Laughing at the Devil

Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich

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Amy Laura Hall
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , August
     2018.
     144 pages.
     $18.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781478000259.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Amy Laura Hall’s Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich is not really about Julian of Norwich. Rather, the book offers a series of deeply moving theological reflections on life itself, in all its pleasure and pain, all its peculiarity and ordinariness, with Julian along as a companion and spiritual guide.

The book draws its title from a line in Julian’s Shewings in which she records a vision of Christ setting all the devil’s works to naught, eliciting Julian’s laughter. Moreover, Julian recounts that, in her vision, Christ, while he did not himself laugh, approved of her laughter. Laughing at the Devil acknowledges that laughing at the devil—that is, looking squarely at all the world’s evil and scorning it—is no easy task. Nevertheless, Laughing at the Devil suggests that Julian was able to do so because of her visions, and that looking at the world through her eyes can enable us, as Julian’s 21st-century readers, to do the same.

After a very brief historical introduction to Julian and her 14th-century milieu, Laughingat the Devil launches into four thematic meditations, which constitute the four chapters of the book. The first chapter, “Time: On Poynte,” opens with a discussion of Julian’s vision of seeing God in an instant (from Julian’s Middle English poynte), and with God, everything. By seeing all of time compressed into God, Laughing at the Devil suggests, Julian rises above the vicissitudes of time and history. The seeming disconnection and senselessness of life’s tragedies all come together and are held in God. The next chapter, “Truth: Divine Delight,” opens with Julian’s assurance that God takes pleasure in us; moreover, the entire Trinity, through the Incarnation, has united with us, and has drawn us close into God’s self.  In “Blood: Spiritual Safety,” the textunites Julian’s frequent images of Christ’s blood with her understanding of Jesus as both Mother and nurse. The wounded Jesus has opened himself up for us, and lavishes love and care on us. This deep love as seen through Christ’s blood transcends not only the world’s evils and our own fears, but also the disunity and brokenness of the Church itself (Holy Mother Church, in Julian’s understanding) that so frequently injures its own.  The final chapter, “Bodies: Nakedly and Truly,” draws from Julian’s assertion that the scars of sin ennoble rather than shame us in God’s presence. Indeed, it is possible to give ourselves and all that we are unreservedly to God, who has become united to us and suffered for us. Shame, fear, and despair thus give way to glory, laughter, and joy. The book closes with a final meditation as a postscript, and then a simplified list of Julian’s visions in an appendix. A quote from a friend of Hall’s near the end of the postscript neatly and poignantly encapsulates Laughing at the Devil’s understanding of what Julian’s visions offer to us: “the worst has happened, and has been repaired” (112).

Yet Julian is not the focus of the book so much as the theological lens through which Laughing at the Devil transmutes our perspective on some of the most intractable evils as well as the mundane burdens of modern life. In that sense, Julian’s words serve more as a springboard for Hall’s own reflections. To use a different metaphor, while Julian is Hall’s foundational dialogue partner, the free-flowing discussion also engages with Woody Guthrie and Nicky Minaj, Margaret Atwood and Game of Thrones, Hall’s starring role as a first-year student in her college’s production of Grease, and also the horrors of drone warfare and torture following 9/11 and the absurdity of mutually-assured destruction during the Cold War. While at times this can feel disjointed, the result is a sustained example of the fruitfulness of bringing Julian’s perspective to bear on all of life’s trials and sorrows.

Historians may find Laughing at the Devil a frustrating read, with its un-nuanced presentations of medieval life—especially the feudal system—as well as the book’s arguably over-reliance on Frederick Bauerschmidt’s political reading of Julian. As a professor of ethics engaged in theological reflection, of course, Hall does not take history as her concern. Indeed, Laughing at the Devil does not present itself as an academic book at all, with its minimal citations, its frequent repetitions and simplifications, and its colloquial and chatty style. Rather, the work is a labor of love: a testament to the richness of Julian’s writing and the balm of a new theological perspective for those deeply hurt by life. In these things Laughing at the Devil excels. This is nowhere more evident than in Hall’s unflinching reflections on her own abusive marriage and the messy divorce that ended it, her experiences of embodiment and sexuality, and the challenging questions posed by her two daughters to their single mother. For all these issues and more, Hall demonstrates the ways in which Julian offers her readers life-changing perspectives that enable them to laugh at the devil. For readers grappling with tragedy, pain, and bewilderment at the world’s evils, Laughing at the Devil makes meaningful Julian’s revelation that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew K. Lee is a doctoral student at Graduate Theological Union.

Date of Review: 
April 9, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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.

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