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At first glance, it would seem that attempts to write histories of biblical characters must be hampered by the sparsity of extracanonical writings that inform our understandings of the Bible's people. But sometimes an individual rises from the pages of Scripture to take on a role so central, so important to Christendom's self-understanding that legend and devotion supersede historical verities. Rubin, professor of history at Queen Mary University of London, brings to this work a panoramic view of Mary's impact on the evolution and growth of Christianity, especially Catholic Christianity. Mary emerges in this study as a multifunctional Swiss army knife of spirituality, variously used as a model of motherhood, an object of devotion and a focal point of conflict among Christian believers. But she also serves as a useful tool to help all believers "reflect on the uses of the feminine in private yearnings and public supplications." In the end, Mary is as complex as is Christianity itself. Rubin's study goes a long way toward helping readers understand Mary and deserves a wide readership. 32 color, 8 b&w illus. not seen by PW. (Apr.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.