You're Included

Roger Newell: Mary's Response to the Angel's Message

Mike Feazell talks with Dr. Newell about Mary’s response to Gabriel’s announcement that she would give birth to the Son of God. They also discuss the importance of the Incarnation.

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Roger Newell

Dr. Roger Newell is associate professor of religious studies at George Fox University in Oregon. He earned his PhD from Aberdeen University, working with James B. Torrance. He is the author of:
__   The Feeling Intellect: Reading the Bible with C. S. Lewis
__   Passion’s Progress: The Meanings of Love

For an edited transcript of all our interviews with Dr. Newell, click here.

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In the second interview, Dr. Newell and Mike Feazell discuss the theological insights in C.S. Lewis' fiction.
In the third, Dr. Newell discusses the relationship between theology and German history in the 20th century. 

J. Michael Feazell: Thanks for joining us on another edition of You’re Included – the unique interview series devoted to practical implications of Trinitarian Theology in today’s complex world. Our guest today is Roger Newell, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at George Fox University and author of Passion’s Progress: The Meanings of Love.

Dr. Newell completed his doctoral studies under Professor James Torrance in Aberdeen, Scotland, then served for eight years as a pastor in Durham, England, followed by five years as a pastor of Lake Grove Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon. He assumed his current post at George Fox University in 1997.

We really appreciate you taking time to be with us today. As I understand it, you were the first American student that James Torrance had in doctoral studies in Aberdeen.

RN: That’s right, that was 1978. I arrived just a little bit after Professor Torrance came the previous semester to be the professor there after having been the teacher in Attenborough, Scotland for quite a few years. So it was a great opportunity and privilege just to be his … one of his early students and to get to attend his seminars and to get to know him as a mentor and as a friend, and it’s a great, great privilege.

JMF: You mentioned that he instilled the passion in you for pastoral ministry …

RN: That’s right. I mean, the time I went there I was thinking maybe I wasn’t sure if I was going to do pastoral work or just pursue teaching. But having studied with Professor Torrance I became more aware of a call that I really did want to pastor and work … and he inspired in me a sense that really the parish, the local church is the laboratory where people come to know the living 
God and we become participants in that and to be… roll up your sleeves and do that was very, very significant, and I wanted to do that.

JMF: So you spent better part of a little over a decade in pastoral ministry before you began teaching in George Fox.

RN: Thirteen years total.

JMF: That would bring to the theology of real, practical, meaningful, tone that we don’t often see in theology.

RN: Well, again I was also fortunate in having studied with Ray Anderson at Fuller Seminary, and Ray had made it important and modeled for this same kind of connection and integration between pastoral care and pastoral work and the best theology one can articulate.

JMF: We had the privilege of having Ray on this program two or three times. In some of the writings that you’ve done, you’ve written about the encounter between Mary and the angel Gabriel. And Gabriel announces to Mary what’s going to happen to her and then her response to that, and then you tied that in with our response. Could you talk about that?

RN: The reason I started in with the story of Mary as a way of trying to understand how a person responds to God is because, in a way, she’s the first one in the Church who has the word spoken to her by the angel, … she’s the one through whom the Word becomes incarnate. And so her response then becomes, in some ways, a way to begin to understand what it means and how you and I can learn many years later to be begin to respond. So she is a great example to see what is actually going on in learning how to respond to God. And so I wanted to start with her.

JMF: Now, one of the things that we see with Mary that you point out is that, her response is not just some ideal, high, moral, Christian, so called, godly response, as it were, as we think of that sometimes – she’s a little worried about it, upset, to some degree – there all kinds of questions she has, it’s a very human response.

RN: Yes, if we take the halo pre-arranged off her, then that’s very important to realize that she, as the text says very clearly – was deeply troubled. Here she is a young woman going to her prayers, as a devout, young Jewish maiden and what she got in her prayers that day was not what she was looking forward to, and it wasn’t expected, and the text is quite clear that she was deeply troubled by what happened and she was also afraid.

And so the text that they wanted to try to make her into some kind of an idealized portrait they would have air-brushed that very human response away. But rather instead, there it is and this is how she responded and it’s part of her journey to then saying, “I’m the handmaid of the Lord, and let it be to me according your will.” But it’s all included and that’s an important key, an important thing for us to remember that – there is no perfect way to respond to God except to be genuine and have… and to be honest before God. And if I’m… if there’s fear, if there’s trouble – things going on in my life – that’s part of what I openly and honestly bring it to the table. And God accepts that.

JMF: In preaching and teaching that, as we tend to hear admonition that jumps us right to the very end – let it be unto me as the Lord has spoken, and…without even giving acknowledgement to the fact that there is a journey to get to that spot, a human journey and the honesty that you spoke of, being a part of what we are able to have as a part of our response – at admitting to God, dealing with God, like Jacob did – this wrestling with God over issues, is a very real part of the Christian experience. And as you’ve written, that has become a bit lost in some of the liturgy and some of the teaching and preaching that we hear today.

RN: Well, yes, I suppose it’s inevitable that we jump too quickly to the last word and we don’t always listen to the next-to-the-last word to… we’re in little bit of a hurry to the happy ending, maybe, or the perfection and so, the real journey that people have to on sometimes is telescoped or narrowed because we… and maybe that’s part of the fact that in our culture everybody’s in a hurry, too. And the pastor’s in a hurry, he wants to have perfected saints. He doesn’t want… sinners are very messy to deal with. And if you could clean them up more quickly, maybe everybody’s job would be a little easier. But for whatever reason that, that’s doesn’t seem to be how, how we are formed. And so… but to try to prematurely, or shrink-wrap Christians and make them saints, in a way that’s artificial or you know, hot-house plants, doesn’t seem to work. Then we have to begin to unlearn the… maybe the false responses we thought we begin to make to God because we think everybody expects them of us. But they aren’t from our own hearts. And so we have to somehow sometimes unlearn those manufactured approaches and learn again to respond to God genuinely as did Mary.

JMF: You talked about the “ought” and the “should,” how did you put that…

RN: Well, the danger is that, in the urgency or the anxiety sometimes we preachers have is to get people to the bottom line is that we can pressurize people to make the response we think they ought to make and to… maybe lack a little confidence that God is going to do what he intends to do and so we feel like we have to pull the strings a little bit and so we can put pressure on people and I think I said as a result.. instead of letting people respond to the good news, we have this twist and sometimes we turn the good news into “should” news.

And this is something that’s been talked about, I think very perceptively, by C.S. Lewis and why he wrote theChronicles of Narnia. He says that one of the things he thought that was inhibiting people from really hearing the gospel is that, he talked about the stained glass window in Sunday School associations whereby one was told, one ought to be grateful to God, one ought to be thankful. And having heard this so often it caused the person to focus on themselves and their response, rather than on the object that the reality of God … which naturally evokes a response. And so, we inadvertently, in the church too often turn the good news into “should” news and so, it’s not our intention but what it means is the recipient … takes it eyes off the source and tries to manufacture a response that we think is expected and that cuts off, ironically, cuts off our feelings and our feelings freeze up.

JMF: Don’t we do that a lot especially in worship: we try to make ourselves feel something, we’re not sure exactly how we should feel but we know, not to be holy and not to be sanctimonious or something and so we try to will ourselves into the right feeling and, as you say, our attention is totally on ourselves then instead of on the object of our worship.

RN: Yeah, that’s exactly right and the problem then is that we, we become self-centered in our worship, either focusing on our virtue, in our… patting ourselves on the back and thinking well done … or we become also focused on our failures, our inadequacies and whether our self-centered response to God becomes inflated, congratulating ourselves, self-righteous on the one hand or we become discouraged and deflated and put ourselves down on the other. Both are ways of getting in the way and not being responsive. But rather trying to create some kind of virtue in ourselves and this, of course, always leaves us frustrated, either in a negative way or a positive way – you know, the Pharisee thinking, you know, “Thank you God that I’m not like other people. Wow, I’m really good at this responding to God.” Or on the other hand is the.. a person who feels like, everything I do is hopeless, and I can’t… like Martin Luther, when he was a monk, he… whatever he did wasn’t good enough. And so he constantly was berating himself and criticizing himself and he was… he had made himself miserable

JMF: Jesus told the parable about the two sons. One responded right away with the right words by saying, “I go, sir” when his father told him to go work in the field. And the other one, swore, refused… but in the end, the one who responded with the wrong words is the one who did what he was asked, and the other one didn’t.

RN: Right. Even though he said he would and so the words came easily but actions, once the father looked the other way, was nowhere to be found. So it reminds us, I think, of how important our response is meant to be not just a verbal one but with our whole hearts and so, again, the second sentence is a great example of somebody who took him a while. At first he let his father know, was it his father or the master, I forget, he just said, you know, “I’m not doing this.” But it percolated, he thought about it, and he was honest and genuine in his initial, “No” but as he thought about it, and he thought, “You know, I think I’m gonna do what I was asked.” And so that was… that had integrity.

JMF: We have a fear of responding in a way other than rightly and so that contributes to wanting to look at ourselves and analyze how we’re responding, how we’re thinking. But aren’t we freed to respond freely and honestly if we remember that it isn’t our response that matters, that Jesus has already responded for us perfectly as our… as the human who stands in for us before the Father, if we can rest in that, we don’t have to worry about or think about or second guess how we’re responding.

RN: Yes, I think the way I would put it is, and I say this because I’ve been just once again wrestling with the whole relationship between God’s reaching to us and coming to us and our responding to this, and I’ve just been re-reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his wrestling with this issue in his little book, The Cost of Discipleship, and he talks about the danger of cheap grace – grace that is…. comes without any response on our part because it’s all been done for us. And he says, this is what’s wrong with Germany, he’s writing in 1937 when basically Fascism has taken over a country of good doctrinally Lutheran justification-by-faith Christians and yet somehow their response is… has seem to have been perverted. And so what we do… and so he is trying to recover a sense of response that has integrity.

And so this is where, I think, he makes a great point that grace is absolutely free. It’s absolutely free but it’s always costly because it cost God everything. It cost him sending his own Son, so therefore, it could never be had by us by anything other than by a response of… a deep response of gratitude and thanksgiving – that is far more than verbal.

Professor Torrance used to bring this home, I think, in an important way when he talked about God’s grace being unconditionally free, unconditional. But he says, as a result, then the response is, “Therefore” not “If you.” If you believe, if you have faith I will love you, and so on. But because our God, in Christ, has loved us and given us himself so freely, therefore, we want to respond. That freedom to respond is evoked by the reality of God, not by some sense of obligation on my part – that is, in order to earn merit, but the most natural way of responding to such a good gift.

JMF: And it’s freeing to know that our response is taken up by Christ, in such a way, that it matters and that it’s healed. There’s so much of a tendency toward carrying unnecessary guilt and carrying an unnecessary burden of second-guessing everything we do and worrying that God might not be accepting us and is probably fed up with us and is angry at us. But how freeing is it to know that as we respond, out of gratitude and a heart of appreciation for one who has, in fact, healed our responses and made them right, it seems to me that when I’m thinking rightly about that, that it keeps me in a channel of rest and freedom and the less I’m focused on myself and how I’m responding, the better I respond. It’s when I’m focused on myself and my responses that I seem to be heading the edges all the time and bouncing down the river instead of going down the middle.

RN: Absolutely, I mean. Another way that helps me understand this better is to always be aware that my response to God is always an accompanied response. It’s not initiative. It’s not me taking charge. It’s not me asserting myself, but it’s learning how, in my way like those people we read about in Scripture, learning to realize that my response, whether it’s initial fear, initial hesitation or initially being deeply troubled, is accompanied. And this is part of the importance of the humanity of Jesus that Jesus became human, fully human and his… whatever response that we ever learn to make is never autonomous, or on our own, but it’s shared with Jesus himself in his own humanity connecting with our humanity. And that is part of the freedom and the freeing experience of learning to… knowing that my response is not isolated in some kind of splendor of its own religiosity or whatever, but is taken hold of and brought before God the Father by Jesus the Son.

JMF: You’ve written about Apollinarianism, which you call functional Apollinarianism and how it affects our worship patterns and even contemporary music. What is… could you describe Apollinarianism and then functional Apollinarianism and then how does that affect our worship patterns?

RN: Well, this is a very complicated issue, in some ways and I don’t… maybe we could get into this little bit further later on. But what I would say now is what Apollinarianism, for our purposes, is that it focuses on the sovereignty or maybe, say, the deity of Christ but forgets or sets aside the real humanity of Jesus. And when sometimes this affects us, we then have a worship experience, we go to church in which we have forgotten that Jesus is truly human and Christ in his humanity accompanies us in our prayers, in our worship and so we actually do have a priest – a priest in his humanity who accompanies our worship, again to the Father.

But if we don’t have that sense of Jesus as humanity and we just have a sense of Christ exalted Lordship, then we sometimes think, well, I’ve got to substitute, I need to, somehow intercede for myself or I have to somehow, or maybe my pastor has to somehow become the bridge. And we can inadvertently put all of our marbles there on these very frail humans – myself, or my pastor, or whoever – to somehow create the connection between ourselves and God and we end up with a functional Unitarianism in our worship and our prayers….

JMF:  Which is though Jesus is high and exalted and we think of him that way and we re-create the gulf between humanity and God by focusing on Jesus as high and exalted…

RN: Pure deity. God alone, God only. But the uniqueness of our faith, I think, as Christians is that God is, has in Jesus become truly human as well as truly divine.

JMF: He is the bridge and the mediator as a human being (RN: That’s right.) I think a lot of people think of Jesus as being human when he was on earth during the Incarnation itself and then he was… when he’s resurrected and ascends to the Father, he’s not human anymore – now he is the exalted God, with God, and we lose the human connectedness, but he remains human…

RN: Yes, this is a very profound and important thing that our humanity has been taken up into God through Jesus, and our humanity is no longer apart from Jesus. And so, this is a tremendously important thing to think of. The implications continue to to multiply, I think, as we ponder what this means. But certainly, part of what it means is that my human response to God is never… and should never be seen in isolation from Jesus as accompanying me in his humanity. So this is the great theme of the book of Hebrews that Jesus is our high priest who in all things knows what we’re going through, as tempted as we are and yet without sin. But he takes… he knows what it’s like to be human and he knows that from the most deep place of what it means to be a human being – in terms of all our human frailty.

And that is the humanity he has worn and recovered and then taken up to God. And that includes me and all of my awkwardness, and my brokenness and my imperfections, as well as my strengths. But that’s been accompanied and that’s what then I’m learning to offer back up to God. But not in a way that’s uniquely set apart from…in some kind of a … isolated offering to God. But then again, it’s this communion, a communion of love with the human Jesus.

JMF: We’re one with him as he is one with the Father and he’s… there’s no other way to be human except to be human in Christ – where we live and move and have our being in him and not just as the exalted, resurrected One, which he is, but as the human being – the glorified human.

RN: And even in his glory – remember those wonderful words from Charles… or John Wesley – rich wounds he had visible above and beauty glorified – even in his being exalted, he is… his wounds are still visible – his humanity has not been discarded as being something extraneous to the Incarnation, extraneous to the reality of God, but has been brought together again – this is the healing, the bringing together of heaven and earth, where God’s will shall come and his will… shall be done on earth as it is in heaven. And Jesus is the first fruits of all that. And he is going to take all of creation with him and he has done that. And he will do that, but it’s an accompaniment now. And creation will no longer cut off and separated from the redeemer – from its creator and redeemer.

JMF: Reminds of one of the last scenes of Jesus in the New Test… or in the Gospels with the disciples, is after his resurrection, … they’re out fishing and he’s on the shore and he wants them to come and have breakfast with him. This is the resurrected Christ, it’s very intimate …

RN: And very physical (JMF: … real), yeah, and very physical eating food and this part of the sheer earthiness of our humanity and this is included.

JMF: You are working on a new book?

RN: Yeah, the… well, the things we’re talking about initially about Mary and the meaning of her response is a… this has been a great, one of the great challenges for me to try to make sense out of it… encouraging discipleship, encouraging others to grow and develop as a pastor and in my own journey to be faithful to Christ in a way that becomes and continues to be healthy and real and not artificial and contrived in order to earn approval – from either others, or ones congregation, or from God. But rather comes out of a heart of genuine response to the good news.

And so I started with Mary, but I’m really trying to make sense out of what I see as a tremendous gift that C.S. Lewis, in his writings has given the church about teaching people how to respond to God and how to… and in his instance, how to respond to literature. What is it about? Why was Lewis such a great reader? Why was he so receptive that he could get to the very heart of what he was reading and pull out what really mattered? There’s a wonderful wisdom, I think, in his whole approach to literature which, I think he learned, and it came to him in his own journey of faith – where he learned as a … to recover a faith that he lost to the “should” news and he learned how to recover and receive again the grace of God as he went through a very difficult time. You know, losing his mother to cancer as a young boy and then his father virtually… as well because his father sends him off to boarding school, and he becomes an atheist, you know, officially and so on. But all the while he was still trying to be open and exploring what life is about, but he had some relentless willingness to be open and to ask awkward question of reality and of himself too and ask questions of himself and eventually this leads him back to, back to faith. And applying some of those lessons, which he, as a world-class literary critic, wonderfully gifted reader, applying that then to learning how to be open in reading of Scripture, our sourcebook.

JMF: Like so many, I’m a big fan of C.S. Lewis’ writings so I’m looking forward to that; I hope it’s published soon and can’t wait to read it.

RN: Well, thank you, me too. I’m working away, trying to get it in a presentable shape.

JMF: Well, thanks for being with us. We appreciate it, we’re out of time so we’ll have to call it quits for now. We look forward to maybe having you again sometime.

RN: Thank you.

JMF: We’ve been talking with Dr. Roger Newell, associate professor of Religious Studies at George Fox University. Thanks for being with us. I’m Mike Feazell for ‘You’re Included.’

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