I confess: Go dig up that Time piece on Mary

There really is no excuse being this late on a post, but let me offer one anyway. I no longer have a subscription to Time magazine, which, when blogging, puts me in the position of pointing readers toward links that I know are going to be dead ends, with that "subscription required" flag that we all dislike so much.

Thus, I have put off writing about this past week's cover story by David Van Biema titled "Hail, Mary." This was another example of a long-standing trend -- see Jeremy's post on Newsweek -- of news-magazine editors finding a way to get large religious images on the covers of their products during the seasons of Christmas and Easter. This always results in large sales to non-subscribers, producing statistics that should serve as wake-up calls to newspaper editors, cable TV producers and other news entrepreneurs who are pondering motives to improve their religion coverage.

The cover story on Mary also interested me because it came in an issue absolutely packed with stories that were clearly driven by religion and others that were haunted by religion ghosts.

Where to begin? There was Sen. Arlen Specter in a Q&A on religion and the high courts, several stories on religious themes in terrorist groups, a short look at SongTouch.com (the "Christian Napster"), the church ties in the fights over Tom DeLay in the House of Representatives, "Jesus juice" news in the Michael Jackson trial, the wallop of absolute evil in the new Downfall movie about Adolf Hitler and all the moral themes in Lance Morrow's final essay on the rise of JFK, LBJ and Richard Nixon. I wouldn't be surprised if I missed a few.

The high point of Van Bierma's excellent story on the Theotokos was the wealth of material about Protestants who are beginning to get over their Rome phobias and look at the role that Mary played in the life and ministry of her Son. There is the Presbyterian pastor who is trying to help his flock honor Mary, without sounding "Mariolatry" sirens. There is Lutheran Robert Jenson's still radical, for Protestants, suggestion that the faithful ask for Mary's intercessions with her Son. And the story correctly notes:

Mary was not always such a lightning rod. Early on, Christianity rallied around her importance. The Council of Ephesus in 431 affirmed her to be the Theotokos, or Mother of God. Admittedly, the move was less about her than him. It repudiated a specific heresy -- that Mary's son and the Messiah were two different beings -- and in general made the Incarnation much more immediate.

Nevertheless, this is very controversial material for Protestants and hard for them to avoid -- in large part because Mary plays a major role in the biblical materials about her Son and the church, at least in comparision with others. Van Biema traces this fact into the world of academia, where there are signs of renewed interest in Mary among the very Protestants who would find it the hardest to ignore her -- scholars.

Consider this viewpoint from Beverly Gaventa of Princeton, who faced major questions when asked to write about Mary for a "Personalities of the New Testament" series:

She knew of the pulpit silence regarding the Virgin but was still somewhat shocked to find that her academic peers had been equally mute. "We were quite happy to yammer on about Mary Magdalene, about whom we know next to nothing," she remembers, "and you would find a bajillion essays on Doubting Thomas. But there was very little on Mary's presence at the Cross."

She was further bemused when callers invited her to speak at their churches. "I would offer to do something on Mary," she says, "and there would be this embarrassed pause, and they would eventually say, 'Oh, we're mostly Protestant around here.' In fact, she says she approached her Mary work in "a Protestant sort of way. We pride ourselves on reading Scripture, so let's read Scripture and see what we find."

This is a fine example of an old and, I fear, endangered feature in newsweeklies -- a long, detailed, newsy, diverse piece of writing on a major religion topic. It would not hurt for folks over at Newsweek to take a glance at this.

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