book reviews

book review: "the meaning of mary magdalene"

a book review

The Meaning of Mary Magdalene

by Cynthia Bourgeault

There is a sexuality which, clarified of its craving and attachment, is truly eucharistic — “This is my body, given for you” — a drawing near to the other with all that one has and is, in conscious love, to give the innermost gift of oneself in the most intimate foretaste of divine union that can be known in human flesh.

Cynthia Bourgeault
The Meaning of Mary Magdalene


1/Premise + Purpose

In writing this review, it was hard for me to pin down one overall thesis of this book; it covers a lot of ground in its 290 pages, and while Mary Magdalene features prominently, there are large swathes of this book where she is absent.

In fact, the title of the book itself might be the best description of what this book is all about: it is a broad exploration of Mary Magdalene’s significance and meaning, not just within the ‘master story’ of Christianity, but as a model for spiritual transformation full stop.

Author Cynthia Bourgeault unfolds a vision of what she believes Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s teachings would have actually focused on during their lifetimes, and what is far beyond (and in some ways, contradictory to) what we would recognize as 'Christianity' today.

If you have an interest in themes such as the relationship between spirituality + romantic love, abundance mentality, non-duality, sexuality, or 'mysticism' ... this book addresses them all and more from a unique interpretation of Magdalenic (and Christic) wisdom.

2/Reading Experience

I found this a quick, but by no means an easy, read. I finished it in about two weeks, reading at a casual pace while on vacation.

The book is organized into three parts: “Mary Magdalene as Apostle”; “Mary Magdalene as Beloved”; and “Mary Magdalene as Unitive Wisdom” — but, like I mentioned above, while Mary Magdalene does feature prominently in the book, there are also large sections of the text where she is almost completely absent.

Bourgeault does not shy away from leaving Mary behind altogether while she takes the time to analyze other referenced or otherwise related passages/philosophies. This is ultimately for your benefit so that you have the necessary context for her larger argument, but when it does happen it can feel a little bit ungrounded, a bit like you're floating away from an anchoring ‘main point’.

Overall, I’d estimate that I spent an equal amount of time journaling about my own responses (both intellectual and emotional) that I was having to the book as I did actually reading the book itself. But in hindsight, I realize that the majority of the journaling I did was prompted pretty much altogether by Part Two (“Mary Magdalene as Beloved”).

Now, I'd chock that up to the fact that this section of the book touches on the issues that have been the most sensitive during my own awakening. So reading through this part of the book saw my beliefs + attitudes toward marriage, intimacy, and sexuality being consistently confronted. I had a lot of thoughts + feelings to journal! But these issues have, again, been a large part of my personal experience of awakening. Depending on what your own high-priority issues are, your mileage will vary.

Regardless, the book flows well overall if you go with Bourgeault's flow. You really can't have any expectations about where she's going next, because you'll inevitably be wrong! To me, the book felt like a raft trip down a great meandering river: the flow is consistent, but you really are all over the map.

One other thing: you will undoubtedly at times notice a tone of reactiveness or defensiveness in this book. I would encourage you to give Bourgeault the benefit of the doubt; it stems from the author’s anticipation of all the questions + criticisms that are likely to be brought up by the reader with a relationship to the Christian canon (whether that relationship is a current or even a former one).

3/Who This Book Is For

I think, most obviously, readers who are specifically interested in learning about how their romantic relationships can contribute to their spiritual growth (and vice versa!) will find a lot to chew over in this book.

But, with that said, this book is not just about romantic love, people! If you really engage with the content of this book, it will have implications for the way you are currently living your life simply because you are a human being who relates to other human (and non-human!) beings. This book’s primary interest is conscious love: love as a spiritually transformative force.

I also don't think you need to self-identify as Christian (or even post-Christian) to find the ideas in this book relevant or at least thought-provoking. Because of the fact that a large assumption this book makes is that Jesus + Mary Magdalene's true teachings were far beyond what we would recognize as 'Christianity' today, the spiritual ideas presented here cross faith boundaries. It's Christianity meets Eastern tradition meets abundance mindset.

No matter what, this book will require you to read with a beginner's mind. It gets into some pretty mystical ideas in places, and it heavily references the 'gnostic gospels' of Philip, Thomas, and Mary Magdalene, so you'll need to be open to some intellectual and spiritual stretching!

4/Favorite Quotes

"What if, instead of emphasizing that Jesus died alone and rejected, we reinforced that one [Mary Magdalene] stood by him and did not leave? — for surely this other story is as deeply and truly there in the scripture as is the first. How would this change the emotional timbre of the day? How would it affect our feelings about ourselves? About the place of women in the church? About the nature of redemptive love?"

"It gives one a bit of a start to realize that for the better part of two millennia, Christian theology has been written, shaped, formulated, and handed down almost exclusively by celibates talking to other celibates ... We are all children of a cultural stream whose vision of human love has been shaped by the shadow side of celibate spirituality."

"Jesus's core teaching is rooted in the ground of transformed eros and brings as its fruit not only forgiveness of sins but unswerving singleness of perception. Ultimately, it is not about "clean living" and purity, but the total immolation of one's heart."

"Letting go is not in order to get something better ... in and of itself it is the something better."

"One cannot love God as an object. God is always and only the subject of love. God is that which makes love possible, the source from which it emerges and the light by which it is recognized."

"The name given to the state of restored alignment — of 'singleness' or purity of being — is 'virginity' ... We are used to thinking of virginity as something we begin with and then lose through sexual expression. In this teaching it is the other way around. Our early emergence into consciousness finds most of us scattered and confused, lost in a maze of self-images with not a clue as to who we really are. Many of us, tragically, remain in that state our entire lives. The journey toward real self-knowledge (or gnosis), toward 'restoration to fullness of being,' is at the same time the painstaking reclaiming of our own virginity, which in this teaching bears the sense of 'free, simple, and inwardly whole.' "

"A conscious relationship is one that calls forth who you really are ... we could welcome its power to wake us up in areas of life where we are asleep and where we avoid naked, direct contact with life. This approach puts us on a path. It commits us to movement and change, providing forward direction by showing us where we most need to grow. Embracing relationship as a path also gives us practice: learning to use each difficulty along the way as an opportunity to go further, to connect more deeply, not just with a partner, but with our own aliveness as well."

"Mystical commingling, shadow work, and mutual servanthood ... are all part of the territory along the ... path of erotic transformation."

Find it on: Google | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

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The Dance of the Dissident Daughter (1996) by Sue Monk Kidd

book review: "the creation of patriarchy"

a book review

The Creation of Patriarchy

by Gerda Lerner

Women have for millennia participated in the process of their own subordination because they have been psychologically shaped so as to internalize the idea of their own inferiority.

Gerda Lerner
The Creation of Patriarchy


1/Premise + Purpose

The Creation of Patriarchy (1986) explores the historical process of the establishment of the patriarchal thought-system that nearly all of us have been born into.

Author Gerda Lerner takes us back to the earliest seeds of patriarchy, to our prehistoric ancestors, and painstakingly traces the sometimes subtle (and sometimes decidedly not) developments in the stability of the human species, our social customs, and our religious beliefs ... all of which accumulated over the course of two and a half millennia to form the patriarchal system we all know and love today.

Lerner's point is that, contrary to what the modern 'goddess culture' would like to believe, there was never a point in human history in which matriarchy was the predominant societal structure. Matrilineal and matrilocal kinship, on the other hand, were prevalent before the transition to patrilineality, patrilocality, and, ultimately, patriarchy.

Lerner's purpose in writing this book is to show how that transition unfolded over the course of two and a half thousand years, and that there was never a point at which patriarchy, as we know it today, was 'inevitable' or 'natural'. Instead, patriarchy was systematically and intentionally created through the choices of hundreds of generations of humans (most of them male).

2/Reading Experience

This book was a really challenging read for me. I don't mean that I found the ideas challenging to my beliefs, but rather that the actual reading of this book was challenging. This is a dense book. A good portion of the first several chapters is Lerner's analysis of existing literature on the topic at hand. While I appreciate her thoroughness, the first half or more of the book reads like an academic text.

Because of the dryness and denseness of the first half of the book, I slogged through it. It was definitely not a casual read that I could just pick up any time of day or that I could read a chapter or two of at a time. I found that I had to be in the right frame of mind, with a dedicated amount of time to sit and focus, to be able to make progress with this book.

This book was also ... depressing. Some of the books on this topic that I've read have a quality of disbelief, as in, in reading them my mind is blown by the things I don't know or the way our society or our species 'work'. Often these books will spark a sense of outrage, a sense of "I've got to help change this!" But this book, at least the first half of it, is just unrelenting. It is chapter upon chapter of new attitudes of women's inferiority, new customs + regulations enforcing women's subjugation. It never stops. And that's our history as a species. Oof — I'm telling you, it'll get you down.

With all of that said, if you can make it through the first 180 pages of this book, the last fifty are well worth the slog to get there. This book finishes strong! It may have taken me two and a half weeks to get through the first half of this book, but it only took me a weekend to fly through the rest of it.

It starts picking up momentum a little over halfway through the book with Chapter 8 ("The Patriarchs") and all the threads start coming together in Chapters 9 + 10 ("The Covenant" + "Symbols", respectively), all leading into the final chapter ("The Creation of Patriarchy") when Lerner brings it all home with practical application and meaning for our lives as modern women.

3/Who This Book Is For

Let me start by saying this: This book is probably not for the woman who is looking for a casual read on the topic of womanhood, or for the woman who is in the early stages of her exploration of womanhood.

If you are well underway into your personal exploratory journey, if you have more than just a passing interest in the topic, if you are committed to learning (as in, really studying) the topic of womanhood, then this book would be a strong addition to your personal library.

I would also add that I think this book would be most influential for the woman who would not consider herself a traditionalist when it comes to the Abrahamic religions. Or, at least, perhaps, for the traditionalist woman who is one of the rare people who can entertain an idea that does not corroborate her own beliefs.

4/Favorite Quotes

It is sex which determines that women should be child-bearers, it is the sex-gender system which assures that they should be child-rearers.

Abandoning the search for an empowering past — the search for matriarchy — is the first step in the right direction. The creation of compensatory myths of the distant past of women will not emancipate women in the present and the future.

As men's class positions became consolidated and defined by their relationship to property and the means of production, the class position of women became defined by their sexual relationships.

The consequences of Adam and Eve's transgression fall with uneven weight upon the woman. The consequence of sexual knowledge is to sever female sexuality from procreation. God puts enmity between the snake [historically associated with the fertility goddess] and the woman... Thus by God's command, the free and open sexuality of the fertility-goddess was to be forbidden to fallen woman. The way her sexuality was to find expression was in motherhood.

Women have always experienced the reality of self and community, known it, and shared it with each other. Yet, living in a world in which they are devalued, their experience bears the stigma of insignificance. Thus they have learned to mistrust their own experience and devalue it.

The social cost of having excluded women from the human enterprise of constructing abstract thought has never been reckoned. We can begin to understand the cost of it to thinking women when we accurately name what was done to us and describe, no matter how painful it may be, the ways in which we have participated in the enterprise. We have long known that rape has been a way of terrorizing us and keeping us in subjection. Now we also know that we have participated, although unwittingly, in the rape of our minds.

Find it on: Google | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

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When God Was a Woman (1976) by Merlin Stone