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Mark D. Roberts, Time Magazine, and Mary

What an incredibly uninspiring and unimaginative title to this article. I hope you will read it regardless.

As you may know, a few weeks ago the cover of Time magazine featured a portrayal of Mary and the words “Hail, Mary: Catholics have long revered her, but now Protestants are finding their own reasons to celebrate the mother of Jesus.” The thrust of the article, written by David Van Biema, is that in our day there is a resurgence of interest in Mary amongst Protestants. He offered a fair bit of proof. Among them:

  • A Presbyterian pastor in Xenia, Ohio, plans to preach on the Annunciation to Mary during his Good Friday service this year, owing to an overlap on the calendar.
  • Beverly Gaventa, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary (also Presbyterian) has written a book on Mary and edited a collection of essays on Mary by feminist biblical scholars.
  • Articles favoring new attention for Mary have appeared in Christianity Today (evangelical Protestant) and The Christian Century (mainline or liberal Protestant).
  • A sermon on Mary was preached in a “mighty pulpit” by John Buchanan, senior pastor of Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church.
  • Icons of Mary are showing up on the walls of Protestant divinity schools.

While some of Van Biema’s evidence is weak, it seems that there is truth in what he says - increasing numbers of Protestants are becoming interested in Marian devotion. This may not be as fully-developed as the devotion many Catholics give her, but it is more than what Protestants have traditionally expressed. Van Biema seems to say that there has been a conspiracy to downplay the emphasis the Bible places on the mother of Jesus.

For the past two weeks, Mark Roberts, author and pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church in Irvine, California, has been writing a series of articles about this topic. Roberts believes that “those who see some sort of anti-Mary conspiracy among Protestants are overplaying their hand.” He also correctly points out that “we should remember that the emphasis of the New Testament is not upon Mary’s worthiness to be the mother of Jesus, but rather upon God’s grace in choosing her.”

Throughout the series Roberts reveals a sympathy towards Catholicism and devout Catholics that seems atypical for a Presbyterian. For example, he writes about a habit he formed in graduate school of attending mass daily. He says, “I’m quite sure this priest believed more about Mary than I did, and, for that matter, more about the nature of the church than I did, and more about the authority of church tradition than I did. But there was no question in my mind that we shared the same basic faith in God who has made himself know through Jesus Christ. Thus, much to my surprise, I found more common ground with this priest than I expected, even when it came to the way he talked about Mary in a church named in her honor…But what I do know is that what I once perceived to be a vast gulf between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism turned out, in my experience, to be a modest gap that I found surprisingly easy to cross.”

With that as backdrop, Roberts turns to outlining some reasons for the mending of the divide between Catholics and Protestants in America. He suggests that the greater openness of Protestants to Mary is simply one sign of the greater openness among Protestants to Roman Catholicism in general. “What many Protestants, including me [Roberts], once perceived to be a “vast gulf between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism” has turned out to be “a modest gap” that we can easily cross. Or to put it differently, we Protestants sense a deeper unity with our Catholic brothers and sisters than we once felt, and we recognize more clearly than we once did the extent to which we share a common faith in the triune God who has been revealed most plainly in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and our Savior. Sure, there are still lots of differences in belief and practice between Protestants and Catholics, but these just don’t seem to be as important as they once seemed.” He briefly outlines some of the changes the Roman Catholic Church instituted in Vatican 2 and then begins a list of other factors which Van Beima overlooked that he believes are critical to understand when examining the closing of the rift between Catholicism and Protestantism.

  • Kennedy’s Patriotism - Kennedy was a Roman Catholic and even had a papal audience while in office, but he became one of America’s most-loved Presidents. Many Protestants who had been concerned about Catholicism, had their fears quelled by Kennedy.
  • The Charismatic Movement - The Charismatic Movement emphasized the experiential over the intellectual. Catholic and Protestant Charismatics found unity amongst themselves.
  • Mother Teresa of Calcutta - A revered figure in Christendom, Mother Teresa was as loved and lauded by Protestants as by Catholics.
  • John Michael Talbot’s Music - A popular Catholic singer and songwriter who has sold millions of albums, many to Protestants who did not realize they may have been listening to the mass set to music.
  • Henri Nouwen’s Writings - Nouwen was a priest and author who has had a profound influence on many Protestants. His writings are widely-read and widely-quoted. (Incidentally, Roberts writes “One of my earthly treasures is a copy of his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, which Henri signed and gave to me.)
  • John Paul II’s Christ-Centeredness - Pope John Paul II’s evangelical passion for Christ has done much to bring Catholics and Protestants together.
  • Protestant Rediscovery of Catholic Spirituality - Authors like Henri Nouwen and Richard Foster have brought Catholic mysticism to the Protestant mainstream.
  • Ancient-Future Worship and Perspective - Practices formerly known to be Catholic (passing of the peace, Ash Wednesday services, the use of visual images in worship) have become accepted and celebrated in Protestant churches.
  • The Changing Polarizations of Our World - Many of the old distinctions we used to make have fallen by the wayside. “Christian” now encompasses Protestant and Catholic in a way it did not in the past.
  • The Abortion Debate - Protestants and Catholics have joined forces to fight abortion.

I agree with Roberts in many of these assessments, but I believe he has missed some that are very obvious.

  • John Paul II’s Mary-Centerdness - Pope John Paul II will not be remembered in history for his Christ-Centeredness, but for his devotion to Mary. As the walls have fallen between the Roman Catholic Church and Protestantism, Protesants have begun to respect the pope and to listen to what he teaches. It was inevitable that his devotion to Mary would impact Protestants.
  • Billy Graham - It is exceedingly odd that Roberts did not mention Billy Graham. Graham’s contributions to ecumenism have been obvious and are now very well-documented. As the “Protestant Pope” for many decades, his influence on Protestantism has been profound. I would suggest Graham’s impact should be very near to the top of the list.
  • Emergent Church - In the past five or ten years, the Emergent Church has carried on the work of tearing down the walls of seperation. It is a movement that is clearly dedicated to ecumenism. For example, in his book A Generous Orthodoxy Brian McLaren (the most respected leader of this movement) writes at-length about his new-found devotion to Mary and his ever-increasing sympathy towards Catholicism. The Emergent Church also teaches the value of labyrinths, contemplative prayer and many other Catholic and mystical practices.
  • Apathy - Perhaps this is the most difficult to quantify and certainly the most tragic of all, but it seems that many Protestants have become apathetic towards the Truth revealed in the Scriptures. Few people care to know the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, and even fewer care to stand for biblical, Protestant distinctives. Unity has become the prime directive in the church and the pressure to simply let go of the old distinctives comes from every side (and even, it would seem, from Roberts). In the end, far too many Protestants have simply stopped caring about the Truth.

Mark Roberts’ series is one for which I held out high hopes, but as it continues my concerns are increasing. Admittedly, I know little about the man, but he is clearly revealing that he places little importance on the giant rift that exists between the Protestant and Catholic beliefs about, for example, justification. To simply shoo away the differences between Protestant and Catholic theology as being “a modest gap that is surprisingly easy to cross” is to deny the clear teaching of the Bible and to betray God Himself. It is to downplay such important doctrines as the authority of Scripture, the sufficiency of Scripture and justification by faith alone. Roberts surely knows better.