“Get thee to a library!”

I wrote earlier this week about how senior colleagues keep urging me to get back to my proper work, the scholarship for which I have been trained and on the basis of which I hold the professional position which I do, the implication being that I should not be allowing myself to be distracted with ephemera like, I don’t know, being slandered by colleagues in my field, but rather that I should be concentrating on the work that will last for eternity, or at the very least beyond my own lifetime.

I can hear Hamlet now: “Get thee to a library, why wouldst thou be a feeder of liars?”

But that, of course, is exactly what I did thirty years ago at the beginning of my training as a scholar—get to a library.

That is where I found all the lies!


Lies like this one:
In the charming story of “the Annunciation” the angel Gabriel appears to the terrified young girl, announcing that she has been chosen to become the mother of god. Her response to this sudden proposal from the godfather is totaled nonresistance: “Let it be done unto me according to thy word.” 
Physical rape is not necessary when the mind/will/spirit has already been invaded. In refined religious rapism, the victim is impregnated with the Supreme Seminal Idea, who becomes “the Word made flesh.”
Within the rapist christian myth of the Virgin Birth the role of Mary is utterly minimal; yet she is “there.” She gives her unqualified “consent.” She bears the Son who pre-existed her and then she adores him. According to catholic theology, she was even “saved” by him in advance of her own birth. 
—Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978), 85.
Or this one:
The Virgin Mary is not the innate archetype of female nature, the dream incarnate; she is the instrument of a dynamic argument from the Catholic Church about the structure of society, presented as a God-given code. The argument changes, according to contingencies. 
For instance, in 1974 Pope Paul VI, sensitive to a new mood among Catholic women, attempted to represent her as the steely champion of the oppressed and a woman of action and resolve. She should not be thought of, he wrote, “as a mother exclusively concerned with her own divine Son, but rather as a woman whose action helped to strengthen the apostolic community’s faith in Christ.” 
But the Vatican cannot simply strip away a veil and reveal Mary’s metamorphosis into the New Woman unless it dredges centuries of prejudice. Its incapacity to do this is complete: the teleological view that the natural law ordains that women must bear and suffer underpins the Church’s continuing indefensible ban on contraception; a dualistic distaste for the material world reinforces the ideal of virginity; and an undiminished certainty that women are subordinate to men continues to make the priesthood of women unacceptable.
—Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary (New York: Random House, 1976), 338-39.
Or this one:
Generally, as a result of the role religion plays in women’s lives, the little girl, more dominated by the mother than the boy, is also more subjected to religious influences. And in Western religions, God the Father is a man, an old man endowed with a specifically virile attribute, luxuriant white beard. For Christians, Christ is even more concretely a man of flesh and blood with a long blond beard. Angels have no sex, according to theologians; but they have masculine names and are shown as handsome young men. God’s emissaries on earth—the pope, the bishop whose ring is kissed, the priest who says Mass, the preacher, the person one kneels before in the secrecy of the confessional—these are men. 
For a pious little girl, relations with the eternal Father are analogous to those she maintains with her earthly father; as they take place on an imaginary level, she experiences an even more total surrender. The Catholic religion, among others, exercises on her the most troubling of influences. (There is no doubt that women are infinitely more passive, given to man, servile, and humiliated in Catholic countries, Italy, Spain, and France, than in the Protestant Scandinavian and Anglo-Saxon ones. And this comes in great part from their own attitude: the cult of the Virgin, confession, and so on invites them to masochism.) The Virgin welcomes the angel’s words on her knees. “I am the handmaiden of the Lord,” she answers.
—Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949), trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010), 303-304.
There are so many lies packed into these three passages—not to mention the books from which they are taken—it is hard to know where to begin.

There is the lie that the Virgin Mary was raped by God.

There is the compound lie that Mary ought to be the “innate archetype of female nature,” but that instead she is the instrument of an argument put forward by the Catholic Church in order to oppress women by denying their feminine nature—itself defined in terms that demean them (virginity, motherhood), another lie.

There is the lie that Christianity is founded on a “dualistic distaste for the material world.”

There is the lie that having a male-only priesthood is based on a conviction that women ought to be subordinate to men.

There is the lie that women are more religiously inclined than men, presumably because they are more emotional and given to self-doubt (another lie).

There is the lie that the image of God as Father is demeaning to women.

There is the lie that God the Father has been consistently imagined as an old man with a white beard and that Christ has been consistently imagined as a young man with a long blond beard.

There is the lie that angels are depicted as young men. (They aren’t; they are depicted as neither male nor female, as the above image of Gabriel shows.)

There is the lie that a daughter’s relationship with her earthly father or heavenly Father is inevitably one of “total surrender.”

There is the lie that women in countries where the Catholic tradition is strong are more servile and humiliated than those who have the luck to be Protestants—which in itself is a compound lie about the place of women in Christianity.

There is the lie that Mary, in declaring herself the servant of the Lord, demeaned herself.

Back thirty years ago, I knew almost nothing about the medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary on which many of these lies were purportedly based, and yet even then I sensed that something was amiss in the feminist critique.

I read Mary Daly with all the breathlessness of a twenty-year-old as my boyfriend and I backpacked around Europe, visiting the great cathedrals and shrines of the Virgin that I had been studying in college. Daly wrote about Indian suttee and Chinese footbinding and African genital mutilation with the same scathing verve that she wrote about the European witchburnings and American gynecology—but why blame Mary for consenting to bear the Son of God?

I envied Marina Warner—and still do—her beautiful writing and comprehensive scope. I wept as I read her descriptions of the symbols and attributes of the Virgin, woven into the art, poetry, music, and architecture of which I had never heard. I appreciated that Warner’s upbringing in Catholic school gave her a different perspective from mine growing up Presbyterian with the only hint of the Virgin being the once-a-year Nativity play—but how could the beautiful devotion that Warner described be founded on hatred for women?

I did not read Simone de Beauvoir until much later, but even so I could not help but be struck by the power of her argument. No wonder so many women have looked to her for affirmation of what it means to be something other than the Other to man. Her descriptions of what it is like to be in love and to burden a man with the expectation of divinity hit home in a way that even I am embarrassed to admit—and yet, how could she, writing with apparently so much sympathy for men, then turn around an accuse them of using women as objects, when women were clearly doing the same to men?

Something was broken, and I needed to understand what.

I wrote last year at this time about how ironic it was for my colleagues in medieval studies to be angry with me for insisting that Western civilization was not founded on rape, quite the reverse.  A year later, they are still angry with me. I know that it is because the work that I do—the scholarship to which my senior colleagues say I should be dedicating myself—is purposefully intended to dismantle the theories on which many have structured their own work. To be sure, that is not quite what those who are angry with me say. They say, for example, that I am “not a feminist.” They say that I am “full of hate.” They call me a “white feminist,” “white ethnonationalist,” “white supremacist,” “fascist,” and “racist.” But what they really mean is that my arguments and evidence undermine theirs.

Never in my professional career have I claimed to do “gender studies.” Never have I described myself as a feminist scholar or feminist theologian. And yet, all of my research has focused in one way or another on devotion to the Mother of God. How can it be that I champion “hate”? Like Mary, I champion love—love of God, love of creation, love of ourselves as creatures made in the image and likeness of God. But, like Mary, I hate the devil and his lies—lies like the ones on which I now understand the now dominant enterprise of modern feminist theorizing (not to mention the now dominant Marxist enterprise of modern criticism of the West) has been founded.

Here is one of the most pernicious: that devotion to Mary is an expression of hatred for the Jews. It is a current trope in many studies of the medieval devotion to the Virgin, not to acknowledge which may be taken as immediate proof of anti-Semitism on the part of the scholar. (I kid you not.)

Here is another: that to make comparisons in one’s own experience with the suffering of Christ is, again, anti-Semitic, even when one takes care to emphasize that nothing in one’s comparison has anything to do with the fact that the scribes and Pharisees were Jews—as, of course, were Jesus, his apostles, his mother, and the many women and men who followed him.

Here is another: that Christianity at its roots, like Western civilization more generally, is founded on anti-Semitism, rather than on respect for the Hebraic tradition out of which both Christianity and rabbinic Judaism emerged, siblings, as it were, of the same ancient tradition.

Here is another: that it was Christianity (a.k.a. “religion”) that was responsible for the greatest evils of the twentieth century—the Holocaust, as well as the devastations of totalitarian communism and fascism.

Here is another: that is it only by freeing ourselves from the superstition of religion (a.k.a. Christianity) that we can realize our full potential as human beings. H/t the Enlightenment.

I have no idea what my senior colleagues are thinking when they tell me to get back to the library. Do they imagine that somehow my research should not touch on these lies? Do they imagine that I will be able to write about what I find in the medieval devotion to Mary and not challenge the lies that I have found in the scholarship, lies about the history of the devotion and its effects on both women and men? Do they imagine that my scholarship can be disinterested when its entire purpose is to challenge the way in which the medieval devotion to Mary has been distorted by modernity, to the detriment not only of women’s self-understanding, but also of the survival of the Church—and with it, the West?

Yes, my scholarship is interested, but this is the biggest lie on which my colleagues’ own scholarship is founded.

Much as they would like to believe otherwise, so is theirs.


Images: Pedro Berruguete, “The Annunciation” (ca. 1505); London, British Library, Add. 49999, fol. 40v, without meme.

For my on-going debate with my colleagues in medieval studies about the proper focus of our field, go here. For my on-going argument about the significance of Mary for our civilization, go here. For my scholarship on Mary, go here.

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