Oh what winding trails we weave while reading … OK, that is a bit over-the-top and cliché but coming up with clever openings is not easy these days.
But there is a nugget of truth here. I have been in a bit of a reading funk where nothing quite hit the sweet spot or held my interest. In seeking to get out of this rut while at the public library I picked up The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín. Which in turn led me to The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus by Scot McKnight. I have enjoyed reading Scott’s blog and his book The King Jesus Gospel. So I figured he would be a good person to tackle the subject of Mary (plus the book was short which is a plus).
Would you like to meet the real Mary of Nazareth? The real Mary was an unmarried, pregnant teenage girl in first-century Palestine. She was a woman of courage, humility, spirit and resolve, and her response to the angel Gabriel shifted the tectonic plates of history. Popular biblical scholar Scot McKnight explores the contours of Mary’s life from the moment she learned of God’s plan for the Messiah to the culmination of Christ’s ministry on earth. Dismantling the myths and challenging our prejudices, the author introduces us to a woman who is a model for faith and who points us to her son.
And in some ways it was an enjoyable and interesting read. McKnight helps readers to get a sense of what the Bible does offer when it comes to Mary and to think intelligently about what her life and faith journey would have been like in that specific time and place. He wants us to see her as a real person with real challenges but obviously also an “average” person in extraordinary circumstances. And this is worth thinking about; about how a women in Mary’s situation would respond to the events that follow her meeting Gabriel that fateful day.
For example, like so many Jews Mary would have had a specific conception of what the promised Messiah. It was not easy to exchange that particular view for the suffering servant perspective of Jesus. Now imagine the messiah is your son! The spiritual, cultural and family dynamics are pretty charged. But scripture seems to indicate that Mary’s faith allowed her to trust God, become a follower of her son and take up a place in furthering His kingdom despite all the questions and doubts and wounds.
This part I enjoyed. But the book as a whole also felt somehow thin. There is not much to go on in scripture and so it can feel like spinning a story out of a few verses. And when McKnight gets to the sections dealing with how the evangelical church might approach Mary and its relationship with the Catholic approach it feels almost rushed; really just a brief introduction to some of the issues and some suggestions on how to re-acquaint ourselves with Mary and the benefits of doing so.
Perhaps, I wanted to the book to be something it wasn’t. It is clearly just a short introduction to the subject; an attempt to introduce a controversial subject into the conversation and do so with a clam and patient tone. I think McKnight does that. But in some ways the tone also make the book less engaging and seems to avoid more difficult topics. Is the controversy really just Protestants not giving Catholics the benefit of the doubt-looking to actual official doctrine instead of folkways and practices-and Catholics picking fights with Protestants? McKnight avoids getting too deep into these questions.
But again, that is not really his goal here. Perhaps I just need to read some different material on Mary and the surrounding controversy and history.
So to be fair, if you are interested in seeing how the life of Mary can be a fruitful area of discussion and study for protestants this is a good place to start. It brings out the story in interesting and challenging ways and outlines some problematic areas with respect and grace.
If you have never really thought of Mary in this way I encourage you to check out The Real Mary. Get beyond stereotypes and assumptions and try to approach the subject with fresh eyes.