The Jesuit Post at Two: An Interview with Co-Founders Paddy Gilger, SJ and Eric Sundrup, SJ

Millennial is proud to host The Jesuit Post on Millennial, not only for the quality of the writing that is featured in the series and on their site, but also because of the great people they have editing and writing at TJP. Millennial editor Robert Christian had the privilege of interviewing two of the co-founders of The Jesuit Post at its two-year anniversary. Paddy Gilger, SJ and Eric Sundrup, SJ explain their reasons for starting TJP, their inspirations and goals, and some of their favorite projects.

Robert: How did you guys come up with the idea for TJP? Who claims credit for the initial idea? How did you go about making it happen?

Paddy: I think The Jesuit Post began not really as a project, but with the recognition of a problem. Eric and Sam Sawyer (our third co-founder) and I studied philosophy together at Loyola University in Chicago, and while we were learning our Aristotle and Kant, we’d also spend time talking about this thing we were doing that we liked to call “being Jesuits.” In particular, we’d try to understand why we (usually – on non-exam days) felt so excited about how being Jesuits helped us to understand what was going on in a confusing world a little better. While this was happening – we were in our early/mid-twenties then – we also were experiencing in ourselves the kind of struggle lots of people face when trying to live in close proximity to God in the postmodern west.

As we talked to our friends – for me, it came in listening to my younger sisters – we realized that we weren’t alone in either the struggles we felt or the desire to live more closely with God. And this led us to ask questions that sounded something like: how can we help other people see what we’re learning, to see how God is already active in our confusing world? Or: how can the gift of vision that Jesuit formation gives us be given in turn to others? For me this question became even more acute when I realized that my answer to the question “If I wasn’t a Jesuit, what kind of Catholic media/cultural-thinking would I be engaged with?” was “None.” That’s when I realized we had uncovered a real problem. It just took us a while to realize what a solution might be.

Eric: Paddy claims credit for the initial idea, but I always dispute it. He’s one of my best friends – I’d be derelict of my duties if I didn’t give him a hard time. Though truthfully, it was an idea he had been kicking around for many years and which I can recall having numerous conversation about during our time studying philosophy. In fact we had so many conversations about it that when I started Theology Studies in Berkeley in 2011 and we began to rehash those same conversations, I said to myself: “This is it, either I buy the website and force this thing to move from theory to practice or I’ll lose my mind talking about it every year.” That night I went out and purchased the domain names, created the logo and bought a year of server hosting. I had no permissions from our superiors or anything at the time, and I certainly didn’t know how big it would be – or how exactly we’d pay for it. When Paddy brought it up again the next day I said: “Well, we have to do it now because it’s already on my credit card.”

Paddy: I admit – when Eric told me he’d bought the domain names I felt… well, I kind of felt like Samuel L. Jackson in Jurassic Park. But the key for us then was that we had an idea of what a media project could look like that would address the questions we’d been talking about for years by then – and for me that idea crystallized when I saw what Bill Simmons had created at Grantland.

By referencing Grantland I mean to pick out two things: 1) that Simmons had started the site by gathering together people who were basically either his friends or really talented young writers, and then asked them to 2) write about sports and pop-culture in the idiom of the internet. Now, I’ve been known to be a bit of a Simmons fanboy (legit critiques notwithstanding), but when I saw what he’d done I said to myself: that’s it; this is what we have to do. It was me talking about all this nonstop and not doing enough about it that threatened to drive Eric bananas and got him to push us over the ledge into starting The Jesuit Post.

Robert: What were your aspirations for TJP? Who were you trying to reach?

Paddy: Our aspirations at the outset were pretty modest. I remember Eric and Sam talking about how we ought to be prepared for the day when we had 10,000 unique IP addresses a month on the site and thinking: yeah, that’s never gonna happen. But in two years we’re way above that now, which to me is crazy.

As for who we were trying to reach… Look, it’s still sometimes a surprise to me that I’m a Jesuit, let alone a priest. The reason I am is because I got hooked in college by the triple intertwining of rigorous thinking, real relationship with God, and a faith put into action… and it was fun, it was with friends. And I thought if this combination was persuasive to me, maybe it would be to others as well. Or maybe I can say it this way: I always thought of our imagined ideal reader as somebody like my sisters, or my friends – awesome women and men who really knew (interiorly, I mean) that they wanted God and the Church to be a part of their lives, they just didn’t know exactly why, or what it would mean, or quite how to make it happen – and that last partly because there was so little out there in the world of media that showed what the world might look like when thinking, spirituality, action and fun were combined. So we tried to create something that, if we weren’t Jesuits, we would have found cool.

Robert: How do those goals and hopes match where you guys are now, two years later? What’s changed?

Paddy: This is where it’s helped to have kind of a melding of three founding visions from each of the three founders, because I think that what’s… not changed, maybe, but what we’ve grown into is realizing how much of a(n often hidden) desire there is for a way to talk about God and faith and community and politics, etc. that’s not just the same tired old categories, the same old fights, the same calcified conclusions. And I give Sam Sawyer a ton of credit for his ability to use the depth of our Catholic tradition to look again at some of these conflicts, to see how much there is in the world to affirm. A good example of this is the editorial that we wrote after some of the responses to the DOMA decision came down. All this to say that what I’m most proud of in the way that we’ve grown is how we’ve learned to find ways to present what is beautiful in the Church’s teaching to the world as beautiful – and then to trust God to draw people closer.

Robert: What do you consider to be some of the most important topics you have covered or focused on?

Eric: I think that some of the best stuff we do is when we upset the binary.  When I read or write an article that makes me think: “Man, left or right, people are going to be challenged by this, that’s when I say, ‘Bullseye, we hit the mark.’”  To that end I think our editorial on the DOMA ruling was a great piece.  I think the Dzhokhar piece  was great.  I’ve never been so proud of our hatemail than I was that week!  I also think our continuing and initial coverage of Pope Francis is something to highlight. Also, World Youth Day was crucial.

Paddy: But definitely our most “important” piece was “27.5 Signs You Went to a Catholic University.”  Or maybe I’m confusing “important” and “popular” again.

Robert: Speaking of World Youth Day, how was that experience?

Eric: World Youth Day was absolutely amazing. It was also a giant organizational… umm… mess… yes, a mess is what I can call it. For us at TJP, though, it was an opportunity to connect with and develop relationships with a number of people working in Catholic media. It has generated so much opportunity and it continues to serve us in ways I never imagined. Aside from that it was also deeply moving to have the chance to do a little “guerrilla journalism.” Our crew, while they had access to the big media events, tended to stay in the trenches, traveling with the pilgrims, sleeping in tents and hanging out on the beaches, and really getting to experience the event through the eyes of the young people who were attending.

For me, the best part of that experience was hearing the pilgrims tell their stories and watching closely for how God is moving them–not teaching them, but learning from them, being privileged to witness the ways that they are moved to express faith and how they struggle to come to terms with their faith in this modern digital world. As Fr. General Adolfo Nicolas said to us, “God has not been idle with the young.”  He told us to “jump in and swim alongside them.” That kind of swimming can be exhausting and chaotic, but it’s unbelievably rewarding.

Robert: One of the things that I think is so appealing about TJP is that you and your writers often seem normal, like the type of guys people would want to hang out with (rather than ‘religiousy’ or ‘churchy’ which can sometimes be alienating for people that don’t have a certain comfort level with the Church or faith), yet your articles often reflect an essentially countercultural worldview. Do you see a connection between the two? Does the former help the latter and help you connect with young people, using a language and approach they understand and find appealing?

Paddy: This is an insightful question, because I essentially think you’re right that much of what we write is both normal and challenging. And if you’re right that that’s the case,­ the next interesting question is something like: why is this combination attractive? Is there something that people are unsatisfied with in our normal way of looking at the world?

I think the answer is an unequivocal yes. People want more, yes to that. But – and this is just as important as paying attention to the fact that people actually want to be challenged – any critique that we offer is coming from our own lived experience of ourselves. That’s what makes it normal I think, because we’re not offering any challenges to others that don’t also apply to ourselves.

Eric: When I was thinking about joining the Jesuits in college I remember meeting a Jesuit Professor one day and we were chatting about church and piety and he said something that I’ve never forgotten:  “Eric, you have a very healthy mistrust of all things pious and churchy. It’s an asset, it’s how you connect with God, don’t ever lose it.”  I had always assumed I was just overly suspicious, but here was this very pious and holy man, one who, despite his overt piety, I deeply respected, telling me to keep that healthy suspicion.  I’ve always channeled that side of my personality in discussions on religion.  And as you note, we speak normally, “like one friend does to another,” but as with good friendships, talking plainly and normally doesn’t preclude challenge; in fact, a really good friendship should include some challenges.  I think we are making that point by the topics we choose and the way we address them.  “Normal” and/or “plain” talk is not devoid of counter-cultural trends or calls for change.

Robert: Have you had any tough decisions as an editor? Are there certain challenges associated with editing TJP?

Eric: Trying to keep to a schedule is a difficult thing for any editor, but I think when you have 40+ guys in over 6 time zones, all of whom are volunteers, the level of challenge increases.  Additionally, we are all peers, so in some ways we’ve become a master of gentle peer pressure in order to get things in “more or less” on time.  That being said, the guys love the work and have a zeal for the mission, so they respond with impressive generosity.

Robert: What are your favorite periodicals and websites? Did you have any in mind when you created TJP?

Paddy: Obviously I jumped the gun on this one by already talking about Grantland. So I’ll just let Eric talk.

Eric: I’m a pop culture geek.  I love Chris Hardwick and the Nerdist.  I think Philip DeFranco and his crew at Sourcefed are quite clever and often very insightful (shout outs to Lee Newton and Elliot Morgan).  Their best Youtube videos showcase some serious comeFdic and critical talent. Rainn Wilson and SoulPancake are frequently inspiring.

I read a lot of the standard magazines you expect from a guy in graduate school, The New Yorker, Atlantic, then since I’m a tech nerd I add in Wired and Ars Technica.  I follow most of the big apple blogs.  My undergraduate major was biology and I taught science at high schools so I keep up on a lot of popular science stuff. Ed Yong is a UK science writer; he’s quick, clever and able to showcase a real human personality on twitter.  @SciencePorn cracks me up.

Robert: What influences have shaped each of you intellectually (philosophers, theologians, or anyone else)?

Eric: My undergraduate degree is in biology.  I was always interested in ecosystems and complicated networks.  Thus evolutionary biology and the study of systems influences a lot of the way I approach social media as well as some of my leadership style.  Sam and Paddy are much more likely to want a grand theory before we move on a new project, I usually argue to scatter seeds and see what survives.  I think that back and forth between our personalities has been especially fruitful for TJP.  Despite my best efforts, you can’t survive Jesuit formation without some serious time in the world of philosophy.  I’m sure Paddy will mention MacIntyre and Taylor and, thanks to my studies and my friendships with Sam and Paddy, both of those thinkers are big influences. Although with all due respect, somebody needs to get Charles Taylor an editor.  Seriously, who has time to wade through all that stuff?

Paddy: Luckily for me Eric, I just happen to have my all-time, top five philosophers list ready. (Nota bene, this is a subjective list, not my list of objectively most important philosophers.)

5. Kant – Yeah, he might be wrong about almost everything in the end, but he was such a genius, and so good-hearted. There were times reading Kant when, for a handful of seconds, I could almost see the rational-moral-beautiful world he was describing… and then it just… dissolves. But beautifully.

4. Plato – “The safest general characterization of the philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” – A.N. Whitehead. Yep, pretty much.

3 & 2. Alastair MacIntyre & Charles Taylor – These are the two that relate most directly to TJP because they are both thinkers who are doing their best to understand why it is that human beings in the postmodern west experience the particular kind of struggles we do. As Taylor puts it, there are reasons why we feel the particular “cross pressures” and “dilemmas” that we do in the postmodern age. As a believer I certainly think God is relevant to addressing such pressures, but I also believe that we need to work through these pressures together – which is why I’m so excited about sites like Millennial, or Daily Theology, or Vox Nova, or Patheos, or the forthcoming Limina.

1. Paul Ricoeur – Two reasons: 1) because I think he gives the clearest explanation of why philosophy must become hermeneutics, and 2) because this explanation lead him to construct a philosophy of symbolism and interpretation that does both rational and emotional justice to our experience of being in touch with an other through, oh I don’t know… say… the Bible. No biggie.

Robert: How did Pope Francis’ election impact your work at TJP?

Eric: When the white smoke went up, I grabbed my ipad and laptop and I was in group chats and message feeds with about 10-15 guys from TJP.  We were planning our coverage and waiting to see who was elected.  One guy was recording us on his phone and thought it might make a funny YouTube video: “Jesuits react to the New Pope.”  When we realized that the 1st Jesuit Pope had just been elected, I was utterly stunned.  I swear like a sailor when I’m excited or emotional, so needless to say, that video was never released. Pope Francis has reduced my average night’s sleep by about an hour.  He simply will not shut up and the media can’t seem to get enough of him.  Looking at everything he has done and the number of people who want to talk about God and faith thanks to all his coverage, I have to admit, I’d happily give up another 2 hours of sleep per night.

Paddy: Suffice it to say that I more or less stole Pope Francis’ homily for a mass I said this morning. His impact on me, my prayer, the way I want to be a pastor and leader – all enormous.

Robert: So Paddy, now that you are passing the editor-in-chief’s torch on to Eric, how are you feeling? What’s next for you at TJP?

Paddy: I am feeling great. Really. I said most of what I wanted to say in my final post as EiC of TJP (you can read it here), but I’m very excited for TJP that Eric is in charge. Eric is so talented, and he’s been leading sub-divisions of TJP for the past couple years, so this won’t be an enormous change. As for my own future, I’m actually working for Eric – and especially Sam – now, because we’ve just launched a new side project called TJP on Patheos, with Sam as the lead editor there. It’ll be challenging to write more than to edit and organize, but I’m excited to be back writing and thinking in this way again too.

Robert: Eric, any big plans now that you’re stepping into this role? Any changes we can expect?

Eric: I’ve offered all the contributors a 20% raise.  Editors will receive 30% increases.  Multiplying by zero is so much fun. Added bonus: it’s easy on the bottom line. [For Eric’s more serious answer – complete with gif illustrations not to be missed – check out his introductory article as editor-in chief, As One Friend Speaks to Another.]