christian woman, he began studying biblical scholarship, which eventually refocused his religious attitude on inner experience rather than formalized authority. He says he still enjoys critical analysis and discussion of the Bible today.
“This whole construct of Mary Magdalene, this construct of the perpetual repentant whore, is very problematic,” said Tigchelaar. “Christians are so adamant, ‘She wasn’t a prostitute,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s great, thank you for bringing that up, because that has actually been extremely troubling for sex workers.’”
“But if she was not a repentant whore … ,” said Brown.
“That would be great too.”