Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary by Miri Rubin - review by Edward Norman

Edward Norman

Ave Maria

Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary


Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 532pp £30 order from our bookshop

The feminisation of Christianity, which is now clearly a feature of modern experience, seems to derive from an inclination to reinterpret religion itself as a matter of therapy and emotional satisfaction. It is also becoming an elevated version of ordinary consumerism: people are to be attracted to Christianity not in order to receive salvation and the forgiveness of sin – the traditional purpose of its message – but so that they may discover some satisfaction of a yearning for personal significance. Worship is no longer seen as a duty to an ineffable God, but is now styled in the hope that the worshipper may feel uplifted and experience camaraderie. Religion is all about ‘building community’ and ‘relationships’. It is progressively less about human corruption and about obedience to precise doctrines. It is more about human welfare and material expectations than it is about self-sacrifice. These days there are very few clergy (are there any at all?) who preach about the possibility of eternal damnation: they are all universalists now. 

In her History of the Virgin Mary Miri Rubin notices that this ‘perceived feminisation of Christian religion’ can be applied to opinions about Mary. She also notices, correctly, that the cult of Mary ‘was made in important ways by men’, and so has been eschewed by some feminists, but that some others have ‘truly rediscovered’ her through ‘a feminist sensibility’. In the churches, she writes, ‘some feminists see in Mary a barrier to liberation, but others seek to seize Mary as a powerful example for women’. Those who bothered to follow the recent proceedings in the Church of England about the consecration of women bishops will have registered how passionately Anglican women activists have adopted the secular vocabulary of rights and have accordingly discarded traditional ecclesiology.

This is all something of a footnote; Miri Rubin’s informative study of the cult of Mary, however, has implications for the modern interpretation of Christianity which she explicitly points out. Most of the book is a well-ordered historical account of the development of Marian devotional practices up to

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