Sometimes, the worse the tragedy, the more abhorrent the theology it elicits.
Still numb from the overwhelming evil perpetrated against helpless children and schoolteachers last Friday, now we have to read harsh words from James Dobson and others who declare the senseless carnage a sign of God’s judgment against America. His words are disgraceful. I find them exploitative and unchristian.
Certain Christians seem compelled to speak for God in disorienting moments like these, and the results are frequently terrible. The rest of the church has a responsibility to get angry and repudiate the statements.
In times like these, I find myself wanting to disavow anyone’s attempts to speak on God’s behalf.
That might sound strange coming from me, since I’m a New Testament scholar and an ordained Presbyterian leader. I regularly encourage people to talk about God and assess — both critically and creatively — their and others’ ideas about who God is and how God operates.
What disturbs me is when this talk slips into absolute confidence about God and how God might be or not be connected to our current circumstances. Christians have made horrific mistakes in our statements about God’s will and God’s ongoing activity in the world.
Yet, have seen — firsthand and throughout the past — people of faith achieving very positive results. Many people who describe themselves as responding to God accomplish great feats of love, compassion, and social change.
This makes me think of Mary. From Luke 1:48-51 she explains what it means for her to be pregnant with the Son of God. “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name."
Mary’s song indulges in a kind of biblical sampling. She recites few new phrases but instead borrows widely from her scriptures, quoting and linking themes and passages from the Old Testament. In piecing together these longstanding statements about God, she makes fresh declarations. In connecting these old words to her new circumstances, she makes claims about God’s activity in the present tense.
It’s bold talk about a God capable of upending societies and governments, a God who inverts the usual state of affairs.
Simply put: Mary offers an example and invitation for speaking boldly about God’s activity.
In this way, she shows us how to speak about God in the here and now. She recalls established convictions about God’s character.
Maybe this is acceptable for a figure in the Bible. But can Mary’s song invite us to talk about God being active among us?
How does Mary’s song not set us on a slippery slope? What is to keep us from becoming like those in the national spotlight and in our communities who name natural disasters, violent atrocities, and financial meltdowns as consequences of God’s displeasure with human behavior?
One recent example of this is from Bryan Fischer who said after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, “I think God would say to us, ‘Hey, I’ll be glad to protect your children, but you’ve got to invite me back into your world first. I’m not going to go where I’m not wanted. I am a gentleman.’”
Regardless of what people say, Mary’s song suggests at least two safeguards.
The first involves widening the conversation. How do others help us test our theological hunches? Mary doesn’t speak solely about her own importance and future. She speaks on behalf of “the lowly” and “the hungry,” groups whom she represents. Best to beware of any who speak about God in ways to suggest God has little regard for the powerless.
The second safeguard is patience. Any statement about who God is and how God might be glimpsed or known must be tested by time, so it gains perspective. Mary’s words in Luke’s Gospel are probably not the speech of an unmarried girl contemplating her pregnancy. More likely, the author of the Gospel composed them as an interpretation of Mary’s situation.
Be very suspicious, then, of theological statements that promise too much insight into the present. Theology that tells us what God is doing right now, and that definitively claims to understand tomorrow, usually is manipulative theology. God’s future will be informed by who God has been in the past.
In the end, Mary’s song remains outrageous, and this radical nature can be compared to what Advent is like this for Christians. It’s a season of standing up against “the way things are.” Advent rejects the assumption that humanity remains trapped in never-ending decline.
In the Northern Hemisphere, Christians often light candles “against” the expanding December night. Our tiny, vulnerable flames pose no threat to winter’s natural wildness. But we light them anyway, because they declare a different reality to come.
“Joy to the World” will not sound the same this year, not after funerals for 20 beautiful children and their adult defenders in Newtown, Conn. The carol, in declaring the “wonders of [Jesus’] love,” will sound fake to some. Ignorant to others. And in some places, hopeful. But I plan on singing it a little defiantly — not in naïve hope, but in confidence that Mary and others who dared to speak about God saw with a perspective I can learn from.
Matthew L. Skinner is a native Californian, serving as Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul. His research interests focus on the Gospels and the book of Acts, the cultural world reflected in the New Testament, and the Bible's potential for shaping the theological imaginations of its readers.
Photo: Candle vigil, ©