Francis, the Rorschach Pope

(Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty Images)

A satirical blog post on Diversity Chronicle has caught the attention of many people. The post states the following at the close of the Third Vatican Council:

In a speech that shocked many, the Pope claimed “All religions are true, because they are true in the hearts of all those who believe in them. What other kind of truth is there? In the past, the church has been harsh on those it deemed morally wrong or sinful. Today, we no longer judge. Like a loving father, we never condemn our children. Our church is big enough for heterosexuals and homosexuals, for the pro-life and the pro-choice! For conservatives and liberals, even communists are welcome and have joined us. We all love and worship the same God.”

Snopes quickly debunked the article, which wasn’t difficult to do, since if there had been a Third Vatican Council, the world would have heard about it well prior to its close. These councils take years to complete and one would dominate headlines much in the same way that the election of a new pope does. Also, so many of the supposed declarations of the council—ordination of female priests, Catholicism no longer being strictly pro-life, etc.—directly contradict Roman Catholic teachings as well as statements that Francis has made this year.

Still, many people want a story like this to be true and believed that it was. Pope Francis’s shift toward inclusion has many people wishing he will rewrite Catholic dogma. Francis has become a sort of Rorschach Pope in which people see whatever they want to see in him. Because of his dramatic emphasis on compassion and active love, people assume he must believe all sorts of things, usually the things they believe themselves. I am reminded of American politicians who capture the imagination and people put all their views and hopes on these figures. I saw this with Barack Obama in 2008 prior to (and even after) he expressed his platform. Some liberal-minded folks saw him as standing for whatever they believed. I saw this phenomenon again in 2012 with some conservative voters and Rick Perry before he entered the race. Politicians wisely keep their mouths shut during this phase because once they say specific views, they risk alienating some of their supporters.

It has been fascinating to see the same projection placed upon Pope Francis. This projection has been odd as well because unlike American politicians beginning a presidential campaign, Francis has clearly articulated specific views. It’s not as if he’s been playing coy. As pontiff and throughout his vocation as priest, bishop, and cardinal before that, he has fully affirmed the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. True, he has emphasized the compassionate side of the Roman Catholic Church in ways that stand in contrast to his predecessors. This emphasis is most welcome and we cannot dismiss its importance. But as I argued earlier this year, Francis has not taken the Church in an entirely new theological direction—he has affirmed the Catholic teachings on sexuality, marriage, and ordination, among other things. People rightly see the way he expresses the teachings of the Catholic Church as different. For example, in his interview with America Magazine, Francis claimed God focused on the whole person rather than merely the sin.

A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.

This is a deeply compassionate statement and a wonderful challenge to Christians to be more welcoming, but Francis has not rewritten Catholic teaching on human sexuality. I applaud and am deeply challenged by Francis’ compassionate posture toward all people. I see Jesus Christ at work in him. His example compels me to behave similarly.

But I cannot assume because Francis has a more welcoming posture toward women in ministry that he is somehow changing ordination rules, no matter how much I would love to see the Catholic Church ordain female priests. If I were to make such an assumption, I would make Francis into my own image. The danger with such a move is that it renders his deeply prophetic witness mute. If Francis stands for all the things I stand for, what do I have to learn from him? I’m reminded of the quotation from Anne Lamott’s priest friend Tom, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” Instead, when we allow Pope Francis to be himself, rather than a projection of our theological wishes, he becomes the gracious man that uncomfortably challenges our consumerism. When he blesses and kisses the disfigured man, he challenges us to cross our boundaries of comfort in order to love our neighbors. When he washes the feet of prisoners, he calls into question our prejudices of which people are worth our love and embrace. And because he does all these things concretely, he challenges our good intentions—intentions that support compassion and inclusion in the abstract but do nothing to drive us out to celebrate our birthdays with people staying in a homeless shelter.

Elizabeth Tenety wrote one of my favorite pieces of commentary on Francis’s young papacy: “Like Pope Francis? You’ll Love Jesus.” In it she articulates the source of Francis’s radical views on grace, forgiveness, and love. That source is Jesus Christ. And if Francis has become a Rorshach test in which we see whatever we want to see in him, then he stands in good company. We’ve been doing this to Jesus for millennia. He gets co-opted for just about any cause, whether it’s free market capitalism, socialism, democracy, feudalism, absolute monarchism, or anarchy. Projecting our causes onto Jesus reduces him. The Jesus we meet in the Gospels is far more challenging and prophetic than any of the projections we have created. It would seem wise to let him and Francis speak for themselves.

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Christmas Cards of the Real Mary

My friend, Carol Joy Lutz, recently delivered a wonderful sermon, “Wisdom from a Teenager: Lessons from Mary.” She reveres Mary for her faith and courage while avoiding sentimentalizing Mary to the point that she no longer resembles the thoughtful young woman we meet in the Bible. In the sermon Carol suggests what Christmas cards could look like if they truly honored the challenges Mary faced because God blessed her with being the mother of Jesus.

I loved Carol’s more honest and raw Christmas greetings that respect the story of a young, pregnant, unwed virgin, whose son will be betrayed and unjustly executed. I decided to make mock-ups of these cards.

These cards might shock people. I do not intend to make light of or diminish the difficulties and tragedies Mary and other parents who share her experiences have endured. My hope is that the surprising words of these cards will prompt reflection on the costs of Mary’s discipleship. I wanted to play up the incongruities between the staid imagery of Jesus’ mother and Carol’s sobering, earthy descriptions of Mary’s experience.

Mary was truly blessed, but let us remember the Bible defines blessing differently than we do. We often confuse being blessed with having an easy life, which is hardly ever the case for the people in the Bible who receive God’s blessing, especially Mary.

As Carol says, “Life is not all neat and tidy, like a dime store Christmas card. Here are some Christmas card sentiments you’ll never find at Hallmark:”

Stinky Manger Christmas Card

Foul-Mouthed Shepherds Christmas Card

Filled with Doubt Christmas Card

I’ll give Carol the final word:

Can we be like Mary? Taking time and care to unclench our jaw, to uncross our arms, to be open to what gifts God wants to give us, even if they may be disguised as suffering?

Can we say a prayer of gratitude in the midst of the struggle, knowing that God can redeem the worst pile of mess in our lives?

Is there something that God wants to birth in you that may have a very long gestation, that may even have a long, painful delivery, but that could bring light to this broken world?

Generosity in Line, on the March, or: Starbucks Becomes a Thin Place

In our Advent devotional, Embrace the Coming Light, Eddy Ekmekji and I suggest following a spiritual discipline that coincides with each week’s character and theme. This week’s discipline is generosity, following the story of the wise men. My mother’s fiance, Doug, has been reading the devotional and put that discipline into practice yesterday. As he made his daily morning Starbucks run, after paying for his order, he then decided to buy the order of a police officer behind him in line.

When Doug returned to that same Starbucks this morning, he learned from the barista that his act of generosity set off something truly amazing. The police officer whose coffee he purchased then bought the following customer’s order. That person then bought the next order. This chain of generosity continued for over eighty people and lasted from 7:15am, when Doug paid for the cop’s coffee, until 9:20am.

I find it astounding how God can use one act of grace to offer serendipitous gifts to people as well as to form their characters. For one morning, the Holy Spirit made over eighty people more generous. A busy Starbucks, full of cold, tired people wanting their caffeine fix on their way to work became a thin place, where the boundary between Heaven and Earth was more permeable and the goodness of God was more easily experienced.

Embrace the Coming Light

Jesus, Santa Claus, and Race

A video has been popping up in my news feed on Facebook that shows Fox News’ Megyn Kelly asserting both Santa Claus and Jesus were white men.

Kelly’s assertion is strange and in many ways this is a silly topic, but we can let it spur on an interesting discussion of race, ethnicity, and the Christian faith.

Let’s first address the historical matters. St. Nicholas was of Greek descent, born in the late 3rd century in Patara, in Asia Minor, or what is now modern day Turkey. The likelihood is slim that he had the white skin and rosy cheeks of popular depictions of Santa Claus. His skin was probably somewhere between the olive tones of Mediterranean folks to the brown hues of the Middle East. (See here for an estimated reproduction of his face.) One can argue, and some have, that Kelly is wrong for making such a strong statement that Santa Claus is white because the Santa who lives at the North Pole is a fictional character who has little connection to the historical St. Nicholas, who acted as bishop of Myra. Either way, Kelly’s assertion about Santa’s race falls apart.

Jesus, we know was born in Ancient Palestine and was of Jewish descent. He probably looked like an average Galilean Semitic male of his day. That is, he probably didn’t look like the fair-skinned, blue-eyed, soft-haired person portrayed in so much Western art. His complexion and hair were likely darker than those of most ethnic Europeans.

Some forensic anthropologists say this image is probably a better representation of what Jesus looked like

These historical matters make us question our preconceptions and depictions of Jesus’ appearance and race. Our ideas of Jesus’ appearance come to the front during Advent and Christmas when so much art representing his family is on display in Nativity scenes, or crèches. My family has several Nativity scenes throughout our home. They come from different cultures and depict the Holy Family in a variety of ways. We have a crèche from Senegal that portrays the Holy Family as Africans. We have one from Mongolia that comes with a yurt. We have another from America with the figures looking generally Caucasian-ish. In portraying Jesus and his family as Sengalese, Mongolian, or Caucasian, these Nativity scenes contain dramatic historical inaccuracies and thus limits their value as representations of what actually happened in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago.

Senegalese Nativity

These multicultural crèches, however, contain enormous worth as theological mnemonics for the meaning of Jesus’ birth and incarnation. (Please don’t read that I’m making a Jesus of history, Christ of faith dichotomy.) The crèches from around the world show us Jesus is Emmanuel, “God with us,” in our very specific circumstances. Jesus is present with the Senegalese on the plains and with the Mongolians in their yurts. I am therefore not so upset with depictions of Jesus and his family as northern Europeans. I think it is appropriate and necessary to have depictions of the Holy Family in which they look like northern Europeans, just as we need Nativity scenes in which Mary and Joseph look like Māoris or Peruvians or Sri Lankans to remind us of Jesus’ presence with us in our cultures and peoples. These cultural specific crèches can be wonderful tools for mission as well as a way for a culture to embrace the story of Jesus as their own.

Czech Nativity

The danger comes when we take these cultural specific representations and tell other cultures this is what Jesus looked like. This is what has precisely happened with the northern European Jesus with the flowing locks of sandy blonde hair and blue eyes. It has become the dominant image of the historical Jesus and a symbol of colonialism. Imposing this historically incorrect image on other cultures does not allow those people to experience the Palestinian Jewish man who wandered the Galilean shore speaking Aramaic and Greek. Further, it hinders their ability to experience Jesus’ incarnation in the midst of their language and traditions.

Mongolian Nativity

On the other hand, I believe our faith can grow immensely by reflecting on Nativity scenes from different cultures, just as our faith matures when we sing praise songs to God in different languages. We begin to see just how universal and intimate the God of the Bible is. Jesus came in a very specific time and place and he continues to meet us in specific times and places. My understanding, appreciation, and experience of God only deepens as I witness other cultures encountering Jesus. I love it that in a few days I’ll be celebrating the birth of God incarnate at the same time as my brothers and sisters in Korea, Sweden, Zimbabwe, Canada, Australia, and Bolivia.

As we celebrate Advent and Christmas, let us remember the historicity of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem as well as the theological truth of his ongoing incarnation in our wonderfully diverse and beautiful world. May our Nativity scenes reflect both of these realities.

Check out the site, World Nativity for beautiful, culturally-specific Nativity scenes from third world and developing countries.