Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Book Review: Bright Dark Madonna

Note: If you're offended by bold novels that whimsically challenge the Canon in ways you never imagined possible, this book is not for you!

Bright Dark Madonna

Elizabeth Cunningham
Monkfish Book Publishing (2009)
Hardcover: $26.00

Elizabeth Cunningham's novels about Mary Magdalene (The Maeve Chronicles) seem to either delight or scandalize readers. Count me as one of the delighted. I love how she uses scripture, legend and myth to invent a back story for the woman to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection. First, as in appearing to her before appearing to the guys.

This is gynocentric Midrash at its best. Cunningham's historical research is impeccable and her knowledge of scripture enviable. As for her writing, I'm awed by how Cunningham crafts characters who are lusty, poetic, ribald and elegant -- sometimes all this and more in the same extraordinary sentence. Her artful word play is often laugh-out-loud hilarious.

My unabashed admiration for Cunningham's oeuvre began the summer I plucked The Passion of Mary Magdalen off the "new reads" shelf at my local library. I was looking to escape into a big thick novel. That it was named one of the year's "heretical beach-book" by only sealed the deal.* Next, I plunged into Magdalen Rising. And then, I had to wait for Bright Dark Madonna. Worth the wait? Absolutely!

Bright Dark Madonna opens with this warning label: "A note on reading this book, or this is not your mother's Mary Magdalen. Or maybe she is. I don't know your mother."

Since this book is part of a triology, Cunningham provides a few facts about what has already been chronicled, noting upfront that she does not want to reveal too much previous plot. Me either. Nor do I want to reveal the intricate plot lines of this new novel. I will, however, tell you that it offers another version of what happened after the Ascension.

Trust me: rereading Acts of the Apostles in advance will enhance your appreciation for Cunningham's scholarship and interpretive chutzpah. Her portrait of St. Paul is probably what I enjoyed most in this new book which also includes a story line about the divine daughter of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Indeed, Cunningham's St. Paul smack down cheered me up, which makes sense given the amount of focus I had to keep on him while writing Why Is There a Menorah on the Altar? Jewish Roots of Christian Worship.

The Passion of Mary Magdalen will continue to rank as my favorite volume of this trilogy, but Bright Dark Madonna is a scandalously delightful fictional romp through early church history that doesn't pretend to be anything other than just that.

*A friend of mine, one with no shortage of kids, reported being shocked and embarrassed by the sex scenes. I was shocked and embarrassed that she was shocked and embarrassed.


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  2. Oh Meredith, I will have to read this over the summer when I am off from school. It sounds great!

    I love your own disclaimer at the top of the post, how you made me smile so early in the day!

  3. The books in this trilogy may be read in any sequence without loss of meaning but I'm glad I started with the Passion of Mary Magdalen. I plan to reread all three in sequence this summer.

  4. >interpretive chutzpah


    Hey, how are you, Meredith?


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