Monday, December 20, 2010

Does What Mary Knew Matter?

Clay Aiken has one. So do Reba McEntire, Kenny Rogers, and Jessica Simpson.

They all sing their renditions of the pop Christmas hit song, Mary Did You Know?

And while I'm notoriously intolerant of many new things, I've tried to give this song, originally composed by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene, the benefit of the doubt. After all, although heavy-laden with poetic license, it purports to provocatively explore the life of Christ from His mother's perspective.

What We Know About Mary Did You Know?

Written in 1984 and first recorded in 1992, Mary Did You Know? asks a series of questions, supposing to innocently ponder whether Mary struggled with the dual identity of her firstborn son. After all, how utterly incredible must it have been for a poor, common teenager who'd never had sex to be giving birth to the Son of God? Today, many of us evangelicals harbor a jaded dissonance towards the explosive details of Christ's incarnation, and Lowry's song reminds us how mind-blowing this pivotal historic event must have seemed to Mary.

On a basic level, the lyrics incorporate both imagery and fact to provide a compelling synopsis of Christ's earthly ministry and eternal purpose. Yet, on a deeper level, by framing facts within interrogative statements, these same lyrics also betray a myopic petulance that goes unnoticed by many modern Christians. An emotive score also helps convince the audience that we have a right to know what Mary knew. Instead of worshipping the Son, we become transfixed through word and note by supposition and intrigue. As if it matters whether Mary had a complete picture of what was taking place.

Bah-humbug, right?

Wouldn't it be easy to dismiss my Scrooge-like concern about this piece of music as intolerance for anything that isn't literal? And I couldn't even refute your suspicion entirely! Christ's parables are perfect allegorical vignettes, but I'm suspicious of man-made ones. I'm also suspicious about the evangelical church's penchant for putting the Bible in relevance boxes. Lowry and Greene may not have realized what they were doing: capitalizing on our culture's impudent contextualizing of holy Bible narratives within western social frameworks. But I consider it a cancer that spreads far beyond this one Christmas song. Tim Keller claims God is a prodigal, Russell Moore suggests Christ had AIDS, and the book Wild at Heart perverts God's sovereignty as risktaking.

Granted, Mary Did You Know? doesn't exactly go out on a limb the way these popular preachers and books have done. But as the song gains a wider affinity with each passing Christmas season, I become less and less convinced that it's worthy of joining the ranks of far more noble, Biblically-rigorous, and Christ-honoring Advent repertoire.

What the Song Says

A lot of Christmas carols fail to make my cut. For example, who cares if you saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas day in the morning? Indeed, a lot of cultural baggage gets stowed on well-intentioned Christmas songs as generations go by. So, let's make the lyrics of Mary Did You Know? walk the plank:

Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?

Did you know, that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you.

Mary, did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?

Did you know, that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby, you've kissed the face of God.

The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of The Lamb.

Mary, did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?

Did you know, that your baby boy is heaven's perfect lamb?
This sleeping child you're holding, is the great I AM.

What Luke Says

Now, let's compare this song with some Biblical texts that explain what Mary knew and when she knew it concerning her giving birth to the Savior of the World:

Luke 1:26-55

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary.

The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."

"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!"

And Mary said: "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me-- holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers."

What Matthew Says

Matthew 1:18-25

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.

Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"--which means, "God with us."

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Fact, Fiction, and Poetic License

Right away, we can see that most of the questions to "Mary, Did You Know?" can be answered simply by the scripture which describes His incarnation. While Mary probably didn't have a clue as to the specific miracles her son would perform, nor would she have likely been granted the same perspective of His ministry that we enjoy through the benefit of hindsight, she certainly knew "nothing is impossible with God," her son would be blessed, and He would be a great ruler.

Assuming Joseph and Mary talked about the incredible situation they found themselves in, Mary would have learned from Joseph that her baby would save His people from their sins. Not that the angels provided these two young virginal parents with many details about how all this would be accomplished. But they trusted enough in their God to participate in this grand event. In my mind, that is far more amazing and challenging than to ponder if Mary knew how Jesus would save His people from their sins. Do we trust God nearly as fully as these two young people did?

It's Not Heresy... But That's Not a Compliment

When the lyrics describe Mary kissing the face of God, some people have claimed Lowry has simply gone too far. Of all the things we cannot know about how God could be incarnate, or how the Trinity could exist in human form, aren't we treading on dangerous ground when we say that somebody can kiss God?

I'm not prepared to say that such an idea, as posited in this song, is heretical. Even though Lowry has already pushed the poetic license envelope further than I think is beneficial, I can see the point he's trying to make here. We could take it uber-literally, and scoff at the pretension of ascribing a physical demonstration of love to incarnate Deity. But to take that approach would be to question whether everyone who came in contact with Christ during His earthly ministry actually touched God. In a way, of course, they did, but do we know enough about how that worked to characterize it as blasphemous?

It's not profound literature, but does Lowry sin by incorporating sloppy imagery to explore how Mary may have tried to reconcile God's transcendency, Christ's humanity, and her own natural motherly affection? I'm not sure, but as I've said, I try to give this song the benefit of the doubt.

Trust and Awe-bey

Speaking of which, can't we also give Mary at least an eensy-teensy benefit of the doubt? Certainly God chose her to be "blessed" in this way because He knew she wouldn't wig out at the concept. Her "magnificat" definitely expresses an extraordinary level of maturity and faith. Surely, considering all of the things she pondered in her heart, her answers to all of the questions posed to her in this song would be based on trust and awe - two virtues we evangelicals seem to lack today.

This is where our secular mindset of human cognizance trumping Biblical mystery comes into play. Ancient saints were content to let some Biblical truths be irreconcilable with the mortal experience. But ever since Industrialization, hasn't the Western drive to learn how things work eradicated the believers' call to let God be God? We can't compartmentalize Him. We can't put him in the proverbial box.

As a simple song, which may have been what Lowry originally intended it to be, Mary Did You Know? doesn't breach any sacred borders. But it doesn't serve any gainful purposes, either. I would even posit a darker scenario: For this song to have captured the pop market and saturated evangelical churches as forcefully as it has says more negative things about our church culture than the song itself.

Because instead of honoring the mystery of the incarnation, this song answers none of its questions, unjustifiably supposes an Old Testament illiteracy on Mary's part, and ignores well-known passages of scripture which refute much of the song's content and theme. It's simply not a good piece of Christian Christmas music.

For churches to continue using it seems to prove the evangelical community's susceptibility to shallow, gratuitous emotion over basic theology.

And although that isn't the song's fault, doesn't it serves as a symptom of what's wrong with the modern church?

It's what we know Mary knew that matters!

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