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WEEKEND JOURNAL

Religion:
God Goes Online

By Lisa Miller

03/26/99
The Wall Street Journal
Page W1
(Copyright (c) 1999, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

Web sites now offer everything from Easter services to Passover Seders. But should they? Lisa Miller explores spirituality's controversial new frontier.

Early each morning, Wendy Gale prays with monks. She listens to religious music, worships before an altar adorned with statues of angels and meditates for half an hour while gazing at the Eucharist.

Then she logs off.

God has arrived on the Internet. The medium that is transforming shopping, pornography and research is now dramatically changing the way some people worship. Ms. Gale, for instance, lives in Coldwater, Ontario, but participates in services at the Petersham, Mass., monastery via a "Web cam" installed in the chapel. Indeed, almost anything you do at church or synagogue, you can now do at your computer terminal -- from taking part in discussions of Scripture to singing along with an online Jewish cantor. Nearly every traditional denomination now has a Web site, as do a fast-growing number of individual churches, mosques and synagogues. Browsers can tap into everything from the sublime (prayers broadcast from Mecca) to the ridiculous (Church of the Blind Chihuahua). Even the pope has appeared live online at www.vatican.va.

As Passover and Easter approach, religious groups are pulling out all the stops. This Sunday, members of the Evangelical Free Church in Salt Lake City will re-enact the crucifixion online. A Jewish congregation that exists on America Online is planning its first-ever model "cyberseder" this weekend, complete with an online recitation of the 10 plagues and a Seder plate with virtual horseradish and bitter herbs. In fact, by some measures, religion is now almost as big as sex online. Plug "God" into a Netscape search, and you'll get as many as 600,000 responses, remarkably close to the 775,000 sites listed for "sex." Yahoo! Inc. lists 17,000 sites devoted to religion and spirituality, compared with 12,000 about movies and 600 about home and garden.

Religion's presence on the Web is "staggering," says Charles Henderson, who selects Christianity sites for the Internet browser MiningCo.com, "and it's expanding exponentially."

But as it expands, the world of virtual worship has sparked a controversy that goes to the heart of what the word "religion" means. Is authentic faith possible without real people gathered together in a real place? Is clicking on matzo the same as chewing it?

"A big fat no with three exclamation points," cries Anne Foerst, a Lutheran theologian at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The Internet engages people's minds, she says, but Christianity requires physical participation: Its holiest sacraments -- baptism and communion -- are physical acts. An online religious community is a community "only in a very shallow sense," she says.

Similarly, Jews require a "minyan" -- 10 people gathered together -- for prayer, and observant Jews balk at the idea of a virtual minyan. "Praying with the computer is like praying by yourself," says Eli Katz, an Orthodox Jew who is chief operating officer of Fragrance Counter, an online perfume store. "It does have nice sentimental value, but it's certainly not kosher."

Proponents of online worship say religion puts its future at risk by not offering ritual on the Internet. With traditional religion facing competition from fundamentalists and New Age-style fads, technology mavens say the Web offers a chance to touch an unprecedented number of souls: the unaffiliated, the spiritually reticent, the workaholics. "This technology is critical for the church," says Brother M. Aquinas Woodworth, a Benedictine monk in Albuquerque, N.M., who designed a Web site for his monastery Christ in the Desert. "If the church doesn't have this expertise, it's going to be in serious trouble."

Already, visitors to Brother Aquinas's Web site can hear the monks chanting and see photos of them at work. Soon he intends to make the site edgier and more lifelike by offering live audio and video of the monks' seven daily prayers. That way, he says, "if you're sitting in Manhattan and you want to take 10 minutes to pray," you can pray with the monks. He plans to have the camera focus not only on the monks and the interior of their adobe chapel but also on the dramatic canyons out the window -- for a full spiritual experience, he says. Brother Aquinas, who got International Business Machines Corp. to donate much of the hardware, predicts the monks will go live online within a year.

To support their argument, technology advocates often invoke Martin Luther, who 500 years ago understood that a radical new innovation -- the printing press -- could be used to change the face of religion forever. The Protestant Reformation succeeded in large part because Luther and his cohorts papered Europe with tracts and pamphlets decrying the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, religion has long been in the forefront of technological innovation. Monks, for example, are believed to have invented the clock, as well as many medical techniques.

"Monks haven't been as backward as people think," says Brother John Raymond of the Monks of Adoration in Petersham. "`Monty Python and the Holy Grail' shows monks hitting themselves on the head with their books. We're not quite like that."

Many people who participate in cyber-rituals say they feel part of an authentic religious community. For more than two years, 20 to 30 people have showed up for a nightly 10 p.m. Jewish service in an America Online chatroom called Lechaim Cybershul. Participants range from a 14-year-old boy who wishes his own parents were more observant to an 80-year-old man who started participating because he had to care for his bedridden wife and couldn't leave home. On Fridays, services include the blessing of the wine. Worshippers see an image of a wine glass on the screen and hear a cantor sing the blessing in Hebrew.

The group celebrates all the Jewish holidays together, from Purim, during which they can see images of hamentaschen cookies, to Yom Kippur, which last year was so crowded that some people couldn't fit into the chat room.

Is it like being in a real synagogue? "I feel like I am," says Irene Helm, a retired psychiatric technician who officiates once or twice a week at the cybershul. Members know about each other's lives, she says, and send cards and flowers when someone is ill or has a baby. "It's pretty intense at times," says Ms. Helm, who lives in Fremont, Calif. "It's almost like we're joining hands around the computer."

For some Christians, long accustomed to watching church services on television, virtual worship isn't much of a stretch. Take David Helwig, who usually attends a Baptist church in London, Ontario. Stranded at home with a migraine headache one Sunday morning, he turned on his computer and stumbled onto live services at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. "I just propped up some pillows and watched," says Mr. Helwig, a freelance writer, who adds that he preferred the experience to watching church on TV. Although the picture was shaky, he liked the fact that the Internet ceremony didn't edit out announcements and enabled him to communicate his thoughts by e-mail afterward. "I was moved," Mr. Helwig says, "I felt able to connect."

Prayer sites are especially popular online because for most people, prayer is unscheduled and solitary anyway. One recent night on Guideposts, a nondenominational Christian site set up by a nonprofit ministry in Carmel, N.Y., more than 10 people made prayer requests. A blind man in Maine asked other visitors to the site to pray he'd get a job. A psychologist in Miami prayed for her sick father "who is very ill and has developed bed sores." Ruthann Zrimsek, of South Dayton, N.Y., asked people to pray for her five-year-old son, who has cerebral palsy and was about to undergo hip surgery.

Ms. Zrimsek hadn't been online before and asked her husband for help logging on. She wanted to put a prayer request online because "the request would be made over and over -- more than if I just prayed."

Several sites have features that help participants get in the habit of regular worship, with the hope that they will feel more connected to their faith. Every week the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York e-mails its Web subscribers the Sabbath's official starting time, based on the longitude and latitude of the subscriber's zip code.

Similarly, the Upper Room, a site affiliated with the Methodist Church, offers a popular daily meditation, usually an inspirational message tied to a Bible passage. For $6.95 a year, subscribers can get the meditation e-mailed to them automatically. Ricky Steele, director of business development in the technology practice at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Atlanta, likes the e-mail service because, he says, "if you're a little lazy, it makes it easy for you to do a daily devotion." Mr. Steele says that even when he is on a business trip, he makes sure to pull up the message on his laptop. After reading it, Mr. Steele says, he asks "God to give me insight and help me focus."

Of course, technological glitches can make a sacred experience less than revelatory. Ms. Helm, for instance, recently lost her network connection while delivering a prayer for a dead relative. Peachtree Presbyterian Church encountered problems during a live online broadcast of a memorial service last month for its pastor who had recently died. When 1,600 mourners logged on, disaster struck. "The audio dropped out," says Gary Russell, president of P.C. Advice, which handles the church's Web site.

As with sex and singles sites, some religious sites offer more in the way of slogans and merchandise than religious ritual. Heaven's Gate, the group that gained notoriety after 38 of its members committed suicide in 1997, still has an extensive Web site with links to video. For $24.95, people can order a copy of "How and When Heaven's Gate (The Door to the Physical Kingdom Level Above Human) May Be Entered."

All of which has some religious activists asking whether the Internet is an appropriate venue, particularly when it is still a source of smut. Even advocates of online religion worry that fringe groups will use the Web to prey on vulnerable surfers. "There are an awful lot of lonely hearts in cyberspace," says Quentin Schultze, professor of communication at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"This is a troubling medium, and do we really want to be involved in something this troubling?" adds Fran Maier, chancellor for the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver. Last year, the archdiocese hosted a three-day conference at which 100 bishops and technology executives addressed this issue. The result, Mr. Maier says, was general agreement that Catholics need more of a presence on the Web, but that spiritual practice online is impossible. "You can't remove the body from the act of worship," he says.

Ms. Gale, of Ontario, would disagree. When she contemplates the virtual communion wafer each morning, "I believe what I see there is the true presence of Jesus," she says. "That's what makes it so special."

  Soul Surfing
  With Easter and Passover approaching, celebrants now have thousands
of outlets for worship and religious information on the Web. Below, a
sampling:

  Peachtree Presbyterian
  www.peachtreepres.org: This Atlanta Church has been broadcasting its
Sunday morning services live with audio and video for about eight
months. Easter services -- held at 9, 10, and 11:15 a.m., will include 
a lily-strewn altar, the Allelujia chorus from Handel's "Messiah" and
hand bells. In its audio archives, the Web site offers 20 sermons by
its beloved pastor, the late Rev. W. Frank Harrington.

  CyberSeder
  www.emanuelnyc.org: Next Wednesday at noon, Temple Emanuel in New
York City will begin broadcasting a one-hour audio loop of Passover
rituals led by rabbis, members of the congregation and their children. 
The loop plays continuously for 24 hours and is accompanied by pictures 
from 15th- to 17th-century Haggadot, the book of the Seder service.

  First Church of Cyberspace
  www.execpc.com/~chender/: This is an unusually sophisticated site,
loaded with images and reading material. Created by Presbyterian
minister and Webmaster Charles Henderson, it offers inspirational
music, from Bach to Enya. A flame in the middle of its virtual
sanctuary is surrounded by medieval paintings. Hit "reload" and the
images change. There is chat nightly at 9 p.m. as well as links to
sites about non-Christian religions.

  Islamicity.com
  www.islamicity.com: This site broadcasts prayers from Mecca via
Web-cam five times a day. It was founded five years ago by Culver
City, Calif.-based Human Assistance and Development Association, whose 
mission is "to spread Islam on the Internet," according to its
executive vice president, Marwan Stambuli. In the site's "Memorial
Park," people can post images of deceased loved ones, along with
favorite prayers (in audio), to provide an opportunity for prayer
"wherever you are, without really visiting the cemetery."

  Cybershul
  By clicking on keyword "Jewish," then "chat," America Online members
can participate in Lechaim Cybershul's model seder this Sunday and
Monday at 10 p.m. Members have created a complete virtual interactive
Seder experience, from horseradish to the "afikomen" dessert matzo. A
pared-down version of the same event will occur March 31 and April 1,
also at 10 p.m.

  Hindunet
  www.hindunet.org: This site has all the basics: a calendar of
holidays, a listing of Hindu temples around the world, links to Hindu
scriptures and explanations of various customs. Other features: a wide 
variety of electronic greeting cards to send on Hindu holidays and chat 
rooms on everything from vegetarianism to Sanskrit.

  Jewish Family Life
  www.jewishfamily.com: This site offers bulletin boards with
discussions of such topical questions as, "Will a seder and an Easter
egg hunt be confusing for our children?" and an essay on matzo balls
titled, "Sinkers or Floaters?" The site is the brainchild of Needham,
Mass.-based Jewish Family Life! Inc., a publisher of 20 electronic
magazines aimed at younger, unaffiliated Jews. A related site,
www.jewishblessings.com, has many standard Jewish prayers on an audio
file.

  Guideposts
  www.guideposts.org: This Christian Web site takes prayer requests and 
posts a daily devotional reading. Requests are now being taken by
e-mail and through an 800 number for prayers at a 12-hour Guideposts
gathering on Good Friday. The site also has a "Gift Shop," where
browsers can purchase romantic Christian novels, hymns on CD and
biographies of women in the Bible.

  Buddhanet
  www.buddhanet.net: Launched five years ago by a meditation center in
Sydney, Australia, this is home base for anyone interested in
Buddhism, with links to teachings by masters, meditation centers and
retreats world-wide. One new Web page provides meditation instruction
in audio and includes lessons in "the technique of mental noting" and
"loving-kindness instruction." Another page invites kids to post their 
own drawings of the Buddha.

  Crosswalk
  www.crosswalk.com: This enormous site promotes Christian products,
such as Bible-study software and even the Prince of Egypt soundtrack.
It also has numerous chat rooms on everything from motherhood to
sports. On Easter morning at 8 a.m., Crosswalk is hosting an hour-long 
"Sunrise Praise and Prayer Chat," a moderated online conversation.

Copyright 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.