by Jennifer Fulwiler
Greetings from Dallas! I'm here at the Catholic New Media Conference along with tons of great folks involved in Catholic new media. The whole place is abuzz with excitement and ideas about the future of new media, and as I walk around I keep thinking the limitless possibilities that are on the horizon thanks to all our modern forms of communication. I believe that all Catholic media, including traditional forms like television and radio, are indispensable to the New Evangelization. But the new media (which I'm using as a lump term to include blogging, social media, and all other types of online networked content) has three specific characteristics that differentiate it from other kids of media to make it particularly powerful for the Church:
1. It's interactive
When I first started paying attention to online discussions of religion I was still an atheist, and I was satisfied to see no shortage of content that mirrored my own views. I encountered the same arguments for the godless worldview that I'd heard from friends and family members my entire life, and that I'd often made myself. Yet there was a new factor in the equation when these arguments were made online: The combox. A hallmark of online publishing is that readers can respond instantly through a commenting form -- and this quick and easy feedback changes everything.
I watched with great interest as Christians and atheists debated one another on various web sites and forums across the internet. I'd always had the impression that it was only we atheists who could ask the tough questions and whose worldview could withstand intense scrutiny. I expected the Christians to get crushed. But as the debates played out, any intellectually honest person would have to admit that these Christians had some basis for their beliefs. Actually, it started to seem that they might be the ones with reason on their side.
In an interactive medium, falsehoods are called out, bad or incomplete ideas collapse under the weight of cross-examination, and anyone honestly seeking the truth will recognize it when he sees it. Whatever our belief systems, we can't isolate ourselves online the way we can in real life. In my case that meant that instead of being affirmed in my beliefs by my atheist friends, I bumped into Christians and was forced to confront their ideas in a way I'd never had to before. Over and over again I noticed that it was only the Christians -- and Catholics in particular -- whose belief system didn't crack under the pressure of a flood of tough questions.
Raphael's "St. Paul Preaching in Athens" (1515)
The internet is an open-access, unrestricted forum. Anyone with something to say can say it publicly. No longer are the major TV channels, newspapers, and magazines people's primary sources of information: The power of the elite to control information is gone. This is especially important in an age where there is so much misinformation about what Christians really believe. Two decades ago, a news report could say something inaccurate about the Catholic Church, and the average person would never hear the counter-point to balance it. These days, with bloggers and social media users on the case, there is a loud and public backlash to such situations which helps get the word out about inaccurate or unfair reporting.
3. It's informal
This is the biggest and most important difference between the internet and more traditional media: For the first time, we have a forum where we can see what people publish when their guard is down. Reading blogs and other personal publications is like eavesdropping on private conversations, in the sense that it's a relaxed and informal environment. It's in the comboxes, the Facebook discussions, the personal blogs that the world encounters living, breathing Christianity. These windows into the lives of believers allow others to see the difference that faith and the sacraments make in our lives.
Now, of course, all of this begs the question: When the world looks at the Catholic presence that is part of this interactive, open, informal system of communication, what does it see? Certainly there is potential to do as much harm as good, if we don't take care to approach our online interactions with the same thought and care that we approach our in-person interactions. But I strongly believe that if we share our faith passionately and authentically -- remembering always that the people on the other side of our computer screens are fellow human beings in need of love -- then the internet age will be an age of our culture's rediscovery of Christianity.