Jonathan V. Last, online editor of the Weekly Standard
, recently posted at First Things an article,"God and the Internet"
, that has been getting some attention around St. Blog's (see Video meliora, proboque; Deteriora sequor
and also Fructus Ventris
- which is actually mentioned in the article).
Mr. Last's article, though it mentions God in the title, actually has very little to do with Him; rather, it has to do, mostly, with the use that is made of the Internet by people in ways somewhat connected to their religion.
Out of curiosity. I read the article. While I agree with Mr. Last that there is a great deal of worthless and even dangerous stuff on the Internet, I think he puts too much blame on the Internet itself, when he should put blame on the flawed people who make use of it. I think, also, he has an excessively low opinion of blogging and bloggers, based on only a superficial knowledge of them. [Update: I had inferred "superficial knowledge" by comparing the content and quality of Mr. Last's article with my own experience of the blogosphere. This inference was incorrect. Mr. Last does have experience in blogging and has his own blog. See the post above this.]
Anyway, I thought I would itemize some of the disagreements I had with Mr. Last. This is not a fisking; though Mr. Last, I think, occasionally errs, he does so far too respectably to deserve such treatment.
My comments are in bold italics
* * *
Even diligent students of the papacy may be unfamiliar with the pontificates of Michael and Pius XIII. Pope Michael, born David Bawden, was crowned on July 16, 1990. He has spent his papacy mostly at home, in Delia, Kansas, where he writes self-published books such as Imposter Popes and Idol Altars. Pope Pius XIII, born Earl Pulvermacher, was elevated on October 24, 1998, and currently takes Springdale, Washington, as his seat. Both popes appear in traditional papal vestments, both trace the origins of their particular schisms to the misdoings of John XXIII, and both—ah, yes—maintain websites from which they carry out their ministries.
On Pope Michael’s webpage
, for instance, you can sign up for his email list, order his writings, and follow links to his sister site, Vatican in Exile
. Pius XIII’s website
is even more elaborate, boasting a lengthy biography of the pope, a catalogue of his encyclicals, and extensive works on the catechism and other aspects of Church life, dating back to when Earl Pulvermacher was a mere Capuchin priest.
In a simpler time, these two men might have been town eccentrics, doing no more than attracting the snickers of their neighbors. Today, thanks to the vast wiring of the world, their pages have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times, by onlookers from around the globe.True; but this doesn't necessarily mean that they are taken any more seriously than they would be without the Internet. More likely, all it means is that they are now global eccentrics, with hundreds of thousands of snickering neighbors.
One hundred and twenty-eight million Americans use the web, and it has been integrated, if only as a formality, into nearly every facet of modern life. Law firms, politicians, manufacturers, charities, elementary schools—one is hard-pressed to find an entity without a web appendage.
This is true even—or perhaps the word is, particularly—for religious life. According to a 2004 Pew survey
, 64 percent of Internet-using Americans—82 million people—say they use the web for religious purposes. They are more likely to be female, white, middle aged, and college educated. Catholics and Jews tend to use the Internet slightly more heavily than Protestants. Half of these users report that they attend church at least once a week.
Some of the pious web-surfers keep up with religious news (32 percent), some look for places to worship (17 percent), some use the Internet to plan religious group meetings (14 percent), and some to donate to charity (7 percent). At the same time, the Pew study claims, “the Internet seems to be fostering the development of religious and spiritual practices that are . . . more personally expressive and individually oriented.” Thus 11 percent of religious Internet users are going online to download spiritual music, 35 percent are sending online greeting cards, and 38 percent—the largest cohort—are simply passing along “email with spiritual content.”Would not most of this activity be going on even if the Internet did not exist? And if some activity occurs that would not otherwise occur, would it not be more accurate to say that the Internet catalyzes it, rather than causes it?
(And was it necessary to use the epithet "pious" in a condescending, if not derogatory, sense?)
The virtual religious universe is wide-ranging. The largest site is Beliefnet.com
, a commercial, one-stop-shopping portal which serves evangelicals, Catholics, Scientologists, Earth worshippers, and everyone in between. Founded in 1999, Beliefnet attracts more than 20 million page-views a month and sends out 9 million free email newsletters a day to subscribers. Only a handful of other sites, such as Catholic Online
, Christianity Today
, and Crosswalk
can claim readerships even close.A site such as Beliefnet has very little to do with God; its god is belief itself. However, this is not a problem with the Internet per se: it was long before the Internet was invented that Charles Schulz put into the mouth of Charlie Brown the memorable sentence, "It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you're sincere."
Meanwhile, there are all the endlessly proliferating weblogs. The first blogs appeared in 1999. By 2004 there were estimated to be some 4 million of them. Today the number is closer to 8 million. John Mark Reynolds, a philosophy professor at Biola University who organized, this past October, the first religious blogger convention, GodblogCon
, says that there are “literally millions” of religious bloggers, but that “if you’re talking about people who write for folk other than their immediate church family and their immediate community, there are a couple of thousand serious Godblogs.” It is a sign of the metastasizing of blogs that within a few months of the announcement of the convention, the GodblogCon website already had two blogs about the upcoming event.
Unlike the big corporate sites, Godblogs have smaller readerships, ranging anywhere from Fructus Ventris
, a blog run by a midwife, which gets about 115 page-views a day, to Amy Welborn’s Open Book
, which gets nearly twelve thousand. (In the world of Godblogs, more than two thousand page-views a day makes you a fairly heavy hitter.)Keep in mind that "Godblog" is not a term that "Godbloggers" themselves use. So far as I know, they are simply bloggers who whose faith informs their blogging, as it might anything else they do.
Also, speaking of blogs and readerships, as if they were two separate entities in an asymmetrical relationship, is misleading, especially, I think, in the case of the smaller blogs. Those who read blogs are quite often bloggers themselves, and there is some considerable interaction among them, and even those readers who are not are still quite voluble if the blog, as most do, allows comments; so it would be much more accurate to describe blogging, as participating in a symposium.
(And the word "metastasizing", connoting as it does the idea that blogs are a form of cancer, is really quite objectionable.)
And then there are actual houses of worship. From Episcopal Grace Church
in The Plains, Virginia, which serves 400 parishioners, to Grace Community Church
in Sun Valley, California, an evangelical mega-church with 8,000 members, nearly every American church has its own webpage. Some are merely static placeholders with service times and driving directions; some are fully-interactive online communities where members can download audio files of sermons, order books, and even submit prayer requests.
On this score, Protestant churches are, in general, more advanced and ambitious than Catholic parishes. The notable exception is the Vatican’s enormous, trench-deep site. Constructed in six languages, the Holy See’s offering is the single most impressive religious undertaking on the web. Part tourist information booth, part Great Library, Vatican.va
provides searchable access to important documents as well as information about nearly every aspect of the Church. When John Paul II first began failing last March, Vatican.va published his email address. He received over twenty-thousand well-wishing emails in a thirty-six-hour period.
This electronic outpouring of affection for the pope was fitting, since he had been something of an early proponent of the Internet. At the World Communications Day in 1990, John Paul II said the Church must use “the full potential of the ‘computer age’”—this, at a time when the Internet barely existed. Two years later the Pontifical Council for Social Relations issued Aetatis Novae
on the twentieth anniversary of Communio et Progressio, and while the document didn’t mention the Internet specifically, it defined communication as an act of “giving of self in love.” Insisting the Church must “communicate its message in a manner suited to each age,” Aetatis Novae called emerging communication technologies “a marvelous expression of human genius” which would be “essential in evangelization and catechesis.”
The capstone of the Vatican’s endorsement of the Internet was John Paul II’s apostolic letter
about the New Media in January 2005. “New technologies,” he wrote, “create further opportunities for communication understood as a service to the pastoral government and organization. . . . One clear example today is how the Internet not only provides resources for more information, but habituates persons to interactive communication.” The pope warned that without proper formation, the Internet ran “the risk of manipulating and heavily conditioning, rather than serving people,” yet he concluded, with his typically joyous faith, “Do not be afraid!”
Some websites bear out the Holy Father’s highest hopes. CatholicFind.com
is a simple and elegant search engine for the teachings of the Church. Catholic-Hierarchy.org
gives readers an almanac-style view of the Church’s structure. CardinalRating.com
allows readers to research the views and writings of members of the College of Cardinals. Meanwhile, Catholic.org
provides biographies of over seven thousand saints, together with explanations of the Sacraments, the Rosary, Lent, and other aspects of the faith. One of its sister sites, the Oremus Network
, hosts a prayer circle that recruits people to commit to daily prayer.
While individual dioceses typically do little with their websites, certain religious orders hold grander visions. The Maryknoll Sisters
, for instance, have an expansive web presence. After launching their page in 1997, the sisters performed a major upgrade in 2002, and about 55,000 visitors a month are attracted to their site, which Sister Helen Philips calls “a great instrument” for their work. Using the Internet, the sisters tell their missionary stories, fish for vocations, send out email newsletters, and even perform online fundraising.Again, this is using the Internet to do what they would be doing anyway by other means.
And then there are the blogs. If sites like Catholic.org hold out the promise of becoming the new archives and compendiums, Godbloggers could, in the best of worlds, become the new apologists. Godbloggers hail from all walks of life, from professional writers such as Domenico Bettinelli
, Eve Tushnet
, and Dawn Eden
to laymen with day jobs: Emily Peterson and Annie Banno, for instance, at the blog After Abortion
, or Marc, a UNIX administrator, who runs the blog Thickness
.Surely more than just apologists - evangelists, witnesses, exemplars, or simply brothers and sisters in Christ. The variety of occupation Mr. Last describes would seem to indicate that an equal variety of calling might be anticipated.
Many in consecrated life run blogs, too. There is a fairly large ring of seminarian blogs, such as Christopher Decker’s Road to Emmaus
, Dennis at Vita Mea
, and Jeff Geerling’s Matthew 12:37
Priests have gotten in on blogging, too. Father Bryce Sibley’s influential (although now dormant) blog, A Saintly Salmagundi
, grew out of a bulletin board he kept as a seminarian in Rome in 1997. Sibley would clip articles from the Catholic Reporter or Modern Liturgy and tack them to his board, inviting comment from passers by. It became so popular among his fellow seminarians that once he became a priest stationed in Parks, Louisiana, he decided to start his blog as a virtual version of the bulletin board. “It began as a tool for laughing at things and goofing around,” he says, “which it still is, but it became a very powerful evangelical tool.”
Sibley recognizes potential pitfalls, particularly the “vapid spirituality of the web.” And he notes that in cyberspace, “Everyone can be their own magisterium”—a point the existence of Popes Michael and Pius XIII would seem to demonstrate. Even so, Sibley believes, the good outweighs the bad. “There’s so much nuttiness—maybe in their own parish,” he explains. “Or maybe there’s a lack of guidance. And so people can come to the Internet and they can come to blogs to find out the truth about what’s going on. And they can find answers to their faith.” As an instance, Sibley points to recent emails from a woman who converted to Catholicism and two men who have been inspired to the priesthood: All three said that the blog world played some part in their decision."Everyone can be their own magisterium" as well out of cyberspace as in it; this has nothing to do with the Internet, but is the result of (a) poor catechesis and (b) rampant individualism. However, as Fr. Sibley points out, it is easier than ever before for one who is genuinely searching for the truth to find it.
The growth of priest blogs has been slow but steady. In 2002, when Sibley started blogging, there were only five or six. Today the number is closer to fifty. Most of them are small, personal affairs. Started in August of 2004, Diary of a Suburban Priest
is run by “Father Ethan” and gets about two hundred page-views a day. And then there’s Father Robert Johansen’s Thrown Back
. A parish priest in St. Joseph, Michigan, Johansen was ordained in August 2001 and began blogging less than a year later. Like Sibley, Johansen sees the blog as “a good way to get the teachings of the Church out there.” “I have found it to be a real extension of my priestly ministry,” he explains. “Blogging is something that’s been fed by my priestly ministry,” Johansen says. “I blog frequently about things I encounter in my priestly ministry and it actually works vice versa as well. My blogging, and what I come to understand or learn from that, comes out in my preaching and my interaction with parishioners.”
Each of these bloggers commands a tiny audience, between a few dozen and a few thousand visitors a day. But taken together the bloggers wield disproportionate power in the virtual world, through what Hugh Hewitt, author of the book Blog
, calls a “blog swarm.” Take, for example, the death of Terri Schiavo. Father Johansen was a long-time follower of the case, and he blogged about it often. On the strength of his blogging, he wrote a lengthy piece for National Review Online
that chronicled the issue. Amy Welborn and others blogged about Johansen’s article. Eventually, his writing became part of the reportorial foundation for the movement which emerged to oppose Schiavo’s execution and had more impact than any of the statements issued by American bishops or cardinals."Disproportionate" compared to what? And how was the Terri Schiavo case an example of blogging power in the "virtual world", since the case played itself out in the real world? Granted that a great deal of attention was paid in the blogosphere to Terri Schiavo - and I would point out that a lot of it was on the opposite side to Fr. Johansen - there were surely other factors causing the Schiavo case to come to national attention. An article in National Review Online would be read and noted by many people far more influential in the real world than bloggers.
As for the fact that the movement opposed to the killing of Terri Schiavo "had more impact than any of the statements issued by American bishops or cardinals," surely that is more a reflection of the tepid - at best - response of the American bishops, rather than the power of the blogs.
All these blogs share two distinguishing characteristics: They’re Catholic, and they’re conservative. As the GodblogCon organizer John Mark Reynolds explains, “Most Godblogs in the United States are going to end up being Roman Catholic because most people who are Christian in the United States, in the Nicene Christian sense, are Roman Catholic. . . . And taken as a whole in our culture, it has been harder for traditional theists to get a microphone than for secularists—at least in print. So blogging has been, by and large, better for the right religiously than for the left.” Or, as Father Sibley puts it, “Orthodox blogs get more readership just as Rush Limbaugh gets more listeners than Air America does.”"All these blogs share two distinguishing characteristics: They’re Catholic, and they’re conservative." This assertion is demonstrably false. There are many Christian, non-Catholic blogs in existence: the blog of Hugh Hewitt, whom Mr. Last just mentioned, is one of them, and had Mr. Last looked at the registrants for the Godblog convention he would have found a number more. As for conservative - Amy Welborn and Mark Shea, two of the titans of Catholic blogging, can neither be described as "conservative" (Shea, in fact, is very nearly uncategorizable in any conceivable schema); the above-mentioned Alicia Huntley of Fructus Ventris, as I recall, found that Dennis Kucinich most nearly approached her ideal candidate in the last election. Many "Godbloggers" rarely, if ever, discuss political issues.
But the left has its own web presence. Father Richard Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation makes good use of the Internet at CAC Radical Grace
, with online bookstores, an electronic version of the center’s Meditation Garden, and even a section of Rohr’s thoughts that functions like a blog. Mel White’s SoulForce
, a group dedicated to stopping “spiritual violence” against homosexuals, also has a sophisticated website, as do the Paulists with Busted Halo
Busted Halo calls itself a site for “seekers,” meaning those interested in finding a spiritual home. But more often than not it is simply a clearinghouse for leftist discontent. After Ronald Reagan died, the site’s director emeritus, Father Brett Hoover, wrote,
I couldn’t help it. “Good riddance,” I mumbled, as the news came through that Ronald Wilson Reagan, 40th President of the United States, had died on Saturday, June 5, 2004.
In these days following his passing, it has seemed like nearly every other American was praising his achievements—the president-savior who gave us “morning in America,” the tough guy who felled the Berlin Wall, the grandfatherly “Great Communicator” who reassured us.
I scowl, feeling like the man in Bermuda shorts at the winter formal. By my accounting, President Reagan bequeathed our world one nightmare after another. How does someone like me honestly mourn his passing?
About the election of Benedict XVI, Busted Halo’s managing editor, Mike Hayes, wrote: “As the Papal conclave closed, fear crept into my heart. ‘Anybody but Ratzinger,’ I prayed. Moments before the announcement of who was to succeed Pope John Paul II, I even said to myself, ‘If it’s Ratzinger, I’m becoming an Episcopalian.’” Unlike the websites of Popes Michael and Pius XIII, Busted Halo carries the official seal of an actual Church-sanctioned society, which might leave some seekers confused. Blogger Amy Welborn says the Internet gives seekers the opportunity to “quietly observe the church or the faith; it’s like sneaking into the back pew of a church.” The problem is that in the virtual church of the web, the hymnal one finds in the back pew may be quite different from the hymnal in the front pew.As readers of Catholic blogs are well aware, one might find such heterodox tendencies in any real-world church as well.
There are other troubling features of the web. It lends itself easily to politicization—as Father Hoover demonstrated with his “Good Riddance to Reagan” essay. Your Catholic Voice
is a political action group devoted to “shaping” the government, “from the County Courthouse to the halls of Congress.” The website Priests for Life
is similarly engaged in the nuts-and-bolts of political action. And occasionally serious people like Father Sibley are also sucked down by the allure of the Internet’s political reductionism. On March 4, 2005 he blogged: “This morning I went to visit the fourth grade class at the local Catholic Grade School to allow them to ask me questions. During our little session one child asked me, ‘Father, why can’t kids at public schools pray in class?’ I realized that this was a perfect moment for evangelization, so I walked to the chalkboard and told the kids that I would answer the question and teach them a new word. So I wrote in capital letters on the chalkboard: L-I-B-E-R-A-L-S.”And why is politicization per se a bad thing? As long as our country is democratically governed, ordinary people, on or off the Internet, must be politically aware and politically active; that they may do it badly is scarcely the Internet's fault. As for the example of Fr. Sibley: what did his anecdote have to do with the Internet? He acted in a classroom and only later blogged about it (and got some Hell for it in the comments box).
The Weekly Standard, incidentally, seems to devote a fair amount of space to politics.
Another reason for the tyranny of the banal is the web’s general disposition toward consumerism. The Internet is filled with stores and businesses designed to siphon money from the faithful. There’s CatholicStore.com
and the Discount Catholic Store
and Catholic Supply
(your source for GiggleWings® guardian angel dolls). Protestants have an array of shopping options, too. From Biblical Expressions
, every conceivable bit of religious schmaltz is available online for immediate shipping. At Biblical-Gifts.com
you can find a 24-carat-gold cross with a vial of water from the Jordan River. At Abbey Trade
you can get “Blessings in a Bottle”—small inspirational messages stored in decorative bottles. At the Heavenly Hut
you can buy Christian nightlights. Kerusso.com
(company motto: “Innovation That Inspires”) offers Jesus poker chips—because “Jesus went all in for you!”
A more personal strain of consumerism leads people such as Stephen Ray to hawk their wares on the web. Ray, the author of several religious books, runs a website called Defenders of the Catholic Faith
. On it he features a photo album of his family and his travels, conversion testimonials from readers, and even his own blog. But the primary mission of Defenders of the Catholic Faith is to move product. Books, audio tapes, videos, DVDs—it’s all there, mingled with explanations of “Why I’m Catholic” and lessons about St. Mark. There’s also a press kit describing Ray, showing his upcoming speaking schedule, and telling you how to book him at your event for a mere $600, plus expenses. (That’s for local talks; overnight events are $1,800, plus expenses and, as his site explains, “Steve rarely travels without his wife Janet.”)If the Internet is consumerist, it's because our society in general is consumerist. If people plug religious wares on the Internet, it's because people plug religious wares (a problem going back at least as far as Jerusalem in the 1st century A.D.). Not a week goes by when my family doesn't get several catalogs for Christian books, movies, or artifacts; or catalogs of general merchandise, some of which is religiously-themed and more or less tacky.
Dating services are trying to cash in on religion, too, whether it’s Catholic Singles
(“the largest Jewish singles network”), dharmaMatch
(“where spiritual singles meet”), or Spirit Personals
, a site with every possible permutation, from Christian, to Jewish, to lesbian matches: “SpiritGayandLesbianSingles promotes personal and spiritual growth, while encouraging a healthy lifestyle. Whether you’re interested in a sexy, traditional relationship or fun alternative online dating, we have what you need. Join now to enjoy your free membership!”
If you meet the partner of your dreams online, get married, and find things rocky, the web can help there, too. ExceptionalMarriages.com
offers counseling and aid in the form of quizzes designed to test the health of your marriage, an advice blog, tele-counseling services, and a store with enough books, videos, and trinkets to fix any relationship, traditional or alternative. Think of it as the virtual mall for spirituality: Shopping, entertainment, and socializing—everything the faithful soul needs for earthly comfort, all marketed with the shiny gloss of religious morality.See my previous comment: the Internet is merely a reflection of society. There were dating services before the Internet (I should know - I met my wife through one). Had the Internet never come into existence, I'm certain that nevertheless such things as "Spirit Personals" would have. (And, to throw in a minor quibble, where could you find a better example of the Internet bringing people together into a real relationship instead of a virtual one?)
Nowhere is the shape of modern religion better displayed than at Beliefnet
, the ur-religious destination on the Internet. Beliefnet was launched in 1999 by Steve Waldman, a former national editor of U.S. News & World Report, and carried the mission statement promising to “Help People Meet Their Spiritual Needs.” To that end, Waldman originally designed Beliefnet to be a giant ecumenical web magazine, treating all faiths with the same degree of solicitousness. (During its webzine phase, I was a frequent contributor.) As the dot.com bubble burst, Beliefnet found itself in financial trouble. Casting about for additional revenue streams, the editors began designing and hosting church websites, but quickly found that market unfruitful. They then began offering email newsletters, into which advertising could be inserted—and that proved an enormous success. Today 4.5 million people are signed up and Beliefnet sends out some 9 million newsletters daily. The newsletters, Waldman says, offer “stuff for the head, stuff for the heart, and stuff for the soul.”
There are nineteen categories of Beliefnet newsletters, the most heavily subscribed of which is the Daily Inspiration, which carry messages such as “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people (Victor Borge).” Other heavily-subscribed to newsletter categories include the Angel of the Day (“Let your spirit burst forth like the sun’s rays and bask in the glow of your angel’s benevolence”), Daily Religious Jokes, and Astrology. The taste of the market may be illustrated by the fact that 2.4 million people are signed up for the Daily Inspiration, while 1.5 million are signed up for the Daily Bible Reading; 850,000 are signed up for the Angel of the Day, while 369,000 are signed up for the Daily Prayer.
But perhaps the hopes and needs of Beliefnet readers are captured most clearly by the advertisers pursuing them. Sign up for the newsletters and you’ll get a raft of advertisements, both embedded into the email and sent under a separate cover from “Beliefnet Partners.” Andrew Weill, the bald, bearded vitamin guru, is a Beliefnet partner, as is the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. DebtSX sends Beliefnet subscribers emails offering those struggling with debt a way to “get help now.” Soulmatch
, another religious dating service (which is owned and operated by Beliefnet) also touts itself to subscribers, asking “Does God want you to be happy?” Dr. Susan Larson hawks her nutrition program explaining “Why diets don’t work for women over 40.”
This last topic is such a hit that Beliefnet recently launched a “Spiritual Weightloss” newsletter, which echoes the call of Joan Cavanaugh and Pat Forseth’s 1976 book, More of Jesus, Less of Me
. But even here, Beliefnet takes a more ecumenical angle: One recent Spiritual Weightloss newsletter used George Bernard Shaw as inspiration, saying “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.”
The newsletters are designed to pull people onto the Beliefnet website where they can read stories about Wiccan Love Potions or participate in Virtual Conclaves or take quizzes about “the spiritual side of sleep.” There is even, for those just stepping up to the table, the Belief-O-MaticTM
—a battery of questions designed to help you determine whether your natural preferences make Liberal Quakerism, Unitarian Universalism, Neo-Paganism—or something else altogether—fit you best. My own turn at the Belief-O-MaticTM revealed there was a 100 percent fit between myself and “Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants” and a 96 percent fit with the Baha’i faith.
Beliefnet also offers its own blogs, as well as a blog of blogs, called BlogHeaven
, “where faith blogs go if they’re good.” And there’s loads of interactivity, from message boards to chat rooms to comment bars. “The user can customize their experience so much that it can be kind of a vertical experience or a horizontal experience,” Waldman explains, “depending on who you are at that moment.”
Waldman takes an ad-executive’s approach toward religion. “The Internet certainly makes it a wide-open marketplace, but the existing brands will have an advantage,” he says.
There’s been this move toward the creation of a religious marketplace. The Internet accelerates that. You can’t count on the propagation of your faith just from the fact that your parents were of a certain faith and they’re going to pass it down to their kids, because people are just exposed to too many other ideas and faiths now, so the faiths—the religions—have to understand that they’re competing. . . . People now view themselves a little bit as spiritual consumers, and they’re getting stuff from all over the place—books, music, TV shows, movies—and I’m not saying if it’s good or bad, that’s just the world we’re in now. And the Internet is a key player in accelerating that and probably accentuating both the positive and negative aspects of that trend: The negative being the kind of dilettante-ish surfing for designer religions. . . . But on the other hand a lot of people, through the Internet, have found a serious faith connection that’s really brought them closer to God and improved their lives.
For its part, Beliefnet continues to roll along, gobbling up new email subscribers at a rate of nearly fifteen thousand a day. The site has a four-book package with Doubleday, the first two books, on Evangelical Christianity and Kabbalah, due this Spring. They also have deals with wireless phone companies—“so you can get prayer on your cell phone”—and offer a large set of “religious ring-tones,” from the Christian pop sounds of Amy Grant to the theme song from The Dukes of Hazzard, at $1.99 a shot. Beliefnet is, quite successfully, helping people meet what they perceive as their spiritual needs.See my previous comment on Beliefnet. Such a site is, indeed, deplorable; it may inadvertently do some good as a way station, but as a purveyor of belief as an end in itself - and a vague, watered down belief at that - it can do nothing but harm. As quoted above by Mr. Last, Pope John Paul II spoke the truth when he said, "without proper formation, the Internet [runs] 'the risk of manipulating...rather than serving people.'"
Beliefnet types have been with us for a long time. See G. K. Chesterton's "The Secret of Father Brown": "A live man with two legs once said to me: 'I only believe in the Holy Ghost in a spiritual sense.' Naturally I said: "In what other sense could you believe it?" And then he thought I meant he needn't believe in anything except evolution, or ethical fellowship, or some bilge..." See also C. S. Lewis's "The Screwtape Letters", where in Letter XXV the devil Screwtape says, "What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call 'Christianity And.' You know, Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform...Substitute for the Faith some Fashion with a Christian colouring."
Which should worry us all—for perceived needs aren’t always the same thing as genuine needs, and answers to bad questions can turn into very, very bad answers. Something is happening at the intersection of religion and the Internet that is like the old denominalization of American sects raised to a new and frightening power. On the Internet, those dissatisfied with what they find in their religious brick-and-mortar communities can simply retreat into a virtual world in which they are surrounded entirely by like-minded people.
Dissatisfied with Cardinal McCarrick’s wishy-washiness on pro-abortion Catholic politicians? Blogger Domenico Bettinelli sounds off about it so you can take comfort at his site. Unhappy with the liberal rector of your own parish? Find a conservative priest online to whom you can turn. It’s happening all the time. As Father Johansen tells it, “I get pretty regular emails from people asking me for advice on this issue or that, frequently because they feel that they can’t rely on the priests in their own area, unfortunately, so they read my blog and they decide, ‘Well, Fr. Rob is somebody I think I can rely on and I’ll ask what he thinks.’”
“The world is breaking up,” the mad poet Robert Bly once intoned, “into small communities of the saved.” These communities have resulted in the rise of what is known on the web as “Saint Blog’s Parish,”
a ring of 758 websites where compatible Catholic bloggers can join forces to establish their own small group. Nearly every blogger links to similar bloggers, who link on to other bloggers, who all link back to the first site, until the circle closes and something emerges that does, in fact, look like a community. And yet, it is a community based on like-mindedness and tied together by remote interaction—which makes for a very strange community, indeed.I would like to see more evidence of this than Mr. Last provides. That the Internet encourages people to cocoon themselves into a virtual life has long been a something of an intellectual cliché, but one wonders how much substance lies behind the assertion. His examples, to one who knows something of the Catholic blogging world, are not convincing. Domenico Bettinelli is based in the Boston area and has much more to say about Archbishop O'Malley than Cardinal McCarrick. In the case illustrated by Fr. Johansen, one could replace "conservative" by "orthodox" and "liberal" by "heterodox" and see that the Internet can actually perform a service. And Mr. Last should know that while St. Blog's (the name of which, incidentally, is not meant to be taken seriously) is something of an online community (though not a circle - the pattern of linking makes it more like a network), it is by no means a closed community. If one actually explores it, one will find that many if not most blogs also link to sites outside of St. Blog's, which link to others, so that in a few clicks one can find oneself very far away indeed.
Furthermore, when a topic is discussed, the blogger bringing it up is obliged, as a matter of blogging etiquette, to link to the source of the topic if possible; since many of the issues discussed are controversial, anyone in St. Blog's, either as a resident or a visitor, has access to any amount of non-like-minded material. And finally, even if the bloggers are like-minded, the commenters are most definitely not; just spend some time in a comment thread on Open Book or Catholic and Enjoying It! and one will encounter a comprehensive range of viewpoints.
Another concern is how the Internet is demystifying religion. One of Joseph de Maistre’s pet theories was that the authority of the Church depended in large part on mystery. Blogger Mickey Kaus recently wondered
if the notion of mysterious silence on the part of religious institutions has become outmoded: “If you were a respected authority you used to be able to get away with maintaining a meaningful silence. Now you’ve got to be blogging in your own ‘unique voice’ about every little thing that comes up, or else some ambitious lesser authority who posts more frequently will steal your flock.”
Beliefnet’s founder Steve Waldman speaks reverently of this new transparency. “We’re now in a world where the majority of people live in democratic countries,” he says. “People haven’t grappled fully with what the implications of that are for religion. . . . People in the suburbs go to their PTA meetings and ask their principal for the budget, and they get it. . . . They ask for information about their health plan, and they get it. Transparency is all around them, and so it would just seem natural to demand that of your church. The more democracy is everywhere, the more people may, for better or for worse, attempt to demand things of religious leaders. The Internet is part of that story.”
Of course, it’s one thing to want to know your church’s budget, and quite another thing to want to know why Mass is taking so long. Last March the priest-blogger Father Ethan ran a post asking, “A good priest friend of mine . . . wants to know about Mass lengths. He says, ‘All things being equal, (as much as is possible to imagine) at what point do people feel short-changed, and at what point do they feel Father needs to move things along.’”
Whether or not authority suffers from the disappearance of mystery, certainly the power of ritual is diminished by having every conversation in the sacristy broadcast for public consumption.This entire passage, I regret to say, makes no sense at all. What is the "mystery" of Joseph de Maistre, and is it the same as the "mysterious silence" attributed to Mickey Kaus? If so, then such mysteriousness has never been part of the Catholic faith, which has always been completely open and has always rejected any notion of esoteric or hidden secrets (the Catholic faith uses "mystery" in a quite different sense - see Chesterton's story "The Arrow of Heaven" for an epigrammatic expression of the contrast).
Furthermore, the full quote from Kaus is not particularly relevant to the point that Mr. Last is trying to make; Kaus is speaking about "the newfound ability of respected authorities--such as religious scholars--to maintain their positions of leadership by engaging in a continuous blog dialogue with their followers...But what a burden. If you were a respected authority you used to be able to get away with maintaining a meaningful silence. Now you've got to be blogging in your own "unique voice" about every little thing that comes up, or else some ambitious lesser authority who posts more frequently will steal your flock."
The Waldman quote does not appear to have anything to do with "demystifying religion" in Mr. Last's sense. Waldman is speaking of "transparency", but it would seem only in the financial sense (unless the surrounding context shows otherwise - I can't tell because Mr. Last did not provide a link to this quote). How "[t]he Internet is part of that story" is entirely unclear.
The final little anecdote is so slight as to be quite unable to bear the weight of any intellectual conclusion that Mr. Last might want to erect upon it, even such a forced one as he attempts. Forced, because he begins with a false antithesis - the two questions are equally trivial; because he exaggerates a single blogged colloquy into "every conversation in the sacristy...broadcast for public consumption"; and because he offers no evidence at all that the "power of ritual is diminished."
Notice, also, that the raison d'etre of the whole passage, "Another concern is how the Internet is demystifying religion" is simply tossed aside at the end: "Whether or not authority suffers from the disappearance of mystery..."
The next stop may be the digitizing of religious practice. Online confessions have been around at least since 1997, and although the Catholic Church has rejected the practice, that hasn’t closed down all the virtual confessionals. At Absolution-Online.com
, for instance, you can enter the virtual booth, select your sins from five general classes of misdoing, and then proceed to the automated confessor, which doles out punishments normally consisting of some combination of fasting, Our Fathers, and Hail Marys. Although there is a disclaimer saying that the e-confessional isn’t sanctioned by the Catholic Church, most of its language is taken from the sacramental texts. Absolution-Online.com is also one of several sites that offers a virtual rosary. The website Universalis
does an online version of the Liturgy of the Hours. Elsewhere there are cyber Seders
and even Internet muftis.
Beliefnet’s Waldman thinks that this distancing of the self from the religious act can be helpful. “The anonymity of the Internet is what makes it work so well for religion,” he says. “It’s the flip side of why porn spreads. The same phenomenon that has led to pornography spreading, a variant of that has made religion one of the most popular topics online. It’s that you can explore religious matters in the privacy of your own home; ask questions you might be embarrassed to ask; have conversations with people with some anonymity; and do it anytime day or night.” This “anonymity combined with intimacy,” Waldman says, makes people “more inclined to open up,” since they aren’t revealing themselves totally.
To which one wants to say: Doesn’t that metaphor give you pause? Is a technique that has made pornography into the Internet’s number-one business really a good idea for religion, the Internet’s number-two business?
The failure of anonymous online pornography to be real sex is also the failure of anonymous online churching to be real religion: In both sex and religion, incarnation—the physical body—turns out to matter a great deal.Mr. Last has finally found something that could not be done without the Internet, and I entirely agree that it's not a good thing. Once again, the shallowness of Beliefnet is exposed.
Back in February 2002, Archbishop John Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, released two documents: The Church and the Internet
and Ethics in Internet
. “The Church and the Internet” is a perceptive survey of the promises and dangers of the medium. Foley recognized that there are “benefits more or less peculiar to the Internet” in terms of geographical and temporal access to information and warned that “hanging back timidly from fear of technology or for some other reason is not acceptable” to the Church. And yet, he observed, “already, the two-way interactivity of the Internet is blurring the old distinction between those who communicate and those who receive what is communicated.” He also warned that aside from the obvious evils of luring users to pornography and drawing them into fetid hatreds, the Internet also carries the danger of fostering “consumerism” and “pathological isolation.”
“Ethics in Internet” explored these concerns more fully: “It takes no great stretch of the imagination to envisage the earth as an interconnected globe humming with electronic transmissions—a chattering planet nestled in the provident silence of space.” The web “lends itself equally well to active participation and to passive absorption. . . . It can be used to break down the isolation of individuals and groups or to deepen it.”
Later in the document, Foley moaned, in the approved Al Gore style of those days, about “digital divide,” “cultural imperialism,” and “transnational corporations.” But he did understand something about the dangers of weakened incarnation. “Virtual reality is no substitute for the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the sacramental reality of the other sacraments, and shared worship in a flesh-and-blood community,” he wrote. “There are no sacraments on the Internet; and even the religious experiences possible there by the grace of God are insufficient apart from real-world interaction with other persons of faith.”And, so far as one can tell, the Internet has so far done more to "break down the isolation of individuals and groups" than to "deepen it."
Father Johansen adds that “Where we encounter mystery primarily is in the liturgy, in prayer. . . . The Internet can’t replace those things.” To their credit, many of the Godbloggers understand this, too. That’s why they convened in California last October to see, touch, and talk to one another at the Godblog convention. As Professor Reynolds explains: “Kneeling, on a kneeler made of oak, in front of a priest with trembling hands handing you the very Body and Blood of Christ which you taste and touch and smell is different than mouse-clicking your way through reality. . . . Is [the Internet] real fellowship? No, I don’t think so. I view it more as co-laboring.”"[M]any of the Godbloggers understand this, too"? Show me one who doesn't.
A tool for co-laboring. That’s the most we might hope for. And in the days of Pope Pius XIII and ceaseless politicking and Spiritual Weightloss, even that much seems a pipe dreamWhy? We're doing it already.
The great blessing of the Internet is that it lets people find each other. Of course, this is the great curse of the Internet as well—for not only can model-train collectors share their joint enthusiasm, but so can anti-Semites, child molesters, and gang members.Of course. Every tool can be put to a good or a bad use. It's due to something called "free will".
But even at its best, the Internet is a weakening of reality,Is it? At its best, it is a means of communication and a vast mine of information. Do the Post Office or the Encyclopedia Britannica represent a weakening of reality?
and with its consumer satisfactions, politicizing impulses, and substitutions for the body, it constantly lures us up into thinner and thinner air. Isn’t religion supposed to enrich the world around us instead?NO. Religion does not have a purpose. Religion is what happens when Man is trying to know God, and love Him and serve Him. It is merely a convenient collective noun denoting all the different things that God-seekers do. When they do them, the world is in fact enriched; but that is a by-product.
Shut off your computer. Take a deep breath. Go to church.Which I do. And so do my fellow bloggers. Has Mr. Last spent any time reading blogs at all? Does he not know that bloggers blog about what goes on in their lives when they're not blogging? That they have families, friends, interests, hobbies, wives and children? Has he not noticed that time and again some blogger or other posts an apology for not posting because of the press of real life?
To conclude, it strikes me as passing strange that an online editor should publish an online article expressing such dubiety about the Internet and its effect. The Internet reflects our society; it does not corrupt it.