GIVE ME THAT ONLINE RELIGION
Brenda E. Brasher
Jossey-Bass, 203 pages, $24.95
People who use the Internet quickly find that it makes light of time, space, and the human body. On one level, only the mind—the message—is important. As the famous New Yorker cartoon puts it, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." This is not all bad, but it is a big shift indeed. Brenda Brasher is concerned with religion in this context, and more particularly in the context of cyberspace, the imaginary "place" our minds have built to help us cope with these disembodied conditions.
Brasher's Give Me That Online Religion is the first critical foray into the field of religion in cyberspace, and it bears all the marks of early exploration. Her pioneering contribution is in helping us see the online world as a new context for human activity, one that poses hard questions to traditional religious belief. But because it is a hasty survey of a continent-sized field, it falls short.
Brasher, assistant professor of religion at Mt. Union College in Alliance, Ohio, brackets the truth claims of any given religion. But she also supports sincere religious faith and organized religion because they help people search for meaning, outline ethical boundaries, and counteract individualism.
Every new technology causes cultural shifts. And ever since writing and parchment first transformed oral cultures, technologies have shaped the way humans have expressed their faith. In this guide, Brasher explores how religious faith—formal and informal—is affected by the latest shift caused by the emerging global network of computers that form the Internet.
Religion is alive and well in cyberspace, but it's not the same old religion. The imaginary geography of cyberspace transforms the character of faith. For traditional religions, cyberspace is as much challenge as opportunity. Cyberspace makes possible new forms and expressions of spirituality—from Web pages to e-mail lists to Usenet newsgroups to multiuser chat rooms and beyond. Some are authorized by specific religious groups; most are anything but official. In the same virtual space we find Christians of all stripes mixing with Buddhists, Muslims, Wiccans, and the devotees of Keanu Reeves. Sacred and profane, orthodox and heretical, authority and parody, all bumping together as geographical and other historical boundaries are weakened.
Give Me That Online Religion explores online religion's effects on our aspirations for spirituality, our concepts of time, our faith communities, our ideas of good and evil, our self-understanding, and the Apocalypse. For each area, she highlights salient features of the online landscape and points out current and potential dangers. One chapter describes how online celebrities compete with traditional religions in giving people a sense of meaning. (Did you know that there are 800,000 virtual memorial sites for the late Princess Diana?) But the issues she raises in this chapter are worth better treatment than she gives them.
Even when she raises insightful questions, Brasher's prose style obscures more than it reveals. The reader is never quite sure whether the book is intended for an academic or a popular audience, and it does not fully succeed on either level. Most chapters feature extensive passages of maddeningly vague and dry exposition with only the occasional oasis of an illustrating vignette.
Exploring Media Ecology
Brasher's panoramic approach is most successful and most helpful when she draws on the insights of media ecology. Most of her readers will, I suspect, be unfamiliar with this important new academic discipline (and its patron saint, Marshall McLuhan), so her frequent references to its findings are a highlight of the volume. What she shows in its light is that the Internet, the landscape of cyberspace, is not neutral. It changes our aesthetics and our aspirations, our hermeneutics and even our symbols.
To take one simple example, I've sometimes wondered why people frequently seem more interesting by e-mail than they are in person. Brasher shows how this follows from the mediated and time-compressed nature of e-mail. It's a utopian conversation held in between life's daily routine of dishes and commutes. Participants in an e-mail group can take the time to set down their thoughts clearly. And you need be clever only intermittently.
Brasher shows a moral seriousness in "Cyber-Virtue and Cyber-Vice," her most successful chapter. (In it, she also offers the first serious critique of the movie You've Got Mail that I've seen.) Cyberspace is for her a place for moral action. She demonstrates that a virtual sin committed in an imaginary space is still real sin with real consequences.
At the same time, she recognizes that the categories of sin in the new terrain have not yet been sorted out. Nor are they so easily translated from our inherited faith traditions. Brasher asks good questions, such as, Who is our neighbor when cyberspace makes location almost meaningless? In this chapter she wisely avoids easy answers. She calls instead for ethicists and theologians to come to cyberspace and do their work, like a new sheriff coming to town in the myth of the American West.
Here Are Dragons
More frequently she leaves a reader who is ready to agree with a given statement hanging for lack of a supporting argument. Like the makers of legendary medieval maps, Brasher yields to a tendency to label broad areas hic sunt dracones ("here are dragons"). To take one important example, she fears that online religion could be in danger from the onslaught of cyberspace commercialization. The central argument of the book is thus that religious expression be a protected activity in cyberspace. Unfortunately, she offers little empirical evidence to justify either fear or prescription. Later chapters actually undermine this thesis by demonstrating the pervasiveness of online religion (particularly informal religion).
Further, her vague prescription of protection for online religion does not address the real problem. In the abstract, it is even unnecessary since no one is hindering people from the great tradition of volunteering to share their faith in this new territory. In fact, online space and sophisticated programming and design tools are increasingly available at no cost to any denomination, church, faction, or individual.
More frustrating is how much evidence Brasher overlooks that would support her thesis—or a more nuanced variant. In my experience, I have felt the pressure that money and markets put on online religion, in both for-profit and nonprofit settings. Having to be sensitive to the demands of advertisers and donors makes a professional career in cyberspace religion a problem indeed. The world of cyberspace is not so isolated from the pressures of the physical world as we might wish.
In that vein, it is a pity this book went into production just before the 2001 dot-com fallout put the lavish claims of Internet true believers in perspective. I frequently wished she had acknowledged how young this new medium is, how naïve are some of its hopes, and how premature are conclusions drawn from such limited data.
Still, despite the hyperbole that surrounds the Internet, there are indeed dragons in cyberspace, and Brasher offers a much-needed warning to "virtual tourists" and the morally oblivious. Like any geographical country, cyberspace has its seedy and dangerous districts. Tourists enchanted by its glittering promises can easily be lured into danger. Particularly for Internet novices, Brasher's guidance is worth the price of the book. It falls to us to address her questions and make our own way in cyberspace. It's a new arena, but we're the same old human beings. And for followers of Christ, the Internet is just one more world to be in but not of.
Peter L. Edman is editor of BreakPoint Online (www.christianity.com/breakpoint/).
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Give Me That Online Religion is available at Christianbook.com.
Author Brenda E. Brasher's official Web site has personal and book information.
Basher's book has a summary page on the Jossey-Bass site.
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