WASHINGTON (CNS) - As publications from Time magazine to Christianity Today have discovered recently, Mary, the mother of Jesus, is not just for Catholics anymore.
Features on Mary are perennial favorites for editors looking for a religion-themed story before Christmas, and in the last few years many of these articles have focused on the increasing popularity of Mary among Protestants.
Marianist Father Thomas Thompson, editor of the Marian Library Newsletter at the University of Dayton in Ohio, points out that the expanding Protestant acceptance of Mary is based upon a strictly scriptural view of her, rather than on any change in Protestant theology.
Some Catholic doctrines about Mary, such as the Immaculate Conception - the belief that she was conceived without sin - remain controversial among Protestants, Father Thompson said. But as anti-Catholicism has waned among Protestants, the barriers to Episcopalians, Baptists and evangelicals turning to Mary have faded as well.
"We're very happy to see others taking an interest in Mary," he said in a telephone interview with Catholic News Service.
Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, a Baptist college in Birmingham, Ala., wrote recently that "it is time for evangelicals to recover a fully biblical appreciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and her role in the history of salvation, and to do so precisely as evangelicals." George's comments appeared in the December 2003 issue of Christianity Today and in a 2004 collection of essays by various theologians, "Mary: Mother of God."
"We may not be able to recite the rosary or kneel down before statues of Mary, but we need not throw her overboard," George wrote.
In the magazine, he quoted an early 20th-century Southern Baptist New Testament scholar, A.T. Robertson, who said Mary "has not had fair treatment either from Protestants or Catholics." Robertson argued that while Catholics have "deified" Mary evangelicals have coldly neglected her.
"We have been afraid to praise and esteem Mary for her full worth," said George, citing Robertson, "lest we be accused of leanings and sympathy with Catholics."
George's article went on to explain historical, scriptural and theological reasons why Protestants should embrace Mary.
"We need not go through Mary in order to get to Jesus," George concluded, "but we can join with Mary in pointing others to him."
Another recent book, "Blessed One," is a collection of 11 essays about Mary by Protestant scholars.
In their introduction, editors Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Cynthia L. Rigby, professors at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey and Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas, respectively, said their goal for the book was to help Protestants think in new ways about Mary, "blessing her and being blessed by her."
"She is a person of faith who does not always understand but who seeks to put her trust in God," they wrote.
For Muslims, on the other hand, Mary has always been a part of the picture.
John Alden Williams, professor emeritus in the humanities of religion at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, is a Catholic historian who has studied Islamic civilization and religion. He and fellow William and Mary professor James A. Bill published "Roman Catholics and Shi'i Muslims" in 2002.
It notes that two sections of the Quran, the sacred book of Islam, are devoted to Mary, known there as Maryam. She is recognized as the purified woman chosen to be the mother of the promised Messiah. Islam considers Jesus an important prophet, but not the incarnation of God.
Williams explained in a phone interview that, like Catholics, Shiite Muslims, who are a minority compared to the vastly more numerous Sunni Muslims, believe in intercessory prayer through saints and other holy people. That includes Mary, who is highly revered as a mediatrix between humans and God, or Allah. Sufis, another Islamic sect, also believe in intercession.
In Sunni Islam, "the whole idea of intercession is disputed," Williams said, "just as it is among Calvinist Protestants."
Among the differences the leaders of the Protestant Reformation had with the Catholic Church was the growth during the Middle Ages of devotion to Mary. Reformers argued that Jesus was the only mediator between God and mankind and that "exuberant Marian devotion seemed to them to threaten the clarity of the Gospel message of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, through Christ alone," wrote Daniel L. Migliore, a theology professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, in his chapter in "Blessed One."
Muslims who seek Mary's intercession, on the other hand, see her in much the same way Catholics do, said Williams.
While living in the Middle East, he said he witnessed several striking examples of the reverence many Muslims have for Mary.
At the Convent of Our Lady, an Orthodox church in Sednaya, Syria, he watched devout Muslims roll out prayer rugs to join Christians in reverencing an icon of Mary that is reputed to have been painted by St. Luke the Evangelist and believed to have the power to cure illnesses.
And in the late 1960s, many Muslims were among the millions who gathered in a Coptic Orthodox church in Egypt, hoping to catch a glimpse of reported Marian apparitions, he said.
For more than a year starting in 1968, apparitions of Mary were reported over the domes of the Church of the Virgin Mary in the Zeitoun area of Cairo.
Williams went to the church once during that time and was surprised to see Muslims among the crowd, he said.
"I asked some people, 'Isn't it a little funny for you to be coming here to a Christian church?'" Williams said. They said they considered it only proper that Mary would appear at a church dedicated to her, but explained that they believed she was speaking to all Egyptians, not just Christians.
"They all saw it as a great sign of consolation after the war with Israel (in 1967) that God had not forgotten the people of Egypt," he said.
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops