I’m convinced that what made Irenaeus such a great saint is that he had the stamina and the stomach to suffer through all the gnostic works. We don’t know for sure how the man died, or whether he was a martyr, as some late biographies aver. But there is perhaps a greater martyrdom in reading apocryphal gospels cover to cover, one after another, shelf after shelf. Irenaeus read enough, after all, and read closely enough, to provide definitive analysis of all the polymorphous varieties of gnosticism concocted up till his time.
All that is mere prelude to my praise for Amy Welborn’s book De-Coding Mary Magdalene — because, gosh, she not only read the ancient gnostics, she read the neo-gnostics as well. I’ve been patting myself on the back for finishing The Da Vinci Code (on the third try). But Amy’s actually read Margaret Starbird, Baigent and Leigh, and other modern heirs of Valentinus and his dreary ilk.
The genius of De-Coding Mary Magdalene is the author’s patient and charitable effort to disentangle orthodox tradition from many strains of fanciful legends, heretical fictions, and artistic conventions. The Fathers are everywhere in this book, especially Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Gregory the Great. But so are the better modern exegetes, such as N.T. Wright, and critics of gnosticism old and new, such as Philip Jenkins. In the end, we see that the Mary of the canonical gospels — the historical Mary — shines brighter than any of the made-up (and now made-for-Hollywood) versions.
Amy’s chapter analyzing gnosticism as a wider cultural current includes helpful summaries of the most infamous gnostic writings. So you won’t have to suffer through them as Irenaeus did — or Amy herself did!
On the homepage of her blog, Amy applies a Flannery O’Connor line to herself: “She could never be a saint, but she thought she could be a martyr if they killed her quick.” Don’t believe her. Enduring page upon page of gnostics old and gnew is a species of martyrdom. And it’s hardly the quick kind.
De-Coding Mary Magdalene deserves to outlive the fifteen minutes of fame we’ve given Dan Brown. It stands on its own.