The Real Mary, Take 2

I realized pretty quickly after my previous post on Scot McKnight’s book, The Real Mary, that I made a silly comment that I’d like to clarify. I wrote:

Scot says she [Mary] is responsible for much New Testament theology.  Ever heard that before?

Well of course you have. So have I. What I wasn’t thinking about was the obvious fact that Mary was the first eye-witness to the Incarnation. What I was thinking about is the subject of this book: the ways in which Mary influenced the faith beyond the obvious. I was thinking like an Evangelical layperson, not a skeptic or a scholar.

To the skeptic, Mary is either an object of pity who made up a grand tale in order to survive in a repressive culture or she is an immoral liar. To the biblical scholar, I’m unapologetically ignorant, if grateful for their work. The skeptic’s Mary may have more in common with the Real Mary than the sanitized modern religious icon with whom most of us Christians are acquainted. At least their Mary has spunk, like the real one.

What I thought I’d do by way of penance is to highlight a few striking points from Scot’s excellent book. I’ll skip over the informative chapters on how we came to believe the things we do about Mary and about inaccurate Protestant notions of what Catholics believe. Instead, true to Evangelical form, I’ll highlight his observations from the biblical account. (I really appreciated the history lesson though.)

First, he spends considerable time educating his reader on just how provocative Mary’s Magnificat was culturally and politically. He writes:

In the 1980s the government of Guatemala banned any public reciting of Mary’s Magnificat because it was deemed politically subversive. … The Magnificat was for Mary’s world what “We Shall Overcome” was to the African American community in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s. …When we think of Mary, the first thing that should come to mind is the kind of courage we find among informed protesters—and, by reading the Magnificat in context, we can imagine Mary to be wiry and spirited and bold and gutsy.


Mary was not a “nice” girl. If  “nice” means meek and mild and mind-your-own-business, then Mary was not nice. In fact, Mary scared “nice” passive girls because she was dangerously active. Instead of minding her own business, she was minding Herod’s and, as we will see, Caesar Augustus’s. And well into Jesus’ own ministry, we will see that Mary minded Jesus’ business, too.

In discussing Jesus’ first miracle of turning water into wine, Scot introduces us to one of many instances in which Mary struggles to figure out what it meant for Jesus to be Messiah and for her to be his mother.

Mary meddled in Jesus’ business, Jesus revealed to her that he did only what the Father told him to and only when the Father wanted it done, and Mary trusted those words of her son. By trusting Jesus, Mary unlocked the doors to a mighty miracle. But, Mary first had to surrender her own honor to her son. The Gospel of John suggests Mary stumbled into this, the way many of us stumble into faith.


The real Mary and the real siblings and the real relatives of Jesus were ambivalent about Jesus—perhaps much of the time. … Mary’s ambivalence is clear: She believed her son was the promised Messiah and, at the same time, she knew what he was doing was contrary to what the Messiah was promised to do. … Mary’s special challenge was to trust that the God who spoke to her and through the Magnificat was at work in Jesus in his ministry and his mission.

That Mary exercised significant influence on both Jesus’ ministry and on the early church may, again, be obvious to both skeptics and scholars, but not necessarily to us Protestants who were raised in churches that simultaneously devalued and sentimentalized her. So …

 … when it is argued that the Gospels are in part Mary’s “memoirs,” we must agree with the general drift: For from whom else would the early Christians—and the Evangelists—have learned about these things if not from Mary.

When I suggested it unusual that Mary shaped Christian theology, I was thinking about things like Jesus’ teaching on justice, mercy and the Law as well as his apparent preference for sinners over the kinds of legalists and moralists who would have scorned both him and his mother. What I was thinking about was Mary’s fiestiness and unacknowledged influence on the Apostles.

I have never been a skeptic or a scholar. An intellectual wrestler, yes, and a product of Evangelical churches. Thus, I am almost delighted to have made this blunder. I’m the person for whom Scot wrote this book. You’ll have to pick up a copy of your own if you’d like to adopt his suggestions for honoring Mary without venerating her. I’m not sure I’d plan exactly what he has in mind, but I would like to organize an event around the topic/book and I will utilize the suggested reflections that he includes in one of three appendices.

I do have one minor complaint, which I include only to balance my obvious appreciation. The critique is this: theologians and pastors sometimes go too far in speculating on what Bible characters knew or were thinking. If they would own their opinions it would be fine, but when they communicate speculation as fact, well, as a journalist, I wince and usually scribble a question mark in the margins. How does anyone KNOW exactly what any other person is thinking, now or in the distant past? At best, we make educated guesses.  Scot makes some of those in this book, but presents them as fact. Nonetheless, there’s much to commend in The Real Mary and I’m grateful I was introduced to Scot’s work several years ago when his book The Jesus Creed was nominated for a Christianity Today book award. As a judge, it was my first choice.

For a semi-skeptical perspective on Mary (and a gorgeous artist’s rendition of Jesus’ birth), check out Andrew Sullivan’s eloquent post, in which he describes his own faith, and confesses his lack of respect for those of us who believe biblical “myths” literally occurred. He’s impossible not to take seriously, but his limited view of transcendent mystery and the Holy Spirit’s creative power allows me to take him, as he takes us, with a grain of salt.

The Mourning Madonna above and the previous photo (of an 18th century Colonial Peruvian Madonna) were taken at the Princeton University Museum. The wall notes for the Mourning Madonna read as follows:

A fine example of the mater dolorosa (grieving mother) type, this sculpture focuses on the emotional impact of Christ’s crucifixion. An isolated figure with her head inclined toward her empty lap, Mary expresses her pain over the sacrifice of her son. This seated figure combines features of the Virgin standing at the foot of the cross during the Crucifixion and those of the Virgin of the Pieta′ (Pity), seated with her dead son in her lap, to form a rarer image of maternal suffering. The grieving mother was thought by worshippers to be a particularly persuasive intercessor with Christ on behalf of the faithful.

If you read The Real Mary, you’ll have a better understanding of what people mean when they talk about Mary interceding for them with Christ.

A Final Note: I get very few comments on this blog, but I’ve decided not to take them at all anymore. If you’d like to discuss one of my posts, or anything at all for that matter, email me at exploring.intersections[at]yahoo[dot]com and we’ll have a private conversation. I enjoy those. Special thanks to L.L. Barkat and Mark, my two most faithful and thoughtful blog buddies. Blessings, and thanks for reading.  c