Book Review: Mary Through the Centuries by Jaroslav Pelikan

Dec 7th, 2010 | By | Category: Blog Posts

In honor of the great Marian feast tomorrow, the Immaculate Conception, I would like to repost some material from my personal blog: a book review on one of the best popular level historical surveys of Mary available. “Mary Through the Centuries,” published in 1998, was written by one of the preeminent Church historians of the twentieth century, Jaroslav Pelikan. Pelikan, raised Lutheran, converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church near the end of his life.   Apparently, Pelikan had long wanted to write this historical survey of our Lady.

I enjoyed Pelikan’s writing style more than his famous series on Church history (published in the 1970s). There were a few chapters however, that were highly reminiscent of the stylistic quirks that bothered me from his otherwise brilliant series.  I can’t quite put my finger on what it is but sometimes he gets going and all I can think is ‘where in the name of all that is holy is he going with this’ or rather ‘why in the name of all that is holy is going there’ or more often still ‘I wonder what I’ll have for dinner toni… oh yea I’m literally in the process of reading the book and I’m not paying attention’.

I would recommend the book though and I think Protestants would enjoy it as well.  I believe he was still a Protestant when he wrote this but you can tell by some of his wording that he was nearing the end of that.   He observed the Reformation arguments (against Marian devotion) fairly for both sides.

My biggest complaint was the 20th century liberal subtleties which also surface in many other good scholars.   Though not dominating by any means, there were a few scattered quotes that can really put off anyone who hasn’t bought into the whole “the Church fathers were misogynists” nonsense.  I think this quote exemplifies the worst of it:

If we could enable the silent millions among Medieval women to recover their voices, the evidence that we do have from those relatively few who did leave a written record strongly suggests that it was with the figure of Mary that many of them identified themselves – with her humility, yes, but also with her defiance and with her victory:

With her defiance? What?! “With her humility, yes but“?? When was the last time you heard anyone apologize for Christ’s humility? When did anyone ever shy away from a full embrace of Christ’s humility in favor of championing some extra-Christian ideology? These few moments shame an otherwise impeccable work.   Don’t get the wrong idea; it is a very level headed book, and the gems far outweigh the blemishes.  Here’s a gem:

The paradox of Mary as Virgin Mother not only effectively illustrated but decisively shaped the fundamental paradox of the Orthodox and Catholic view of sexuality, which was epitomized by the glorification of virginity over matrimony – and by the celebration of matrimony, but not of virginity, as a sacrament.

Now you can see why I said he was either Orthodox already, or nearing the end of his Protestant days when he wrote this book.   And since the feast of the Immaculate Conception is tomorrow, I should mention that his treatment of this topic alone is worth the price of the book.

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  1. That last quote on Mary, virginity, and marriage as a Sacrament is profound!

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Taylor Marshall, Devin Rose. Devin Rose said: Book Review: Mary Through the Centuries by Jaroslav Pelikan, a Lutheran Protestant turned Eastern Orthodox […]

  3. I’m reading this book on account of the book review here. It’s quite splendid. I can’t wait until I get to the sections dealing with Mary in the Middle Ages. Thanks Tim, if it were not for your review I probably wouldn’t have bought the book. :-) PS I also noted some strange passages you listed.

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