‘There’s One Thing That We Will Never Be Able to Do Online: the Sacraments’
Internet evangelizer and Catholic convert Brantly Millegan encourages Christians to witness through holy lives, on and offline.
Brantly Millegan, 27, and his wife, Krista, were received into the Catholic Church in 2010, the year they graduated from Illinois’ Wheaton College, which is often called the “evangelical Harvard.”
His conversion story, originally published at Young, Evangelical and Catholic has been widely read and linked.
Currently, he is working on his Ph.D. in moral theology at The Catholic University of America while continuing to spread the Good News on multiple Internet platforms and raising three children.
You’re a convert. You attended Catholic schools for 12 years, remaining a Protestant but retaining a certain respect for aspects of the Catholic faith. What most attracted you and your wife to the Church? Was there anything about the Catholic Church that held you back for a while, and, if so, how did you overcome it?
Many factors led me to the Catholic Church: her art, saints, service of the poor, unique stance on moral issues like contraception (see my blog series “Why We’re Contraception-Free”), etc. But I’d say that it was reading the early Church Fathers that had the biggest impact on me. Their witness to and belief in apostolic succession was probably the most influential thing for my becoming Catholic.
There were no major sticking points, but here were two parts of the process. First, is Catholicism true? Once I was convinced of that intellectually, the second part was actually giving my heart and will over to it all. It’s one thing to know the faith is true on paper; it’s another thing to actually submit to it in real life. St. Augustine describes a similar experience in his Confessions. Submitting to the Catholic Church isn’t a big deal if you’ve always been Catholic, but for a Protestant who was used to being in charge of his own faith, it wasn’t easy to actually submit myself to the real-life, flesh-and-blood Church. For example, becoming Catholic means acknowledging that there’s a person in the world right now (the Pope) who has the ability to definitively tell me what to believe about God. On paper, I believed that the papacy was guided and protected by the Holy Spirit. But actually trusting that belief in real life is another thing.
You are an enthusiastic evangelist of the “digital continent.” You run several websites, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts while working on your Ph.D. Sounds like you spend your life in front of a computer screen. How do you balance all of that with family life?
I do indeed spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen! Working mostly with a computer, though, means I can usually work from home, which actually puts me in touch with my family more than if I was working in an office somewhere. The bigger thing is making sure I go outside sometimes.
You launched ChurchPOP last August. Given the huge number of Catholic websites out there, why did you decide to work on that project?
ChurchPOP is somewhat modeled after BuzzFeed. There weren’t many websites in the Christian online world that were like that, and I thought it could be beneficial to have something in that style.
Typically, ChurchPOP shares lots of videos, infographics, quizzes, Onion-style parodies and lists, such as “6 Reasons to Go to Daily Mass” or “27 Christian Puns.” Is there a common thread in all of this?
The key word for me is “shareable.” Some things are just for fun or are supposed to be funny, and some things are more serious and thoughtful. But everything is meant to be the type of thing that people would want to share and that promotes the culture of the Church.
On ChurchPOP, you often post articles and videos from the evangelical world. Is this to draw evangelicals toward the Catholic content, to make Catholics more cognizant of evangelical gifts to Christianity or both?
I very intentionally call ChurchPOP a “Christian” site rather than a “Catholic” site. Part of this has to do with the fact that I think Catholics should reclaim the word “Christian.” But it also has to do with the fact that some content may appeal more to an evangelical audience rather than just a Catholic audience. I’m a Catholic Christian, so that influences the kind of content I publish, and I don’t publish anything against the Catholic faith. But I’d like the site to be something on which a wide range of Christians — or non-Christians — could find content they enjoy. There have been some articles that got a lot of traffic from the evangelical community. And I’ve had some evangelical friends contribute content.
Another website you founded is called Second Nature, which you describe as “an online journal for critical thinking about technology and new media in light of the Christian tradition.” Tell us about that.
My partners (Read Schuchardt and Benjamin Robertson) and I founded it back in the spring of 2013 because there didn’t seem to be a place for serious Christian thought on the meaning and implications of technology. Since then, we’ve also founded a nonprofit called the International Institute for the Study of Technology and Christianity, and we are currently preparing to co-host a conference at the University of Manitoba this fall.
For myself, I take technology very seriously. I’m in awe of and excited about it, but also wanting to be thoughtful about how we’re using it. I obviously reject Luddism, but I also reject technological determinism, the idea that just because something can be done it should be done.
I think the Catholic Tradition is especially equipped to navigate the ethical questions created by technology, since we acknowledge that human beings have a nature that must be respected. We’re not simply whatever we choose to be. For example, the Church is rightly against mediating the one-flesh union, or using the technology we call contraception, because it is contrary to the natural order and meaning of human sexuality. The proper use of technology is a big focus in bioethics, but it also has implications in our daily life right now. We’re not simply mental creatures; we’re also social and physical creatures. We need to make sure that we don’t neglect that.
Here’s an example I often use: Think of everything that can be done online these days. You can make a living, pay your taxes, order just about anything you need (including food), keep up with friends and family, get an academic degree, etc. But there’s one thing that we will never be able to do online: the sacraments. Even if the world became a voluntary matrix, where everyone only interacted in a virtual realm, the sacraments would still require us to be physically present to receive them. You must be actually baptized, physically, with real water.
This might sound strange to think about, but not all Christian traditions place the same kind of importance on the sacraments or give them the same kind of meaning as Catholics, and so may be more open to a “virtual” church. And, in fact, some evangelical megachurches have “online campuses,” and Christianity Today recently reported that most evangelical-Protestant pastors expect that in coming years most people will experience church exclusively online and that this is not a problem theologically for them (as it is for Catholics).
Remember that one of the central mysteries of our faith is that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). I think that says something about the proper use of technology and who we are as humans. I’m interested in possibly pursuing some of these questions further as I progress in my doctoral work.
As a convert from the evangelical tradition, tell us what you think we Catholics should be doing more of (or less of) to attract others to the fullness of faith.
We don’t need more programs. There’s no special secret. All that’s required for evangelization is for us Christians, by God’s grace, to live holy lives, pray and truly believe that every human being is in desperate need of Jesus for eternal salvation — and then live accordingly. I think one of the biggest obstacles to Catholics evangelizing is simply not believing that we need to; from my experience, most Catholics don’t really believe that Jesus is the only way for any human being to avoid eternal damnation and gain heaven and that the Catholic faith is the only place with the fullness of the truth and means of grace. Holy, prayerful, faithful Catholic Christians will naturally want to evangelize (and, by that, I mean verbal evangelism).
Do you believe that Catholic efforts on the Internet and social media are bearing fruit? What, if anything, needs tweaking?
Yes. I actually think the Internet has been a significant factor behind the small but steady stream of evangelical Protestants converting to Catholicism, because the Internet has made resources like the writings of the early Church Fathers very accessible. The main thing that needs tweaking is our daily, renewed commitment to Jesus and living holy lives.
Daria Sockey writes from Venus, Pennsylvania.
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