Book Review

"Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World" by Joanna Weaver

Susan P. Michaelson
Tuesday, July 1st 2008
Jul/Aug 2008

Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World is not a new book. It was initially released in 2000 in hardback, and was re-released in trade paperback in 2002 as a revised edition with a new Bible study appendix. In 2007, the book was again republished in a gift edition. The 2002 edition, which I read, continues to hold a respectable place on the Amazon best-seller list in its category, "Christian living-women's issues."

Joanna Weaver's focus finds expression in her subtitle, Finding Intimacy with God in the Busyness of Life. Using the account of Martha and Mary in Luke 10:38-42 as her springboard, she develops an involved eisegetical tale wherein Martha "Stewart," the energetic hostess, welcomes thirteen or more men for an impromptu dinner party, complete with folded napkins and centerpieces. Meanwhile, Mary, "more prone to walk in the dew of the morning than to get caught up in the 'dos' of the day," is nowhere to be found. We know, of course, that Mary is sitting at the Lord's feet, listening to him. In Weaver's telling, Martha is pushed to the limit when she finds "little Mary being quite contrary" in with the men, and "with a cutting edge to her voice" asks Jesus to intervene (3-5). But, instead of doing what Martha wants and expects, Jesus issues his famous rebuke and defends Mary's choice as that which is better.

Weaver characterizes this narrative as a tug of war between "living room intimacy" with Christ and "kitchen service." In the next three chapters, she analyzes the passage. Martha's question, "Lord, don't you care?" reveals that she is trapped in the "three deadly D's": distraction, discouragement, and doubt. Jesus diagnoses hers as a worry problem and his prescribed cure is that Martha discover how to worship and grow in her relationship with him. In the following three chapters, Weaver addresses these findings more deeply.

In chapter eight, "Lessons from Lazarus," the book takes a more expansive turn. Moving to John's Gospel, Weaver examines how the sisters coped with hardship and tragedy after the death of their brother, and what they each sought from Jesus. She focuses on Martha's teachable heart in chapter nine, based on the differences she notes between the narratives in Luke and John, and on Mary's extravagant love in chapter ten, highlighting the differences between her and Judas in John 12:1-11, the anointing with nard. Chapter eleven discusses the need to balance work and worship, and provides some suggestions on how to achieve it. Chapter twelve describes Weaver's aha moment ("It's both!"), and she reveals that it's possible to pursue Martha tasks with a Mary heart within the joy of total surrender to Christ.

It is easy to see why Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World is so popular with women's Bible study groups and with others seeking scriptural guidance on how to navigate the demands of modern life while keeping their eyes fixed on Jesus. Weaver has a warm, conversational style, and is confessional with her own struggles to find balance as a pastor's wife, a mother, and an author. She lavishly quotes other well-known practical theology and devotional writers and makes good use of modern day parables to illustrate her points. Weaver intersperses her writing with boxes containing tips, how-tos, and other practical observations; and in the appendix, she includes study questions for each chapter and other helpful information. She wants women to learn from her personal journey, and it's easy to do. Who among us hasn't at times found herself spinning out of control with too much to do and too little time to do any of it well?

But even as I periodically found myself nodding in agreement, I was more frequently disappointed by Weaver's reductionistic, pedestrian approach to the biblical material. She is not an exegete, and her reliance instead on middle American midrash, homespun stories, and proof-texting is the book's most serious weakness. In an effort to be folksy, she moves into dubious theological territory when she explains the Bible as "God's grammar book," and provides instructions like "never put a period where God puts a comma" (126). She does little to explore Martha's positive role as the householder who welcomes Jesus, exactly as did Zaccheus, or Luke's placement of the account just after the parable of the Good Samaritan, inviting us to explore his juxtaposition of the roles of service and piety in both. Weaver is so intent on her ministry to frazzled wives and mothers that she misses the power of the Martha and Mary texts to challenge and transform hearts and minds in the context of the bigger gospel picture.

Ironically, her commitment to Martha and Mary as the vehicles for making her point actually undermines the structure of the book by its midpoint. The raising of Lazarus and the anointing of Jesus feature the sisters of Bethany, but not in direct continuity with Luke. Weaver's efforts to fold all three accounts neatly into her thesis are forced, and the book wanders disjointedly in the later chapters. Although she occasionally offers some interesting individual insights along the way-I particularly liked her value comparison between Judas's thirty pieces of silver and Mary's alabaster jar of nard-they are frustratingly brief and don't move her central argument forward. It should be said, however, that a Bible study group working a chapter or two at a time is not likely to find the structural problem bothersome.

Weaver does not write from a Reformed perspective, so some readers will be turned off by lines like "just as Adam and Eve's disobedience blocked God's purpose, our obedience releases his plan" (130). But this book's demonstrated staying power suggests that most broadly evangelical women will overlook these flaws. Instead, they will identify with Joanna Weaver's kindhearted, transformed Martha guidance in helping them rebuild Mary-like worship relationships with Jesus. They will find that Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World will read easily, strike the right chords, and inspire them to seek Weaver's personal victory for themselves.

Tuesday, July 1st 2008

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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