Mary Chosen Nativity
Mary (Sarah Anne) holds baby Jesus in 'Christmas with The Chosen,' a film based on the biblical Nativity accounts which released in theaters and streaming this month. (Alvaro Aguayo / The Chosen)

‘Mary Did You Know’ Writer Mark Lowry Good-Natured Over Song’s Controversy

By Bob Smietana

For Mark Lowry, almost every day is Christmas.

Whenever the storyteller and singer takes the stage for a concert, he always closes the show with the same song — “Mary Did You Know?” — no matter what time of year it is.

“When you have one hit, you better end with it,” Lowry said in a recent phone interview.

Lowry co-wrote “Mary Did You Know?” with Buddy Greene, a well-respected songwriter and instrumentalist, in 1991, while both were on tour with famed gospel singers Bill and Gloria Gaither. Recorded first by Christian singer Michael English, the song has become a modern Christmas staple — covered by some of the biggest names in the business: Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd, Mary J. Blige, Clay Aiken, Carrie Underwood and the a cappella vocal group Pentatonix.

The idea for the song dates back to conversations the 63-year-old had with his mother about Jesus and Mary. Most revolved around the question: What was it like to raise the son of God?

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“Literally, what was it like teaching the Word of God to talk,” he said, referring to a title used for Jesus in the Gospel of John. “What was it like to give him a haircut? Did she ever walk into his room and say, ‘clean this mess up’?”

He added that most of the questions he had did not make their way into the song — only the ones that rhymed made it.

Those conversations also touched on spiritual topics, like the mystery of the incarnation, said Lowry — the Christian belief that God became human in the person of Jesus. They eventually inspired a series of short monologues Lowry wrote in 1984 for a Christmas concert at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, then led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. Those monologues were the glue that held the show together, serving as a transition from one Christmas song to another.

Mark Lowry
Storyteller and singer Mark Lowry. (Courtesy photo)

They stuck with Lowry, who thought they might work for a song if he could find the right music. Several musicians tried to come up with melodies, but none fit, said Lowry. Then, while on tour with the Gaithers, he showed the lyrics to Greene and asked him to have a go. Greene took them home and started working on some music.

Lowry recalls that Greene, who could not be reached, had spent a day listening to Christmas carols written in minor keys, like “What Child is This?” and “We Three Kings” before composing the melody for “Mary Did You Know?”

“It was beautiful,” he said. “It was haunting, and it made the song work. It didn’t take away from the message — it elevated the message.”

While writing lyrics, Lowry said he imagined himself as an overly enthusiastic angel who showed up at the manger during the Christmas story and was filled with questions. He used the phrase, “Did you know” to express that enthusiasm — as if the angel was bubbling over with joy for what the birth of Jesus meant. The questions in the song are the questions Lowry would have asked if he had been there.

But that phrase has gotten Lowry in trouble in recent years — seen as a kind of theological mansplaining.

“Listeners have complained that, yes, Mary knew that she was going to bear the Messiah, the promised salvation of Israel, and that, therefore, the rhetorical question upon which the song rests is either redundant or condescending,” author Joy Clarkson, host of the “Speaking with Joy” podcast, wrote in a 2018 article entitled, “Yes, Mary Knew.”

That phrase has also inspired a series of sarcastic social media posts. “Mary did you know … that there’s a boy on his way to gift your newborn with a drum solo,” tweeted author and pastor Courtney Ellis. “Mary did you know we’ve been trying to reach you about your extended warranty,” tweeted Texas attorney Robert Callahan II. There’s even apparently a satire of the song, entitled “Mary Freaking Knew.”

Lowry is pretty good-natured about the criticism of the song. He’s quick to admit it has shortcomings — which he thinks are more evident to his fellow Christians who are more familiar with theology than the average person who hears the song. The last thing he wanted to do was to insult Mary or anger his fellow believers.

“I never meant for it to start a war or irritate people,” he said. “I definitely didn’t want that.”

That response fits Lowry’s character. He’s long used humor to help his fellow evangelicals lighten up, preferring laughter to a fight any day.

“We’ve portrayed to the world that we’re superhuman beings, and we’re not,” he said in a 1999 interview. “We’re just sinners in need of a savior.” 

Still, he’s grateful for what he called the “miracle of the song.” Lowry, who has never been married, views his songs as his children. None of them, he said, has grown and had a life of their own the way “Mary Did You Know” has. Most of all, he hopes the song will point people to the story of the baby Jesus and what his arrival would mean.

“I hope the song makes people think about the baby Jesus,” he said. “I hope it sends them running to Luke 1 to find out what Mary knew.”

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service.

 
 
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13 thoughts on “‘Mary Did You Know’ Writer Mark Lowry Good-Natured Over Song’s Controversy”

  1. Folks are just working way too hard to find fault. While it’s not my favorite Christmas song, I was really touched by it the first time I heard it. Mansplaining? Come on.

  2. Levieta Rhea Haulk

    People are so busy pointing out other people’s stuff that they don’t see the hook on themselves.
    It is a beautiful song and shared the message of Jesus Christ. Thank you Mr. Lowery for giving the world this beautiful message of the Gospel

  3. I so love this song. When my son passed away at the age of 39 in November of 2003, the movie “The Passion of the Christ” came out the following February. Watching that film and seeing Mary. who was always in the background watching as her son was on his way to die for us, I was touched so much I could not keep my eyes open during some scenes. Having lost my son so recently, I knew what Mary was going through. To this day, I can’t bring myself to watch that movie (I do plan to this year). The song lifts me up knowing Jesus is here for us and my son is in Heaven awaiting his family to join him one day.

    1. Donna, I got tears when in the movie Mary was thinking about Jesus as a little boy and he would fall down. She would then help him. But she couldn’t do it now. He had to walk this road by himself. May God bless you and your family. My nephew died about 12 yrs ago which was my dad’s first grandchild. Now that I am a grandfather I wonder how I would react if one of my grandchildren passed. The bottom line is this life leaves a lot to be desired. Yet it does remind us that this is not our home. Being the Lord who died for us is where our hope and confidence is at.

    2. I identify with you Donna – our son left this earth way to soon for me at the age of 25 in 2008 — Mary did you know touches my heart so — I too have been unable to watch the Passion of Christ – have not felt I’ve had the energy to do so – I too hope to watch it some day. Good was so good to us as he allowed our son to make a profession of faith before he left this earth – forever thankful!

  4. This is a beautiful song. Any Mother can understand what Mary felt about her baby boy. Just because she had been told he would be the Savior of the World she had no idea in The beginning how that would happen. The words of this song will still be with us long after the critics have been forgotten.

  5. Rebecca Sodergren

    I have to admit that I think the satire lyrics are hilarious, but I don’t have a big problem with the song. Yes, she knew she bore the Messiah who would save his people. But there must have been so much mystery to the entire process of raising Him. She knew, but there was a lot she didn’t know. I appreciate Lowry’s affability about the kerfuffle.

  6. It’s just stupid to make a big deal about this lovely song. As a mom I have always loved it. I am glad I am nowhere near the publics eye.

  7. Obviously Mary knew the facts which the angel Gabriel spoke to her, but she had no idea of the details of how Jesus’ life would play out. I’m sure Simeon’s prophecy in the temple must have baffled her as to how a sword would pierce her heart and the rest of the details of his message. I’m sure she was like any new mother not really knowing how to raise a child, except it would have been a much heavier weight of responsibility knowing who Jesus was. Any pregnant woman knows the facts that she is about to birth a child, will have to somehow raise that child to the best of her ability along with the father. But as to the details of that child’s life, no, she doesn’t know and I’m sure Mary didn’t either. Mary wasn’t any different than any other woman. She simply had a unique calling and purpose in life, as we all do in whatever way the Lord has called us.

    1. The article seems to be so sure of Mary’s knowledge about Jesus being God in the flesh. But I would like to see chapter and verse where she knew this exactly. She knew salvation would come through Him. She knew He was supernatural because she had not been with a man. Was she even present when Jesus told a few folks He was the Son of God? We don’t know for sure. Obviously as church doctrine gets formed by the Apostles she would have known like the rest of the church of the hypostatic union which is the person of God having two natures, a divine one and a human one without Adam’s original sin. But did she know all of this while Jesus was growing up? We are unsure.

  8. It is a beautiful song that will live on forever and still be around long after critics are gone. No one knows for sure what Mary knew…and I think it stirs up our minds as well as providing a beautiful song. I appreciate the writers taking so much time to get it just right. It is so often that a singer will take a song and change it to suit themselves. I certainly hope no one tries this with this song.

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