I confess: Go dig up that Time piece on Mary

mary_jesus_icon.JPGThere 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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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://jeremiads.blogspot.com Jeremy Lott

    >It would not hurt for folks over at Newsweek to >take a glance at this.

    Re: this and the comments in my post below, I disagree. What Newsweek did is so mind-bogglingly smart that I hardly know where to start, and it’s got me wondering if Jon Meacham is a promotional genius or just an idiot savant.

    First he ground out several horrible religious cover stories that are so one sided and predictably uh, liberal isn’t quite the word I’m looking for here but it will do in a pinch, that I’m 1000 percent certain that many traditional Christians went into his most recent cover story in angry- letter-to-the-editor mode.

    He built a reputation with readers of both Newsweek and sister publication the Washington Post as being the Thoughtful Believer who’s willing to discard articles of faith if they seem too determined by tradition.

    But then he radically reversed course, uses all the chips that he had built up with the more secular readers to get them to at least get them to give the article a shot, and utterly flumoxes those of a more traditional bent (who, if they followed his writing to this point, must have been left thinking “but, but, can you DO that?”).

    I haven’t read the article on Mary so I won’t comment on its journalistic merits but Newsweek recognized that sometimes stories can become news events in themselves. I mean, what article is going to be quoted from hundreds of thousands of pulpits tomorrow, the Time piece on Mary or the Newsweek piece that MAKES THE CASE FOR THE RESURRECTON?

    My bet is that this will give Newsweek the biggest subscription bump of the year, and any time traditionalist critics of Newsweek try to scream bias, the brass can say, “You have got to be kidding. What national newsmagazine gave a cover story over to a writer making the case for the resurrection?”

  • http://www.tmatt.net Terry Mattingly

    (1) I liked the Newsweek piece, in terms of its content.

    (2) I agree that it might have been a smart move.

    (3) My concerns about the journalistic DNA of the piece and what it says about the status of actual news in Newsweek and the once news-oriented weeklies? I stand by that.

    Anyone else out there who has read these Easter-week (in the West) covers and wants to vote?

  • http://amywelborn.typepad.com Amy Welborn

    I read both and I agree with you both.

    Like Jeremy, I was quite taken aback by Meacham’s piece, and the dynamic he describes is exactly what happened in my head (“Oh, here we go again…where’s Ken Woodward?…..oh…hey, this ain’t so bad”)

    But I also see tmatt’s point – it wasn’t a news article in any sense of the word, unlike the TIME article, for it didn’t even really go in the direction of reporting on how, for example, the Crossan school (“wild dogs did it”) seems to be slowly ebbing away in the wake of big lights like Wright. It was, indeed, an essay on the Resurrection.

    And I think it’s fair to ask the question, per this piece, whither the newsweekly? At least half of the cover packages are lifestyle type things these days – most, it seems, about pain in some sort or another – we must be a hurting people – and this fits.

    BTW, I met Jon Meacham once – when he was about 10. His aunt was my best friend in college. We didn’t talk religion, as I recall.