Have you ever read a scripture story or passage, or heard an explanation of it, that turned the entire thing on its head for you?  That’s happened to me a lot lately, and I’ve written a few posts already that revisit scripture stories and passages to see something that I think is somewhat obvious now but that the filters I’d applied for so many years prevented me from seeing it before.  I plan to do a couple more of those–particularly for scriptures people use to justify being mean to others–but in the meantime, I came across the term “ecclesial stardust” recently and thought it was a nice framework for these kinds of discussions.  

I read about “ecclesial stardust” in the book The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, by Cynthia Bourgeault.  The premise of the book–somewhat obvious in the title–is that Mary Magdalene had an important, even preeminent, role as a disciple of Jesus.  

She was the first witness to the resurrection–this in all four gospels.  She witnessed the burial of Jesus–this is in three of the four.  She witnessed and stayed with Jesus during the crucifixion–this is in all four.  She was healed of demonic possession–this is in Luke and Mark, although we know very little about what this healing entailed.  She was part of Jesus’s inner circle.  She was the apostle to the apostles.

There is actually a fair amount of scripture devoted to Mary Magdalene, and yet, it’s hard to see.  Not only that, but a lot of what we *do* believe about Mary Magdalene (for example, that she’d been a prostitute) has no scriptural basis but comes from something that Pope Gregory said about her in the year 591.  

Why have those of us who have read the New Testament many times tended to flat-out miss the many passages devoted to her and the strong evidence that she was a key member of Jesus’s inner circle?

Bourgeault asserts that there is a kind of “stardust” thrown over the whole picture of the New Testament “by our habitual way of hearing the gospels heavily filtered through nearly two millennia of ecclesial theology.”  Specifically, Christianity has read the gospels to tell a story in which “Jesus came to earth to found the church, instituted its principal sacrament at the Last Supper, and appointed his male-only disciples to be its apostles and priests.”  Bourgeault explains that “[w]hen we hear the story through that heavily self-reinforcing logic, the role of Mary Magdalene naturally shrinks to a minor walk-on.  But when we loosen our stranglehold on that picture, the role that actually emerges for her from the scriptures themselves is considerably more important.”  

Bourgeault convincingly argues, based on scriptural text, that Mary Magdalene was the premier witness to the resurrection, mentioned by name.  She stood firm in her loyalty and devotion to Jesus when other disciples fled.  She had, Bourgeault describes, “either the deepest human love or the highest spiritual understanding of what Jesus was teaching.”  Again, using what is only in the text, Bourgeault reframes the way that we visualize Jesus’ crucifixion in a compelling and beautiful way:  

“But why, one wonders, do the Holy Week liturgies tell and re-tell the story of Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus, while the steady, unwavering witness of Magdalene is not even noticed?  … What if, instead of emphasizing that Jesus died alone and rejected, we reinforced that one stood by him and did not leave?–for surely this story is as deeply and truly there in the scripture as is the first.  How would this change the emotional timbre of the day?  How would it affect our feelings about ourselves?  About the place of women in the church?  About the nature of redemptive love?”


Those are interesting and beautiful questions, but the point of this post isn’t actually to talk about Mary Magdalene.  Rather, this concept of “ecclesial stardust”–the ways in which our readings of scripture are influenced by and filtered through layers of tradition and teachings and meaning we have assigned or heard assigned to stories and passages–is what strikes me.  What other ecclesial stardust colors the way we read and interpret scripture?

This can be quite extreme in my experience.  A few weeks ago in Young Women’s we discussed the story of Zeezrom.  In case you are unfamiliar with Zeezrom, he is one of the famous “anti-Christs” in the Book of Mormon.  He tries to bribe Amulek into denying the reality of God.  Later, the Book of Mormon recounts that his wickedness caused him to fall ill.  In class, we read the following verses describing Zeezrom’s illness & healing: 

5 And it came to pass that [Alma and Amulek] went immediately, obeying the message which he had sent unto them; and they went in unto the house unto Zeezrom; and they found him upon his bed, sick, being very low with a burning fever; and his mind also was exceedingly sore because of his iniquities; and when he saw them he stretched forth his hand, and besought them that they would heal him.
6 And it came to pass that Alma said unto him, taking him by the hand: Believest thou in the power of Christ unto salvation?
7 And he answered and said: Yea, I believe all the words that thou hast taught.
8 And Alma said: If thou believest in the redemption of Christ thou canst be healed.
9 And he said: Yea, I believe according to thy words.
10 And then Alma cried unto the Lord, saying: O Lord our God, have mercy on this man, and heal him according to his faith which is in Christ.
11 And when Alma had said these words, Zeezrom leaped upon his feet, and began to walk; and this was done to the great astonishment of all the people; and the knowledge of this went forth throughout all the land of Sidom.

Alma 15

When we were talking about what happened, one of the young women summarized it as follows:

“Zeezrom is sick because of his wickedness, so he asks for his priesthood leader to come.  His priesthood leaders asks him questions and then determines that he is worthy, so he repents and Alma heals him.”

While that summary is kind of right, I was struck by three editorializations:  first, her characterization of Alma as Zeezrom’s “priesthood leader”; second, that Alma judged Zeezrom’s “worthiness;” and third, that Alma healed Zeezrom.  I don’t think either of those three characterizations is textually accurate and thought that her summary in many ways reflected on how she must understand her relationship with her priesthood leaders (who are responsible for judging her worthiness).  Her characterization turned this account into something that sounded like Zeezrom going to the bishop’s office to repent.  

I’m not saying she was completely wrong or criticizing her summary.  Again, my point is just to suggest that the way we view the institution of the Church, its leaders, authority, etc., all has a big influence in the ways we read and interpret scripture and can cause us to gloss over certain things and insert others.    


I’ll give one more example and then I’ll leave it to you to share yours.  It’s the story of Jonah (which we’ll all be studying in Come Follow Me in a couple of weeks).  

Growing up, the story of Jonah* that I heard was that (1) God asked Jonah to be a missionary in Ninevah, (2) the Assyrians in Ninevah were Jonah’s enemies, so he was afraid to go because he might be killed and did not think they would accept the gospel, (3) God punishes Jonah by having a whale swallow him for three days and three nights, (4) Jonah repents and goes to Ninevah, where God protects him while he does his missionary work and he successfully converts the people.  (I don’t know exactly who and how this story was told to me, but it’s similar to this one that can be found in a 1998 Friend.)

But, as described in a fascinating podcast series (that is well worth listening to) about Jonah, that’s not at all what happened.  Jonah wasn’t scared to preach to the people of Ninevah because he thought he’d be killed.  (That’s nowhere in the text.  I don’t know where that ever came from.)  Jonah didn’t want to preach to the people of Ninevah because he hated them and did not want God to forgive them.  When he finally got to Ninevah, he gave just about the worst sermon ever (“Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  That’s it.  That’s the sermon.)  When the people accepted God despite his lack of effort, God forgave and spared them, and Jonah was so angry about it he told God he wished he were dead:  “But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry.  And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil.  Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live.”

In other words, this isn’t a story about being a brave missionary–which is the story I heard growing up.  This is a story about how difficult it is to accept that God loves everyone, including our enemies.  But until I listened to that podcast episode, I saw the story through the “ecclesial stardust” of missionary work (and prophets who would never hate people).  Personally, the latter, new-to-me message is a much more important message to me today as I struggle to accept the fact that God loves people that I can’t stand**–and that I need to as well.

*I don’t take Jonah literally for a variety of reasons, but that’s beyond the scope of this post. If you spend all your time debating about whether the whale is real, you’ll miss the actual message of the story.

**Like, for example, Mike Lee.  Utah voters, please vote, and please vote for McMullin.  I don’t super love McMullin, but I can’t bear another six years of Lee.  I just can’t.       


  • Does the concept of “ecclesial stardust” resonate with you?  What are some examples you can think of where the plain text of a scripture or story has been distorted by layers of tradition, preconceived beliefs, or narratives?  Have you ever concluded that a story or scripture means the exact opposite of what you’d thought before? 
  • What do you think of the examples I’ve used here?  Similar or different experience in interpreting them?