Some might say Mary, the mother of Jesus, doesn't know her place.
Instead of staying in her traditional Protestant role—quietly overlooking the manger in Christmastime crèches—Mary is emerging as an increasingly popular figure in books, articles and movies.
And here's the kicker: Many of the clergy and scholars studying the poor Jewish girl are not only Protestants, they're evangelicals—a group whose history has been relatively silent, and at times antagonistic, about to the mother of Jesus.
Suddenly theological treatises, biblical exegeses and theories about Mary—once the exclusive province of Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox—are cropping up in unlikely places.
Stories in Christianity Today and Time magazine, plus books like Scot McKnight's The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus, have addressed her increasing popularity. So has this month's release of The Nativity Story, a film based on the simple Gospel narrative.
However, scholars who study Mary—called Marianists—are careful to note that evangelical acceptance of Mary is based on studying her through Scripture, not actually making changes to Protestant theology.
McKnight, a professor in religious studies at Chicago's North Park University, said evangelicals don't have “a theory of Mary.” Some, apparently, like it that way. One Protestant woman, he said, told him she couldn't “get into” studying Mary because the virgin mother was “so Catholic.”
Others, like Bryan Griem, pastor of Montrose Community Church in Montrose, Calif., say they don't believe Mary has been ignored but has perhaps been deemphasized by Protestants. In a Dec. 1 Burbank Leader column, Griem said Mary and Joseph, together, were the human custodians of the “incarnate God-child,” and both receive due consideration at appropriate times during the year, especially at Christmas.
“Mary was blessed to be chosen by God to serve his special purpose, but she joins her contribution to all people of faith throughout biblical history,” Griem wrote. “Had there been no Abraham, Esther or David, there would be no Mary.”
On the other hand, there is a strong contingent—in the emergent church and elsewhere—that has begun a sort of Mary renaissance. Mary is on the rise, perhaps even part of a full-fledged movement, McKnight said. He wrote his book to add to the momentum and encourage lay people to have an “image of Mary.”
It's something evangelicals arguably have never had.
“I think there was a real aversion to any kind of robust interest in Mary as a great saint of our faith,” said Tony Jones, who grew up among evangelicals and now is a leader of the emergent-church movement.
“In the emergent church, we are much more open to a broad ecumenical Christianity that charitably views all of our brothers and sisters in Christ from all around the globe and in any denominational background,” said Jones, one of the movement's budding theologians.
The emergent church—with its eclectic, ancient-future worship and low-key evangelism—could be credited with prompting evangelicals to be “more open and broad,” said Jones, national coordinator of Emergent Village, the network of young Christians at the center of the emergent-church movement (emergentvillage.com).
“One of the things we have done is tried to have a more generous brand of Christianity …,” Jones said.
McKnight said the difficulty evangelicals have in studying Mary is that they focus more on what they don't believe about her than what they do believe. Many reject beliefs about Mary's immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, bodily assumption and role in heaven. But they know little about the character of Mary, her role throughout Jesus' life, and her life after his resurrection, he said.
Evangelicals, like their Reformation predecessors, have steered away from teaching about Mary because of her elevated role in Catholic doctrine. John Knox, Martin Luther and the other Reformers all stridently rejected portrayals of Mary as an object of wonder and spiritual help. They rejected praying to Mary because they thought it could lead to Mary-worship, a fault they found in the Catholic Church.
That fear, some say, has caused evangelicals and other conservative Christians to miss the rest of the story of Mary.
In an essay for the book Mary: Mother of God, Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, wrote that in defending the virgin birth, evangelicals have been more concerned with Mary's virginity than with her maternity.
She not only bore Christ, but she also “nurtured and taught him the ways of the Lord,” he said. “Doubtless she was the one who taught him to memorize the Psalms and to pray, even as ‘he grew in wisdom and stature and in favor with God and others.' ”
And that's one reason why evangelicals should learn about her now, he said.
George depicted Mary as a turning point between God's old and new covenants. In the old covenant, she culminates a lineage of pious mothers—Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, Tamar, Rahab and Ruth. Looking forward to the new covenant, as the Daughter of Zion, she points to the redeemed people of God, he said.
“The New Testament portrays Mary as among the last at the cross and among the first in the upper room,” George wrote. “She bridges not only the Old and New Testaments at Jesus' birth, but also the close of his earthly ministry and the birth of the church. … It is significant that in Eastern iconography, Mary is never depicted alone, but always with Christ, the apostles and the saints.”
McKnight thinks that iconography has influenced the way evangelicals imagine Mary. In classic Christian art, she's depicted as a demure, quiet, unemotional woman, almost bland in appearance, he said. Her hands are usually gently folded or slightly open, as if to receive little children in a gesture of passive piety.
The professor said he doesn't think Mary was quite so passive. In her famous response to the angel's announcement (Luke 2) of her unexpected pregnancy—“May it be to me according to your word”—she may as well have been saying “Bring it on!” McKnight said.
“I've taught [classes about] Jesus for 25 years, and every semester I have to deal with Mary,” he said. “There are significant passages that do not fit that meek and mild Mary. The Mary in Luke 2 is not a passive Mary.”
In another passage, John 2, Mary is the one who “sticks her neck out and says, ‘Hey Jesus, do something about the wine.' So we've got a woman who is meddling in her son's businesses,” McKnight added.
Jon Barta, pastor of Valley Baptist Church in Burbank, Calif., said God obviously thought Mary's words and example were important enough to record in Scripture, so Protestant Christians would do well to study her, especially since they claim to esteem biblical texts.
In his role as pastor, Barta said, he teaches church members about who Mary was, what she said, and what God did for her. He highlights her example of faith and obedience to show “the power of God's grace through the example of how he used Mary in a marvelous and unique way.”
Barta plans to devote an entire Advent sermon to her words that God through Christ “has filled the hungry with good things.”
“Any failure of Protestantism to fully analyze the biblical accounts about Mary leaves us that much poorer in the knowledge of God's Word, all of which is ‘profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness' (2 Timothy 3:16),” he said.
“In Acts 17:11, the Thessalonians were described as noble-minded because they carefully examined the Scriptures daily …. I hope we will be as noble-minded when discussing Mary, the mother of Jesus.”
Some experts have even suggested that understanding Mary can help build bridges between Protestants, Catholics and Muslims. On Nov. 29, Pope Benedict XVI celebrated Mass in Ephesus, where Mary is said to have lived until her death. In his speech in the town in southern Turkey, Benedict said Mary was an explicit connection between Islam and Christianity.
Mary truly is a significant figure for Muslims, especially Shiite Muslims. She is one of eight people in the Quran who have a chapter named after them. Known as Maryam, and seen in the Quran as an example of chastity and dignity, she acts as an intercessory for Shiite Muslims, who believe in prayer to Allah through saints and holy people.
McKnight said he thinks using Mary to make inroads with non-evangelicals could be helpful. But he cautions against the “hopeful rhetoric” that Protestants, Catholics and Muslims will ever agree about her.
“It's not likely that Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants will agree on anything significant,” he said. “Catholics and Protestants can agree on Jesus, but they're not going to agree on Mary. Mary can be a genuine point of conversation, but I don't see the Pope and Billy Graham sitting down [to agree about Mary].”
Barta and others agree that Mary can and should be a topic for discussion in churches, giving pastors the perfect opportunity to teach congregants how to examine everything carefully and biblically.
“We will always be surrounded by people who believe differently than we do,” Barta said. “God doesn't want us to be afraid of them or to isolate ourselves from them. He wants us to know what we believe and why we believe it.”
Like Barta, many evangelical Marianists call for accurate biblical analysis of Mary, instead of relying on traditional accounts or myths to form concepts about the young girl. The Thessalonians examined Scripture, not legend or tradition or popular opinion, Barta said. And Timothy was warned about embracing legends and “worldly fables.”
McKnight said he laughs when people ask if there's a danger that Mary's newfound popularity will lead evangelicals to deify her. Evangelicals don't deify apostles Peter, James or John, he said, so why would they suddenly make a goddess out of Mary?
“I don't buy into very many slippery-slope arguments [that say] if you look at Mary, you will eventually be praying to her,” he said.
Tony Jones agreed that Protestants who appreciate Mary don't suddenly become Catholic because they accidentally fall in love with her.
“I don't know how you could possibly go too far in appreciating and studying the mother of Jesus,” he said.
True teaching about Mary leads to Jesus, the scholars agreed.
“We need not go through Mary in order to get to Jesus,” George wrote in Christianity Today, “but we can join with Mary in pointing others to him. This, more than anything else, will honor her as she honored him.”