Julian of Norwich: A Contemplative Biography
Paraclete Press, 2010
220 pp., 36.0
Julian of Norwich, Theologian
Yale University Press, 2011
288 pp., 50.00
Lauren F. Winner
Love in the Face of Sin
The book is styled as a "contemplative biography." That phrase may be read on at least three levels: it tells us that the book is imaginative; it suggests that the biography is about a contemplative, about someone who was singularly devoted to the devotional life; and it suggests a subtle fruit of the biography—that it may well move readers to contemplation themselves.
Readers interested in a second, denser and more academic (though still graceful and decidedly readable) investigation of Julian should turn to Denys Turner's monograph Julian of Norwich, Theologian. Here, too, the title reveals much: Turner's aim, at its most basic, is to persuade readers to take Julian seriously as a theologian, to read her writings "as a work of theology proper." Julian, Turner observes, has been anthologized to death. She's been aphorized and excerpted and turned into a charming anodyne. (Perhaps he's been intercepting my text messages.) But "the Julian of the quotable bon mot" is a caricature. Wrenched out of context and invoked as a free-standing mantra, "All manner of things shall be well" becomes "a hackneyed platitude … detached from its origin in a tough doctrine of providence as well as from Julian's frightened and frightening sense of the reality of sin and evil that, as she sees, challenges all but the hardest-won hope." Julian of Norwich, Theologian restores—and illumines—the "taut" complexity of Julian's thought.
Some of Turner's greatest insights are about prayer. He reads Julian to say that "prayer is a practice of interpreting human desire, a practice that draws us back through the tangled thickets of wants and needs as we experience them to our truest love and to where we are most truly ourselves." Inside this doctrine of prayer is a theological anthropology, and a claim about providence and freedom: Julian's God, Turner argues, doesn't inconsistently give prayerful people what they want; rather, God always gives people what they want, "so that we can learn from what he gives us in answer to our prayers what our true desires are." And in this prayerful theology is a doctrine of the Cross, for it is finally the Cross that restores our "disrupted and fragmented" human nature "to its eternal source in God, so to its true selfhood … its true desire."
In connecting her devotional life and her thought, Turner has gone beyond his own brief of simply reading Julian. He has also bridged a pernicious divide—between "spirituality" and "dogmatics"—that has threaded through Christian theology since at least the 13th century. His book, in other words, has important implications beyond our interpretation of one medieval writer: it promises to reshape "our current notions of the systematic."
Perhaps one way of summarizing Turner's accomplishment is to say that he has restored Julian's aphorisms—"all shall be well," "sin is behoovely," Julian's vision of creation as a hazelnut that is and shall be because God loves it—to the knife's edge on which Julian is poised: the edge of a Cross that returns broken human beings to true selfhood; the edge between sin and a Love that cannot condemn, where teeters Julian's sober hope.
Lauren Winner is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. She is the author most recently of A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia (Yale Univ. Press).
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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