The Church and New Media: Blogging Converts, Online Activists and Bishops Who Tweet has an implicit message that reminds me of the comment sometimes attributed to James Joyce — that the Catholic Church means “Here comes everybody.” Not just the Vatican, not just the bishops, not just the parish council, but everyone — for better and for worse.
And the blogosphere, increasingly, is everybody, too. Like nothing that I can think of in Church history, the blogosphere allows faithful Catholics to find each other for reciprocal inspiration, support, exchange and development of thought, sheer fellowship and for who knows what other purpose added in the last 24 hours.
As The Church and the New Media’s editor, Brandon Vogt, puts it, “a primary, defining characteristic of all new media is dialogue,” in sharp contract to the top-down format of print and film and, to a much lesser degree, radio.
One of the most compelling contributions in this book comes from Father Robert Barron (who we’ve interviewed for the Register; we have also featured his essays in print and online), who uses his website to podcast well-reasoned defenses of Catholicism. His chapter outlines the main anti-Catholic and anti-Christian arguments he encounters and could serve as a stand-alone primer in apologetics.
One of these arguments is “scientism,” which he defines as the belief that the scientific method provides the only way of knowing, with its important sub-belief that, in the 19th century, “the sciences emerged out of a terrible struggle against religion,” rather than, as Father Barron correctly states, from “a deep congruence between religion and science in the minds of most of the great founders of the physical sciences.”
Is Father Barron wandering off the point of a book on media? Not at all, for, as he would say, to argue apologetics today you must certainly meet people where they are (which is on the Internet); but you must also bring to that meeting a solid understanding of the faith. And what is being taught in Catholic schools and churches, he argues, is too often not solid and not mature. He contrasts, tellingly, his niece’s high school English assignments, reading Shakespeare in the original for example, with the puerile level of their religion coursework — big type, lots of pictures, watered-down content.
So, consequently, a deeper understanding of Catholic teaching is needed to engage in Internet dialogue than is found in many Catholic school curriculums, sadly.
The book has an essay by Father Dwight Longenecker, convert, author, blogger (Standing On My Head) and Register contributor. In it, he talks of exchanges he has experienced as a result of his blog: a request for prayer for a dying mother from one reader; a cry for counsel from a young man troubled by same-sex attraction, whom Father Longenecker talked with for a few minutes and then refered to a local therapist; a query from an evangelical Christian that led to a one-on-one meeting.
Father Longenecker advises bloggers to use ordinary language and avoid trying to impress readers with their erudition.
Blogger Jennifer Fulwiler (www.ConversionDiary.com and NCRegister.com) describes how she was led from atheism to Catholicism by online presences like Fathers Longenecker and Barron, who could comment on the questions burning inside her about existence and meaning with intelligence. At a more technical level, Devin Rose points out that if someone googles “important phrases important to the faith” and Catholics do not have answers on the Web, then the searchers will “miss out on hearing the fullness of the truth of Christ.” On reading this, I googled “Does God exist?” and got a bunch of pretty good responses, but all from Protestants.
Though this book is heavily weighted to the apologetics, there are very useful explanations about how the new media can make diocesan or parish services more accessible. The most interesting contributions are the wholesale innovations like Matt Warner’s FlockNote.
FlockNote addresses the challenge of people who come to church but don’t sign up for the heavy lifting. It’s a program that allows the priest (for example) during Mass to invite his plugged-in congregation to take out their cell phones or assorted i-thingies and, instead of turning them off, turn them on and dial a certain number that immediately generates an invitation by return email to register in the parish. This in turn triggers a list of parish services.
Warner (who blogs at NCRegister.com), too, issues the warning that there is no point in connecting the wireless generation (or any other generation) to a parish or diocese that is in mere “maintenance” mode. “People like to connect to things that are going somewhere,” he says. And he quotes Pope Benedict XVI: “You must draw them into an encounter with persons and communities who witness to the grace of Christ by their faith and their lives.”
Examples in the book of media activism show how the Internet has played a crucial role in spreading the 40 Days for Life vigil from Texas to several hundred cities around the world and has marshaled opposition to anti-Catholic advertising.
Everyone connected with this book is crystal clear on this: The starting point must always be the Holy Spirit moving in us. The Church’s job is to encourage that movement in us in every medium, old and new — and to guard against error. There is a cautionary observation in this book on how many misinterpreted Vatican II’s call to engage the world to mean follow the world. (Remember: Catholic media guru Marshal McLuhan wasn’t a promoter of the medium becoming the message, he was an observer of it.) What the Internet does is connect everyone with a stake in the Church with everyone else in a vast conversation. This can be a good thing or a bad thing. This book helps Catholics learn how to deal with it.
Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.
THE CHURCH AND NEW MEDIA
Blogging Converts, Online Activists and Bishops Who Tweet
Edited by Brandon Vogt
Our Sunday Visitor, 2011
208 pages, $13.95
To order: osv.com