Amy Laura Hall, Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich, Durham: Duke University Press, 2018, $18.95, ISBN 978-1-4780-0025-9 (paperback), pp. xx + 124.
Reviewed by: Godelinde Gertrude Perk, Independent Scholar, March 2019
In the early 1500s, when the long version of A Revelation of Love was written and vernacular theological discussions were transgressive, few could have suspected that in 2016, the very embodiment of orthodox authority, the Pope, would cite Julian of Norwich (c. 1343 – after 1416). Francis’ reference to her reminds us that scholars and believers have been drawn to Julian as a theologian for nearly a century: from the 1920s and 1930s, when she was read alongside other Middle English mystics yet lauded for her uniqueness, to the 1980s when scholars focused on Julian’s depiction of God as a mother, to the 1990s when Revelation was historicized and its significance to feminist theology investigated, and to the engaging of her writings with contemporary theological concerns in recent years. She also has continued popular appeal.
Yet Julian is still frequently reduced to the phrase ‘All shall be well’, or dismissed as irrelevant: in Laughing at the Devil, author Amy Laura Hall encounters an American priest who believes Julian was put in ‘solitary confinement’ because of mental illness (p. 3). This slim volume challenges such simplifications and encourage modern audiences to adopt Julian’s perspective. Hall is not the first writer to recuperate Julian for her contemporaries. After all, each era and scholar constructs their own Julian, although little is known of the historical Julian and readers should keep in mind Alexandra Barratt’s warning that “Julian” is perhaps best thought of as ‘a group of texts of obscure and uncertain history’. Despite this caveat, Laughing offers an accessible conversation between two original thinkers, Julian and Hall.
Juxtaposing contemporary debates and personal anecdotes, Hall’s book is best described as both a meditation on ethical and political issues (in Julian’s and Hall’s time) and spiritual autobiography. Instead of a mostly argumentative approach, it offers loosely related reflections situated at the intersection of ethics and liberation theology. Laughing is Hall’s ‘cerebral and soul-wracked reckoning with the possibility that Julian of Norwich saw the truth about God’ when understanding God as omnipotent, omniscient, and characterized by ‘omniamity’ (all-lovingness, Hall’s coinage), and promises to ‘sift through things I have learned and the questions I still have’ (p. 3). Central themes are God’s willingness to do everything, truths making believers peculiar, the significance of Christ’s blood, and God’s concern for the human body (p. 3). Ultimately, Hall dares readers to perceive the world through Julian’s eyes and ‘laugh at the devil’. (The title references Julian’s response to a vision of Christ scorning the devil). The (implicit) intellectual project seems to be an intervention in contemporary theological and political discourse by letting Julian speak to modern anxieties.
This interest in Revelation’s political ethics presumably derives from Hall’s earlier research (on Kierkegaard and American attitudes to reproduction policies) and her experience teaching Julian as an Associate Professor of Christian Ethics. The book’s feminist impulse problematizes conservative American conceptualizations of gender, sexuality and society. For example, Hall offers Julian as an antidote to women’s detrimental immersion ‘in the patriarchal mess that is Christendom’ (p. 104). In this arguably intersectional approach (considering gender, religion and socioeconomic status), Laughing is akin to Grace M. Jantzen’s study of Julian’s theology, as both posit that Revelation promotes ‘flourishing’, (a holistic, natality-centred way of becoming characterized by justice, hope and creativity), although Hall does not use Jantzen’s term.
After historicizing Revelation in the preface and introduction, Hall starts from Julian’s vision of God in a point to argue that Christ’s death forms that instant, a prism transforming time, bodies, and interpersonal and societal relations, serving as the site for God performing everything (ch. 1). She then explores how Christian truths make believers “holy fools”: by rejecting a social hierarchy built upon fear of divine retribution and self-perpetuating social injustice, they see God as ‘cosy’ and others as their kin and equals. Susan Faludi’s work on 9/11’s psychological effect and Naomi Klein’s study of disaster capitalism informs Hall’s application of Julian’s theology to the collective trauma of 9/11 and the conservative media discourses it triggered (ch. 2). Subsequently, Hall reads Julian’s vision of Christ’s abundant blood as allaying medieval and modern soteriological anxieties, by signifying the abundance of God’s mercy which unites all people in an unbroken Holy Church. Discussing the suffering caused by churches’ abuse of power, Hall dissects believers’ defense mechanisms and sketches a Julianic alternative (ch. 3). Hall then investigates the implications of Julian’s claim that sin is ‘behovely’ (fitting or necessary), drawing on Denys Turner, and culminating in an audacious application of political theorist Corey Robin’s notion of fear as a political weapon to misogynist body politics sometimes found in Christianity. Inspired by a Rowan Williams’ essay, this chapter also suggests that God encourages believers renounce bodily or sexual shame and celebrate sexual intimacy (ch. 4). Several personal postscript narratives unite all strands.
The book’s dialogue between Julian and contemporary issues such as anti-immigrant fear-mongering and sexual and power abuse in churches is timely and significant, and its arguing for individual and societal inclusivity mirrors Revelation’s formal and thematic inclusivity. Previous scholarship has observed Julian’s subversive use of gendered language and emphasis on kinship, but Hall is the first to investigate Revelation’s practical ethical, political and ecclesiastical implications
Laughing also unapologetically harnesses female lived experience (emotional labour, relational/sexual trauma, and anti-body discourses). By reading personal lives through Julian’s immanent emphasis, it goes several steps further than Jantzen’s study and implies women’s diverse experiences can fruitfully be used in analytical discussions.
With its informal descriptions of medieval England, this book seeks to reach audiences unfamiliar with Julian and her time. This accessibility occasions several weaknesses. The book primarily targets Protestant Americans, reducing its appeal to other audiences: medieval England is continuously contrasted with modern US, and the cleric putting a crucifix in front of Julian is a ‘pastor’ (p. 113). Laughing could also have drawn more on existing scholarship on and editions of Revelation. For instance, Hall relies on the received assumption that “Julian” was not her original name; E.A. Jones convincingly challenged this assumption in 2007. Hall overstates the absoluteness of medieval socio-economic and religious boundaries, and the dangers of them being redrawn, and Julian’s uniqueness as a female vernacular theologian (there were several others on the Continent). The reliance on a modern English translation and on decontextualized snippets is surprising, as Hall stresses ‘[Julian’s] language matters’ (p. 27) and ‘taken apart in little quotations, she seems trite’ (p. 4); discussing the richly allusive Middle English would have enhanced the analysis.
A similar criticism concerns argumentation and analysis. While the anecdotes and pop culture references are entertaining (Julian rubs shoulders with Nicki Minaj, Prince, and others), they can lead to digressions which do not advance the book’s argument. Furthermore, how Hall arrives at her (often astute) observations could be clearer. Laughing does not always satisfactorily develop its conversation between Julian, modernity and individual experience: repetitions and descriptive sections prevent the text from analyzing Julian’s theology in depth. Exactly what Julian’s perspective entails could have been elaborated upon more.
While this book has some shortcomings as a study of Julian’s theology, it offers an engaging dialogue between two perceptive women of interest to general (religious) audiences, clergy, and others interested in a pastoral or personal application of Julian’s ideas