The Patheos Progressive (i.e., liberal) channel has, for some bizarre reason, highlighted an article written in 2015 by Nancy Rockwell entitled “No More Lying About Mary.” It’s hard to think how they could more effectively show that they needn’t be taken seriously; the article is one of the most striking demonstrations of bad biblical scholarship I have ever encountered.
Rockwell brings an aggressively feminist reinterpretation of the story of the Annunciation, accusing more standard (and faithful) accounts of lying about Mary. The irony, of course, is that Rockwell’s account is full of untruths; I do not accuse her of lying, for lying requires that one know what one is saying to be untrue. That distinction is one she would do well to bear in mind, but slandering Christian interpreters is among the least of her offenses.
On Rockwell’s read, the Annunciation as traditionally understood, with its picture of Mary humbly submitting to God’s will, is a piece of patriarchal propaganda that has resulted in a millennium (why only one?) of “female subjugation.” Rockwell, on the other hand, sees a very feminist Mary:
there is nothing submissive nor immature about her.
Already the problems in Rockwell’s preconceptions emerge. Submission to God is connected with immaturity? The biblical picture is quite the opposite. Mature believers, men and women alike, submit wholeheartedly to God, whereas submission is a great struggle for the immature and worldly. It is precisely in her ready submission to God’s plan that Mary’s deep and beautiful spirituality shines.
Rockwell proceeds to badly misread Gabriel’s approach. Instead of recognizing that Gabriel’s message is that God has favored Mary, Rockwell understands the message to be that God has been impressed with Mary because of “the grace that is distinctly hers.” In Rockwell’s eyes, “This is a courtship scene. The angel is wooing her, on bended knee, a suitor–not a constable bringing a decree.” Maybe in some artistic renderings, but Scripture paints no such picture.
It is Mary’s grace that has attracted God’s attention. And what is this grace? It is what Luke shows us in her conversation and her actions–courage, boldness, grit, ringing convictions about justice. Not submissive meekness. Grace is not submission. And the power of God is never meek.
It takes some pretty serious eisegesis to arrive at all that. But, more importantly, our willingness to submit to God is indeed a work of His grace; and Christmas is all about God showing His power in meekness. Such might also be said about the cross. Rockwell’s misreading of Mary ends up showing the profound contrast between the gospel of Jesus Christ and the gospel of feminism: the former is about submission to the will of God and God’s power paradoxically displayed in the cross; the latter, in its normative contemporary expression, is about refusal to submit even to God.
Rockwell follows with an assertion of Mary’s boldness and the odd conjecture that she should be associated with adventure rather than domesticity. Having mislabeled the Magnificat a “political manifesto,” Rockwell goes on to deny that the text claims Mary is a virgin–despite the fact that this is the unmistable meaning of Mary’s response to Gabriel.
Probably the most misguided element in the whole piece is Rockwell’s umbrage at the idea that Mary was in her early teens. The text does not give her age, but biblical scholars usually suggest that she was around the typical marriage age for Jewish girls at the time; and when your life expectancy is in your 30s-40s, it makes sense to marry young. But to this standard impression, Rockwell says,
Luke does not assign her a specific age. And to insist she is under sixteen is to ascribe to God a pedophilic attraction to underage women.
This badly misconstrues not only the situation, but the nature of God. God is not attracted to Mary–not in that way. There is nothing sexual about the Incarnation. But, once again, the feminist impulse appears to underline this gross misinterpretation:
Such details twist Mary’s story and burden Christian women with a sense of selfishness if they postpone childbearing, a psychic demand to put childbearing first in their hearts, for God who seems to want nothing from them but pregnancy.
The anachronism and eisegesis continues apace:
Mary is unmarried when the angel comes. The angel’s invitation and her independent decision tell us Mary does not need permission of clergy–or her parents–to become pregnant. God knows Mary owns her own body. And there is no shame in her decision. Mary is good news for unwed mothers everywhere.
Questions of clergy and parental permission really have no place in the story. But probably the most telling statement is “God knows Mary owns her own body”–as though women are independent of even God; but isn’t that the overarching theme?
In the story as actually presented, Gabriel is making an announcement, not a request. Mary does assent, but there’s no suggestion that she could have really refused; it was a question of her attitude, not of whether or not God’s plan would go forward.
You may read the end if you wish. It is as sacrilegious as the rest.
This whole piece is a strong example of what can happen when we let our own ideology guide our interpretation instead of listening to God’s Word. Mary became a feminist, and God became something much less than God. That is the nature of sin–an effort to dethrone God and take His place.
But all such efforts are doomed to failure. God cannot be thwarted. His plan will unfold, and His reign will come in its fullness. Maranatha.
In the meantime, when we refuse to hear His Word, we lose the opportunity to take His gracious message to heart. The saddest thing about this article is that the Annunciation is a beautiful story with much to teach us, and if you manipulate it you miss out. The true Mary is not the feminist icon of Rockwell’s imagination; she is, instead, a shining example of submission to God that all Christians should imitate. It is in the very submissiveness that Rockwell so denounces that Mary has and will continue to point true Christians to the path of obedient discipleship and devoted allegiance to God.
May we aspire to such faithful submission before the Almighty.