Sally Cunneen

This short, enthusiastic explanation of why and how Catholics should come to know Mary the mother of Jesus through better acquaintance with her types in the Hebrew Scriptures obviously springs from true devotion. The author, Scott Hahn, formerly a Presbyterian minister and now a professor of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, is eager to share the joy and inspiration he has derived from his own journeyone that took him from tearing up his grandmother’s rosary beads as a child to suggesting now that all evangelization must have a Marian component.

But his laudable aim to help us recover the early Church’s sense of awe, astonishment and gratitude for the gift at the heart of our redemption is often jarringly undercut by the pop style Hahn favors. Chapter and section titles, for instance, include From Here to Maternity, Ark the Herald Angels Sing, Fetal Attraction, and Israel’s Beast-Kept Secret. The book is more seriously handicapped by an underlying ahistorical, oversimplified approach to Mary’s role. Looking back at the early church through the clear telescope of Catholic dogmatic hindsight, he tends to flatten the complex and contentious history of those devoted to her, while claiming Scripture as his primary source. His grasp of biblical exegesis is simply inadequate to the task, showing as well a distinct though apparently unconscious anti-ecumenical bias. His use of types from the Hebrew Scripture prophesying Jesus and Mary sometimes sounds as if he believes Christianity has replaced Judaism, a position that Pope John Paul II has gone a long way to discredit. And Hahn dismisses as ridiculous theories other than St. Jerome’s about Jesus’ brothers as cousins, though the highly respected Catholic exegetes Raymond Brown, S.S., and Joseph Fitzmyer, S.J., in the classic Lutheran-Catholic study Mary in the New Testament, agree that there is no biblical evidence for a decision on the matter.

And finally, his arguments are weakened by his theological assumption that the Holy Trinity is a male family that needs a mother, and so God gave us Mary. This premise obscures God’s own compassionate motherhood, which contemporary theologians are recovering, and limits Mary’s role to that of selfless, mediating mother, the very image that has made it so difficult for many contemporary Catholicsespecially womento see her as the sister and disciple Pope Paul VI claimed she is. Here she is only the virginal, spotless mother, if at times the powerful Queen Mother.

Scott Hahn never refers to the living woman of Luke’s Gospel that makes Mary humanly credible. He never mentions the Magnificat, for instance, that powerful and remarkable canticle in which Mary sums up and praises the God of Israel and of Christianity and that has caused perceptive theologians from Irenaeus to Elizabeth Johnson to see her as a prophet. Nor does Hahn speak of her attempts to understand her son at every stage of their relationship, her struggles with other members of the family, her strength under the cross or her support of the frightened Apostles in the upper room after her son’s death.

In his Foreword to the book, the Rev. Kilian Healy points to Hahn’s attempt to honor and love Mary as a parallel to that of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Thérèse, however, insisted that for a sermon on the Blessed Virgin to please her, I must see her real life....They show her to us as unapproachable, but they should present her as imitable, bringing out her virtues, saying that she lived by faith just like ourselves, giving proofs of this from the Gospel. Had Hahn followed the lead of this inspired doctor of the church, his work would have been more balanced and persuasive.

Sally Cunneen, author of In Search of Mary, is currently teaching a course on Mary at Fairfield University in Conn.