In Defense of ‘Mary Did You Know?’

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When Bono said “There’s been a lot of talk about this next song, maybe way too much talk,” he could have been talking about “Mary Did You Know?”

The “holiday song” which has attracted the attention of pop acts from Cee Lo Green to Kenny Rogers and Wynona Judd, has gotten a lot of attention lately from three groups of people.

1. Those who love it. They shared the a-capella Pentatonix version of it on blogs and Facebook with words of high praise and got many likes.

2. Those who hate it. They cringe at it as kitsch art and kitsch theology and especially want to pre-emptively keep it out of the Mass.

3. Those who use it as a teachable moment. This year and last year, too, great posts answer the question about what Mary did and did not know.

I must admit I am one who shared it, as part of a teen-friendly Advent pop song list at Aleteia. And so it is that I rise to its defense. Let’s take the complaints one by one.

The theology is bad!

Writers have made the very good point that this Evangelical Protestant dabbling in Marian spirituality, while admirable, falls far short of the fully developed Catholic understanding of the role of the Mother of God.

That is true. The song is best used as a conversation starter, not as a statement on the soteriological significance of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

But I think it is defensible even on its own terms.

First, I think it deserves some leeway simply because it is a question song, in which rhetorical questions are asked but not answered. Think “Blowing in the Wind” or, to keep it Christmas, think “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

The questions are meant to raise issues, not settle them, and in this they are very much in the spirit of the Gospel precisely when it mentions Mary herself, who is constantly “pondering these things in her heart.”

One gets the idea from the Gospel of Luke that Mary certainly understood that she had a significant role in salvation history, but spent a lifetime processing that information (and later, some theologians say, spent the last years of her life sharing her wisdom with John and Luke).

Second, the most troublesome question in the song doesn’t trouble me, for one. “Did you know that your Baby Boy has come to make you new? / This Child that you delivered will soon deliver you.”

Yes, as we will celebrate on Dec. 8, Mary was immaculately conceived: She was already “delivered” when she delivered Jesus. But she was delivered precisely by the death and resurrection of Christ, which from the point of view of the manger was an event in the future. This is possible for God, who is not constrained by time, but for Mary, who is constrained by time, the fact that her past deliverance was still in the future was definitely worth spending some time pondering.

Third, if we wanted to get all technically theological about Christmas songs, we might stop and ask ourselves why we’re celebrating the incarnation in so many songs on Dec. 25 instead of on March 25 — the feast of the Annunciation. That is the day we commemorate as the day on which the Word became flesh.

But I get why we celebrate it the way we do — the Nativity is the dramatic moment at which the incarnation goes public. But I also get why “Mary Did You Know?” is okay though theologically imprecise in the same way that singing “Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” at the Nativity instead of the Annunciation is okay though theologically imprecise.

The song is kitsch!

Another argument against the song is that it’s just a bad song. On the one hand, that’s a matter of taste. Some like it, some don’t. On the other, there is the question of where it falls on the musical spectrum.

A quick review.

There are two kinds of art. The first is fine art: It is expensive to produce, high-quality and appeals traditionally to upper classes. Classical, Baroque and Romantic concert music are examples. Then there is folk art, which is more affordable, but also high-quality and appeals to working classes: Folk music, bluegrass and traditional music are examples.

There are also two kinds of pseudo-art. Middlebrow imitates fine art and reaches for it but doesn’t … quite … make it. Examples would be Les Mis, Kenny G. and I suppose Easy Listening music. Kitsch would be music of less taste, less artistic merit, and with low intellectual demands. Hate to say it, but all our favorite pop songs are in this category (well, maybe not all. There are arguably middle-brow pop songs, from Eleanor Rigby to, well, possibly Mary Did You Know?).

The Nativity scene at the Atchison, Kansas, KFC/Taco Bell.

The Nativity scene at the Atchison, Kansas, KFC/Taco Bell.

I am not sure where Mary Did You Know? falls in the pseudo-art category, but it certainly isn’t high art. I, for one, don’t mind. There are lots of expressions of our faith that are well-loved and nourishing but are “pseudo-art” of one kind or another: The Divine Mercy picture, for one, and, to keep it Christmas, many nativity scenes and Christmas tree ornaments and, indeed, much Christmas music.

Yes, this should be kept out of the Mass (the “music of the people” means folk art), and yes, Vader Did You Know is hilarious, but why be upset about pseudo art that enriches Christmas? I, for one, say bring it on. It is part of our desperate need for Christmas.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org

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About Author

Tom Hoopes, author of What Pope Francis Really Said, is writer in residence at Benedictine College, in Atchison, Kansas, where he teaches in the Journalism and Mass Communications Department and edits The Gregorian, a Catholic identity speech digest. He was previously editor of the National Catholic Register for 10 years and with his wife, April, of Faith & Family magazine for five. A frequent contributor to Catholic publications, he began his career as a reporter in the Washington, D.C., area and as press secretary for U.S. House Ways & Means Chairman Bill Archer. He lives in Atchison with his wife and those of his nine children still at home. The views and opinions expressed on this blog do not necessarily reflect those of Benedictine College or the Gregorian Institute.

3 Comments

  1. Richard Bogovich on

    I think that your analysis is very sound. A few years ago, the director of music and worship at my Catholic parish in Wisconsin had our “contemporary choir” sing this, and I consider him to have exceptional judgment with regard to music.

    • Bruce Peterson on

      The whole argument that is presented by the Catholic scholars is based on theology that has as its basis teachings that are not based on scripture. Many of us other Christians find no Biblical proof of Mary having to be free from sin so she is a proper vessel for Jesus. Besides the song says to me that I am looking at this baby and asking if Mary knew just how special this baby will be. It is the Rhetoric form of Greek that asks a question knowing the answer is yes. When I hear this song I hear not questions to Mary about her ignorance, but about her faith. Since I believe that Mary was an extremely faithful woman who accepted God’s favor and said yes to the Noel’s message. She does not have to be free from original sin to bear Jesus. Show me scriptural proof that she was sin free.

      • There are several places in the Bible it seems to be implied.
        When Gabriel calls her “full of grace” Luke 1:28
        When Elizabeth said: “Blessed are you among women” Luke 1:42
        She more than others, was created before time “to be holy and without blemish” Eph 1: 3-4
        Her role is implied in the discussion of the enmity between the serpent and the woman in Genesis 3:15.
        Revelation 12 shows a Marian image in that role vs. the dragon.
        And John Henry Newman saw it all over the place in the Fathers when they taught on how Mary is the New Eve.
        You see the Immaculate Conception all over the place in the Fathers of the Church.
        A hymn of St. Ephrem (306-373) said “there is no blemish in thee, my Lord, and no stain in thy mother.”
        St. Ambrose (337-397) said that the Messiah came not from Sarah but from Mary “so that it might be an incorrupt virgin, a virgin by grace free from all stain of sin.”
        St. Augustine (354-430) said there was no one sinless “Except the holy Virgin Mary, about whom, for the honor of the Lord, I want there to be no question when sin is mentioned.”

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