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The limits of relevance

By Dwight G. Duncan
Posted: 11/26/2010

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At least since the 1960s, the Church and churchmen, politicians, teachers, writers and pundits have aspired to be "relevant." Often, this translates into being merely engaging, amusing and entertaining. Truth, if not a casualty, is at best an unintended side-effect.

Twenty-five years ago Neil Postman published a cultural broadside entitled, "Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business." The book claims that television and the electronic media have transformed discourse to the point of trivialization and irrationality. Now everyone has attention deficit disorder. As opposed to logical sustained argument that used to thrive in a culture of the printed word, we now have sound-bites, emoting, and fleeting images. Whatever entertains the most, wins. Whatever.

This tendency affects politics, news, the arts, even religion. Recently, Garry Wills, the writer and popular historian, was asked his thoughts about Pope Benedict XVI by the New York Times. His reply: "I think he's irrelevant." Because being relevant is relative to something, the reporter asked a follow-up, "Irrelevant to what?" Wills specified, "To religion; to the Gospel."

It seems remarkable that someone who calls himself a Catholic would so marginalize the pope. We are not called Roman Catholic for nothing, after all. "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church," said Jesus. "Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." "He who hears you, hears me." This hardly makes the pope irrelevant to religion, and the Gospel.

Wills' view is clearly not the view of Paul Johnson, another writer and popular historian. In a recent article in Forbes magazine, he wrote: "Whom would you call the world's best salesman? At present I would nominate Pope Benedict XVI." Speaking of the Pope's successful visit to Great Britain, he said: "somehow the Pope came across as a man of warm benevolence and gentle holiness. When he smiled, it was a blessing. He gave the impression that he meant every word he said and that his words were worth thinking about and remembering."

"Sincerity, of course, is the essence of good salesmanship. Yet the secret of the Pope's success was that he was not selling. He was giving. He was introducing a great many people to a world with which they are unfamiliar and reassuring others that their world is still there, brighter and more welcoming than ever." Far from being irrelevant to religion and the Gospel, the pope is its greatest promoter.

I think Paul Johnson has it right. Garry Wills, on this point at least, is, well, irrelevant. One of the striking teachings of Jesus is that oftentimes criticisms that we make of others are truer of ourselves. Wills thinks Pope Benedict is irrelevant because Pope Benedict doesn't agree with him about the various issues confronting the Church. But Benedict is pope, not Garry. It's what God wills, not what Garry wills. Wills is perhaps projecting his own idle-spectator status onto the pope.

I'm reminded of a piece by the modernist writer Gertrude Stein, who before she died in 1946 wrote a short reflection on the atomic bomb. "They asked me what I thought of the atomic bomb. I said I had not been able to take any interest in it." Amusing. But whether she was able to take an interest in it is, of course, irrelevant to the sad fact of the atomic bomb. I'm sure the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were (and still are) interested in it. It is a (horrifying) fact, regardless of whether we think about it or don't think about it.

Facts are facts; truth is truth, regardless of the fickle fashions of the moment. Popes preach the Gospel "in season and out of season," like St. Paul. Sometimes we like what they say; sometimes we don't. Truth is what matters. Relevance is in the eye of the beholder.

Dwight G. Duncan is professor at UMass School of Law Dartmouth. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.