Monday, March 31, 2008

Surfing for God

A Review of Give Me That On-line Religion"
(This article originally appeared on

"Give Me That On-line Religion" by Brenda E. Brasher. Jossey Bass. 208pp. $24.95
If there is one commonly accepted truth about the emerging cyber-culture, it is that the only constant is change. Only a couple of years ago, when I was in the midst of writing my own book about spirituality and the Internet, people were just beginning to realize that cyberspace connected us to one another in ways analogous to offline religious experiences.

Now that fact is accepted as a given, what with the proliferation of major religious Web sites like Beliefnet and the nearly universal access to the Internet that suddenly spans all the generations. When I toured with my book, I was astonished at how many seniors turned out for my lectures, and at how cyber-savvy they had become.

So we've reached a new stage in our exploration of religion in cyberspace, one of redefinition and advocacy. This is the underlying premise of Brenda Basher's most recent contribution to the growing genre of books dealing with online spirituality, entitled, "Give Me That Online Religion." Basher, an assistant professor of religion at Mount Union College in Ohio, draws upon her vast understanding of a variety of world religions and the role of religion in society in exploring the topic from a variety of perspectives.

She makes two main points: 1) that religion is a necessary and valuable contributor to a civil society, or as she calls it, "a rich incomparable meaning resource -- necessary ballast to individual identity," and 2) that religious expression must be fostered, cultivated and protected online.

She looks at how traditional religions, including Judaism, have been enhanced. She notes that previous technological innovations were catalysts for change -- television, for instance, led to the slow ascendancy of image over word, and to religious services designed to look like media events. Now, we are moving toward what she calls an "electronic souk of the soul," where developing forms of hypertext surfing are becoming a religious experience unto themselves.

We are learning to broaden our spiritual horizons. Where television opened the door to seeing carefully staged presentations of other cultures, "cyberspace puts us in direct one-on-one contact with our neighbors around the world." Millions of people are only a mouse click away, she adds, "and they are all our neighbors." This poses some moral dilemmas (such as whether cyber sex constitutes adultery) that Basher explores in detail.

She broadens the definition to include some cultural phenomena that we might not automatically associate with "old time religion," including virtual shrines to the cult of celebrity (everything from "Star Trek" celebrations to Princess Diana memorials). Basher also explores modern apocalyptic movements like Heaven's Gate, emphasizing again that, despite the dangers, cyberspace must continue to be a place preserved for people to "climb and roam."

This book reads best as a series of disconnected reflections rather than a sustained, integrated argument. But that in itself is a product of our new, hyperlinked zeitgeist, where writing, like praying and believing, is taking on the spontaneous, word-association flavor of Web surfing. The book will certainly find its place in this still tiny genre, a first-generation study at how we are religious online and how, all expectations to the contrary, traditions of the past are not being subsumed by the eternal present of cyber-culture. As we become more and more computer-like in our thought processes and more technologically sophisticated, we are most certainly not leaving religion behind. God is coming along for the ride.

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