It Still Begins With the Written Word: Evangelization in the Digital Age
Words are important. They’re the building blocks of human relationships. Human beings use words to communicate their very selves. Words open us to the mystery of other people, breaking through human isolation and enabling community. Words are like stones or bricks. At their most positive, words construct the foundations for human community and friendship. Words build up, affirm the good, challenge to conversion, and call us to be authentic, loving, life-giving people.
But just like stones and bricks, words can also be used as weapons that wound, tear down, and destroy. They can provoke hatred and discrimination, spread gossip, and declare war.
Words matter. A speech by Hitler provoked people to participate in acts of unspeakable horror. A sermon by Pope John XXIII encouraged people to act with incredible generosity. Saint Alphonsus Liguori wrote that God became human to converse with us like a friend.
Saint John the Evangelist begins his Gospel with “In the beginning was the Word.” The Book of Genesis emphasizes the creative power of the Word of God as God speaks and creation comes to be. God spoke through prophets and proverbs, chroniclers and kings to the people of Israel. And the New Testament opens with the Word of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us, revealing our human and divine Savior.
“And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”
The most important word in God’s communication with humanity is a person: Jesus Christ. In and through him, the blessed Trinity is revealed—God’s very self. This Word is living, active, and present among us today and every day. Jesus and his message are the content of our evangelization as Christ communicates God’s life, love, and redemption.
The New Testament developed out of the oral tradition of the early Christian communities. This tradition was founded on the life and preaching of Jesus and enriched by the experience and wisdom of the evangelists, apostles, and community. But it’s important to remember that Jesus Christ is the definitive Word of God—the Word we long to communicate to others.
Importance of the Written Word
God’s people have a long tradition of listening to and proclaiming God’s Word. Believers in Jesus Christ stem from a strong oral tradition—God communicated through prophets and religious leaders many years before the Word of God was written.
The written Word was received by the community after years of listening, living, praying, and discussing. It reflected the community’s understanding of its relationship with the living God, and it became a stable reference point in this communication. This was especially important as historical and cultural situations evolved—the printed Word could be kept, protected, prayed, repeated faithfully, critically analyzed, and evaluated. The people of God were to “remember” and be faithful while God continued to communicate with and accompany them.
Initially, most people couldn’t read or write. As the written word developed, its place in society gradually grew more important. But books were written and copied by hand, and parchment and paper were expensive. Only the privileged few were able to conserve copies of the written word.
This changed dramatically with the development of the printing press. Mass production of books, leaflets, and newspapers caused a revolution in communication, in the process of education, and even in the methods of evangelization: Ordinary people could now get a copy of the Bible.
Today, we are living through another period of communication evolution that could have a great impact on society and on our task of sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.
For some, this age of computers, blogs, Wikipedia, Google, and ebooks represents a new and unfamiliar world and is a source of anxiety. We’re experiencing a revolution even greater than the one instigated by the printing press. This revolution will ultimately change our way of relating to society.
Information can be shared almost simultaneously, without paper and practically without cost. Millions of people have access to this new technology. Publishing is shifting from words on paper to words on computers, phones, tablets, and other instruments not yet conceived.
Advantages and Risks
This new world of universal access to information and communication has obvious advantages. In Africa, small rural classrooms can be connected to vast libraries and educational resources. In isolated villages in Burkina Faso and in regions with no other reliable form of communication, cell phones are used not only for telephone calls, but also for news bulletins. In Vietnam, people now have access to newscasts and different worldviews that offer possibilities beyond the ideology approved by a repressive government.
With an iPad or ebook, it’s possible to create and use a library at a fraction of the cost and with greater access than past generations ever dreamed. Today’s youth are as comfortable getting news on their phones or through social networking as other generations were listening to the radio or reading the morning newspaper. Readers can engage in dialogues and respond immediately to the information they receive.
Many young men and women communicate regularly with peers crossing geographical, cultural, and even language frontiers. This offers enormous opportunities for new efforts to communicate the gospel—even the Holy Father has a Twitter account. Do a browser search for Jesus Christ, and within one second you’ll find 209,000,000 pages dedicated to him.
The revolution isn’t without its challenges and risks. For example, not everything on the Internet is of equal quality. Much of the content isn’t well thought out or in accord with the gospels. Therefore, it’s critical to discern the value and importance of the written word as a stable reference point to help us sift through the Internet and social media.
Another problem is that not everyone has equal access to the technology. In Cuba, high-speed Internet isn’t easily available to ordinary people. Without access to this digital revolution, whole cultures can be left behind.
The instant nature of this communication poses a different kind of challenge. People often publish books, articles, and blogs without taking time for critical reflection and editing. This is particularly harmful because readers continue to think that if information has been published, it must be true. But without sufficient prepublication verification, incorrect information can be stated as unquestioned truth—and malicious falsehoods can be published.
Guiding Principles for Evangelization
As disciples of Jesus Christ, who came to preach the Good News to the poor, do we see this paradigm shift in communication and technology as an opportunity to be grasped or a danger to be criticized and condemned?
The printing press was initially criticized, yet it made the Word of God accessible to a far wider audience. Can we do the same with this new technology, which confuses and even frightens some of us? I believe we can; in fact, I’m convinced we must.
Here are three guiding principles for using technology to evangelize effectively:
First, at least for now, this type of communication and information technology cannot completely replace the printed word. Access isn’t yet universal, and we’re still learning how to use it. Printed Bibles, prayer books, theology texts, and other books, magazines, and bulletins will continue to serve an essential role in our ongoing faith formation, our lives of prayerful union with God, and the work of evangelization.
Second, remember that the means of communication shouldn’t affect quality of content. The written word still requires critical reflection and dialogue. When well-written blogs are creative, spontaneous, informative, and helpful, they invite us into a world of experience often unmarked by the interpretation and reflection of others. That is the nature of blogs and one reason they appeal to us. But they alone are not sufficient. Many blogs are undigested reflections on experience.
The third principle is our commitment to the Word made flesh. How does our communication in an electronic age reflect Jesus Christ and his gospel as Good News for men and women living today? Values and unchanging principles are universal. It’s always important to measure the content of our communication in the light of the gospel and the message of Jesus Christ.
Like Mary in Luke’s Gospel, we must learn to treasure the Good News and carefully ponder it in our hearts. Written words invite readers into a dialogue that takes time to process. When the written word is shaped by serious reflection, it becomes a stable reference point for subsequent generations seeking the right path.
One great benefit of contemporary communication is that it enables us to invite others into the same process of pondering and gratitude. When technology is used well and guided wisely, it can be a powerful instrument, effective in engaging and sharing in evangelization.
The Church and the Digital Age
The recent United States bishops’ synod reminded us that new evangelization is not only about methods and updated means of communication. Its most important purpose is to communicate the Good News of Jesus Christ in a way that touches the hearts and minds of people today and in the future.
As access to communication through the Internet and social media becomes increasingly universal, information becomes available at only a fraction of its past cost. The reality of having an enormous amount of information available at the click of a mouse will shape our consciousness.
Human beings are more alike than different. Human nature outweighs many of our cultural differences. Jesus recognized and affirmed our common humanity fashioned in the image and likeness of God. Today’s ease of communication can make the Word of God more readily available to others. Well-written theological and spiritual reflections aren’t limited by distance, culture, or language. We can effectively make the gospel message available to every time, space, and person.
Here are some guidelines:
Read with a critical eye—don’t take everything at face value. Let common sense and your own experiences guide whether you should check something further.
Does your heart burn within you like the disciples’ hearts burned within them on the road to Emmaus when Jesus spoke to them?
Talk with others about what you’re reading. In community, the written word helps us discern the will of God.
Does the content stir you to greater love, patience, and tolerance? Does it call you to personal conversion and change? Does it motivate actions on behalf of the abandoned and the poor, or does it implicate judgment of others?
Does it lead you to more profound relationships, or does it contribute to loneliness and isolation?
Finally, during this centenary year of Liguorian, I’d like to congratulate and thank the past and current staff of Liguori Publications for their dedication to using the written word in a highly responsible manner. May God continue to bless Liguori Publications and its readers as it continues to explore new ways to present Christ to the world. c