How Do You Solve a Problem Like Mary?
By Scot McKnight
Author, The Real Mary
This Christmas season, viewers of The Nativity Story will once again be confronted with the mixture of what the Bible says and what the Bible does not say. The screenplay by Mike Rich (Finding Forrester), which I was fortunate enough to have read, gives us every indication that the producers intend for this movie to dramatize what the Bible says in a way that is faithful to the Bible.
Therein lies a catch.
Dramatizing the Bible inevitably involves interpretation at the hand of the director Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen). Most importantly, the producers will have to fill in gaps by guessing – on the basis of hints and evidence from the world of Jesus – what the characters were like. What did Joseph and Mary look like? What kind of clothing did they wear? What kinds of expressions will be seen in their eyes and faces? What kind of emotions will we see? What kind of tone do they bring to their words? Were they afraid? Were they ever-faithful? Did they wonder how God would bring all of this about?
Questions like these form the inner network of every movie, especially a movie like The Nativity Story. Few missed the use of color in clothing in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Pilate’s wife wore white to evoke innocence, while Mary wore dark to symbolize mourning. How the directors answer the sorts of questions I asked above will determine what we see. Not only will these answers determine what we see, they will determine what the next generation thinks of Joseph and Mary. Whether intended or not, the next generation will “image” Jesus as one who looked like James Caviezel.
Mary presents a special problem for movie producers and it might be put like this: Roman Catholics adore her and evangelicals ignore her. How do you solve a problem like Mary? Do you dress her up in the clothing of nuns, and give her a Roman Catholic look? What do evangelicals think she looked like? Did she look like Maria Morgenstern (The Passion of the Christ) or like Keisha Castle-Hughes (The Whale Rider)?
But, there are signs that evangelical Christians are taking a fresh interest in Mary, perhaps even trying to reclaim her as their own. Not only have we sung about Mary for more than a decade – especially in the words of Mark Lowry’s “Mary Did You Know?”, but Mel Gibson’s portrayal of Mary struck a chord with many evangelicals. We are now asking, “What was the real Mary like?”
Some years back, standing in front of a class, I asked a question that I was determined to answer, and I was determined to answer the question by probing what the Bible does and does not say about Mary: “What kind of woman uttered the Song of Mary, what we now call the Magnificat?” Found at Luke 1:46-55, the Magnificat expresses the very heart of Mary – her history and her hopes, her frustrations and her expectations. In fact, this beautiful song, inspired as it is by the Spirit of God, sketches what she thinks the Messiah will accomplish. What kind of woman would sing this kind of song?
My own answer to that question shapes what I want to see on the screen in The Nativity Story. But, I fear something: I fear Hollywood will give us yet one more version of the pious, downcast eyes of the Medieval Mary. I fear we will find a woman draped in a Carolina blue gown, a woman whose hands are constantly pointed toward heaven in prayer, or a woman whose facial expressions are unemotional.
What I hope to find, and I know what we will encounter is how the director’s shaped the character and emotions of Mary, is the kind of woman who sang that Magnificat. The kind of woman whose words sound more like a protest against Herod the Great and Caesar Augustus, the kind of woman who believed justice was around the corner, the kind of woman who had the moxie and courage to stand up in the Temple and tell the world that her son, Jesus, would someday be king and everybody better get ready for his advent.
The Medieval Mary we find in art of the Church tells us Mary was pious. The Magnificat Mary we find in the pages of the Gospels tells us a different story: she’s the kind of woman who had the temerity to reprimand her twelve-year old son for dallying at the Temple, who had the expectations of him to solve a wine supply that was flagging, and – get this – who once hauled her other children to home where Jesus was teaching under the impression that he had now gone over the top by associating with all the wrong sorts. That’s the problem I call Mary, and I’m wondering how Hollywood will solve her. Will she be the traditional character, or will they freshen her up a bit by pondering the Gospels long enough to let the real Mary stand up to be seen for who she really was?
Scot McKnight is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University. He is the award-winning author of The Jesus Creed, Embracing Grace, and Praying with the Church. In his latest book, The Real Mary, McKnight attempts to step outside of the adoration of the Virgin, and beyond the Protestant neglect of her legacy to ask: Who was she, really?
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