Amy Laura Hall is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at Duke University Divinity School. She is the author of Kierkegaard and the Treachery of Love; Conceiving Parenthood: American Protestantism and the Spirit of Reproduction; and Writing Home, With Love: Politics for Neighbors and Naysayers. In her new book, Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich, she takes up medieval mystic Julian of Norwich’s call to laugh at the Devil as a means to transform a setting of dread and fear into the means to create hope, solidarity, and resistance.
You compare Julian of Norwich to Nicki Minaj. How did that happen?
It happened in the car. I had been writing this book for fourteen years, trying to say what I most needed to hear in between washing dishes, grading papers, and picking up dog poop. I was sitting in the parking lot of the Duke Federal Credit Union, and my older daughter started playing Nicki Minaj on her phone. She said, “I love the way she laughs!” Both of my daughters were dancing, unafraid. It was a small miracle. (And those are the ones that matter.) Nicki Minaj brought a miracle into the Duke Federal Credit Union parking lot. She had invited my two daughters to sing, laugh, dance, and declare, unabashed. I remember staring into the bushes that block the parking lot from Main Street. I saw Julian of Norwich smile. I saw this clearly.
We, the peasants, continue to rebel against a feudal system, in a myriad of ways. Through street theater, murals, graffiti, research essays, public protests, catchy chants and songs, human beings continue to resist the ways that we are treated like tools. This book is my own best, creative intervention against the untruth of radical inequality, racist terror, drone strikes, torture, and the system of denigrating and silencing women that many of us refer to as “the patriarchy.”
What can Julian of Norwich offer those who are secular or who do not follow the Christian faith?
I have not written this book in order to sneak Christianity into the brains of people who are not Christian. There are writers who do this, and I try to avoid this kind of subterfuge. Given this caveat, I will note that there are non-Christian feminists who have found her blessed moxie encouraging. There are non-Christian women who have found the story of her eventual commitment to a semi-secluded setting, as an anchorite, to be intriguing. So, such readers may find this book helpful. There is also an annoyingly resilient fad in mainstream, popular culture in the U.S. to romanticize, even to enchant, the medieval period. I will be delighted if people who love the television series “Game of Thrones,” for example, find in Julian’s visions of consanguinity (meaning, literally, being of one blood, made as blood kin through grace) an alternative way to see themselves and their neighbors. I will be delighted if the book offers non-Christians a chance to reconsider the generalized “Gospel of Austerity,” (a term I use frequently) whereby we gain purchase on life through suffering and/or competition for scarce resources. Julian has invited me to find the miracles of solidarity around me. Perhaps she will do the same for others.
One might think of laughter and religion as unlikely bedfellows. How did you arrive at your focus on laughter? Where does humor fit in contemporary religious scholarship?
The focus of the book is not laughter, exactly. Having said this, I appreciate the insight at the core of this question. Christians are not generally known for our laughter. We are perhaps best known for our proclivity to scowl. I chose the title of the book in order to highlight one of Julian’s less quoted, but truly remarkable visions, where she laughs at the Devil. I read her visions as redirecting her and eventually her readers away from a cycle of shame, fear, cruelty, and self-protection. The sense of shameless abandon that my daughters and I received through Nicki Minaj’s music that day involved our forgetfulness that we are being assessed. The words from a poppy song from my own teen years comes to mind. The medieval-esque video for the 1983 song “Safety Dance” is absurd, in the best sense of that word. Meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, “Of a thing: against or without reason or propriety; incongruous, unreasonable, illogical.” Julian of Norwich’s writings do have a kind of congruity. But that congruity is set within a context of gratuity. To put this more plainly, she has seen visions of God’s extravagant, abiding love that resituate what much of the Western world considers to be common sense. Is it safe to dance? Is it safe to live in a way that seems unreasonable, even foolish? The simple answer is no. But Julian invites us to laugh at the Devil with her, and I invite readers to risk acting “like we come from out of this world.” (Thank you, dear Men Without Hats.)
Is there anything else you would like potential readers to know about Julian of Norwich?
Julian of Norwich is not technically a Saint in her beloved Mother Church (the Roman Catholic Church). There are reasons for this. For one, her bones disintegrated. Julian was not an otherworldly, magical creature. She was a person. She was a human being. And she wrote a book about God that includes her visions of God’s attention to and sanctification of mundane, very worldly details, like fish-scales and raindrops, like bread and crushed grapes. It is also a fun fact that, although Julian the anchorite is often depicted artistically as alone, coifed, and serene, with a tranquil cat in her lap, Julian the anchorite could have plausibly shared her church apartment in Norwich with some chickens, a cow, or even a mischievous goat.