In his review of my book, Mary and the Art of Prayer, Nathan Ristuccia (“Our Lady of Everything,” May) acknowledges that certain elements of the medieval devotion to the Virgin Mary have been a stumbling block for modern scholars and Christians alike—particularly her representation in the thousands of miracle stories told about her and in the great cascades of scriptural titles with which she was addressed.
He then appears to claim that, popular as these stories and titles were, what I have shown in my book is not, in fact, representative of the medieval cult. In his words, “In all likelihood, only a minority revered Mary in the way Fulton Brown depicts.” He bases this contention on the claim that one of the principal sources for my description of this medieval devotion, Richard of Saint-Laurent’s twelve-book On the Praises of the Blessed Virgin Mary, “[was] marginal in [its] own time and [is] forgotten today,” while insisting that mainstream Marian devotion is better characterized by its absence in Peter Lombard’s theological writings.
My argument for the popularity of the Virgin does not depend on Richard, but rather on the devotional practice named in the title of the book: the recitation of the Hours of the Virgin as witnessed by the single most popular codicological genre of the later Middle Ages, the Book of Hours. This is the practice which I invite readers to imagine themselves participating in in the opening sections of each chapter of my book. I rely on Richard not because he was popular (although manuscripts of his work survive from throughout Europe, as I show in the appendix) but because he gives the fullest explanation of the imagery that appears in the Hours, most particularly its scriptural citations. That this imagery is no longer considered central to the way in which Christians (or scholars) think of Mary is hardly proof that it never was—or that it has no place in “proper” theological descriptions of the Mother of God. (Orthodox readers will find much that is familiar in the descriptions of Mary as temple, throne, ark, bedchamber, and cloud.)
Ristuccia’s response to my demonstration that these titles were known in the Latin West and resonated throughout the medieval Marian liturgy is the best evidence I could give to the way in which the Reformed and Enlightened ridicule to which this devotion has been subjected has sundered modern Christianity from its ancient and medieval roots.
Rachel Fulton Brown
university of chicago
In his review of Mary and the Art of Prayer, Nathan Ristuccia writes that Rachel Fulton Brown invites us to “look along” medieval devotion, but he does not accept the invitation. Instead, he reads her work from outside both her own text and the medieval texts that she discusses. He notes Fulton Brown’s observation that “medieval people read Scripture typologically and believed they found symbols throughout Old Testament temple worship which spoke not only of Christ but also of his mother.” This observation is correct, and modern scholars must immerse themselves in this style of reading—much as an ethnographer immerses him- or herself in a foreign culture—if we are to understand books of hours and the culture in which they had meaning.
In the Catholic Church during the middle of the last century, there was a great movement for ressourcement. Mary and the Art of Prayer is, as it were, ressourcement with brass knobs on, and this is why it is both original and inspiring. Fulton Brown reads the medieval prayer books in such a way as to enter into the mind of the presumed reader (this is what she calls “reading along”), but she also draws on modern scholarship to enhance the modern reader’s appreciation of the texts. The possibilities suggested by an author such as Margaret Barker would not have been known to the medieval devotee, but they certainly engage the spiritual imagination of the modern one. I can see that a secular historian might find this problematic, but as a Catholic theologian, I view Fulton Brown’s work as an important contribution to understanding the significance of medieval devotion for the twenty-first century.
Ristuccia draws attention to the weaknesses of Barker’s work, namely, that she employs “unreliable manuscript variants, etymological guesses, sources written five hundred years after the Temple’s destruction, and hypothesized source texts which may never have existed.” But these objections could be raised against much other work in biblical studies. For example, the theory that there was an “autumn new year festival”—or, perhaps, a “covenant renewal festival”—is based on no clear evidence from either biblical texts or archaeology. It is simply an attempt to reconstruct the Temple cult in a way that could make sense of some of the Psalms. Yet this hypothesis was widely accepted for many decades. Perhaps what is really at issue in the dismissal of Barker is an uneasiness at the idea that either Judaism or Christianity could ever have given a female figure the kind of preeminence that she argues for. Perhaps this is also an anxiety in relation to medieval devotion to Mary.
At the end of his review, Ristuccia casts doubt on the helpfulness of imaginative empathy as a method for research on religion. He asks, “Ought we to experience imaginatively [the] anti-Catholic bigotry [of many early modern Protestants]?” The answer to this is that we certainly need tools for understanding how people interpret the world they inhabit, and among these tools, imaginative empathy may well have a place.
Sarah Jane Boss
centre for marian studies
university of roehampton
london, united kingdom
One flaw in Nathan Ristuccia’s review is his failure to observe what philosophers call the fact-value distinction.
A tome of six hundred pages by a University of Chicago professor, published by Columbia University Press, is by its nature presented as a work about facts. It is an offering of new insights in the realm of scholarship, not a doctrinal tract. A book in this genre aims to advance our understanding of religious history and sociology, and people are duly invited to assess whether it succeeds in that aim. Yet the reviewer treats the book as though it were a doctrinal diatribe, and as though his job were to make a sectarian counterargument. That seems a basic category mistake.
An even bigger problem is Ristuccia’s high-handed dismissal of the work of Margaret Barker. He implies that Fulton Brown’s gracefully acknowledged debt to Barker—“whose works are rejected by mainstream biblical scholars”—is an evident defect in the book. This is ad hominem argument at its unworthiest and weakest.
Readers of First Things should recall Barker was elected in 1998 as president of the Society for Old Testament Study, a learned body which, although based in Britain, brings together biblical scholars from many countries and religious backgrounds. She has been in high demand in many parts of the world as a lecturer to academically distinguished Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, and Mormon audiences.
In 2012 she gave a prestigious annual lecture at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox seminary, an honor she shares with Archbishop Rowan Williams and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, who are both eminent scholars and avowed admirers of her work. Indeed, Williams, who is now master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, has credited her with transforming the way people read the Scriptures. It is true that the arguments in her seventeen books are often based on arcane linguistic points, but she has readily engaged in constructive debate with people who have expertise in such matters.
If Ristuccia wishes to challenge Barker’s work, it would be more honest to make a reasoned critique with the same attention to detail that she shows. That would surely be better than using a review of a book by somebody else to take a sideswipe at the oeuvre of a distinguished scholar.
maghera, northern ireland,
Nathan Ristuccia replies:
In her lucid response, Rachel Fulton Brown criticizes an argument near the end of my review that “only a minority revered Mary” in the way that Fulton Brown presents. She understands me to be saying that practices such as the Hours of the Virgin were rare. They were not. No one who has read the scholarship of authors like Miri Rubin or Eamon Duffy could doubt that such practices were popular. As I stated in the review, “thousands of Marian miracle stories” are extant, titles such as “bedchamber” were widely used, and “veneration of the Virgin is central to Catholic Christianity.”
My objection is not to the ubiquity of these practices, but rather to Fulton Brown’s interpretation of their meaning. She argues that most late medieval Christians thought the thoughts and felt the feelings that she finds in various learned writers—above all, in Richard of Saint-Laurent. She mines Richard’s treatise because it “gives the fullest explanation of the imagery that appears in the Hours.” But why treat Richard as typical? His work is erudite, innovative, seldom-copied, and extremely long. I would label it a hapax legomenon. Hence my conclusion that Fulton Brown “reveals a medieval devotion to Mary, not the medieval devotion.”
Sarah Jane Boss and Bruce Clark both claim that my review is unjust to the scholarship of Margaret Barker. I agree with Clark that the proper place to criticize Barker is a review of her own writings, not somebody else’s. If I could have avoided mentioning Barker, I would have. But since Fulton Brown borrows from Barker at length on more than a hundred pages, there is no way to review the former without touching on the latter. I am not the only person to dismiss Barker’s work. Fulton Brown herself admits that Barker is a “maverick” in the field and that multiple academics warned her that “most mainstream biblical scholars” reject Barker’s theories. Must a reader either accept the writings of both Barker and Fulton Brown or repudiate them both? No. Fulton Brown’s book is “fully separable” and abounds with fascinating details and compelling arguments even for those—like myself—who agree with mainstream scholarship.
Finally, I could only smile to learn from Boss and Clark that I am a reactionary secularist who has never read David Hume!
Michael Doran, one of our sharpest political analysts, rightly sees today’s political divisions as rooted in a fundamental religious—indeed, theological—divide (“The Theology of Foreign Policy,” May). On the right are the Jacksonian populists who believe God still works in human affairs, distrust managerial elites, and think government is called not to perfect the world but to protect freedom. On the left, he says, are the Progressives who downplay the brokenness of man, believe that human nature is perfectible, and see this world improving through their own efforts and governmental agencies.
I am far less sure of Doran’s assertion that the Progressive outlook is that of what he calls postmillennialism. The best-known progenitors of this eschatology were Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) and his disciples in the New Divinity movement. They were convinced that human nature is deeply sinful and that the world would never improve apart from the preaching of the gospel, which would bring “effusions of the Spirit” in a future “prosperity of the church.” But the time of this spiritual prosperity would also be a time of worldwide persecution of the true Church. Only the supernatural work of God would keep things moving forward. Heaven and hell would be unleashed at the same time.
Postmillennialists were not confident about the unaided ability of human beings to bring about human betterment. Besides, by the time of the Industrial Revolution and then the rise of modern science and technology—the period which Doran says was the apogee of this “postmillennial outlook”—postmillennialism was dying or dead. Princeton Seminary historian James Moorhead writes that “by the early twentieth century [postmillennialism] had largely vanished, and Lewis Sperry Chafer, with only slight partisan exaggeration, could claim in 1936 that it was without ‘living voice.’” As early as 1911, “traditional millennialism of any sort was . . . obsolescent.” Its erosion in American religion was “part of the waning of supernaturalism,” the faith which Doran rightly says Progressives in that era rejected. Moorhead writes that Progressives in the early part of the twentieth century spoke “of a natural and rational improvement” of both human nature and the world, and for this very reason they “dismiss[ed] millennial categories of all sorts.” Postmillennialism “retained too much precritical Biblicism and antiquated supernaturalism,” and the Progressives thought this reliance upon supernatural agency failed to recognize what “modern science” proved: our human ability to perfect ourselves and the world. So the Progressivism that Doran depicts was not postmillennial modernism but modernism without millennialism.
I agree with Doran that Zionism was a flashpoint in the modernist-fundamentalist controversy. But even there, the divide was not so simple. As Samuel Goldman shows in God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America, Harry Emerson Fosdick, one of Doran’s Progressives, praised a “moderate Zionism” under binational or international administration before he turned against a later, more vigorous Zionism. And Harry Truman came to his Zionism not because of premillennial “underpinnings” (Doran) but, according to Goldman, a liberal Protestant devotion to Judeo-Christian monotheism that most modernists shared.
beeson divinity school
Michael Doran brings welcome attention to the theological dimensions of American foreign policy. In particular, he demonstrates the continuing influence of Protestant modernism at a time in which “mainline” churches are hemorrhaging members and retain little of the social cachet they used to enjoy. One obstacle to understanding the American tradition is the possibility that “Progressivism”—which was known for much of the twentieth century as “liberalism” before reviving its original name in the last decade or so—owes as much to religious sources as it does to narrowly political ones. As Doran suggests, American Progressivism is less an expression of anticlericalism or atheism in the European sense than it is a secularized version of the Social Gospel, complete with a distinctive conception of the millennial kingdom.
I am less convinced by Doran’s conflation of fundamentalism, populism, and “Jacksonianism.” These dispositions have sometimes overlapped in American attitudes toward foreign policy—one thinks of the Moral Majority. But they are by no means identical, even in the examples to which Doran directs our attention. William Jennings Bryan, for example, was a populist and conceivably a fundamentalist, but also a pacifist who was horrified by enthusiasm for the justified violence that characterizes the Jacksonian persuasion. And Harry Truman, although in some ways a Jacksonian and a populist, was anything but a theological fundamentalist.
Rather than a unified alternative, I wonder whether fundamentalism, populism, and Jacksonianism represent independent sources of opposition to Progressivism—and the modernist theology on which it is implicitly based. Fundamentalism challenges its inclination toward secularization, populism its elitism, and Jacksonianism its universalism and moralism. Americans can, and do, emphasize one or more of these challenges without embracing them all.
Despite this criticism, Doran has done a real service in his attempt to reframe foreign policy debates in a more historically sensitive manner. Like scholars including Walter Russell Mead and David Hollinger, he reminds us that at least until World War II, there was not always a difference between Americans’ political and religious activities abroad. Among the dangerous aspects of Progressivism, whether religious or secular in expression, is the assumption that we can safely consign what we regard as prejudices or superstitions to the past. Doran reminds us that this is rarely the case.
george washington university
I am concerned about Michael Doran’s use of the expression “deep state” to describe career employees at the State Department. The term “deep state” originated in Turkey in the 1920s, and it refers to security services that engage in a variety of criminal activities—such as murder and kidnapping—to suppress dissent. These agencies are seen as having their own agenda that they carry out regardless of the policies of the elected government. This expression became prominent again in 2011 during the uprising in Egypt that ended in the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.
In my opinion, it is inaccurate and unfair to describe career officials of the American government as part of the “deep state.” The passage from President Truman’s memoirs quoted in Doran’s article provides a straightforward account of the natural tension that exists between the president and career officials. As Doran notes, the career officials might have been opposed, but President Truman prevailed and the U.S. government recognized the state of Israel. The bureaucracy might drag its feet, but in our system the president and his appointees do set policy.
John W. Neville
mountain brook, alabama
Michael Doran replies:
Allow me to express my thanks to all three respondents for taking the time to send engaging and edifying letters. I was particularly gratified to receive the thoughtful reactions of Gerald McDermott and Samuel Goldman, whose works I consulted profitably while writing “The Theology of Foreign Policy.”
McDermott regards my use of the term “postmillennialism” as anachronistic. If we are discussing the doctrine as a formal theological school taught in seminaries, I cannot but defer to his expertise. When I examine the society around me, however, I see, on a daily basis, ideas that would seem properly labeled “postmillennial.”
Consider a few verses from the hymn “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations,” written in 1896 and still heard in American churches today:
We’ve a story to tell to the nations,
that shall turn their hearts to the right,
a story of truth and mercy,
a story of peace and light,
a story of peace and light.
For the darkness shall turn to dawning,
and the dawning to noonday bright,
and Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth,
the kingdom of love and light.
We’ve a song to be sung to the nations
that shall lift their hearts to the Lord,
a song that shall conquer evil
and shatter the spear and sword,
and shatter the spear and sword.
The hymn assumes that it is within our power, merely by spreading the gospel, to usher in an era of peace and harmony among the nations. As this era gradually unfolds, it will pave the way for the return of Jesus Christ.
Now consider a presidential campaign speech that Sen. Barack Obama gave to students at George Mason University in 2007. He concluded the speech with a sermon centered on his favorite quotation, from Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”—which is itself an inherently postmillennial idea.
But here is the thing, George Mason [Obama explained to the students]. Here’s the thing, young people. It doesn’t bend on its own. It bends, because you put your hand on that arc and you bend it in the direction of justice. It bends in that direction, because you decide you’re going to stand up to a war that should’ve never been waged. It bends, because you decide that we need a healthcare system for all Americans. It bends, because you make a decision that every child in America deserves a decent education, even if they are not wealthy. And that every senior citizen deserves to retire with dignity and respect. . . . And you make a decision that we are willing to make the sacrifices . . . to avoid the melting of the polar ice caps and the drowning of the coasts all across this world.
Obama continued on in that vein as if he were preparing to lead the assembled students in a stirring rendition of “We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations.” If the students would only “grab that arc,” he said, they would guarantee that “America [would] transform itself” and “the future [would] be bright.”
McDermott argues that these ideas differ from classic postmillennialism in important ways; he favors, instead, the label “modernist.” I thank the professor for this advice, which I intend to study further. For the moment, however, I am still a bit reluctant to follow his lead. “Modernist,” at least as I currently understand the term, does not point with sufficient emphasis to the bright and sunny eschaton that gives the hymn and Obama’s rhetoric their power.
Power, while we are on the subject, is the ingredient that was missing from what McDermott describes as Harry Emerson Fosdick’s “Zionism.” Fosdick flatly rejected the idea of Jewish statehood, aligning himself instead with those Jews who hoped that the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine, would serve as a vibrant center for cultural continuity and renewal. One can certainly call that orientation a form of “Zionism,” but by whatever label, it was still weak gruel. More to the point, it put Fosdick at daggers drawn with the likes of William Blackstone and, later, President Harry Truman, strong supporters of political Zionism.
Samuel Goldman, in his letter, suggests that “fundamentalism, populism, and Jacksonianism represent independent sources of opposition to Progressivism.” His distinctions are insightful, but they are perhaps most relevant to the study of domestic politics. When it comes to foreign policy, the three strains share much: their opposition to Progressivism, their belief in popular democracy, and their sense of America as a nation with a unique character, if not mission. On that point, my reading of Nathan O. Hatch on the religious roots of American populism strongly suggests that these three strains all originated from the same religious sources.
Finally, John Neville takes me to the woodshed for using the term “deep state” to describe the behavior and attitudes of career officials in the State Department. Consider me chastened—but only partially. Neville’s obviously valid points demonstrate that even the loose analogy that I sought to draw throws off too much stray voltage to be useful. To the extent that my choice of images unfairly besmirched the professionalism of the Foreign Service, I apologize.
Having said as much, Neville goes too far in downplaying the significance of the sociological and political gaps that separate career bureaucrats in Washington from Jacksonian and Republican America. I was serving in the State Department when Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008. As the Foreign Service officers filed in the day after Obama’s victory, they were, almost without exception, floating on air. So powerful was their combined lift that I feared the entire building might just sail away—to a bright, bright future, where the seas recede, the sick are cured, and the lion lies down with the lamb.