Amy Laura Hall nannied to pay her way through college and graduate school. As much as she enjoyed instructing children, her first time leading an adult Sunday school class is where she found her calling. Having the opportunity to teach, or re-teach adults, is why she calls lecturing at Chautauqua her “dream gig.”
At 2 p.m. Wednesday, June 26 in the Hall of Philosophy, Hall, Duke University’s Divinity School Associate Professor of Christian Ethics, will continue Week One’s interfaith theme, “Religious Moments That Changed the World,” with her lecture “Is Fear Your Only God? How a Medieval Visionary, Julian of Norwich, Teaches Courage, Still, Today.”
“What I absolutely love is watching people who are grown-ups learn new things,” Hall said. “They learn new things about themselves, new things about people they already thought they knew; things about history they thought they knew. Teaching groups of adults complicated questions that I can then try to help them figure out, it is what most makes my heart sing.”
When Hall started teaching at Duke in 1999, her first class was a group of 100 Christian ethics students. The syllabus only consisted of men.
“That’s an embarrassing fact but it’s just true,” she said. “I’ve been a feminist since I could sing ‘I am woman, I am strong’ as a little girl so it was nuts that I had no women in the class. I started asking around for a woman in the tradition that I could assign as a basic text and several people said I should teach Julian of Norwich.”
Julian of Norwich was a medieval anchorite and the author of the earliest known book written in English by a woman, Revelations of Divine Love. Despite the numerous recommendations, Hall initially felt Julian’s words were naive and blatantly irresponsible.
“I had no interest in teaching a woman who wrote and thought that ‘all would be well,’ ” Hall said. “I didn’t see how that could possibly be helpful to anyone.”
In an effort to give Julian’s work a second chance, Hall started reading the text alongside the Penguin Classics translation.
“Adding a translation was an absolute game-changer,” she said. “It analyzed her text within the time period using lots of historical sources to explain how to get to the bottom of what she was trying to say. It changed my perspective about how significant it was that she had seen a vision of God’s all-lovingness at the time that she did.”
Hall went on to teach the translation alongside Julian’s two original texts for the next 20 years. Finally, she decided to tell Julian’s story in her own words with her latest book published in 2018, Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich, the inspiration behind today’s lecture.
“Teaching her words to students at the Divinity School who are overwhelmingly Protestant, and many of them trained, as I was, to think that texts by men are more important than texts by women, changed everything for me,” she said. “It has helped me try to figure out how best to introduce seeing the world with Julian of Norwich to a general readership, how to claim that her words matter.”
Unlike Shakespeare, Julian wasn’t writing for royalty. Revolutionary for her time, she chose to speak to the masses, the reason Hall believes she fits so perfectly into Week One’s theme.
“That right there makes her a moment in history that really matters,” Hall said. “She was writing in the vernacular, she was writing in English. She was writing in the language of farmers in England, not of the chains in command. Reading her closely today can help people see the possibilities for defying the strictures of conformity, obedience and hierarchy.”