Book Review [Updated]: Joy to the World (Scott Hahn)

by Glenn on January 3, 2015

I just started reading C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity again. I didn’t remember this comment he made concerning discussions of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Lewis writes,

“[T]here is no controversy between Christians which needs to be so delicately touched as this. The Roman Catholic beliefs on that subject are held not only with the ordinary fervour that attaches to all sincere religious belief, but (very naturally) with the peculiar and, as it were, chivalrous sensibility that a man feels when the honour of his mother or his beloved is at stake. It is very difficult so to dissent from them that you will not appear to them a cad as well as a heretic.”

As soon as I read this, I thought of this post. To any of my Catholic brothers and sisters who may happen upon it, I want to say that I hope my words about Mary in this book review are not offensive. There is much I don’t understand about her from the Catholic perspective and this book, in my opinion, didn’t help. I tried to express that but fear I may have been unnecessarily insulting or divisive.

This book has two problems, none of which have to do with the fact that the author is Catholic. The first is the “we murder to dissect” phenomenon. By dissecting Christmas the way the author does, I think he may taken some of the life out of it.

The second is the desire the author seems to have to make points that go beyond the scope of the Christmas story. Whether Mary remained a virgin all her life even in her marriage to Joseph is, by the author’s own admission, a traditionally held view that is not represented by Scripture. I think a helpful approach would have been to make the case for the birth of Jesus by Mary, who was a virgin, and leave it at that. The author could have gone on to say, “My view as a Catholic is that she remained a virgin all her life. This is what tradition says and on this point I follow tradition.” I would respect that.

Cover of Scott Hahn's Joy to the World

It’s a little sad to see Christmas in the rear view mirror. Somehow I managed to avoid Muzak-filled environments to such an extent that I only heard my least-favorite Christmas song, the Angela Lansbury version of “We Need a Little Christmas”, just one time. I don’t know how that happened, but I’m okay with it. It’s wonderful to get to the actual Christmas holiday without feeling exasperated by it all.

Christmas is such an odd holiday for me. While I am utterly convinced that Jesus came to earth, I doubt very much that it happened on December 25. I have no problem celebrating the fact of Christmas and I appreciate pastors who say things like, “Christmas is the day (or season) we celebrate Christ’s coming to earth.” But I shudder whenever I hear someone say, “Today (Christmas) is Jesus’ birthday.”

This is the tension of our faith. There are certain facts represented by the gospels and a layer of tradition that can cloud over those facts.

I looked for an appropriate book to help focus my thinking this past season and found Scott Hahn’s Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything and Still Does. Hahn is a professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville and the founder and president of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology. I was intrigued to discover how a Catholic writer and teacher would approach this familiar story.

My last experience with this genre was twelve years ago with The Mary Miracle: Receiving God’s Miraculous Touch in Your Life by Dr. Jack Hayford. What I remember about that book is how Pastor Jack made a rather simple observation about Mary: God’s promise came to her, grew in her, and was delivered through her to change the world around her. The challenge of the book, if I recall correctly, was for believers to see Mary as an analogy for their own lives. God has made a promise to us about a work he wants to grow in us and deliver through us to change the world around us. We should say humbly to the Lord, as Mary did, “Let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38 ESV). I think I should read this book again this year.

Aside: I’m always interested in how preachers will handle the familiar elements of the Christmas story in the four weeks of Advent leading up to Christmas (sometimes three weeks depending on what the preacher wanted to say or do on Thanksgiving weekend). My protestant upbringing didn’t include following the Church calendar (for example Mother’s Day was much more important than, say, Trinity Sunday—if Trinity Sunday was even acknowledged), so the Christmas season more or less ended for me on 25 December. There were no “Twelve Days of Christmas” or any talk really of Epiphany with an emphasis on the wise men, so whatever you said from the puplit needed to fit into a three- or four-chapter container. Jack Hayford always seemed genuinely excited about the season and was looking for ways to make it significant to his hearers and readers.

I didn’t quite know what to expect as I approached Joy to the World. It began as a very personal book with a beautiful anecdote about the author and his daughter on a trip to the traditional site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Family seems important to Hahn and this is an aspect of the Christmas story he will emphasize and return to as he declares, “The family is the key to Christianity”.

For the balance of the book, though, Hahn takes the Christmas story apart, dedicating a chapter each to focus on an element or character(s) of the Christmas story (Bethlehem, Mary, Joseph, angels, etc.) and then pulling it all together at the end. Hahn writes, “the theme of the chapters that follow … are meditations on Christ’s coming into the world.” Obviously, this is the story of Jesus coming to earth, but Hahn offers this insight:

“Yes, Jesus is at the center of the drama, but he doesn’t behave like a conventional hero. He doesn’t fit the classical model. He’s not acting alone. He’s not intruding himself to change the course of events. In fact, he’s hardly acting at all. He’s passive: nursed and placed to sleep in a manger, found on his mother’s lap by the Magi, carried away in flight to Egypt. Like any baby, he exercises a powerful attraction—drawing love from those who draw near. Yet he is visible only because other arms are holding him.”

My level of enjoyment and willingness to engage with the book was uneven throughout. My conclusion is that this is a book that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. After the very personal opening, Hahn becomes an apologist and takes a chapter to explain how the gospels of Matthew and Luke (with a word, later, about that odd—my word—passage in Revelation 12 that provides a sort of spiritual bigger picture to the Christmas story) are the basis to learn about Jesus’ birth. He concludes that Mary had to provide source material for Luke and that other “gospels” written later cannot be trusted. It’s a refreshingly orthodox book.

Chapter 3 was interesting because Hahn examines the two genealogies that are part of the Christmas story. Matthew, written for Jews, wants to make it clear that Jesus is a descendant of Abraham in the line of David. But there is something “shocking” about the list. It includes four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. And not just any women:

“All four are Gentiles—foreigners, non-Jews—and three of them are associated with sexual immorality. Tamar, a Canaanite, had sexual relations with her father-in-law (Genesis 38:13–18). Rahab, also a Canaanite, was a prostitute by trade (see Joshua 2:1–24). Ruth came from Moab, a people given to idolatry (Ruth 1:4, 15). The most significant woman on the list is Bathsheba, the Hittite woman who committed adultery with King David. Matthew seems to add fuel to the controversial fire by not even listing her by name, but rather as ‘the wife of Uriah’ (Matthew 1:6)—thus drawing attention to her sin of adultery.”

I liked where Hahn was going—Matthew’s genealogy both established Jesus as a Jew and foreshadows the inclusion of Gentiles in the message of salvation. But he then turns to Luke’s genealogy and writes, “Critical readers will sometimes point out ‘discrepancies’ between the genealogy in Matthew’s Gospel and its counterpart in Luke.”

I sensed a little jab with that word “critical”, as though the people who look at the two genealogies and find differences are somehow unreasonable. He admits, “There are indeed differences between the two.” Oh, good, I thought, let’s make sense of them. The first discrepancy/difference he points out is that Matthew begins his gospel with a genealogy while Luke embeds it in his story. Okay. So what? That’s not really a difference that makes a difference.

The second discrepancy/difference “is the relative size of the lists. Luke’s is larger by far, counting seventy-seven generations to Matthew’s forty-two.” This is not really anything to criticize. Mathew’s geneology goes from Abraham to Jesus; Luke’s goes from Adam to Jesus. It almost goes without saying that the second list is going to be longer.

The third discrepancy/difference is the way Matthew and Luke write the genealogies. Matthew chose to begin with Abraham and moves forward to Jesus. Luke traces Jesus back to Adam. Again, I’m not sure this is a big deal. And this may be the point at which I began to get a little frustrated at the book. If you’re trying to make sense of the two lists, these first three differences aren’t really the things you get hung up on.

I loved, though, the insight that Hahn brings to Luke’s genealogy. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say it quite this way:

“In following the trail all the way to Adam, … Luke is evoking what Christians would call the Protoevangelion, or ‘First Gospel,’ the famous passage of Genesis (3:15) in which God mysteriously foretells ‘enmity’ between Satan and the ‘seed’ of the woman. The Genesis passage is unique in speaking of a particular child as a woman’s ‘seed’; the term normally applies to the son’s relationship with his father. Christians traditionally have seen this as referring to Jesus, who had no biological father. In all of history, only he could truly be called the ‘seed’ of a woman. By harking back to this most ancient oracle, Luke is … showing that the longing for a deliverer belongs not only to Israel, but to all humanity.”

I’ve known Genesis 3:15 was an important prophecy concerning Jesus, but never heard anyone connect the dots in quite the same way. I loved this.

But if this is a book is attempting to be apologetic, there are things to deal with that are actual issues. For example, how do you reconcile Luke’s list that goes back to Adam with what historians and scientists tell us about how long people have walked the earth? Hahn doesn’t say anything about this.

And what do you make of the fact that from David on the two lists are different? Hahn lists two plausible solutions, which he suggests “are not contradictory, and they may be complementary”:

1. Matthew is a genealogy traced through Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, while Luke’s genealogy examines his mother’s line.

2. “Matthew’s genealogy emphasizes Jesus’s kingly heritage, while Luke’s focuses on his priestly ancestors.”

Hahn offers some other ideas to explain different names on the lists.

What he doesn’t do is take anything like a position on what he thinks and how he explains it even though he declares he is the sort of person who enjoys looking at these things. He complains about our generation that “Too often … want the evangelists to behave the way professionals in their field would behave in the modern era.” Bottom line: The two lists are different; get over it.

The chapter on Mary was where I really had to hold the book at a distance. This was not a book to find some inspiration; this was about indoctrination. You notice from the beginning that while Mary is Mary, she is also “the Blessed Virgin.” Now in Chapter 5 Hahn writes, “The Church invokes her under dozens of titles, some poetic and some theologically technical. She is the Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, Queen of Angels, Immaculate Conception, Refuge of Sinners, Comforter of the Afflicted, Mystical Rose … Ark of the New Covenant …” As a non-Catholic my head was spinning. First, the church I grew up in does no invoking of Mary and uses none of these titles. Second, none of these titles are found in the Bible, although, obviously, Mary is the mother (lowercase) of God.

And now we have arrived at the central problem for me with this book. Hahn wants to tell the Christmas story. He says that Matthew and Luke are where we read this story. But when it suits him, he is going to place tradition above the scriptures. This is really odd for me. How does one decide when that’s okay?

Hahn writes this about Nazareth, where the Bible says Mary lived and Jesus grew up:

“Today the centerpiece of Nazareth is the Basilica of the Annunciation, built over the ‘venerated grotto’—the remains of the humble cave that served as the childhood home of Mary, the Mother of Jesus.”

In my book I inserted some words so that it reads, “the remains of the humble cave that tradition tells us served as the childhood home of Mary …”

I suppose this is a big difference between Catholics and Protestants—or at least this one Catholic and this Protestant—he wants to consider tradition as fact and I want to say Sola Scriptura and be a little skeptical about things we don’t know for sure.

Hahn takes time to discuss the virgin birth. This is an essential tenet of faith and something that the Bible says is true. And I really enjoyed Hahn’s discussion of the virgin birth. Where I struggle is when he moves from what I believe the Bible teaches (that the conception of Jesus was a miracle) to what the Bible says nothing about, specifically Mary’s “perpetual virginity.” Hahn writes, “According to Christian tradition, Mary remained perpetually a virgin—before Jesus’s birth and after.” There’s a long discussion of why Mary might have remained a virgin after Jesus was born. He’s selling, but I’m not buying. And I wonder who this book is for. Was it intended for the whole Church? Or is the Catholic Church the whole church in his mind?

He writes, “Fundamentalist Protestants sometimes complain that Catholics exaggerate the role of the Blessed Virgin.” At this point I’m not worried about an exaggerated role for Mary, I’m wondering why he is adding to the story. What does perpetual virginity have to do with Christmas? Further, this seems to indicate a lack of both graciousness toward those who might not see eye to eye with him and intellectual humility concerning things that can’t be known for certain. Further, he doesn’t seem interested in trying to convince. This was bewildering. And I had a little bit of an attitude going forward.

The next chapter was about Joseph. In case you missed what he was saying about Mary, this chapter gave him the opportunity for some redundancy with the material he just covered:

“As already noted, the Gospels make clear that Mary conceived her child by the power of the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:35). No sexual act was involved.”

We get it. And, for the record, we’re not arguing with you. If only he would stop there. But, no. He continues,

“Furthermore, according to Christian tradition, Mary remained perpetually a virgin. So the couple, Mary and Joseph, never engaged in marital relations. They were truly husband and wife, but their relationship was not sexually consummated.”

A few paragraphs later, Hahn writes about Helvidius, a fourth-century heretic who “argued against Mary’s perpetual virginity.” What’s not clear is whether Helvidius was a heretic about essentials of the faith and here, on this what I will call minor area of opinion, was one more way he was going against Church teaching, or was Helvidius a heretic because he opposed this teaching. On this issue, I’m with Helvidius. If that makes me a heretic, so be it. I think the responsible thing to do about this is simply to acknowledge that there are different ideas about the life that Mary and Joseph led after Jesus was born. Sincere Christians have and may come to different conclusions.

The chapter on Angels is good. Probably one of the two best in the book because of the way Hahn in a relatively straightforward manner summarizes the Bible’s teachings on angels and explains why they are a significant element in the Christmas story.

It was followed by a dud. Hahn in talking about Bethlehem tries to reconcile the Biblical “taxation” that Luke writes about to the historical record. Hahn is confusing and illogical and unpersuasive. Once again, if this is a book of apologetics, I’m not sure he made anything more clear or easier to believe.

I liked the chapter on the wise men. But Hahn is now inconsistent and doesn’t seem aware. He writes, “Scripture doesn’t tell us how many Magi there were. An ancient tradition tells us there were three, but that may have been inferred from the number of gifts. Other ancient traditions even give us names: Caspar (or Gaspar), Balthasar, and Melchior. But Scripture, again, is silent on these details.” Interesting that he doesn’t make much of tradition when it comes to the wise men. He is cautious about saying too much that isn’t spoken of in the Bible unless, apparently, the subject is Mary.

It feels like Hahn privileges the teaching of Scripture or tradition as it suits him. (And labels of “fundamentalist” and “heretic” are applied to those who disagree.) Later in the book Hahn writes, “Jesus began his life in a cave used as a stable, and his crib was a stone shelf cut into the wall to make a feeding trough for animals.” You’ve got to love the certainty. And then he makes this connection, “On the day of his death, too, he was laid on a stone shelf in a tomb.” But he doesn’t leave it there. “Those who imagine a manger made of wood observe that he was laid upon wood at the time of his birth and at the time of his crucifixion.” While certainly magnanimous, it feels a little bit like “Have it your way: Believe what you want to believe and make whatever connections you want to make.”

I am curious about the placement of this chapter before the chapter on the shepherds. Seems like the Bible speaks of shepherds going to see a baby and the wise men going to see a child, but maybe this is an issue with the translation I use (NIV). Hahn does do a lovely job connecting the shepherds in the Christmas story with the other shepherds and the theme of shepherding throughout the Bible.

The chapter on the flight to Egypt begins with personal reflections on the travels Hahn and his family have done at Christmas. This is interesting, but while he may be able to make the connection that he travels at Christmas just like Joseph, Mary, and Jesus did at the first Christmas, I’m not persuaded that these are anything like each other. Some of the travel the family of Jesus undertook in the Christmas story was arduous and/or included fleeing for their lives.

Something I wish Hahn had done was to explain some of the differences between the Matthew and Luke narratives. Why, for example, is there this element of absolute danger in Matthew, where angels speak to Joseph in a dream and he takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod, and no mention of this in Luke? Luke, if I recall correctly, has the baby Jesus circumcised on the eighth day, followed by purification rites, and a trip home to Nazareth. How does he make sense of these two variations? There is no attempt to explain it.

I mentioned the chapter on angels as one of the two best. It was great because of the scholarship. “Blessed Trinities: Heaven and the Holy Family” was the other excellent chapter. I loved this one because of his insights into the idea of the trinity. The Bible, well, really the New Testament, teaches the extraordinarily difficult concept that God is both one and a community.

Hahn quotes Pope John Paul II:

“God in his deepest mystery is not a solitude, but a family, since he has in himself fatherhood, sonship, and the essence of family, which is love.”

And then Hahn makes this observation:

“Salvation arrives by way of the family—the Holy Family. The household of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph became a ‘home away from home’ for the eternal Son of God. It was an outpost of heaven, an image of the Trinity in the world.”

Never considered that.

I don’t regret reading Joy to the World even though I found it hard to resonate with it. This was the last book I finished reading in 2014. I have a number of books going that will help me get some momentum in this New Year. I only read 14 in 2014 so I’d like to do a little better this year.

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[…] Roman Catholics. During the Christmas season I read a book by a Roman Catholic (see my review here) that was challenging for me and I found myself so quick to go on the […]

by Rereading Mere Christianity • C.S. Lewis « on 25 January 2015 at 5:44 pm. #