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 | By Maria Servold

Writing his way to heaven

When he was in high school, Hillsdale College’s John Miller — a writer, journalism professor, and convert to Catholicism — read the Book of Job for an English class. Some students protested the assignment of a religious text in a public high school, but Miller says he was drawn to Job’s story at a time when inklings of personal faith were growing in him.

“I thought it was amazing,” he says. “You could spend your life grappling with this — I sensed that early. I saw the magnificence of it.”

The Book of Job and other books he read in high school, he says, got him ready for the truth of the faith, an idea C.S. Lewis called “baptizing the imagination.”

More than 30 years later, after marriage, his conversion to the Catholic Church, the birth of three children, work as a journalist in Washington, D.C., and a move back to his home state of Michigan, Miller says his faith has grown from the lukewarm Protestantism of his youth to a Catholicism that continually deepens.

Born and raised in Metro Detroit, Miller attended a Presbyterian church sporadically but says the seed of faith quietly germinated in him throughout his youth. 

“I think I got interested in faith in high school,” he says. “I was feeling the call toward it, but I hadn’t figured it out. I was 16, and 16-year-olds don’t take anything seriously.”

It was not until he met his wife, Amy, at the University of Michigan, that his heart really opened to the Catholic faith.

“I saw that it was coming, felt that it was coming,” he says. “It took a couple of years of marriage for me to get my act together.”

When Amy was pregnant with their first child, Miller went through RCIA and joined the Catholic Church on Easter 1997. 

Eventually, the three Miller children all began attending a Catholic school in Virginia, where they lived while Miller worked as a reporter at National Review magazine. The school provided a Catholic culture that Miller says enriched his growing faith life. 

“It was really good for my education about the faith; I learned a lot through them,” he says. “I’d never really been around Catholic culture. I was learning all the time from Amy and through the kids.”

In 2011, the Millers moved back to Michigan so John could begin a job at Hillsdale College teaching journalism and running the Dow Journalism Program.

The intellectual curiosity of Hillsdale students, Miller says, makes it easy to discuss faith and Catholicism without fear. 

“This is such a faith-filled student body that they’re interested in these things and you can talk about them openly without apology. They’re curious,” he says. “I don’t think Catholics should be shy about who they are in public and around here it never feels awkward. There are a lot of places in the world where it can feel awkward, but this is not one of them.”

Miller still writes regularly for publications like National Review and the Wall Street Journal and has published a handful of nonfiction books, as well as a novel, over the years.

Recently, he says his faith has crept into his writing more— or that he’s more confident in choosing topics and angles for stories that include it. 

“They’re kind of recent,” he says. “When you’ve been a convert for 10 minutes you don’t feel like you can say a lot.”

Now, the work he says elicits the most positive feedback is that which touches on faith, like a column in the Wall Street Journal about Venerable Augustus Tolton, the first Black American priest, or a piece for National Review about reading the Bible in a year, which he did in 2018. In January of that year, he and Amy were visiting the Solanus Casey Center in Detroit and he saw a guided “Bible in a year” book in the gift shop. After initially passing it up, thinking, “I’ll get to that someday,” he returned at the end of the visit, bought the book, and spent the next year diving deeply into the Bible, often supplementing the daily readings with research in Scripture commentaries and other books. Just as after many other bouts of reading and research, he wrote an article about it. 

“When you write on a faith topic, there’s an audience for it that is different and special,” he says. “You can touch people in a different way and I started seeing that, so I’ve done more.”

Journalism, like all writing, can indirectly evangelize, he says, remembering how his high school classmates resisted reading Job and what it would be like to never hear the story of salvation.

“Can you imagine growing up and never hearing some of that stuff? People do,” he says. “How do they find it? That’s our job, I guess. One of my ways is through writing.”

Miller’s ever-deepening faith and journalistic curiosity about the world led him not only to explore the Church in all its complexity, but also to turn that curiosity into his craft.

“I want to be Catholic and I want to express it with what I write,” he says. “These are the things I think about and when I think about something, I always think, ‘Can I get an article out of this?’”

Faith and the truth of Christianity will continue to drive Miller, he says. 

“We’re called to have it. I can’t imagine life without it. It’s part of the truth and if you want to live truthfully, you’ve got to move toward it. What is life about if not this?”