Of misunderstanding, misrepresentation and Mary

I have a high school friend who is Roman Catholic. He wasn’t raised Catholic, but converted to Catholicism from a Protestant background some years back. I have had a good many electronic discussions with him regarding our differences in theology, and one of his most frequent complaints is that Protestants often misunderstand and misrepresent Catholic teaching in their rejection of Catholicism. (He admits that he did so for his formative years.) He has a point. I’ve come to realise in my discussions with him that there is a whole lot of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Catholic teaching by a lot of Protestants. Our discussions have been good for me personally. I’ve come to understand with greater clarity what Catholics actually believe about a lot of things, and have discovered that a lot of what I thought Catholics believe is simply not true. I am in no way inclined to convert to Catholicism, but there is something to be said about Protestants misunderstanding and misrepresenting Catholics.

But as much as my friend complains about Protestant misrepresentation of Catholicism, the reverse is also true. For example, in our discussions regarding the doctrine of eternal security, he frequently accused Protestants of denying the need for works in the life of a believer—despite his Protestant background. He knows better, of course, but misrepresentation often proves to be an effective tool.

Just this morning, another instance of misrepresentation was brought to my attention. This time, my Catholic friend liked an article on Facebook, which then popped up on my timeline. The article takes issue with the song “Mary Did You Know?” I assume (though I stand to be corrected) that the article arose due to Pentatonix’s recent and brilliant rendition of the song. Regardless, Mark Shea takes the song line by line and examines whether or not Mary could actually have known the questions it asks. In some instances, she couldn’t; in others, she certainly could. Shea concludes that the song is “a step forward for Evangelical culture, but a step backward for Catholic culture,” and goes on to write of the low regard (in his estimation) in which evangelicals hold Mary.

He suggests that “Evangelicals” are “filled with fear and loathing of Mary” and that we believe that “Mary had no idea who Jesus was and lived her life in either stupid incomprehension of, or hostility to, the Son of God.” To corroborate this statement, he cites two Protestant sources.

First, he cites an article at pastorpauley.com titled, “Did Mary Believe in Jesus?” Pastor Pauley, whoever he might be, suggests that Mary became disillusioned with Jesus when he did not turn out to be the kind of messiah she was expecting. Mary, concludes Pastor Pauley, did not believe in Jesus. He argues this from various Gospel texts, which highlight Mary and her other children’s confusion about Jesus’ mission. Pastor Pauley does not deal with the early chapters of Acts, which show Mary and her other sons gathered with the disciples in the upper room.

Second, Shea cites an article by John Ankerberg in which Dr Ankerberg answers a question regarding Jesus’ words to Mary at the wedding in Cana. Dr Ankerberg shows that Jesus’ words to his mother—“Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4)—were not disrespectful. Instead, his very respectful reply was designed to show that Jesus “was beginning to distance Himself from His previous role as a dutiful son.” In Shea’s estimation, Ankerberg thinks that Jesus was “condemn[ing] … Mary for believing Jesus too much and trying to shove him on to the public stage.” I’m not quite sure how Shea reaches that conclusion by reading Ankerberg’s reply, but he does so nonetheless.

In Shea’s view, evangelicals hold to “the myth … that Mary had no idea who Jesus was and that Jesus was typically hostile to her.” Younger evangelicals, he argues, “see Mary as a sort of ‘forbidden fruit’: someone their parents did not talk about and weirdly treated as taboo.” He writes of “Evangelical and post-Evangelical notions that Mary was ignorant of and hostile toward her Son.”

While there has always been strong disagreement between Catholics and Protestants over the place of Mary in Christian tradition, I must admit that I was somewhat taken aback by these accusations. Having been raised in a Baptist Church, and having heard a great many misrepresentations of Catholicism over the years, I have never been exposed to an evangelical view of Mary as stupid or hostile toward Jesus. On the contrary, Mary has always been portrayed as a great example of faith.

I have likewise never been taught that Jesus was typically hostile toward his mother. On the contrary, Jesus took great care to provide for his mother from the cross, charging John to take care of her as if she was his own mother (John 19:25–27). Even as he hung on the cross, he honoured his mother.

While Mary does not receive the same place of veneration in evangelicalism as she does in Catholicism, she is not treated, in my experience, as taboo. She is spoken of when appropriate, but evangelicalism does not give her more place than Scripture does. The fact is, the New Testament is not filled with references to Mary. She is spoken of comparatively little in the Gospels and never again after Acts 1.1 It is not the case that evangelicals see Mary as a sort of “forbidden fruit.” If the text of Scripture speaks of Mary, evangelicals will speak of her; but evangelicals don’t force Mary into every aspect of Christian living.

The Scriptures portray Mary as a wonderful, humble woman of faith. She was willing to submit to God’s plan for her, even if that invited ridicule. Few believed that she had fallen pregnant as a virgin. Just as Jesus was accused of being illegitimate, so Mary was accused of infidelity. But she bore her cross willingly because she submitted to God.

Did Mary know a lot of the things that “Mary, Did You Know?” asks of her? She surely must have.

Did she display some impatience at the wedding in Cana? Did she hope that Jesus would display his power, thereby vindicating her long-standing claim that he was divinely conceived as the Son of God? Perhaps she did.

Was she concerned in the record of Mark 3 that Jesus was misguided in his mission? Did she, like Jesus’ brothers, want to take him home to care for him, or was she there simply because her sons had compelled her to join them? We can’t say for sure.

What we do know is that Mary knew that Jesus was the Son of God. She considered herself God’s humble maidservant. She was willing to suffer scorn for the sake of God’s plan for her. She stayed with Jesus at the cross and came with the other women to the tomb early that Sunday morning to anoint the body. She stuck with the disciples after the ascension. Did she believe in Jesus? Absolutely. Does she deserve the veneration that Catholics ascribe to her? Absolutely not.

So, yes, Catholics and evangelicals differ greatly on the place of Mary in the Christian tradition. But to suggest, as Shea does, that evangelicals somehow revile her is either a grave misunderstanding on his part (perhaps fuelled by his experience with certain misguided evangelicals, if the pastorpauley.com article is anything to go by) or pure misrepresentation. If evangelicals are guilty of sometimes misrepresenting Catholics (and they are), let’s not think that Catholics are not guilty of the same.

  1. I am aware that Catholics interpret John’s vision in Revelation 12 as a picture of Mary, but that interpretation holds little exegetical water.

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