Modern culture has reduced the pope to an actor in red shoes
Seduced by the cover headline – “Benedict’s Quiet Revolution” – I’d invested in the February 15th edition of Newsweek before it struck me the magazine was supposed to have retired at the end of 2012 to a life of meditation and contemplation online.
Media and church have long stood, alongside kings and soldiers, among the four major “estates” of human society. For the moment they remain, but confront different kinds of cultural pressure that threaten both with extinction.
Ironically, then, among the most pressing crises faced by the churches is that they must function within a culture of simplistic positivisim, generated and consolidated by the media. In this culture, truth is recognisable only in the visible and demonstrable.
This was the theme of Pope Benedict XVI’s 2011 Bundestag speech, in which he spoke of the windowless “bunker” humans build for themselves to inhabit, excluding not merely transcendence but also the mysteriousness of human existence. The bunker is built from God’s materials, but the existence of God, being incapable of comprehension in the logic of positivism, becomes implausible.
Triumph of positivism
The triumph of positivism owes much to processes whereby mass-media society absorbs copious information about everything but avoids the most fundamental questions. Thus, we feel “informed”, can regurgitate isolated pieces of seemingly definitive knowledge and speak assuredly about scientific progress with a vague sense that this is creating a new understanding of reality. But overall the effect is an approximation that works only inside the bunker. Meanwhile, we remain immobilised before the questions that left our ancestors, in their piety and supposed ignorance, unfazed. Our heads feel we are part of an escalating project of human deification, but our hearts feel excluded.
It was interesting, then, that Newsweek chose two British novelists, Tim Parks and AN Wilson, to write about the pope. Elsewhere, the novel remains one of the few remaining refuges of non-positivist thinking. In these islands, however, the genre has really become a subset of conventional media, being largely concerned with sociological themes.
Parks grew up in Finchley, London, the youngest son of what he has described as a “missionary-minded” Anglican vicar. Both his parents were “hyper-religious” and, when he was 12, became involved with the charismatic renewal movement. AN Wilson was once as much a media darling as Richard Dawkins; he was a long-time atheist who once published a pamphlet entitled Against Religion. Four years ago, however, he revealed that he had rediscovered his faith and reconverted to Christianity, causing his media profile to go into sharp decline.