Wednesday, November 29, 2006

As Advent Approaches, ...

OK, boys and girls, Advent is ready to begin. And I'm thrilled: As some await Christmas morning, I await the Advent season -- its themes of eschatology and hope and expectation, its hymnody (I'm assured that the new ELCA "worship resource" -- don't get me going on that designation -- contains all the beloved Advent hymns from LBW; I'll check to see what else!), its challenges (to maintain it's-not-Christmas-yet in the midst of "It's Christmas Time in the City" -- which began playing about October 1). Advent is my favorite season, and I realize that that is a risky thing for someone to say who prizes liturgical scholarship and seriousness -- but it's true.

Key to Advent reflection ought to be the Virgin Mary and her wonderful song, what we call "Magnificat." If I were able to link music to this site (no, Sister Kate, if I were able to set music into this site), it would be versions of Mary's song.

Well, then, imagine my delight to see posted to the Christianity Today webmail page the reflection on the BVM -- the Blessed Valorous Mary -- by an evangelical who teaches at a quite conservative evangelical college. And then imagine my delight to discover that it's a high-quality, reverent, devotional reflection.

So at the risk of violating the Fair Use doctrine of the copyright act, I provide this re-print, rather than just a link, to this fine article by Scot McKnight, which I commend to you along with my wishes for a peaceful, inspiring, reverential, and radical Advent. (At the end of the piece is a link to the original.

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The Mary We Never Knew:
Why the mother of Jesus was more revolutionary than we've been led to believe.
Scot McKnight

There are two Marys. One wears a Carolina blue robe, exudes piety from a somber face, often holds her baby son in her arms, and barely makes eye contact with us. This is the familiar Blessed Virgin Mary, and she leads us to a Christmas celebration of quiet reflection.

Another Mary—the Blessed Valorous Mary—wears ordinary clothing and exudes hope from a confident face. This Mary utters poetry fit for a political rally, goes toe-to-toe with Herod the Great, musters her motherliness to reprimand her Messiah-son for dallying at the temple, follows her faith to ask him to address a flagging wine supply at a wedding, and then finds the feistiness to take her children to Capernaum to rescue Jesus from death threats. This Mary followed Jesus all the way to the Cross—not just as a mother, but as a disciple, even after his closest followers deserted him. She leads us to a Christmas marked by a yearning for justice and the courage to fight for it. Like other women of her time, she may have worn a robe and a veil, but I suspect her sleeves were rolled up and her veil askew more often than not.

Instead of asking what the real Mary was like, we tend to debate what she was not: whether she and Joseph refrained from sexual relations and whether she had a sin nature. A cursory reading of Jaroslav Pelikan's brilliant Mary Through the Centuries will acquaint any reader with the fulsomeness of such debates. Because Protestants have spent their time debating about Mary, they have rarely attempted to claim her as their own. Consequently, she has become little more than a delicate piece in a Christmas crèche, whom we bring out without comment at Christmas and then wrap up gently until we see her again next Advent.

But there are signs that those days are coming to an end. On the horizon today is nothing less than a Protestant reclamation of Mary, seen most completely in Tim Perry's new book, Mary for Evangelicals(InterVarsity, 2006). For the purposes of this article, we first need to ask, "Which Mary?" A good place to begin our search for answers is Mary's Magnificat. There we will discover not so much the Blessed Virgin Mary draped in piety, but the Blessed Valorous Mary dressed for action.


If we read the Magnificat as the heartfelt release of a woman yearning for what God was—finally!—about to do in Israel and in historical context, we see it as a call to subvert unjust leaders. To turn this song into simple spirituality strips it of its meaning and leaves injustices—personified by Caesar Augustus and Herod the Great—on the throne.

Luke tells us that as soon as the angel Gabriel left Mary, she hurried down to the home of her older relative, Elizabeth, to share the Good News. Mary knew that aging Elizabeth would also, by God's grace, give birth to a special son. As New Testament scholar R. T. France has noted so poetically, "One is old and has no children; the other is young and has no husband. But both are pregnant." And both are ready to announce the Good News to the world.

The moment Mary crosses the threshold of Elizabeth's home, the formerly barren woman bursts into a poetic blessing for Mary. Mary echoes back with what God is doing in her womb: "My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."

Mary rejoices over what Gabriel has told her and what Elizabeth has confirmed: Her son is the Son of David, the Messiah and future king. She exults that God is about to establish justice by ushering in the kingdom that all of Israel, especially the poor, have yearned for. Yes, like Hannah of old, she is happy that she will be a mother. Yes, she is happy that God 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" (Luke 1:46-49).

But her next words move beyond the personal exultation of a poor, pregnant woman. They are a declaration—on the order of Luther pinning his 95 theses to the door—from a voice at the bottom of society. It is a voice crying from the depths that God's Messiah was finally bringing justice for the poor (such as Mary, Simeon, and Anna). It is a voice proclaiming a new order—an order centered on her son, the One who would save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21).

If we want to enter the world of the real Mary that first Christmas, listen once again to her song in the context of Herod the Great. Herod, we might recall, had assassinated members of his own family for anything that even smelled of treachery. That same Herod had taxed Israel—felt more by the poor than by anyone else—beyond its means. Hear her words in that context. They are words of subversion, words that reveal why unjust rulers might worry over their public recitation, words that tell the first Christmas story:

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 thronesbut has lifted up the humble.He has filled the hungry with good thingsbut has sent the rich away empty.He has helped his servant Israel,remembering to be mercifulto Abraham and his descendants forever,just as he promised our ancestors (Luke 1:50-55).

When Mary announced that God "has brought down rulers from their thrones," anyone within earshot knew what that meant for Herod the Great, if not also for Rome. And, in noting that God "sent the rich away empty," she pointed her finger at Herod the Great with his insatiable appetite. God "has lifted up the humble" and "has filled the hungry with good things" meant that Mary and the poor of Israel would experience justice.

Had Mary sung this song—and probably she sang it more than once—in Nazareth among the peasants of Israel, they would have hoisted a toast and shouted, "It's about time! Blessed be the Lord (and Mary)!"

I recall sitting in my high school gymnasium in 1970. During an all-school assembly, African American students, wearing black, sang "Black is Beautiful" and "We Shall Overcome." Their steely protest, expressed in song, was more than a concert. It was an announcement, much like the Magnificat, that a new day had dawned and that justice was about to roll down our hallways. Mary's Magnificat, like those songs of change, can be seen as a rally cry, a revival song. It subverted the unjust reign of Herod the Great.

If you were a poor woman in the first century, if you were hungry, if you had experienced the injustices of Herod, and if you stood up in Jerusalem and announced that God would yank down the proud, the rulers, and the rich from their high places, you likely would be tried for subversion. If you were Herod or one of his ten wives or one of his many sons or daughters with (unexpressed, of course) hopes for the throne, you would conclude that Mary was a rebel, a revolutionary, a social protester. And you would be right: The real Mary was a subversive.

We can quietly repeat the Magnificat during evening prayers, or we can stand with Mary, sing it full throttle, and declare that justice ultimately will be established. The Herods of this world will be dethroned because Mary's son, the newly conceived Son of David, has gained a foothold in our world. Herod dethroned and Jesus enthroned was Mary's rallying cry. You can paint the Blessed Virgin Mary as tender and a splendid example of spirituality, or you can celebrate the Blessed Valorous Mary, who heralded a socio-religious protest against injustice in the person of her own Messiah-son.

But there is much more to Mary's song than justice for the poor. Like the rest of those who followed Jesus, Mary would learn that Jesus ushered in a new kingdom not by wearing Herod's crown but by dying on a Cross, rising from the dead, and sending the Spirit. This is first hinted at by Simeon, when Jesus was presented in the temple: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed," he said. "And a sword will pierce your own soul too."

The hope for a political Messiah, as natural as it was for a people suffering under Roman oppression, would itself be subverted by an altogether different kind of Messiah—one who would establish justice by dying and rising for the forgiveness of sins. Justice for the poor would come not through political revolution but through God's kingdom and its vision for a new society, embodied in the church.

But the larger point remains: Mary, before anyone else, sees and announces the radical nature of Jesus' mission.


Subversive Mary was also dangerous—both to the powers that be and to anyone connected with her, especially Joseph and Jesus. To use today's parlance, we might say that Mary was "radioactive." We need only think of Herod wanting to know where Jesus was born so he could murder him—or of Herod's subsequent slaughter of the innocents. But Mary seemed unfazed.

"Nice girls," Lynne Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church writes, "don't change the world." It may seem counterintuitive, but Mary was not a "nice" girl. If "nice" means meek and mild and mind-your-own-business, then Mary scared the saintly piety out of nice girls. Mary minded Herod's business and, as we are about to see, Caesar Augustus', too. (She would later mind Jesus' business, before discovering that his business was his Father's business. But that's getting ahead of ourselves.)

"And it came to pass in those days," the King James Version of Luke 2:1 reads, "that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed." There is a reason why Luke tells us that Jesus' birth occurred during the reign of Caesar Augustus. Luke is contrasting the gospel of Rome with the gospel of Jesus.

Rome's gospel told of the significance of Caesar Augustus for the world. Rome's history took a new turn with Augustus, the adopted son of the dictator Julius Caesar. After his death, Julius Caesar was officially declared to be a god. When Augustus seized power, he was deemed a savior because he ended bitter civil wars and created the peace of Rome (pax Romana). The gospel of Rome was that Augustus, a "son of [a] god," saved Rome by bringing peace to the world.

Luke's Christmas story, told largely through the eyes of Mary, sets the birth of Christ in the context of the gospel of Rome. Luke counters and upstages each element in Rome's gospel—Good News, peace, the Son of God, and the Savior. The gospel that angels announced to Mary and the shepherds was the Good News that Jesus, the Son of God, was the Savior who would bring true peace to the world.

Gabriel tells Mary that the "holy one to be born will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). Nine months later, angels tell the shepherds outside Bethlehem, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people" (Luke 2:10). Jesus, the Son of God, is the Good News for his people. Furthermore, the angel says, "Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord" (Luke 2:11). And then we hear a chorus of angels: "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests" (Luke 2:14).

Caesar Augustus supposedly was a savior, a son of a god who brought good news of peace to the world. Luke tells his readers that Jesus is the real Son of God, the Savior, who brings Good News of peace to the world. Not only do we have a tale of two Marys; we have a tale of two kings. Who, we are led to ask, will be the king? As with the Magnificat, so with Luke's story: Augustus dethroned, Jesus enthroned!

Mary in the Middle

Mary was in the middle of both of the angelic announcements. Gabriel appeared to Mary and, when the angels spoke to the shepherds, the shepherds reported their Good News to Mary and Joseph. Mary had a dangerous story to tell that would subvert injustice and establish justice through her son, the Messiah of Israel.

Luke says that Mary "treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19). The traditional take on Mary's pondering is that she quietly reflected, perhaps in a corner when everyone else was dancing and clapping, and then humbly kept everything inside. But in Scripture, the word ponder denotes observing and thinking and then interpreting (Gen. 37:11; Dan. 7:28). The language of pondering refers to Mary's deliberating in order to comprehend the divine plan now at work.

Mary was a subversive and she was dangerous, first, because she knew the identity of her son and, second, because she began to tell his story. Remember, Gabriel told Mary her son would be "Jesus" (Savior) and "Son of the Most High God" and that he would sit as a Davidic king on the eternal throne. At the bottom of the entire history of Christology are the titles and categories given to Mary to pass on to others. God first tells her the true identity of Jesus. Thus, we first learn to see who Jesus was and is through her witness. Mary was the only person in the world who could have told the stories that now appear in our Gospels. She alone heard the potent words of Gabriel; she alone was with Elizabeth; perhaps she is the one who told Luke about Zechariah's song; only she and Joseph knew about the shepherds and the magi.

Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin to reveal the injustice of slavery, or Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird revealed the insidiousness of racial hypocrisy, Mary also had a (true) story to tell about her son. She took the terms Gabriel gave her—Son of God, Savior, Messiah—and began to interpret who he was and what he was to do.

The Gospels come from many voices, and one of those was Mary's. Her voice tells us what God would do through her son to subvert the injustices of Herod and the pretentiousness of Augustus. Her voice tells us that somehow, some way, someday, God would establish a kingdom of peace for the whole world. The real Mary, in the story rarely told, changed the world by surrendering to the angel Gabriel with three words: "May it be." And God used her to set loose the power of God, the gospel of the kingdom. This is the real Mary, and we need to reclaim her voice as our own.

Scot McKnight is the Karl A. Olsson professor in religious studies at North Park University, Chicago. This article is adapted from The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus (Paraclete, 2006).

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"Eve Names the Kiss"

Here's something pretty cool from First Things (Aug/Sept 2006):

Eve Names the Kiss
by Gwen Hart

He sat upon the garden wall.
She had her fingers on his knees.
The smallest leaves began to fall.
A subtle difference in the breeze

Prompted the tiger and the hare
to linger there. Even the snake
slithered closer so to hear
what sound she'd make. They'd heard him speak

a thousand times, define the world
from bumblebee to elephant.
His syllables were muscled, bold.
But she, they felt was different.

The future trembled on her lips.
Her mouth was like an apple split,
two halves as supple as her hips.
And when she said the word, he bit.


What do you think?

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"Simul justus et peccator"

Now that we (well, my brand of Lutheran we's, anyway) have liturgically celebrated the Reformation and all the saints, my mind and eye were drawn to this posting from Pontificator in which he provides an excerpt from Han Urs von Balthasar's analysis of Karl Barth's theology as it has to do with the Lutheran formulation "simul justus et peccator." It has seemed to me one of the central constructs of a properly Lutheran anthropology is that pithy formulation -- more or less translated as "at the same time justified/saint and sinner." In fact, that phrase, perhaps more than any other, sets me on the path of "ethics." So to see one of the most suggestive and complex minds in modern Roman Catholic theology sets his cap to address this ultra-Lutheran proposition, I have to attend.

I haven't, by any means, finished my own decoding of -- let alone thinking about -- von Balthasar's "catholic" correction to what he understands Barth's understanding of Luther to be. It is typically von Balthasar -- sometimes dense, poetic, usually translated with latin phrases that may or may not bear technical meaning (something lost on me), and always rich and inspirational. But I confess to being put off when he writes that "Luther's formula seems oversimplified and flat." Oh, I have heard little from Lutherans that rivals the beauty of his drawing the paradox of a life declared and being made justified lived amidst a living of sin. But I'm not sure that it's fair to Luther to blame him for the failure of later interpreters (even Blessed Brother Karl Barth) to deliver the subtlty. (And I'm not sure that Barth fails in that regard: I'm going from von Balthasar.)

I think von Balthasar gets it right here: "...[T]he Catholic will insist that the 'forensic' character of grace and justification be correlated with the toerh sense of justification (A side that the Reformers of course did not totally neglect but still slighted too much): that is, as the beginning of a process of real sanctification -- real, because it give a real partaking in the merits of Christ and in the divine life opened up by him." But is it really fair to claim that the Reformers failed to correlate the great doctrine of justification by faith with "real partaking." I think that I've gotten that insight precisely from the Reformers -- if not, alas, their heirs and successors.

I'd be interested in your responses to this relatively short extract. (That's a direct challenge to you, Brother Paul in Wannaska: You're my neo-gnesio-Lutheran on this matter -- no offense.) It seems ripe with insights into living -- and guiding the living of -- the life of faith.

Post-Election Thoughts of Little Theological Significance

Well, dear ones, election day is over (thank the Good Lord) and, even though I am not a Democrat, I am gloating a little today. (Here comes a kind of partisan screed, from one who is a member of no organized political party.)

The voting was good for (progressives in)Minnesota -- I think. The Governorship stayed with a real jerk -- good evangelical that he is, he has no compunction about lying, distorting, smirking, using almost exclusively negative ads, and all the other "worldly things" that we expect candidates to do. (In fact, there seems to be no distinguishing characteristic of the Christians who run for office: They're as down-and-dirty as the sleaziest among us.) But we progressives elected Minnesota's first woman senator (heself a Democrat to replace a kind of nincompoop Democrat), America's first Muslim to the US House (he may have run the most above-board campaign I'm aware of -- despite being the object of a sinister and highly racist attack by his Republican opponent who stressed that "as a Jew, I am offended" by Keith and by the Republican National Campaign Committee, which did everything but outright assert that Keith would be a Mulim Manchurian candidate in the House), re-took the State House (by a significant margin) and strengthened the majority in the Senate. And of especial interest to me personally: Minneapolis approved "instant run-off voting" (IRV).

IRV allows one to vote for the best candidate without fearing that s/he is "wasting" a vote on a candidate that is too idealistic or good to win. Under the system, one ranks the candidates according to one's preference. If no candidate prevails (and I THINK, without knowing for sure, that means that no candidate gets a majority), then the lowest-voted candidate gets dropped from the running and the votes cast for him/her are examined to see who those voters named "no. 2." Those votes are then re-cast for the second-preferred candidate. And the process continues, dropping candidates in like fashion and re-calculating the votes until one candidate wins (again: I think with a majority, not a plurality of the votes).

I'm sure progressives face the same issue all the time: There's a third-party candidate that sounds really good, but who has virtually no chance to win. I don't feel that I can vote for her strategically, because my vote becomes, in effect, a vote for the worst candidate on the ballot. So I have to "hold my nose" and vote for my second-favorite. Well, IRV will help address that to some extent. If the Green Party candidate is best, but unlikely to win, then I can rank her "1" and name the next-favored candidate "2."

I like the idea. I believe that Christians are called to live -- and vote -- in hope. We need not succumb to cynicism or immoral compromise, even in our civic life. But it's hard to live with the results of living hopefully -- voting for the least-bad of candidates, watching important issues trivialized into absurdity, and the like. And worse, it's hard knowing that while I may be able to live with my choices, others may literally not.

So I look forward to this experiment (an experiment, incidentally, not unique to Minneapolis) and hope to see it spread state-wide in the future. (Maybe those Democratic majorities will help that. But I'm not too sanguine: I don't exactly have confidence that the Democratic majorities will be able to keep together to get much done. They don't seem to like to hew to the party line the way Republicans do.)

I'm sure that this has some Christian ethics point that I could make, but I'm not going to stretch to do that today. For now, because there has been so little for progressives to crow about, I'll just enjoy a little smugness for a day or two.

As a progressive Minnesotan, I'm pretty excited by the election of Keith Ellison to the House. I was in law school with Keith, so I know him a little. And I wasn't a supporter at first. But we saw him run an issues-focussed campaign (despite the Republican attacks), free of personal attacks. He had wide-scale support among all sectors of the local public -- including Jews. And despite a serious lack of organizational skills in his personal life (he has a lot of unpaid parking tickets; he has file campaign reports late; he owes or owed back taxes), he has demonstrated himself to be a very capable, cooperative, and consensus-building legislator. So it's sort of exciting to see him tested on the national level. I wonder where else than Minnesota that a Roman-Catholic-turned-Muslim black man could be elected with a true majority of the votes, despite the lack of support of the retiring member of congress and a very attractive independent candidate claiming some of the reliably "leftist" vote? Congratulations, Keith.

I noted that, even as a progressive, I don't mean to imply that Democratic party majorities will solve -- or even begin to address -- all or most of the social ills that desperately need to be faced. (I'm frankly amazed that the Dems managed to pull off as many victories as they did: There is among Dems a latent self-destruct impulse.) As the saying goes, trying to get Democrats to work together toward a common goal is like herding cats (or chickens). There seems to be little constitutional difference in moral stature between the two parties when it comes to arrogance, willingness to abuse power, institutionalized self-interest. I hope that "Nancy Pelosi and her San-Franciso values" can make some changes there. And so I shall hold on to a little hope that yesterday was the beginning of some improvements in our civic life.

I think that as a Lutheran Christian, I have some responsibility to work for the betterment of society -- to pray for the government (not, as seems the case in some corners of Christianity, TO the government), to advocate for the poor and powerless: You know, that Sermon on the Mount stuff (which I read to set out political, and not merely personal, practices). And on that basis, I'm happier today than I was yesterday.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Ted Haggard -- And All That

The recent misfortune, scandal, undeniable evidence of the reality of sin in the world, or great come-uppance - the term one employs, I guess, depends on your inclination – involving Ted Haggard, the until-recently wonderboy head the of National Association of Evangelicals, head of his own giga-church, and self-promoted star in the fight against homosexuality, has had me going in circles.

As a plain-old person, I grieve for him (somewhat). I especially sympathize for his wife and family, who through no fault of their own, will be humiliated, shunned (at least I expect so), and treated as somehow complicit in the man's sin and crimes. As a Christian, I cannot be surprised that sin infects even major Christian leaders. (As a Lutheran, I subscribe simul Justus et peccator in bold and italicized ink.) And I certainly wish for him genuine repentance, forgiveness, renewal, and reconciliation (certainly with his family). As a lawyer, I wonder why he has not been arrested, given that he has already admitted to committing felonies. As a man and a husband and a father, I am outraged and horrified that he, similarly situated in such fiduciary relationships, could and would try to pull off some sort of double life. As a left-winger or progressive or “liberal” (an adjective I do not accept for myself, but one that is regularly applied to me), I take some Schadenfreude-like delight in his having been revealed for the scumbag and liar that he clearly is. (For heaven’s sake, he even lied once he was caught!) And as someone who expects things from leaders, I am appalled at how arrogant and stupid the man is to think that he was going to get away with whatever he was doing.

But how to make some sense – some evangelical sense – about the event? I am not particularly interested, I confess to my shame, in yet offering a word of grace to Mr. Haggard. I have no evidence that he is penitent or that he has humbled himself enough to hear a word of costly grace. But I recognized, intellectually, that the man needs help. On the other hand, I am wont to crow about the misfortunes of bigots, and I account Mr. Haggard high in that ranking. Of course, he was also helping the religious right-wing to see the importance of such issues as care for the earth and economic justice. So I fear that his fall will allow the retrenchment within the politically right-wing Christian movement of irresponsibility for the Creation (human and earthly).

I am grateful that I have been assisted in this matter by none less than my friends, the editors at Christianity Today. From their online edition, I have read George MacDonald’s meditation on these circumstances. And I have been very impressed. I think he deals with the matter in a most serious, evangelical, sensible, and responsible way. I hope his words receive wide distribution.

Please read his blog entry here.

I also note, with a certain glee, that Christianity Today presented about three articles on the situation, and in one of them, Haggard was noted to have been accused of using the services of a gay male masseuse! See here. (For those who don’t get the joke: Masseuse is feminine; it refers to a female massage-giver. “Masseur” is the masculine – and the applicable noun in this context.) I guess that goes to show that there is still, among the diligent and sincere Christian right, a certain level of naivete about the seamier sides of life.