BOOK REVIEW / Street-walking woman: Mary Magdalen by Susan Haskins, HarperCollins pounds 25

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IN THE late 1970s I became obsessed with the figure of Mary Magdalen, the follower of Christ who in Gospel legend became the first witness of the Resurrection and who in cultural tradition is the beautiful repentant whore, a highly coloured version of the eternal feminine. She sprang to life in my imagination as though I'd switched on a strong beam of light; I dreamed of her and heard her voice. I ended up writing a novel about her, published in 1984, and I made her a writer, partly so that she could write a hitherto undiscovered gospel and give my novel an appropriate form, partly so that I could investigate possible links between women's creativity and sexuality.

I wasn't alone, of course, in being fascinated by the complex and ambiguous image of Mary Magdalen as it's developed over the centuries. Other European writers were at the same time beavering away on novels with similar themes. Christian feminists were questioning women's oppressed status in the Church. Women in general were admitting to discontents about a Christian heritage of thinking that made men the guardians of spirit and intellect, and divided them from the female keepers of the body. Mary Magdalen erupted into this pain and muddle, for both sexes, as the very image of the return of the repressed: the numinous body, sexiness and holiness intertwined, God as immanent not transcendent, the desires of the body as sources of religious joy.

Susan Haskins's book, a sober and thoroughly researched cultural history, enacts a conservative and reparative wish: to recover Mary Magdalen from the male fantasists who made her the doyenne of brothels, penitentiaries and more or less tasteful porn, and from the equally abhorrent feminists who made her sex life central to her personality. In the spirit of ladies saving fallen women in times past, she rescues Mary Magdalen from the insult of being thought too sexy, and concludes that only a toned-down Magdalen, discreet and probably celibate, will advance women's cause.

What cause is this? Women's quest to be ordained as priests. Ah. Well, one of the most radical feminist views opposing the ordination of women as priests holds that until there's a proper theology recognising the feminine aspect of the Godhead, women priests will be fake men. Certainly a flaw of Susan Haskins's book is the absence of thorough theological discussion of sex and gender, from which a consideration of Mary Magdalen can hardly be separated.

En route to its questionable conclusion, the re-establishment of the true and real figure of the biblical accounts as a good role model for contemporary Christian women, the book is packed with delights. It takes us on a journey through the four Gospels, the way that the early Fathers of the Church developed views of Jesus's teaching, the history of iconography, the narratives of medieval and Renaissance poems and plays, the recently discovered and newly translated Gnostic gospels of Nag Hammadi, Victorian photographic pornography and much more. The figure of Mary Magdalen becomes a lens through which to try to glimpse the prejudices of each century.

In the end, Mary Magdalen is a glorious contradiction, and to rescue her as a figure of autonomous loving discipleship needn't mean disavowing the poets' and painters' delight in her beauty. Is it only a sexist imagination that equates the virgin (who walks by herself) with the whore (who belongs to no man)? Part of Mary Magdalen's appeal is her challenge to these categories. Christianity may try to separate them, but, in the world of the unconscious, virgin and whore dance together.

(Photograph omitted)