Rolling Stone have put Pope Francis on the cover of their latest edition, thereby sealing his cool factor into the pop-culture psyche. It's remarkable how quickly this man has managed to capture the imagination of people who one would not expect to be interested at all. Even someone like TV host of HBO's Real Time, Bill Maher, whose disdain for all things religious seems to run pretty deep has sounded almost bullish about the man.
I continua to have concerns about the lack of substantive shifts on major policies within the church particularly around sexuality and gender, but I am also quite taken by his swift change of gears and the amazing results it has produced in the cultural perception of the office of a Pope and perhaps even of the church itself, at least in the short term.
The RS article is pretty thorough, say what you will about Rolling Stone's demise over the past decades into little more than another gossip/promotional rag driven by a culture of gossip, it still manages to offer really thoughtful articles on wide ranges of topics, and this essay on Pope Francis is no exception.
A fair piece of the article is devoted to his personal style and how it has been the catalyst for a sea-change in both perception outside and perhaps practice inside the church. The article acknowledges that so far Francis has produced little in the way of substantive doctrinal change, but perhaps argues that this is not really the way things will change anyway, an idea I found quite fascinating. There have been accusations even from conservative insiders that francis is more about style than substance, but Thomas Reese, a catholic analyst is quoted, saying that in the Catholic church style is substance, that a church of symbols responds to symbolic gestures better than other methods. It would seem that much of the world outside the catholic church agrees, symbolic gestures would seem to be well received, especially when they are so obviously in tune with the very real issues that many in the world face. It should come as no surprise really that francis has gained resonance because he has principally addressed and critiqued runaway capitalism, greed, disparity and the growing loss of concern for those being left behind in the wake of economic shifts and changes in the economies of the world. When tweets make the rounds over and over concerning last weeks snippet that 85 billionaires have as much wealth as half the rest of the world or something ridiculous like that, it makes sense that a pope who calls this for what it is-complete madness-would find a level of popularity. After all religion is generally presumed to speak for the poor and dispossessed, of course, the fact that people seem genuinely surprised when it does, goes a long way to demonstrating what the central problem people have with religion.
You should buy the magazine and read the article for yourself, but there were a couple of little quotes I would like to address because I think they are pertinent for anyone in the religion game these days.
Speaking of his ascent to the papacy, the author, Mark Binelli, notes that when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis has never been a very good public speaker, but once he became Pope, "his recognizable humanity comes off as positively revolutionary. Against the absurd, impossibly baroque backdrop of the Vatican, a world still run like a medieval court, Francis' election represents...a scandal of normality."
Recognizable humanity and the scandal of normality--two key factors in his ascent to 'people's pope' if you will. If you combine those two ingredients with his ability and experience of genuine human struggle and an understanding of the need for the church to represent something other than the moralizing, sex-obsessed, petty, vindictive, judgmental vehicle it has largely come to be for the most part(and I'm speaking here of the whole church, not just the catholic arm of it), you have the groundwork for, or at least the potential for serious change in the relationship between church and culture.
For a long time I have been saying that our focus has been on the wrong things. The church has been trying for too long to be hip, to find some combination of forms that will help it meet the culture--i.e. the ping-pong debates over stylistic worship practices-the recovery of the traditional, the exploration of new styles--as far as I am concerned that is simply a matter of taste and ability and not a factor at all in the game--the real issue is, and always has been content. And content, as McLuhan reminds us is subject to containers. The reason that the Pope's normalcy is so effective is that we find ourselves in the midst of a social media communication revolution, where our public discourse is shifting toward the mundane, and I don't think this is either a good or bad thing, it just is. One of the critiques of social media that you often hear from naysayers usually is something like, "I don't care that you are getting a double soy latte with choclalte sprinkles and a hint of vanilla," "why does anyone need to know that??!" etc. etc. Of course, in the grand scheme of things none of us do, but what is missed is the way in which I think these things point to a cry for a celebration of the normal, the mundane, the everyday. I think people want a heavy dose of normalcy in their religious leaders, something that you often don't get, so when you do, it comes as gift, as surprise, and perhaps even as scandal.
(Nadia Bolz-Weber's book Pastrix has done really well in the marketplace for instance. Yes, she's a woman, with tattoos and a clerical collar, but to be honest, there is very little that is theologically radical about her, her radicality if it exists, lies in her openness and honesty. Much has been made of her swearing-well, but her swearing is simply a symbolic gesture of her normalcy if you ask me (of course, she's a lutheran and as far as I know her movement's founder was a little coarse of language too:)). Some would say that it is not proper for a clergy person to swear, I would say that the comment is its own argument in missing the point (and no, I dont mean every body should start swearing as some missional tool, some people shouldn't swear coz they don't do it well, and there is nothing worth than poor swearing).
I would say that it is her recognizable humanity that proves to be her biggest gift to people, and that this has always been the case, but somewhere along the way religious people forgot this in a sea of theological ideas that are concerned more about a particular kind of moralizing than with becoming more human and humane, which to me is a central part of the teachings of Jesus. In a world that is increasingly material in its focus, its more resonant to be fully human than other-worldly in my mind--which I think is what Bonhoeffer might have been hinting at when he posited a religionless christianity not defined by inwardness .
I've been reading Mark C. Taylor's remarkable book Hiding with my reading group. Taylor explores surface as depth, style as substance, a book that is meant to disabuse us of our archaic notion that what lies beneath the surface of things is any more significant than what rides on the skin of things. Pope francis is speaking through his skin at the moment, responding viscerally, immediately, unedited to a world that would seem tobe more hungry for this kind of talk and leadership than many imagined. I hope he keeps it up and that many follow his lead.