The Idler: UNIX for the Kingdom of God

In mid-1993 I tumbled all willy-nilly into the middle of a remarkable phenomenon called the Internet (or Net for short) when I joined a “list group” called CHRISTIA (Practical Christian Living). A list group is a group of computer users who sign on to a mail-distributing computer called a listserver for the purpose of discussing their burning topic of interest, be it bird-watching, nineteenth-century Polish economics, or “Star Trek.” Once you are subscribed to your chosen group, whenever any member sends a post to that group it is distributed to everyone. You can then reply to or comment on the message and send it back to the entire group or the individual who posted. You can also originate messages to the group or to any number of selected individuals at once.

There’s a delicious irony here. For ever since it burst on the scene 40-odd years ago, the evil glass nipple called television has poured forth oceans of soul-destroying poison into our culture. Less and less have we gotten our ideas about each other from each other, especially when the Other is markedly different from us. Instead, more and more, we have come to blither whatever the tiny and powerful media elite says we should think about one another.

Yet now, in a splendid redemptive twist, television’s nerdy younger brother, the computer monitor, holds great promise for restoring two of the many things its glamorous and shallow elder brother nearly destroyed: conversation and correspondence.

For the Net is a peculiar hybrid of both. Combination party line, chain letter, and McLaughlin Group, a Net list allows anyone both to speak his mind uninterruptedly in public and to receive immediate comment, challenge, and approval.

I chose CHRISTIA because one of my primary interests was to meet laypeople from various Protestant Christian traditions in hopes that I might learn from them and talk (as a convert) about the Catholic worldview in terms which would be accessible to those I know and understand best: evangelicals. CHRISTIA is overwhelmingly American Protestant (though many people write from practically every continent in the world). Many members (perhaps the majority) are what might be called evangelicals, nondenoms or fundamentalists, though there are healthy numbers from the Reformed and Anglican traditions as well, not to mention a handful of Orthodox. And there are, of course, a few Catholics — generally very articulate and well-informed ones to boot.

When I first arrived on CHRISTIA, I was quite struck with the tone of casual anti-Catholicism which dominated. About every two weeks someone would post a schedule for “Mission to Catholics,” an unpleasant little organization dedicated to the proposition that Catholics are dupes of the Great Whore. Before I arrived, there had been periodic eruptions of bile about “Our Lady of Guacamole,” “papist idolatry,” and such like. Catholics were generally perceived very poorly. We were alternatively hidebound traditionalists and shameless innovators on the simple Gospel. We worked our way to heaven by toting up Rosaries. We lived in fear of the Bible. We schlepped to confession every week so that we could get our carte blanche for last week’s sins. We were cringing slaves of the Pope, yet we were brazen in our defiance of Christ.

Yet, ugly as this sounds, there was a certain guilelessness about this atmosphere. Why? Because many of the people on the list seemed never to have encountered real Catholic belief in their lives. Instead, they seemed to be either cradle Protestants or embittered ex-Catholics-gone-fundamentalist who had had some hellacious experience in their nominally Catholic upbringing and chucked the whole thing overboard. Thus, for most list-members, the cartoon version of Catholicism was all they knew, and they quite rightly opposed it as foreign to the Gospel. The problem was: it was a straw man. They opposed what the Church was not and (suffering from a media blackout by our culture) had simply never really encountered the genuine article.

Therefore, we Catholics began a concerted effort to point out that the list atmosphere was somewhat less than charitable to actual flesh and blood faithful Catholics. In addition, we began gently to confront certain fundamental presuppositions which had to be addressed in order for the R.C. position ever to be intelligible. Chief among these was the role of Tradition, the authority of the Magisterium in Catholic teaching, and the vast difference these made in determining whether or not something was Christian or “cultic.” In response to numerous accusations of being “unbiblical,” we initiated the Great Sola Scriptura Debate in which the Catholics along with the Orthodox began (over the course of several months) to make headway in showing that the case for Tradition as revelation was really quite strong. (Our linchpin argument: It’s difficult to hold to such essential Protestant beliefs as the closure of public revelation, the canon of Scripture itself, and the doctrine of the Trinity without sneaking in an assumption that Tradition is revelatory.)

After enough listmembers had dashed themselves against these rocks long enough, the tenor of the list began to change. “Mission to Catholics” ads mysteriously vanished. Catholic-baiting dwindled, chased from the list, not by incensed Catholics, but by disgusted Protestants with a newfound respect for Catholics.

Other issues sprang up, of course. The Marian Traditions, papal authority and such were and are big sticking points for many Protestants. But the Catholics (no longer cartoon characters but real intelligent human beings) had surprisingly strong arguments for their positions — especially in light of the validity of Tradition. Thus, though we R.C.s by no means caused everyone to rush out and enroll in the catechumenate, we did manage to raise Catholic stock values in the eyes of the list generally. And when an atheist signed on to the list and began to uproot the vineyard with some attacks which several Protestants seemed to be having trouble countering, it was (surprise!) the Catholics on the list, leaping to the defense of the Protestants, who made the strongest showing in debate with him. These acts of brotherly love, combined with the consistently respectful (and strong) answers to what began as rather nasty and accusatory “dialogue” served, in the long run, to help the Catholic cause very much in the eyes of perhaps thousands of netters who monitor the list.

Thus, my experience on CHRISTIA happily gives the lie to the ideological slant of the media, which insists that allowing the real beliefs of religionists to be expressed without the interposition of a television producer or a New York Times editor can only result in bloodshed. Oh, sure, there are quarrels! (Though why the media is horrified about such a prospect when it does not bat an eye at the spectacle of the Bobbitts eludes me.) But on CHRISTIA there are not just quarrels. There are also genuine encounters, real (and frequent) moments of grace, reconciliation, and learning. Result: Something that simply doesn’t happen in our culture anywhere else — a real meeting of laypeople from very diverse religious traditions and a genuine (and sometimes painful) growth and healthy ecumenism at a lay level.

And this is critical to the strength of Christ’s Body. For we no longer have the Catholic Evidence Guild giving talks in the park. Oprah rarely allows intelligent lay ecumenical discussions on her show. Ditto “20/20” or “MacNeil/Lehrer.” And even among believers, we will all have to wait quite some time before

R.C.s and other communions sponsor a “Getting to Know You” banquet at the VFW featuring a serious discussion of theological disputes by and for laypeople. In short, then, the one and only place I know of where laypeople from different communions can come together and compare notes publicly (as opposed to just screaming slogans and talking past each other) is on a list. So as for me and my house, I will sharpen my typing skills and begin to speak out for the Faith in cyberspace! After all, what better way to be fishers of men than with the Net?


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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