I meant to post this flashback last night, but was caught up in that server crash that shut GetReligion down for several hours. So here goes.
Several days before control of Hong Kong was handed back to the regime that runs China, I took part in a small conference in that mega-city focusing on journalism and religious liberty. During that meeting, I ended up at a dinner table -- containing one really, really large fish -- talking with a powerful local publisher.
As you would imagine, we were talking about the subject of the day -- the handover. At one point, he made a statement that went something like this (it was not a setting in which one pulled out a notepad and took notes): "There are, you know, only two men in the world that the leaders of China truly fear."
Everyone at the table gestured for him to tell us more and he replied, "They are Bill Gates and Pope John Paul II."
We all gestured again: Why those two?
The first of the two men, he noted, wanted to designate how a country carried out almost any kind of transaction in business, educational, politics or culture. All of those activities, in this day and age, involve computers in one way or another, and Gates wanted to set the standards and write the rules for all of that. You could either work with him or you had to oppose what he was trying to do, and that would be very hard.
And then there was Pope John Paul II, a man who was very difficult to control because his followers were committed to honoring an authority far higher than the state.
One man wanted to control this life (or most of its public expressions), while the other's authority was rooted in the life to come. For a totalitarian state, these were two very different threats.
I thought of this while working through one of the lists that the editors at USA Today have started posting as part of the celebration of the newspaper's 25th birthday. They started with a bang:
They are the 25 most influential people of the past 25 years -- those who changed our world, transformed technology, mapped the human body and affected the way we relate to one another.
And who was No. 1? Ask the Chinese authorities:
1. Bill Gates, software entrepreneur
His Microsoft software shaped the way millions use the technology that has transformed communications and commerce -- making him the world's richest man and, now, a leading philanthropist.
As you would imagine, this immediately made me want to know where Pope John Paul II finished in this race. So I looked down the list. And down the list. Here is what that looks like, in terms of the rest of the Top 10.
2. Ronald Reagan, 40th U.S. president
Elected in 1980 and re-elected in 1984, he put the United States on a more conservative course, restored buoyancy and confidence in the presidency and forged a partnership with a reformist Soviet leader that helped end the Cold War.
3. Oprah Winfrey, talk show host
As a talk-show host, first at WLS-TV's AM Chicago in 1984, she pioneered a form of intimate public discourse that brought taboo subjects into the open and sparked a confessional, self-help culture.
4&5. Francis Collins & J. Craig Venter, mappers of the human genome
The Human Genome Project headed by Collins and a parallel private effort by Celera Genomics under Venter jointly announced the mapping of the human genome in 2000, opening the door to breakthroughs in identifying, treating and preventing the world's most feared diseases.
6. Osama bin Laden, terrorist
For most Americans, the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, by the al-Qaeda network he leads marked the beginning of a global battle against radical Islamists 12 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the Cold War.
7. Stephen Hawking, physicist
In the tradition of Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, he explored the nature of the universe. He popularized science, wrote the best-selling A Brief History of Time in 1988 and remains a puckish personality despite being severely disabled by Lou Gehrig's disease.
8. Lance Armstrong, cyclist and cancer activist
He won a record-breaking seven consecutive Tour de France races, cycling's most prestigious event, after battling testicular cancer. Sales of his iconic "Livestrong" wristbands have raised millions of dollars to help fight cancer.
9. Pope John Paul II, pontiff
Polish-born Karol Jozef Wojtyla helped propel a peaceful revolution in Poland in 1989 that ended Soviet domination and reverberated through Eastern Europe. In a 26-year papacy, he defined the Roman Catholic Church's role in modern times.
10. Bono, rock musician and activist for Africa
Born Paul Hewson, the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2 has shrewdly pressed world leaders to forgive third-world debt and address the AIDS pandemic in Africa.
Now what is amazing to me about this ranking for this pope -- behind Lance Armstrong? -- is that the editors linked John Paul the Great to Poland and the fall of the Soviet empire and still put him at No. 9. Did we live through the same quarter century?
This lists are made to cause arguments. The key to me is the various forms of religion and faith that are found in the list of 25. You should strive to do a LeBlancian analysis of the list, so to speak.
Go through the list yourself. Count the people who you consider to be "religious leaders" in one form or another. Yes, Oprah has to be in there. Ditto for Bono. We live in the mass media age, for better or for worse. And it is even hard to remove the Bible Belt trappings from the career of Sam "Wal-Mart" Walton and the causes he backed.
More questions: Is coffee a sacrament? And is Homer Simpson a real person?
Well, there you go. That offers a few clues as to my thinking. What think ye?