Thursday, February 2, 2023

Q&A with Philip C. Almond




Philip C. Almond is the author of the new book Mary Magdalene: A Cultural History. His other books include The Antichrist: A New Biography. He is an emeritus professor at the University of Queensland in Australia.


Q: What inspired you to write this cultural history about Mary Magdalene?


A: I became interested in Mary Magdalene when I first read Susan Haskins’ book in the 1990s and formed the intention to follow up on that. This was cemented by her increasing importance in popular culture with The Da Vinci Code.


Q: You write, “At the center of the story of Mary Magdalene there lies a paradox. We know virtually nothing of her.” Why is that, and what would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about her?


A: The paradox is how much was made in the Western church of so little. I think it was Gregory the Great’s identification of her with the fallen woman and with Mary of Bethany that created the narrative space for the development of the Mary legend in the West.    


Q: How have impressions of Mary Magdalene changed over the past 2,000 years, and what do you see looking ahead?


A: Only in the middle of the 20th century did the Catholic church rather surreptitiously separate Mary from the fallen woman. And only in 2021 did Pope Francis separate her from Mary of Bethany. Will this make a difference to Mary in the West? Probably not. The composite Mary is too well embedded. And she now has a Da Vinci Code-style life in popular culture outside of the Church.  


Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says, in part, “Almond traces the ‘history of how and why Christianity, with the minimal historical data at its disposal, created its ideal Christian saint,’ characterized by a paradoxical meeting of sinfulness and holiness.” What do you think of that description, and can you say more about the paradox involved?


A: I think that is a pretty apt description. With the identification of Mary and the fallen woman, she was the person in the life of Jesus who was the greatest apparent sinner – the rest were fisherman, or tax collectors, or not known. So she was the great sinner who was redeemed within the gospels by Jesus himself.


Then too, as Mary of Bethany, she was the perfect exemplar of the contemplative life. Overall, the ideal of the redeemed person who was a sinner. If she can be saved, so can we!


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I have just finished a book on how the Buddha came to the West, that tells the history of the contacts of Buddhism and the West from the first encounter with Alexander the Great through to now. It demonstrates how the idea of “Buddhism” came to be invented in the West in the middle of the 19th century.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Perhaps it is useful to know that, in some ways, my research follows a very traditional model. It is above all curiosity driven. I come across something and think, now that is interesting – and off I go. That’s the old model of “blue sky research.”


But in another way, my work is untraditional. I have been writing crossover books for the better part of the last 20 years. So, while the books contain traditional academic architecture (footnotes, etc.), they are written for a larger audience coming to these topics without any background.


In that sense they are driven by the notion of writing for a larger public audience (as well as providing fresh insights for an academic audience).


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

No comments:

Post a Comment