The Forgotten Desert Mothers by Laura Swan (Paulist Press, 2001)
As a graduate student in theology, Laura Swan wrestled with some of life's biggest questions. She began to find answers in the wisdom of ancient ascetics, but something was missing. Written records of the desert monks were easy to find, but references to desert mothers—who may have outnumbered men two to one—lay in shadows, occasionally popping up as footnotes in rare scholarly works. Swan decided to play the sleuth and track them down.
Swan's subtitle, Sayings, Lives, and Stories of Early Christian Women, summarizes the types of information she unearthed. After helpful chapters on desert life and spirituality, Swan presents sayings analogous to those found in Benedicta Ward's more famous book Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Swan's running commentary on the sayings gushes a bit, detracting from the impact of the sayings themselves. However, as the glossary at the back of the book demonstrates, Swan anticipates a green audience, and she doesn't want to lose them.
Stories of lesser known desert mothers, early deaconesses, monastic community leaders follow the sayings. Swan indicates that she has toned down the stories from their original hagiographic form, again seeking to make the material attractive to modern readers. Swan's edits certainly make the stories more readable, but some credibility is lost; Swan's simple, declarative sentences give the impression of conveying facts, while the source material often sought primarily to communicate values. Hagiography is a tricky genre, and merely simplifying the prose cannot excise all of the trickiness.
Though Swan can be faulted for imprecision, her enthusiasm for the fruits of her research makes the book appealing as an introduction to the foreign, yet familiar, world of Christian asceticism.
The Legend of Pope Joan by Peter Stanford (Berkley, 2000 [Henry Holt, 1999])
A neglected shrine on a streetcorner in Rome, a suspicious chair tucked away in the Vatican Museum, and references made by some 500 medieval writers (yet dismissed by the Roman Catholic hierarchy as a Protestant plot) all point to one question: Did the church accidentally elect a female pope in the ninth century, only to discover the truth when she gave birth during a procession? Journalist Peter Stanford, intrigued by clues he picked up while on vacation in Italy, had to find out.
Unrestrained by either academic convention or unswerving allegiance to Rome, Stanford turns every stone in his quest for the truth about Joan. He seems to have found every real or alleged reference to her in texts, art, card games, and G.K. Chesterton fiction. Unfortunately for the more conservative reader, he also unearths some dark material, including gender-bending sexuality and Freudian speculations.
Whether or not Joan ever lived, her story has led a long and fascinating life, twisting and turning through Western history. Stanford is an able and entertaining, if sometimes overly flip, guide.
Five Women of the English Reformation by Paul F.M. Zahl (Eerdmans, 2001)
In most accounts, the key elements of Anne Boleyn's life are her relationship with Henry VIII, her inability to produce a male heir to the English throne, and her execution. But Episcopal minister Paul F.M. Zahl is convinced that she has more to offer: a distinctive, systematic, Reformed theology. He considers Boleyn, Anne Askew, Katharine Parr, Jane Grey, and Catherine Willoughby "nursing mothers of the English Reformation."
Zahl certainly overstates his case. He makes little effort to disentangle the religious, political, social, and even romantic goals of these women (and their friends and enemies), blithely taking them at their words when they claim spiritual motivation. A writer working with source material from the propaganda-rich Reformation era should be much more critical.
Zahl also hangs a lot of theology and interpretation on slender threads of recorded data. Boleyn, for example, left only marginal notes in her favorite books. Zahl assumes that these indicate wholehearted support of the books' arguments (Zahl quotes the books liberally as if they were Boleyn's words) and, somehow, significant original thought.
While Zahl cannot convince careful readers that each of his five female subjects contributed mightily to the theology of the English Reformation, he may persuade people to see these women as more than the passive (or pernicious) wives, mistresses, and mothers they are often made out to be. This shift in perspective rightly elevates these remarkable women and might even prompt some interesting scholarship into the nuances of their spirituality.
Elesha Coffman is managing editor of Christian History magazine.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
God Bless, More or Less | Irving Berlin's anthem captures America. (Nov. 2, 2001)
Festival of Fears | What's scarier than Halloween? The anxieties that drive it. (Oct. 26, 2001)
Forget 'Normal' | C.S. Lewis's warning against panic during World War II resonates in our new crisis. (Oct. 19, 2001)
Apocalypse Not | As speculations mount regarding the significance of recent events in God's plan for the end of the world, voices from the past urge restraint. (Oct. 12, 2001)
'He Does Not War' | In the Anabaptist tradition, a Christian must never fight back. (Sept. 28, 2001)
A Time For War? | Augustine's "just war" theory continues to guide the West. (Sept. 21, 2001)
The House That Jack Built | C.S. Lewis and six of his literary friends open their doors to students and researchers at Wheaton College's impressive new Wade Center facility. (Sept. 14, 2001)
Raiders of the Lost R | Documentary on School skips religious history, giving a skewed account of American education. (Sept. 7, 2001)
Explaining the Ineffable | In Heaven Below, a former Pentecostal argues that his ancestors were neither as outlandish as they seemed nor as otherworldly as they wish to seem. (Aug. 31, 2001)
Eyewitness to a Massacre | The bloodbath that started on August 24, 1572, left thousands of corpses and dozens of disturbing questions. (Aug. 24, 2001)
Live Long and Prosper | Though a recent survey raises questions, the health benefits of faith have been documented for centuries. (Aug. 17, 2001)
Divided by Communion | What a church does in remembrance of Christ says a lot about its history and identity. (Aug. 10, 2001)
Thrills, Chills, Architecture? | The most exciting adventure at St. Paul's Cathedral would be a time-traveling jaunt through its history. (August 3, 2001)
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