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Book reviewTruly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints

by: Elizabeth A. Johnson. 379 pages. New York: Continuum, 2003.
review by: Dorothy Valerian

Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, is Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University, a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America, and an important voice in critical feminist theology and biblical scholarship. She established a leading position with her award-winning book, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1992), in which she connects Christian tradition with the contemporary religious experience of women in their struggle for the fullness of human dignity. In Friends of God and Prophets: A Feminist Theological Reading of the Communion of Saints (1998), Johnson explores the history and theology of the community of the living and dead connected by Holy Wisdom. From this theological framework, she places Miriam of Nazareth in that blessed company and develops the mariology in her newest work, Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints.

On the subject of Mary, “We have arrived at a new moment in the history of interpretation,” announces Elizabeth Johnson. In this careful and creative proposal, she invites us in the 21st century to take Mary off the pedestal and get to know her as a particular person, a first-century Jewish woman in a politically oppressed peasant
society, the mother of Jesus, our sister in faith whose story and struggle encourage our own faith. She aims to give us a post-Vatican II feminist reconstruction that is grounded in scripture, liturgy and Catholic tradition, one that is, in her own words, “theologically sound, ecumenically fruitful, spiritually empowering, ethically challenging, and socially liberating.” To our benefit, she succeeds admirably on all counts.

The title of the book, taken from Paul VI’s apostolic letter Marialis Cultus, in which he addresses Mary as “truly our sister,” points us in the direction of the real person of Mary. At the outset, Johnson names two roads that will not be traveled in this quest for liberation in Marian understanding: Mary the ideal woman and the icon of Mary as the maternal face of God. She explains how we have inherited a distorted view of idealized Mary from official marian symbols created by men in a patriarchal context that function to define and control women. Johnson’s approach is beautifully enriched by her
dialogue with multicultural feminist criticism seeking a Mary who is “like one of us.” Likewise, Johnson looks at the history and theology of Mary as the feminine face of God and finds this interpretation limiting: “Let God have her own maternal face. Let Miriam the Galilean woman rejoin the community of disciples.”

As she moves to the heart of the book, Johnson skillfully employs archeological, social- scientific and literary resources to picture Mary’s first-century world with its political-economic and social-cultural realities, and religious dimension. From there, Johnson probes beyond historical research to give us the treasured gift of this work, Chapter 10, “The Dangerous Memory of Mary,” where she revisits the 13 Scripture passages in which Mary appears. She honors the diversity of these gospel portraits in the creation of a beautiful and complex mosaic that is the story of Miriam of Nazareth.
Any one of Johnson’s books makes for worthwhile group discussion, but Truly Our Sister ranks as a superior resource. With vigorous scholarship and creative passion, Johnson leads us logically and lyrically to a fresh new understanding of Mary, friend of God and prophet. She closes with the Magnificat as a reminder of how this biblical prayer has the power to transform us today. For the mindful reader of Johnson’s book, Mary’s song will never be the same.

Summer 2004

 

 

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