by Greg Taylor
September - December, 2006
The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus
By Scot McKnight
Paraclete Press 2007
“The silenced Mary of Protestantism who only shows up quietly at Christmas needs to be dismissed as unhistorical. It is time for a Mary upgrade in the Evangelical world. - Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary
Scot McKnight is messing with Protestant views of Mary. And, as it turns out, Catholics are paying attention, too.
And he's more than just re-arranging the Nativity scene. He wants Protestants to quit running in horror from anything that smacks of honoring Mary, to not begin with polemics against Catholics and instead come to know "the real Mary." His new book re-visits each important episode in Mary's life recorded by Luke, Matthew, Mark, and John and details important events in the history of the church's understanding of Mary's life.
A Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University, McKnight has already in previous books stepped across the lines of orthodoxy between Catholic and Protestant, crossed the line between scholar and popular audience, and has invited us in search of the "real" Jesus and his teachings (Jesus Creed), in search of the gospel message (Embracing Grace), in search of the early church's voice that we can join as we "pray with the church" and not just individually (Praying With the Church).
McKnight is, in my opinion, one of the top theologian/writers to watch and listen to today.
He says the Cold War between Protestants and Catholics has ended. Only anecdotal evidence is presented, however; McKnight references Mark Roberts's opinion that a Mark Lowry song, "Mary, Did You Know?" that has been recorded by three dozen artists, is a key instrument of change leading us back to the real Mary, a Mary Protestants can live with.
Mary did you know? Did you know that for five hundred years a movement would deny your importance and engage in polemics against Mary "idolatry" of the Catholic Church?
Did you know that five hundred years of Protestant doctrine would focus on the virgin birth but hedge against any possible connotation of the designation, "Mother of God? Did you know that Protestants would for centuries know more about what they don't believe about you? Did you know you would become a "Christmas Character" rather than a real voice of the gospel of Christ?
While there is a certain movement of Protestants (or perhaps more accurately non-Catholics) advancing "traditionally Catholic" practices, iconography, and emphases, McKnight's is more a voice for the recovery of all that is real in the gospel of Christ.
The Real Mary is breaking new ground across denominational lines by showing Mary as so much more than the humble servant who said, "may it be."
. . . that servant girl of God had more than simple exemplary personal piety. Mary, if we learn to see what she was like through the Magnificat in Herod's world, was a tiger waiting to pounce on the moment when God's Messiah would be set loose.McKnight says something very significant: that Mary was not just a passive adherent to the Angel's message, nor just a "resting womb" for God, but she was an active compiler of the gospel message of the Lord she carried and would follow to his cross. I was amazed as McKnight gave me a new way to understand Mary's "pondering" and "treasuring in her heart." What does it mean, McKnight asks. He says these are standard words in Judaism for meditating on one's life in order to "make sense of and narrate what God was doing in history."
To ponder is not to withdraw into silent meditation, as we might mean when we use the word, "ponder," but to deliberate in order to interpret. Instead of imagining Mary sitting quietly meditating in some corner all alone, while everyone else was singing and dancing and clapping and dreaming of the end of Augustus' rule, Mary was actively figuring out what in the world God was doing in the world. Mary pondered the tale of two kings: Augustus and Jesus. And she composed the story of Jesus in her head in order to proclaim it to others.And many believe Mary was Luke's primary source. What McKnight is saying is huge. Christ was not only formed in her womb but also in her heart and in her tongue. The song attributed to her proclaims a gospel that is dangerous and radical, and McKnight's claim is that Herod and Rome would have viewed this song as subversive.
Mary's son would establish the long-awaited Davidic dynasty. Elizabeth's pregnancy in old age, Christ's own birth when she knew she was a virgin, Gabriel proclamation to both Joseph and Mary, the Magi's adoration, the star, everything pointed to confirmation of this magnificent new reign of God.
What the real Mary witnessed began to add up. She heard from Gabriel, she heard from Joseph that he had heard from Gabriel, and she heard from Elizabeth who had heard from Zechariah who had heard from Gabriel who had heard from God.But then, as McKnight aptly points out, the subtraction of Mary's vision begins with a solitary old man named Simeon, who Joseph and Mary met in the Temple when they went to dedicate Jesus. I appreciate McKnight because he's a scholar who isn't afraid of application in his books: he invites readers to imagine leaving the hospital today and having a nice old man grab your baby and say glowing things about him, with a smile on his face. Then with a scowling change of countenance the old man says this little infant will be despised and rejected and cause the rising and falling of many, and by the way, a sword will pierce your own soul, mom!
This kind of application allows us to do what McKnight sets out for us to gain from reading his book: to discover the real Mary and also be led to the real Jesus.
McKnight calls us not just to the "Christmas Character" of Mary but to understand how her life unfolded as the Mother of Jesus who certainly prayed with Jesus, taught him, told him stories (about Simeon and what he said about this little guy?!), and followed Jesus as one of his disciples who paradoxically told his disciples that they were also family on a day when Mary and his brothers had come to call him out of a visit he was making.
Following Mary's life is crucial to understanding her, particularly because so much confusion through the ages has clouded our vision of Mary. So McKnight spends a third of the book dealing with the arduous history of Mary and doctrine about Mary, about Catholic and Protestant teaching and history.
Finally, McKnight, who doesn't stop short of application also boldly suggests application and action—scholars hear nails screeching on their chalkboards. He actually suggests an "Honor Mary Day." He proposes that Protestant churches gather and explore teachings about Mary and discover the real Mary through readings, re-examination of stories and the gospel message she participated in telling.
The Real Mary is a bold book that has gotten a lot of attention from the media because McKnight is a Protestant (I'm not sure that's what he'd call himself but broadly he's a Protestant as opposed to from Catholic tradition) treading on thin ice with his own kind, but I also think his book is a challenge to Catholics to de-ice their crystallized and statue vision of Mary and look again for the fiery, courageous, prophetic, meditating and interpreting the times woman who has been right under their noses for two millennia but has been so enshrined as to hinder any such new understanding as McKnight or even Catholics would profess.
The Real Mary has dramatically moved me because churches I've been part of have only recently been able to talk about, perhaps even honor Mary. McKnight has begun to free Mary from statues and doctrinaire diatribes and fear in churches like the one I grew up in that might see honor as worship or idolatry. I'm more ready now to appropriately honor and learn from Mary as she points to her son and Lord.
Mary, did you know it would be this complicated?
Listen to an MP3 excerpt from "The Magnificat" as performed on The ZOE Group's album, In Christ Alone. Click album art to purchase CD.
Greg Taylor is managing editor of New Wineskins. He is also associate minister for the Garnett Church of Christ in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His newest book, co-authored with Anne-Geri`Fann, How to Get Ready for Short-Term Missions, was released by Thomas Nelson in May 2006. His novel is titled High Places (Leafwood, 2004). He co-authored with John Mark Hicks, Down in the River to Pray: Revisioning Baptism as God's Transforming Work. Greg and his wife, Jill, have three children: Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Before moving to Tulsa in 2005, the Taylors lived in Nashville, Tennessee four years, and they lived in Uganda seven years, where they worked with a church planting team. His blog is http://gregtaylor.cc.