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Protestants Use Christmas Movie to Talk About Mary

c. 2006 Religion News Service LOS ANGELES _ Scot McKnight, a religious studies professor, was teaching a number of years ago when he had an “aha” moment. McKnight had just read aloud the Magnificat, the Virgin Mary’s hymn of praise from the Gospel of Luke. “What kind of woman would have said this?” McKnight asked […]

c. 2006 Religion News Service

LOS ANGELES _ Scot McKnight, a religious studies professor, was teaching a number of years ago when he had an “aha” moment.

McKnight had just read aloud the Magnificat, the Virgin Mary’s hymn of praise from the Gospel of Luke. “What kind of woman would have said this?” McKnight asked his students at North Park University in Chicago.

As he listened to their answers, McKnight, an evangelical Christian, became convinced of two things: One, most Protestants know next to nothing about Mary; and two, the popular conception of Mary as “hyper-pious, with her hands folded in prayer … like a nun,” has little to do with the “courageous, gutsy” young woman _ “the real Mary” _ of the Bible.

At that moment, McKnight vowed to “reclaim” Mary, a New Testament figure revered by Roman Catholics and largely overlooked by Protestants. His new book, “The Real Mary: Why Evangelical Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus,” tries to do just that.

But McKnight isn’t the only Protestant taking another look at the mother of Jesus.

“The Nativity Story,” a movie that chronicles the lives of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus, hits theaters Dec. 1, and Protestants around the country are using the film to re-evaluate the role of Mary within Protestant tradition.

McKnight and his publisher, Paraclete Press, have helped organize more than 60 Protestant groups around the country to host forums in early December to discuss the movie and the book.

The goal, as McKnight sees it, amounts to nothing short of a coup by the Protestant church. “There are a few of us who are in a Trojan horse,” said McKnight, 53. “It’s as if we’ve been released in the Vatican, and we’re swiping Mary and taking her back to the Protestant world.”

Even though “The Nativity Story” will premiere at the Vatican, filmmakers hosted some 60 early screenings of the film for Protestant leaders to get their flocks energized about the movie.

“We’ve taken the film around to every big Protestant leader we can think of,” said Wyck Godfrey, one of the film’s producers. “We’ve gotten it to Rick (Warren), the (Pat) Robertson family, Focus on the Family, Mission America, Young Life, Campus Crusade.”

Godfrey, a Presbyterian, said the film tries to portray Mary as down-to-earth. “The bent we took was very Protestant, really, treating (Mary) as a human, someone going through something very difficult, with real emotions. We were not trying to create her as some iconic saint.”

The film’s screenwriter, Mike Rich, said his inspiration for the movie was taken straight from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Seeing Mary the way the Bible shows her is precisely the point, McKnight said. “We are Protestants; we believe in the Bible; Mary is in the Bible,” he wrote in his book. Therefore, “we need to believe what the Bible says about Mary.”

As early as the second century, Christians honored Mary as the mother of God. But since the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Mary has been a point of contention between Catholics and Protestants.

On the one hand, Catholics have venerated Mary, portraying her in stained glass and statues, hailing her in their rosaries. In 1854, Pope Pius IX raised Mary beyond mortal ranks, saying she had been born without original sin. In 1950, Pope Pius XII held Mary even higher, declaring that when she died, her body was taken into heaven and reunited with her soul.

Most Protestants rejected these papal decrees, known as the “Immaculate Conception” and “Assumption,” respectively. Protestants, for the most part, have been wary of focusing too much attention on Mary at the expense of Jesus.

So when David Hershey, a 26-year-old evangelical pastor at Pennsylvania State University, announced recently that he would be leading a Bible study session on Mary to coincide with the release of “The Nativity Story” and McKnight’s book, a student e-mailed back, “What are we, Catholic now?”

Randy Pospisil, who teaches Sunday school at First Baptist Church in Medford, Wis., received a similar response when he said he would be lecturing on the mother of Jesus. In addition to “some pretty confused looks,” Pospisil, 33, got an e-mail asking whether he was “wanting to become Catholic.”

For some, these kinds of negative reactions underscore why Protestants need to talk about Mary. Tim Seitz-Brown, pastor of Paradise Lutheran Church in Thomasville, Pa., said Jesus’ mother is in need of an extreme makeover among Protestants.

In the classic Nativity scene, “Mary is beautiful and passive,” said Seitz-Brown, 47. As he sees it, “Mary would be much feistier” than most people would recognize.

Sharon Seeberger, a 58-year-old evangelical Christian who coordinates international missions for her California church, said she planned to take seven copies of McKnight’s book on a Caribbean cruise. She said she would solicit Protestants and Catholics to talk about Mary in an effort to create a connection between them. “I’ll use (Mary) as a point of meeting,” she said.

Tim Franklin, pastor at the evangelical Bridport Congregational Church in Vermont, said he hoped his sermons on Mary would build “a bridge to greater understanding” between the faiths.

Before reading McKnight’s book and watching “The Nativity Story” at Willow Creek megachurch outside Chicago, Franklin would never have dedicated an entire sermon to Mary, he said. Now, Franklin, 42, was planning four sermons on the Virgin.

“It’s a big step,” he said.

KRE/PH END BROWN

Editors: To obtain photos of McKnight, various images of Mary and scenes from “The Nativity Story,” go to the RNS Web site at https://religionnews.com. On the lower right, click on “photos,” then search by subject or slug.

Editors: Scot McKnight (1st graf) and Bridport (21st graf) are CQ.