While studying my way through the first two years of a Ph.D. program in American history at Columbia University, I worked part time as the book-review editor (in Webspeak, "the books producer") at a large Web site devoted to religion, spirituality, and morality. Beliefnet.com is multifaith, both externally and internally. It strives to offer "content" (a loathsome Web word) that caters to all manner of religions and faith traditions. It has articles that would be of interest to evangelicals, Mormons, Reconstructionist Jews, Wiccans, Baha'is, Hindus, and just about everyone else on the planet (it even features the occasional article by an atheist). Meanwhile, the staff comprises folks from a host of religious backgrounds: it is more varied than even students in the Introduction to Religion course I took in my self-consciously diverse college.

I took this job to pay the rent, and to learn a little something about how to edit. It accomplished both those things, as well as a few more important things. They have to do with matters of the spirit.

Sharing my faith is not my strong suit. I can write about my belief in Jesus, but when it comes to actually talking about it to a living, breathing non-Christian, I clam up. This isn't because I don't care if the unsaved find God; it's not because I think Jesus is anything less than clear when he charges us to spread the gospel. No, I don't witness because, well, I'm embarrassed.

I'm not sure that most of my professors and classmates even know that I'm a Christian. I hem and haw for hours about my jewelry before I go to a professor's office. Do I leave the cross hanging around my neck, right there in plain sight? Or do I tuck it discreetly beneath my blouse?

Once I was on the train heading upstate for a weekend retreat. I ran into a professor, who asked me where I was going. "Poughkeepsie," I said, which was almost true—the retreat house was near Poughkeepsie. He assumed I was going to Vassar for the weekend, which is exactly what I had wanted him to assume. So much for the Great Commission.

I know my campus is a mission field in need of the gospel, but I'm too determined to fit in and impress people to really take up that challenge.

But at the Web site, I couldn't hide my faith. At one of our very first meetings, staff members went around the table and talked about our religious and spiritual selves. So everyone at my office knew my religious autobiography: that I grew up Jewish; that at some point around the end of college I came to faith; and that I now worship at an evangelical Episcopal church and actually believe kooky things, like that Jesus died to purge my sins and that after he died, he literally rose again.

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Being surrounded by non-Christian coworkers pushed me, on a few occasions, to witness—even in the ladies' room.

A coworker at the sink said, "So Lauren, can I talk to you about a little something?"

"Sure," I said.

She told me, in short order, that she'd had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week, that things weren't looking any better, that she was feeling bereft, what could she do? First I suggested lunch. Then I suggested shopping. Then I finally got it, and I suggested we pray. And we did.

The next week we had a longer conversation about what I believe and why, and a few weeks later I noticed my coworker was browsing through the pile of books that might be reviewed and landing on books by Philip Yancey and Os Guinness.

Even when I'm not put in the position of asking people to kneel with me and pray the sinner's prayer, I'm still doing some kind of evangelism—the kind, I think, that we now call "lifestyle evangelism." Everyone at work knew that I was a Christian, and there was no way around it, even when I wished there were.

I first realized this about a month after I started the job. I was sitting across the table from one of my coolest coworkers—the one who used to work for The New Yorker, the one with the to-die-for purple fishnet tights, the one I most desperately hoped would like me. And I knew she knew I was a Christian. I was convinced she wouldn't befriend me.

It turned out that Ms. Fishnet is a bigger person than I am; it's true that she doesn't have many evangelical friends, but it's also true that my faith didn't put her off, and whatever hang-ups I have about it are just that—my hang-ups, my embarrassment, my discomfort, my sophisticated cynicism getting in the way.

Embarrassment may not be the only reason I shy away from declaring my Christian commitments. Once, about two months after I started my job, I was kibitzing with some coworkers about men: I allowed as how I had met this really cute Indian guy at a party, and that this reportedly good kisser had asked me out for the next weekend.

"Toeing to the Christian straight and narrow?" my coworker teased. "Aren't y'all supposed to be chaste, and only date Christians to boot?" I was horrified. I felt like that character from the recently canceled sitcom Kristin. I understood that I was going to have to hold myself to some higher standard, that I was representing not just myself but also the gospel.

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Maybe my presence in the office taught some of my coworkers about Christianity; I don't really know. I do know that it taught me something about Christianity.

Sweet Devotion

During my first six months in New York, while juggling a new job and graduate school, I let some of my Christian disciplines slide. I even dilly-dallied when it came to finding a church in New York. I was already talking about religion all day, with my classmates, my coworkers, and online. Who needs a church community when you work with people who yak nonstop about religion? I never set out to make this Web site a substitute for church, but I gradually realized that I had turned it into exactly that.

And I didn't pray very often, or keep up with my spiritual director. After all, I reasoned, I was spending all day doing things related to religion. I was writing term papers for my classes on the history of American Protestantism, and I was editing all these religion book reviews. My whole life was religion. Who needed prayer?

One week, a bumper crop of books about the Lord's Prayer crossed my desk. I took them home, stacked them on my bedside table, and began working through them, pen in hand, every night before I went to sleep. Four days later, as I was reading an insightful passage about forgiving others' trespasses, I realized I hadn't actually talked—or listened—to God since I got those books. Reading about prayer was easier than doing it.

I continue to believe that we find God in our vocations, whether or not those vocations have anything explicitly to do with religion. But I now see that finding God at the office is, for me, icing, and it has to be spread over a dense layer of finding him in the more traditional places—in the pew and on my knees.

Fighting Words

I started this job with the naïve assumption that even though I'm a Christian, I could sally forth into this interfaith Web world unharmed. I'm capable of separating fact from fiction, truth from falsehood, I thought. I can do the interfaith thing and stick to my guns.

For the most part, I still think that's true—I think God does want me to participate in interfaith conversations, both because I can offer a little leaven to the loaf and because I have a few things about fidelity, charity, and devotion to learn from my devout Hindu and Jewish colleagues. But I have also learned that the spiritual world, even just a spiritual Web site, is a dangerous place. I realized this in what Betty Friedan would call a "click moment" about eight months into my job.

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I had been, for the better part of a year, happily reading and reviewing books about all sorts of faith traditions: volumes of Rumi poetry, memoirs by Jack Spong and John Dominic Crossan, books with titles like Two Days to a More Spiritual You and If the Buddha Dated. One night, at about 11, I was sitting at my desk reading a vegetarian Wiccan cookbook when I got it: I read and write about books because I think they are really important. I believe the books we read form us, and as a lifelong bibliophile, I think especially that they form me.

What am I doing? I thought frantically. I've been spending eight months forming my spiritual self on books about Gaia! I hit the floor. I had words with God. I left the office, and didn't finish the cookbook review that night.

I don't think flipping through the occasional book about Gaia is going to lead me straight to hell, which is a good thing because sometimes my job required me to read such books. But I do think that Screwtape gets really cranky when he loses one to Christ, and that he uses whatever tools he's got to get her back, even innocent-looking pop-spirituality books.

After my epiphany with the cookbook, I began praying for discernment before I went to work. I prayed to be surrounded by a battalion of angels. I prayed that Satan would be kept far behind me. And I prayed before I opened a book, any book —even one published by a respectable evangelical publisher.

I prayed that God would make it clear if I was not supposed to read the book in question, and I prayed that if I was meant to read it, he would give me the right eyes with which to do it. If he told me not to read a book, I didn't read it; I found someone else to write the necessary mini-review.

I'm still surprised that I did this. "Spiritual warfare" sounds like something my Baptist grandmother, of blessed memory, might have believed in. It doesn't sound like something a trying-hard-to-be-hip twentysomething Episcopalian in New York ought to believe in. But working at the Web site persuaded me that there is some force out there who doesn't want me to be a Christian, and that force is going to use whatever he can to tempt me away. Screwtape has a lot of tools here in New York: he has strip clubs and visions of tremendous wealth, and he has cocaine and the Mafia. But I'm not tempted by cocaine or strip clubs. I'm tempted by beautiful books, whether they're about Jesus or Ganesh.

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The sense I received in prayer was instructive. God never told me (or, at least, I never heard him tell me) not to pick up a book about Hinduism. I had, on more than one occasion, the sense that I was not supposed to plunge ahead with reading plans that have involved books preaching heterodox Christianity.

On reflection, this makes sense to me: I may really have something to learn from a devout Hindu—more than I have to learn from a wishy-washy liberal Episcopalian who has sacrificed the core of his faith in the name of inclusivity. I think I am capable of recognizing Hinduism as Hinduism. But I'm still young in this Christian life, and I may not be able to recognize some of the persuasive-sounding pseudo-Christian arguments for what they are: heresy.

A Vast Hasteland

Another crucial lesson I learned has to do with the Web itself. The very things that make the Web so useful—its speed and its anonymity—also make it spiritually dangerous. This is not to say that the Web is spiritually useless: in countless ways, the Web has assisted my own spiritual development. E-mail has helped me stay in touch with Christian friends all around the globe, friends who offer a valuable complement to my church community. And I don't think I have opened my concordance since I discovered online Bible searches.

Speed is the great gift of the Internet. Everything is out there, and you can get to it instantly. Stories come via e-mail and we could upload them to the Web site in an hour, if need be. You can buy books quickly. You can get your news quickly. You can send e-mail quickly.

Frankly, doing all those things quickly has gotten me into trouble: I've sent e-mail messages in a fury that I have later regretted. I never would have sent them if my outbox had a mandatory 24-hour waiting period. I've done more impulse shopping on Amazon.com than I've ever done in a real store.

Speed has also tripped me up spiritually. Religion Web sites offer the tantalizing promise that I can get spiritually fit as quickly as I can get a book from Barnes&Noble.com. The Web conditions me to expect everything on demand. But growing into the Christian life doesn't happen at Web speed. Spiritual development was slow and painful when the Desert Fathers were doing it, and it's slow and painful now.

So too, the anonymous quality of the Web is a mixed bag. The community boards at the Web site for which I worked make plain that people are finding valuable prayer support online. Anything that helps people pray gets a star in my book. But I wonder what is lost when we never meet or speak to our prayer partners. Accountability, it seems to me, is a necessary ingredient of the Christian life, and you don't have much accountability when you can log off the second things start to get uncomfortable.

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I have an online prayer partner whom I have never met face to face. Her name is Frannie (at least she tells me that's her name; for all I know, Frannie is really a 300-pound biker named Biff). She e-mailed me after reading a Web article I wrote, and we have been meeting on the Internet for a year now. I think we have helped each other in our Christian walk.

But I also think the Internet walk can only go so far. Frannie doesn't go to church. Whenever I suggest she give a brick-and-mortar church a try, she always responds that she has everything she needs in the privacy of her own home: prayer buddies like me, online sermons, even—if developments in England are any sign—online confession.

I would rather Frannie have those things than nothing, but I also know that, as an anonymous set of glowing letters on the other side of the computer screen, I can only do so much for her. I can pray for Frannie the second I get her e-mail, but I can't look at the fruits in her life. And I can't get beyond the anonymity of e-mail addresses to deep intimacy. For those things, Frannie needs brick and mortar. Real churches not only offer intimacy and accountability, but require them—which, I suspect, is the reason Frannie prefers online religion.


I never expected that God would use my time at this Web site to teach me about being more faithful to him. I thought that my work could remain compartmentalized in some section of my brain marked "earning a living," and that my faith would sit neatly in its own cubbyhole. I thought the high-powered, heady world of dot-coms—even dot-coms devoted to religion and spirituality—was far removed from my own walk with Christ. But he uses everything. He doesn't just use my quiet time or my mornings in church. He is looking to draw me into him, and if I ever again spend several days a month working online, he's going to meet me there.

Lauren F. Winner is a contributing editor to Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere:

Lauren F. Winner is the former book-review editor for Beliefnet.com which has articles of interest to Christians, Hindus, Baha'is, and other religions.

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Winner regularly writes for Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture and Boundless Webzine.

Lauren F. Winner's book reviews for Christianity Today include:

It's Called Junk Food for a Reason | Two books explore the differences between true nourishment and its counterfeits. (May 15, 2001)
The Wright Stuff | Vinita Hampton Wright is leading a quiet transformation of Christian fiction. (April 20, 2001)
Truth, Suitable for Framing | Before there was the Internet, there was the Talmud. And they have a lot in common. (February 15, 2001)
What Is Truth (About Pilate)? | Three books dig for insights into the shadowy ruler and his wife. (Dec. 4, 2000)
Recipes for the Soul | Phyllis Tickle thinks cookbooks and prayerbooks have a lot in common. (Aug. 15, 2000)
Suffer the Children | Inner-city gradeschoolers reawakened author Jonathan Kozol's dormant faith. (June 3, 2000)
You Are Who You Eat With | A kosher keeper teaches us about the religious meaning of food. (Aug. 10, 1998)
Finding Power in Submission | Two feminist scholars write about women you'll recognize. (April 27, 1998)

Other Christianity Today articles by Lauren F. Winner include:

Solitary Refinement | The church is doing better than ever at ministering to single people. But some evangelical assumptions still need rethinking. (June 4, 2001)
The New Ecumenists | At the Vine, emerging Christian leaders are reinterpreting the meaning of church unity. (Feb. 5, 2001)
Policy Wonks for Christ | At Civitas, grad students learn to think Christianly about public life. (Nov. 16, 2000)
The Man Behind the Megachurch | There would be no Willow Creek—no small groups, no women in leadership, no passion for service—without Gilbert Bilezikian. (Nov. 6, 2000)
Good News for Witches | Every Halloween, thousands of Wiccans descend on Salem, Massachusetts—and local churches reach out. (Oct. 27, 2000)
The Weigh & the Truth | Christian dieting programs—like Gwen Shamblin's Weigh Down Diet—help believers pray off the pounds. But what deeper messages are they sending about faith and fitness? (August 25, 2000)
Something Old, Something True | With The Story of Us, released on video today, Hollywood offers a rationale for sticking with marriage. (Feb. 14, 2000)
T. D. Jakes Feels Your Pain | Though critics question his theology, this fiery preacher packs arenas with a message of emotional healing. (Feb. 7, 2000)
Eavesdropping: An Open-Door Policy | Is meeting alone with a member of the opposite sex dangerous? Is taking steps against it sexist? (Nov. 8, 1999)
Eternal Ink | A growing movement of Christian tattooists is leaving its mark on both body and soul. (Oct. 4, 1999)
Death, Inc. | What the funeral industry doesn't want you to know. (April 26, 1999)
Whoa, Susannah! | It's great music, but its portrayal of Christian hypocrisy will make you wince. (Oct. 4, 1997)

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