The Meaning of Mary Magdalene:
Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity

by Cynthia Bourgeault

Shambbhala, 2010. ISBN 978-1-590-30495-2.
Reviewed by Laura Strathman Hulka
Posted on 01/14/2011

Nonfiction: Faith/Spirituality/Inspiration

Cynthia Bourgeault provides a powerful and intuitive read in her seminal work on Mary Magdalene. The subtitle, "Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity," gives a new perspective and new hope to spiritual feminists and mainstream Christian women. For me, brought up in a strongly Christian and feminist household, the book reaffirmed the belief that organized religion has taken away women's power and place in the Church by negating the value of this apostle and other female apostles.

Within the book's pages, Bourgeault personifies and explains the historical Mary Magdalene in three sections: Mary as Apostle, Mary as Beloved, and Mary as Unitive Wisdom. It is not a light or casual read, but the love and power by which Bourgeault approaches her topic gives us great meaning and hope. She provides biblical verse references, and the appendices reaffirm Bourgeault's message and establish the background and place for the information she disseminates. (1) Mary Magdalene and the Song of Songs, (2) The Anointing According to John, and (3) The Passion of Mary Magdalene are not casual additions to the body of the book but rather are detailed, highly enjoyable subject matter.

Bourgeault makes a powerful statement of belief in the chapter on Unitive Wisdom, "One of the most immediate and cogent reasons for keeping Mary Magdalene linked to the sacramental anointing is that there is considerable circumstantial evidence to suggest that she and Jesus actually practiced it on many occasions—perhaps even as a shared ministry."

Once upon a time (in this reviewer's viewpoint), Christianity was a religion of the home—the purview of women: mothers, daughters, and wives. As the Church became a power to be reckoned with and worship moved from homes to buildings meant only for worship, women became relegated to positions of service and lost their power to represent a specific body of worshipers.

In the last few years, more and more women and quite a few men have spoken out on the place of Mary Magdalene in the growth and meaning of the Church. In doing so, they have once again opened the door to feminist theology and realities. Bourgeault is a strong voice in this pantheon of scholars, systematically addressing misconceptions and providing a "provocative analysis" of the body of evidence that supports the powerful importance of Mary.

Does the book encourage independent thought and exploration? Indeed it does. Does it provide some disturbing perspectives and opinions? Of course it does. But the reader will come to understand and appreciate the research and scholarship that has gone into its making and be thankful that Bourgeault provides such a readable, approachable book that expands the mind and the faith.

Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest who leads lectures, workshops and retreats across the United States. She is the author of numerous other books, including Chanting the Psalms, The Wisdom Jesus, and Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening. Visit her website.

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