Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints
By Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University
379 pages. New York: Continuum, 2003. $26.95.
At some point, we all come across something very familiar from a different angle. Say you sit in a different chair at the table and look around the kitchen, or view a familiar coastline from a boat offshore. The object is the same, whether it is the kitchen or the beach. But the change in perspective gives the scene a freshness that can be surprising.
This new book by Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J., Truly Our Sister, offers that fresh look at the Virgin Mary―a subject so familiar that the new perspective Johnson offers is truly electrifying. Perhaps because Christians, and Catholics in particular, can feel such devotion to Mary, this effect may be challenging as well. But Johnson comes to the task with such rigorous scholarship, dedication to the Catholic tradition and affection for her subject that any challenge she presents is welcome.
The Mary that comes to life in these pages is "truly our sister," to borrow the words of Pope Paul VI, a young Jewish woman of a peasant tradition who is facing difficult decisions, living in a war-torn region, a wife and mother. By taking her gently from her pedestal and placing her within the human condition and the communion of saints, Johnson does her no disservice. Indeed, the choices Mary made become that much more affecting when we see the effect of grace on her difficult and human life.
Johnson reaches into ancient theology as well as more recent work to set precedents for her own path, and she describes in detail the first-century world that Mary inhabited. In one of the book's most valuable contributions, she closely examines the Scripture passages (all 13 of them) in which Mary appears. These stories, so familiar through Gospel readings, take on a new energy through Johnson's steady hand.
The book forms a fine companion to two of Johnson's earlier works, Friends of Gods and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints (1998) and She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1992). In this work, as in her others, Johnson cites theologians and long undervalued women's voices in opening critical and creative theological interpretations. Her discussion of the complex relationships women may have to the symbolism surrounding Mary is thought provoking and poignant.
"Picturing Mary as the most perfect of women, the patriarchal marian tradition functions paradoxically to disparage all other women," Johnson writes. "One would think it might work in the opposite way, that honoring one would lead to honoring all members of her group. But praise of Mary in theology and cult redounds to her benefit at the expense of other women because of the fundamental assumption that Mary does not exemplify the capacity for God of redeemed humanity including women. Rather, she is the great exception."
If this sounds severe, think of how many times women in history have been burdened with comparisons to the temptress Eve. Now think of how many times women have been likened to the Virgin Mary.
"The question becomes, 'Do we leave it there or does something else become possible?'" Johnson has said. "What I am saying is that not only is something else possible, but it is wonderfully possible." The wonders of that possibility find full voice in Truly Our Sister.
―Carolyn Farrar, FCO '82