This is silly. I can’t believe I’m doing this. (So don’t do it, LeCroy.) Sigh. I’m gonna do it.
There’s this song. It’s schmaltzy and sentimental, like many of the contemporary Christian songs I grew up with. If you like this song, I advise you to stop reading. Because I’m going to trash it.
I grew up in the glorious heyday of CCM, and I loved every minute of it. I went to their concerts. I sang their songs in church services and in youth talent competitions. I bought their tapes, read their books, and had their posters on my bedroom wall. Like most Evangelical teen boys growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s I had a crush on Amy Grant. Later I had one on Rebecca St. James. I listened to the local CCM station non-stop, even as a kid sending in some of my meager dollars for their pledge drive. I’m not really cynical or bitter about it. I am mostly appreciative of such a wholesome upbringing in a non-ironic way. The point is, I’m an insider offering insider critique.
Here’s my critique: “Mary Did You Know?” is a terrible song.
I mean, the tune is catchy enough. It sticks in your head like many of CCM’s greatest hits. There’s nothing like a good spirit-filled musical climax or key change to grease the skids on a flagging worship service (I grew up Pentecostal. Key changes were a means of grace for us. The Spirit seemed to always coincide with the high notes.). Aesthetically, it fits in with the era in which it was written. It’s in the Bill Gaither milieu, so it’s melodically rangy and adeptly uses musical climax to stir the emotions. The original recording was by Michael English in 1991. Michael English is an incredible singer. I saw him live once, because of course I did. You have to give that original a listen. Hoo, boy. It’s fantastic (now I’m being nostalgic and a little bit ironic, but in a good way). The music is Phil Collins and the vocals are Michael McDonald. There’s even a third verse drum entrance crescendo à la “In the Air Tonight.” So, as far as that goes, it’s not bad. In fact if you love 80’s music it’s glorious, if about a decade late as most CCM is.
But the lyrics. Ugh.
The author, Mark Lowry, is a great guy. He’s a comedian and singer who tours with Bill Gaither. But he’s not a biblical scholar or theologian, bless his heart.
I mean, the song is fine. If you like it, listen to it. Like the old adage about wine, if you enjoy it drink it. If you like Boone’s Farm, slurp it up, my friend. No judgment here.
But just so you know: Mary knew.
This is my biggest problem with the song. It’s inaccurate and unhelpful. (But, pastor, I just listen to it because I like the beat). We can go line by line through the song to illustrate this (and don’t worry, I will), but in general it presents a version of femininity in Mary that is not true to her or the other heroines of the Bible. It presents her as a clueless passenger in this journey instead of one of the key players. It woefully downplays the importance of her role. Not only did Mary have the perilous job of carrying the God-Man in her body to full term, consider this: the infant mortality in the Roman Empire was about 30%, and an additional 30% of children did not reach adulthood. That’s only a 40% chance of Jesus living to the age of 20. And that’s not even taking to account the fact that people were out there actively trying to kill him. Powerful people. With armies.
Mary’s job was to feed him, clothe him, and keep him safe. She also taught the young boy manners and took him to church. He learned to speak by imitating her. He had her accent. The Eternal Word of God learned human speech from this marvelous woman by watching her lips and imitating her sounds. And all indications are that she did it for the latter half of his life as a single mother.
She did all of this while remaining faithful. She did not take the apple, as her mother Eve did. She was graced by God and did not waiver. She wept at the foot of the cross when the Apostles fled in fear. She was in the upper room on Easter evening and on Pentecost. She helped Luke write his Gospel. This was a strong woman, who stands at the pinnacle of all the heroines of the Old Testament. Higher than Deborah. Higher than Jael. She may not have crushed heads with her hands, but she raised the head-crusher par excellence. She was a Miriam (that’s her name, by the way) seeing her baby boy down the Nile to safety and then raising him to be the deliverer of her people. She is a leaping, dancing prophetess, singing on the shore of the Red Sea with the drowned army of the enemy lying submerged within. Only that beachhead was not in Arabia but in the hill country of Judea in response to a leaping, dancing fetus and a blessed declaration by her auntie. Yet the song is just as victorious and prophetic as the song of her namesake centuries before.
Let’s put this to rest. The image of Mary as a passive, quiet bystander who just happened to be the human incubator of the most high, praised for her purity and her quiet virtue, is a product of wrongheaded ideas about sex, purity, and the human body which sadly dominated the early church and the middle ages. Mary was not virtuous because she was a virgin. She was a virgin because she was virtuous. And she didn’t stop being virtuous the moment she was no longer a virgin. I almost typed when she lost her virginity, as if virginity is a thing that can be lost and when you lose it you are damaged goods. There are some purity preachers who go about the country giving Christian teen girls shiny brand new pennies and telling them not to lose their virginity because then they will become tarnished. They need to keep their pennies shiny and bright so that they can give that gift to their husbands. What a load of hot steaming garbage! If a girl falls into sexual sin she hasn’t become any more tarnished than she already was, for heaven’s sake. She needs to repent of that sin and endeavor towards chastity in the future, but she isn’t damaged goods. The gift that she will eventually give her husband is not her virginity, but her very self and her promise to be his faithful wedded wife. We need to put this thing to bed for good. By the way, those same preachers don’t give the teen boys shiny pennies. What sexist nonsense!
I digress. The image of Mary as meek and mild does come from that same purity culture, though. I could give you an in-depth history of the development of sexual purity culture, how it began as a result of the cessation of martyrdom and the rise of the monastic class in the early Middle Ages, but I’ll spare you that. The high-point of this insanity is demonstrated in the medieval idea that when Jesus was born he did not pass through Mary’s vagina, but miraculously passed through her belly, leaving her maidenhead intact. I’m not joking. Here’s the point: Mary’s virginity was not a virtue in and of itself. It was important that she be a virgin in order to serve as a symbol of the new creation and to prove that she conceived by the Holy Spirit. To further demonstrate this, Rahab is a mother of Jesus and she was decidedly not a virgin. Her former life of prostitution did not make her unworthy of mothering Messiah.
Mary was not a hapless damsel in distress, the prototypical medieval maiden cloistered in her embroidery with her ladies-in-waiting. She was a warrior princess. She was Eowyn of Rohan singing and slaying. Her Magnificat, sung on that Judean hillside, was a response to the devil whispering to her, tempting her to the apple saying, “No man can kill me.” That song and her courageous life afterward is her reply, “I am no man.”
She knew. Frankly it is insulting to ask her the question.
Let us analyze the lyrics of this song.
Image: Virgin Mary and Eve, Crayon and pencil drawing by Sr. Grace Remington, OCSO, © 2005, Sisters of the Mississippi Abbey. Printed versions of this incredible image can be purchased here.