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A Together Magazine Big Review on 'Grace is Not Faceless'

A Together Magazine Big Review on 'Grace is Not Faceless'
Grace is not Faceless: Reflections on Mary -  book review by Alan Mordue

I will start this review by saying that this new book of writings about Mary the mother of Jesus by Ann Loades is a very important addition to works on the subject. In fact, I would say it is the best book I have read on the subject since Jaroslav Pelikan’s great book Mary Through the Centuries that came out a good few decades ago, which investigated Mary in Christian tradition and art. Of course, there is a big difference from that book as this book is much more deeply theological and philosophical in nature and is written by one of the greatest Christian feminists of today.

The book starts with an excellent introduction to Ann Loades and her approach to Mary by Stephen Burns which points to some of her greatest qualities as an author; rigorous philosophy, surprisingly speculative but at the same time grounded with clearly articulated ideas. Like him I used to know her well when I worked at the Durham University shop and she was professor of theology. I liaised with her and her colleagues at the theology department over reading lists and orders. She has the same no-nonsense approach in her personal dealings as she has in her written work and the booksellers reading this will be pleased to hear that she not only ordered a lot of books from the shop herself, but also sent people our way. Loades loves books and supports bookshops. She is a very literary person.

The title of the book Grace is not Faceless comes from the phrase used by the Austrian theologian Cornelius Ernst. This is a very interesting phrase and it does open Loades’s contention that Mary can represent the feminine aspect in God’s grace to all Christians in their different traditions. Like a lot of serious books of today from across the whole spectrum of Christian theology the book is founded in scripture but also the writings and biblical commentaries of the ancient and medieval period of the church. This trend is called Paleo-Christianity and is a wonderful trend for someone like me. It clearly shows us, wherever we sit, that the whole of Christianity is shaped by the legacy we have inherited.

I like the way the book is made up of a series of pieces with a varied focus; the feminist quest, Mary and the trinity and many others. Loades looks at the way Mary is a figure engaged with in all academic disciplines today as well as constantly reflecting on a huge variety of ideas via scriptural passages. Many people will buy and read this book especially for the feminist viewpoint which Loades is famous for. They will not be disappointed as she brings many fresh insights into that perspective. I also like the way Loades focuses how Mary has had a profound and deep impact on the history of the church and the arts. I was particularly impressed at the way she looked at some of my favourite poets including Traherne and Herbert. She also has an interesting chapter on Mary in modern poetry, which, given the fact this is not my area of expertise, I found slightly challenging. I must admit that most of the authors were very much new to me.

Loades looks at the way Mary has been used as an ideological tool in all the main branches of Christianity but also shows that she has been a unifying figure for both the individual devotion of Christians and at an ecumenical level. In addition, this book looks at the way the various branches of Christianity have viewed Mary. She points out that protestant churches have with good reason been wary of too much devotion to her and have ended up underemphasising her. Loades is very good at showing the strengths of Mary in the Catholic tradition especially regarding the arts and as a strong female figurehead in the faith. But she is extremely critical of many of the Catholic approaches to and doctrines of Mary, especially when she argues that the Catholic formulation of the doctrine of the immaculate conception has led to what she calls a misogynistic idolatry at its worst. That gave me a jolt, but I can see her reasoning. Loades is also very instructive in showing the very different way Mary is portrayed in the Orthodox church, first and foremost as ‘Theotokos’ the god-carrier and as the most special of women in that context. Her explanations and thoughts on this area surprised me, in fact the whole book has many surprises.

It is an extremely varied book which I have learnt a lot from. Strongly recommended. 

Together Magazine

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Grace is Not Faceless (Paperback)
Ann Loades
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