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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Mary: A Flesh-and-Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother by Lesley Hazleton (Bloomsbury USA) Arguably the most influential of all women throughout history, Mary, the Virgin Mother is also, paradoxically, the least known. In this unprecedented brilliantly wrought biography, Mary comes believably to life.

We are so used to the legendary image of the Madonna that the very idea of her as a real person sets the eyes alight. Starting with the dark-skinned, hard-muscled girl barely out of adolescence when she gave birth, Lesley Hazleton weaves together the many facets of Mary's existence: peasant villager, wise woman and healer, activist, mother, teacher, and yes, virgin, though in a sense we have long forgotten. She follows her through the worst any mother can experience-the excruciating death of her child-and then looks at how she transforms grief into wisdom, disaster into renewal. Strong and courageous, the source of her son's powers of healing and wisdom, the Mary we see here did not merely assent to her role in history, but actively chose it, and lived it to the fullest.

As a former psychologist and political reporter with deep roots in both Judaism and Catholicism, Hazleton has drawn on years of Middle East experience as well as on anthropology, history, theology, and above all, empathy to reconstruct Mary's life. The woman she discovers is neither demystified nor diminished, but on the contrary, all the more meaningful and admirable. By honoring her reality, Hazleton has given her back to herself-and to us.

What did you discover about Mary?

How strong she was, how wise, and how courageous. When you see her as a real woman, instead of an icon, you realize how multi-faceted she was. She was a mother, of course, but also a healer who taught her son everything she knew, a woman deeply involved in the struggle of her time for freedom and social justice, and a leader whose courage and wisdom would inspire the early Christian movement. There was nothing passive about her. She was a wise woman, in more than one sense of the word "wise," who did not merely assent to her role in history, but actively chose it. 

Doesn't this biography pose a serious challenge to the traditional image of her?

Of course it does. I wrote this book to honor Mary in her reality—and out of a deep sense of respect. The woman who emerges seems to me far more worthy of our admiration and even awe than the meek and mild figure we have been asked to believe in all these years. Instead of the pale, frail figure we are used to seeing in Renaissance art, we see a vibrant Middle Eastern woman, her face lined by hard work and harder experience. Her humanity is what makes her real—and inspiring. 

Are there any other similar biographies of her?

To my astonishment, none. It's either ironic or just plain disappointing to realize that far more attention has been paid to Mary Magdalene than to the Virgin Mary. That's why it seemed so important to write this book.

There are thousands of books about Mary, true, but most of them are either pietistic lives, in the manner of the Lives of the Saints, or histories of the development of the Marian image, or accounts of apparitions of Mary. There are none, at least that I could find, that seriously ask who she really was. And to me, that is by far the most important question—to discover her as a real woman, and in that way, honor her.

How did you get the idea to write the book?

Essentially, it was a gift, given to me by an acquaintance. Teresa knew something of my background: for example, that I was a Jew educated in a convent school, that I had once been a psychologist, and that I'd lived in and reported from Jerusalem for many years, burned out on it, and was now living half the world away, in Seattle.

I hadn't seen her for a while, so when we bumped into each other at a party, I thought we'd spend some time catching up. Instead, she burst out: "Lesley, I have the perfect book for you to write: a biography of Mary."

The moment I heard those last four words, fireworks started to go off in my brain. "The Virgin Mary," I checked. "As she really was. The real woman, not the image?" "Yes, yes," said Teresa, eyes alight with the idea.

Fireworks were going off inside the fireworks now, building up like the finale of the best Fourth of July display you've ever seen. Mary as a real woman, as the strong person she must have been, wise and courageous, nothing meek and mild about her, but a woman of power and wisdom, a woman to be respected as much now as then.

I knew instantly I had to write this book. I also knew instantly that this was the most immense gift. And when you are faced with a gift of such immensity, you know you can only accept if it is given in absolutely good faith. So I spent the next hour trying my best to persuade Teresa to write the book herself—far harder than I would have tried if I had not been so certain that this was the book I absolutely had to write.

"No, I want you to write it," she kept saying. "I want to read it, and I want to read it written by you."

"I'll tell you what," I said in the end. "If you don't call me within twenty-four hours to tell me you've decided to write it yourself, I'm going to start work on it." "I won't," she said. "Go, start."

Several months later, when I'd written an outline, Teresa came to visit, and I gave her a copy. She read it then and there, in front of me, looked up with tears in her eyes, and said: "It's exactly what I hoped it would be."

It was absolutely the perfect response, the one I hadn't even dared hope for.

How did you do the research? It's not like you could look for people who knew her...

Obviously this wasn't going to be a conventional biography. It was not going to begin in the style of "Mary of Nazareth was born on such-and-such a time and date in her parents' home in such-and-such street." And as you say, I could hardly put an ad in the Book Review asking for anyone who knew her to please contact me.

Instead, this would be an exploration. I began work in the faith that if I explored far and wide enough, I'd be able to reconstruct how she lived, how she experienced the world, what she knew and saw and ate and did and thought.

The two thousand years between her time and ours proved far less of a barrier than I'd feared. I delved deep into history, of course, and theology too, but also Middle East studies, archeology, and above all, anthropology, especially of peasant societies. And the echoes between then and now were so strong that sometimes her story seemed extraordinarily contemporary.

I knew this would have to be, to some extent, a speculative biography, but one so solidly based on research-that the amount of speculation was held to a minimum. For instance, the healers of the time were indeed the village wise women, and the great physicians of Athens and Rome acknowledged their debt to these unknown women. Another instance: there was no way Maryam would not have been involved in the political turmoil of her time, just as no Palestinian woman today is not involved in the modern turmoil, because it reached deep into everyday life. And when it came to the crucifixion, I was simply astonished that nobody, to my knowledge, had tried to reconstruct what Mary must have experienced at the foot of the cross. Here is a mother watching her son suffer one of the most excruciating of all deaths; how can one not ask what she felt, what she thought, what sounds escaped her lips? 

Did it help to be a trained psychologist?

Clearly it did. But also to have been a political reporter. As a psychologist, I could empathize with Mary, and gain some insight into how she must have thought and felt. As a reporter, I could draw the political parallels between then and now. And as both psychologist and reporter, I knew how to search out the facts.

What surprised you most in your research?

Two things. The first is the vast gap between traditional views of Mary and Jesus, and the picture of them that emerges from decades of work by biblical and historical scholars. As I see it, this vast body of scholarly work brings us very close to the real essence of Christianity—that is, the extraordinary humanity of what Jesus actually preached. And recent work analyzing the gnostic gospels brings us far closer to the felt experience of religion, as opposed to its outer forms, than traditional church dogma.

The second is another vast gap. An extraordinary number of men and women inside the church—priests, nuns, ministers, pastors, and rabbis, too—act and live in what I can only describe as the real spirit of Jesus. Deeply committed to social justice, they are the quiet counterpoint to the scandals that have recently rocked what seems to be the increasingly fossilized Catholic hierarchy. Instead of subsuming their humanism to their faith, they have combined the two, showing the way to religion at its best. 

What comes next for you?

Its probably too early to say. For four years, I woke up each morning to the most wonderful company, and now that the book is finished, I feel utterly bereft. The experience of writing Mary called on so many seemingly disparate parts of me: the Jew raised by Catholics, the psychologist turned journalist, the girl who at ten years old wanted to be a nun and the woman who at forty seriously considered becoming a rabbi. I called on all these and more, even on my triple identity as a citizen of England, Israel, and the United States. That was this book's gift to me.

Looking back, it's as though all my life had been leading up to Mary. Where it goes from now, I can't say yet. But one thing I do know: it will be in the same spirit.

Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints by Elizabeth A. Johnson (Continuum) The first-century Jewish woman Miriam of Nazareth, mother of Jesus, proclaimed in faith to the Theotokos, the God-bearer, is the most celebrated female religious figure in the Christian tradition. So varied and manifold are the traditions about Mary, both popular and scholarly, that some would speak of “Mary” as a collective noun or refer, in George Tavard’s memorable title, to The Thousand Faces of the Virgin Mary.

While Elizabeth Johnson’s long-waited book on Mary, Truly Our Sister, the title of which comes from Pope Paul VI, draws on the history of Marian doctrine and devotion, it is not a work of doctrinal theology in the traditional sense. It does not aim to present the full teaching of the church about Mary, which is amply found elsewhere. Rather, convinced that history is the arena of encounter with God, Johnson, Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University , the Bronx , seeks to understand Mary’s meaning as a particular person with her own life to compose. Mary has been symbolized to such an extravagant degree – symbol of the maternal face of God, of the eternal feminine, of the disciple, of the idealized church – and divorced from her own history, that approaching her as an actual human being surprises us with the discovery that she too struggled, that her own journey, in Vatican II’s poetic phrase, was a pilgrimage of faith, including sojourning in faith’s dark cloud.

Remembering Mary in the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds the community of disciples, Truly Our Sister offers an interpretation of Mary that is theologically sound, spiritually empowering, ethically challenging, and socially liberating,. In particular, it construes the image of Mary so as to be a source of blessings rather than blight for women’s lives in both religious and political terms.

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