Saturday, February 14, 2009

BOOK REVIEW by the Archbishop of Caterbury in the Financial Times:
Mother of God

Review by Rowan Williams

Published: February 13 2009 17:17 | Last updated: February 13 2009 17:17

Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary
By Miri Rubin
Penguin £30, 400 pages
FT Bookshop price: £24


The strength of this book by Miri Rubin, one of the most interesting and original of British medieval historians, is that it charts the ways in which Mary is “used to think with”. Perhaps its most dismaying pages are those that deal with how Mary’s identity became a way of framing Jewish-Christian debate. Mary is unmistakeably Jewish – indeed, for some Christians, archetypally Jewish; she is the exemplary Jewish person, the one who does what God meant the Jewish people to do. It makes sense that she is specially concerned for her own kin. But, in legend after legend, that concern is shown chiefly in procuring conversions, often after threats and violence.

It is not surprising that medieval Jewish polemicists hit back with abusive and defamatory representations of Mary. And Rubin is right to note the radical difference in this respect between Jewish and Muslim attitudes to Mary: the Koran has more about Mary than the Bible does, and Islamic tradition is often extravagant in her praise. Nothing is really at stake here between Christians and Muslims; but the Jewish-Christian debate in the Middle Ages is another matter. For at least some Jewish writers reacting to Christian triumphalism, Mary is something of a symbol of infidelity to her people – a metaphorical as well as literal adulteress. There is room for a whole book on this subject and Rubin is uniquely equipped to write it.