As with the other titles in Dan Burstein's Secrets series, SECRETS OF MARY MAGDALENE brings together authors from a variety of perspectives and areas of expertise in an attempt to shed light on the person the book cover describes as "history's most misunderstood woman." And also, like the other titles in the series, this one is directly linked to a book by Dan Brown --- in this case, THE DA VINCI CODE, and its depiction of the follower of Jesus known as Mary of Magdala. The book features an introduction by Princeton University professor Elaine Pagels, one of the foremost scholars of Gnostic literature and author of two highly acclaimed bestsellers: THE GNOSTIC GOSPELS and BEYOND BELIEF: The Secret Gospel of Thomas.
Fellow scholars like Bart Ehrman and Karen King contribute essays, but so do the likes of singer Tori Amos and novelists Ki Longfellow and Kathleen McGowan, who believes she is a descendent of Mary, as well as Lesa Bellevie, author of THE COMPLETE IDIOT'S GUIDE TO MARY MAGDALENE. The editors seem to cover all the bases, providing insight into the Magdalene mystery through writers in the fields of history, religion, art, fiction, film, music and even cyberspace. The book's nine sections cover the current fascination with Mary, the concept of the sacred feminine, Mary as "apostles to the apostles," Mary as the mistaken harlot, a roundtable discussion with seven experts on Mary, varying impressions of who Mary was, Magdalene cults and organizations, Mary in popular culture, and 21st-century ways of perceiving Mary. As always, Burstein and his team do a thorough job of examining the subject at hand.
That said, readers need to be aware that a book like this inevitably will include a great deal of repetition. And because the book is logically organized, within some sections there's even more overlap from one essay to the next. An example is the section on Mary as apostle to the apostles; four of the five essays are written by scholars from Harvard, Penn State, Bard College and Chapman University (the fifth is identified as an "independent, eclectic scholar"). For a change of pace, you might want to skip around the book and read the essays at random unless you're doing some serious research on one aspect of Mary.
Singling out the "best" of the essays is nearly impossible, since they serve different purposes. But two of my favorite quotes happen to appear in the same chapter, "The Alternate Gospel Tradition," the transcript of an interview with Marvin Meyer, author of THE GOSPEL OF THOMAS: The Hidden Sayings of Jesus. Unlike so many other writers who paint the "Gnostic vs. canonical gospels" as a black-and-white issue, Meyer recognizes the complex factors involved in deciding the canon of Scripture. Here's one quote: "The Gnostics...never got their act together to get organized and get political. While the Gnostics were meditating and looking for the God within, the followers of Peter's way had their feet on the ground. They mowed their lawns and painted their churches --- and assembled a canon and got into bed with Constantine." Constantine was the Roman emperor who legalized Christianity and called the Council of Nicea, which among other things set the stage for determining the canon of Scripture.
One of the major controversies surrounding Mary is the nature of her relationship with Jesus: was she "just" his disciple, or could she also have been his sexual partner and the mother of his child, whether they were married or not? But speculating about the possibility of a sexual relationship also threatens to marginalize her, Meyer argues. Here's that second quote: "Luke said she was hysterical. Pope Gregory the Great said she was a whore. We might say, 'Oh, she was just the sexual partner of the really important guy.' And then we miss what the texts are trying to emphasize --- that she was an intelligent, independent woman and a spiritual leader."
In all, more than 30 writers contributed essays that together provide a fascinating picture of a fascinating historical figure who has undergone so many transformations over the centuries that it's doubtful we'll ever know who she really was. But that never stopped anyone in the past from creating their own Mary, and it's unlikely it will stop anyone today from doing the same. Whether you're a diehard Magdalene cultist or just an amused observer of Magdalene mania, you'll find an abundance of facts, fictions, insights and opinions about this misunderstood woman in this latest Secrets release.
Reviewed by Marcia Ford. You may contact Marcia by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or through her website (www.marciaford.com). on January 23, 2011