Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary
Warner (Marina)
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BOOK ABSTRACT:

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  1. Marina Warner's study of the Catholic doctrines and myths about the Virgin Mary is a fascinating account and goes in chronological order through the stages of the creation of the myth, from the Biblical Gospels, which give no warrant whatsoever for declaring Mary to be sinless, to the apocryphal documents of the 2nd century AD where the stories about her originated, with her life being modelled rather artificially on the life of Jesus. Warner is at her best in feminist analysis of the later accretions surrounding the doctrine of the Virgin Birth and the concomitant bizarre but highly influential and also irrational attitudes towards sexuality characteristic of much of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Then there is also some very good analysis of medieval and Counter-Reformation literature and sermons idolising Mary, and also the later cults of the Mater Dolorosa and the Immaculate Conception.
  2. The book also has serious scholarly shortcomings however. The author automatically equates Christianity with medieval Catholic Christendom, an elementary logical mistake. She is superficial and too hasty in her analysis of the theological debates concerning the nature of the person of Christ in the 4th and 5th centuries and how they relate to Mariology.
  3. She does not sufficiently look into why Marian doctrines have always been stronger and more superstitious in southern Europe rather than northern Europe, and were perhaps instrumental in the rejection of Protestantism in the former.
  4. There may be an anthropological reason, namely that mother-goddess and fertility cults have been known to exist for centuries in southern Europe, perhaps because of the problem of droughts and forest fires, whereas northern Europe was not faced by these problems but by the problem of harsh winters, hence the preponderance of sun-gods in northern European paganism. This would in fact explain why Marian worship is not strongly repudiated even by liberal Catholics in southern Europe today, those who would reject theological ideas such as the perpetual virginity and the notion that she was sinless because she did not have sex and her hymen was never broken. Warner looks at the whole topic from the systematic theological point of view and not 'from below' from the perspective of the ordinary believer. Hence while she can explain why the doctrines are incoherent, she cannot explain why they have survived.
  5. Marina Warner says that she grew up as a strict Catholic and went to a convent school, and while she was a child she believed Marian doctrines. Her book shows that hell hath no fury like a Catholic turned radical feminist. She is rudely and ignorantly dismissive of Protestantism, which from the word 'Go' condemned the idolisation of Mary and unsurprisingly therefore paved the way for the ordination of women within many protestant churches. Even for a die-hard protestant like me, she is one-sided in her analysis of the cult of Mary, not really taking seriously how many women have seen it in a positive light as a blessing and affirmation of motherhood. Also the other very serious shortcoming, which her book shares with just about all feminist books on this subject, is that she complains about the Catholic Church's negative attitudes towards female sexuality, but the fact is that no organisation, Catholic Church or other, would have been sensible to loudly advocate the pleasures of sexual intercourse divorced from childbearing before the arrival of safe and reliable artificial birth control, which only occurred very recently. The Church in fact used to be strict on male sexuality as well, though admittedly twisted often in the pronouncements of some of its more power-hungry theologians.
  6. Because of the unreliability of birth control and the horror of procuring a pregnancy1 when not ready to look after a child, virginity was indeed very important and a very welcome thing for many women (and men). There is something obnoxious, even violent, about modern feminists' pure hatred of the notion of virginity, because it is in fact a very powerful protector of women from harm. The book contains no positive alternative evaluation of such things as virginity because all the author has done is mirror the irrational pathologisms of official Roman Catholicism, and the unsuspecting reader should be aware that this is characteristic of secular radical feminism; many of its advocates grew up as strict Roman Catholics, e.g. Germaine Greer and Simone de Beauvoir. These people are self-centred in their assumption that their problems are the problems of the rest of us women who did not grow up Catholic, and they are wrong. They need to get out more instead of writing such extreme diatribes. Their bossy attitude is just as bad as that of the Vatican!
  7. If you want a slightly less jaundiced account of the cult of Mary, 'Mary Through the Centuries' by the Lutheran theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, from Yale University, is very objective. There exist other studies which are either too waffley or deficient in their psychological analysis to stand up. So read Marina Warner's book but don't imagine that all women who disagree with Catholicism have quite the same attitude as she does.

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