March 21, 2005


Hail, Mary: She was there at the Cross. Yet Protestants seldom talk about the mother of Jesus at Easter, or at most other times. But they are starting to now (David Van Biema, 3/21/05, TIME)

[T]hings have begun to change, and not just among theologians. Xenia, Ohio, is no radical hotbed. Campaign signs there still promote Bush, half the weekday-morning radio dial features conservative religious fare, and most of Westminster Presbyterian’s 300 members are middle-aged or older. Yet with a few exceptions, the 21 who recently gathered at the Rev. Maguire’s Bible class were fascinated by his thoughts on Mary. “I always thought of her as the first disciple,” said Corinne Whitesell, 74. “Rosaries and Hail Marys, that’s not right. [But] that total submission to God is one of the most beautiful things about her.” Said Gloria Wolff, 78: “We grew up in a time when women couldn’t be elected as church elders. It’s important to teach young women about the strong female role models in the church.” Remarked John Burtch, 75: Maguire is “the new guy on the block, and he’s got some interesting ideas. So we listen to him. We’re open to change.”

In a shift whose ideological breadth is unusual in the fragmented Protestant world, a long-standing wall around Mary appears to be eroding. It is not that Protestants are converting to Catholicism’s dramatic exaltation: the singing of Salve Regina, the Rosary’s Marian Mysteries, the entreaty to her in the Hail Mary to “pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” Rather, a growing number of Christian thinkers who are neither Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox (another branch of faith to which Mary is central) have concluded that their various traditions have shortchanged her in the very arena in which Protestantism most prides itself: the careful and full reading of Scripture.

Arguments on the Virgin’s behalf have appeared in a flurry of scholarly essays and popular articles, on the covers of the usually conservative Christianity Today (headline: The Blessed Evangelical Mary) and the usually liberal Christian Century (st. mary for protestants). They are being preached, if not yet in many churches then in a denominational cross section—and not just at modest addresses like Maguire’s in Xenia but also from mighty pulpits like that at Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church, where longtime senior pastor John Buchanan recently delivered a major message on the Virgin ending with the words “Hail Mary ... Blessed are you among us all.”

This could probably not have happened at some other time. Robert Jenson, author of the respected text Systematic Theology, chuckles when asked whether the pastor of his Lutheran youth would have approved of his (fairly extreme) position that Protestants, like Catholics, should pray for Mary’s intercession. “My pastor would have been horrified,” he says, adding, “The pastor was my father.” Yet today Catholics and Protestants feel freer to explore each other’s beliefs and practices. Feminism has encouraged popular speculations on the lives of female biblical figures and the role of the divine feminine (think The Red Tent and The Da Vinci Code). A growing interest, on both the Protestant right and left, in practices and texts from Christianity’s first 1,500 years has led to immersion in the habitual Marianism of the early and medieval church. And the influx of millions of Hispanic immigrants from Catholic cultures into Protestantism may eventually accelerate progress toward a pro-Marian tipping point—on whose other side may lie changes not just in sermon topic but in liturgy, personal piety and a re-evaluation of the actual messages of the Reformation.

The movement is not yet prevalent in the pews. And it has its critics. While granting that Mary shows up more in the New Testament than some churches recognize, Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Southern Seminary, charges that those who use her full record to justify new “theological constructions” around her are guilty of “overreaching,” “wishful thinking” and effectively “flirting with Catholic devotion.” Yet Lutheran theologian Carl Braaten, co-editor of an essay collection on what might be called Marian upgrade, claims, “We don’t have to go back to Catholicism. We can go back to our own roots and sources. It could be done without shocking the congregation. I can’t predict how exactly it will happen. Some of it will be good, and some of it may be bad. But I think it’s going to happen.”

Flirtation now, consumation later. Protestantism has served its purpose and will drift back into the Church, just as the Church will Reform itself a bit to make itself more accommodating to the lost sheep.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 21, 2005 10:26 AM

Don't bet the mortgage on it.

Posted by: Peter B at March 21, 2005 4:29 PM

Peter took the words out of my mouth. Top down organized religion is not the future. Not in this country.

Posted by: BJW at March 21, 2005 4:52 PM

BJW: well, top-down organized religion is what God specifically built both in the old and new testament; it may not set well in the gullet of your reason, but it seems to be divine preference

Posted by: Palmcroft at March 21, 2005 4:56 PM

i would consider it if they went back to latin and defrocked all the pederasts (especially the ones with rank)

Posted by: cjm at March 21, 2005 5:14 PM


Why only them?

Posted by: oj at March 21, 2005 5:19 PM

It will all eventually morph into something that honors thy father and thy mother equally.

Posted by: ghostcat at March 21, 2005 7:33 PM

The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.

Posted by: Thomas Jefferson at March 21, 2005 8:37 PM