Religious Blogs Provide Forum for Personal Opinions on Faith, Worship and Spirituality
By Cary McMullen
Ledger Religion Editor
"And on the 2,893,402,568th day, man created blogs. And he used them to post all manner of links and opinions and digital photos. And man saw that the blogs were good for speaking with others about God. And he caused the blogs to be fruitful and multiply, so that they covered the Internet."
Once, members of churches, synagogues and mosques were limited in the times and places they could express their personal beliefs and opinions. Then came blogs.
If you're behind the technological curve, Weblogs -- blogs, for short -- are a kind of interactive Web page that is easily updated. Blogs can be used as a catalogue or magazine of links to articles on a particular topic. But most bloggers, as they are known, use their Weblogs as public journals, posting on them their musings on their personal lives or on any subject of interest to them -- literature, movies, politics or religion -- and inviting responses from anyone who reads them.
Blogging readily became a forum for political commentary, but people of faith discovered it was a tool to exchange news and views. And even if cyberspace isn't exactly the same as a place of worship, bloggers say that it creates a kind of community that bridges huge distances.
As an example of what you might find on a religious blog, consider this posting from Catholic writer and former Lakeland resident Amy Welborn about the current state of the Mass:
"It's just such a disconnected, staticy, jostled mess. There is just such a stop-and-go feeling about it, such a feeling of tension as we enter the Church, wonder what we're going to have to do this week, as we warily watch the music minister, wondering what he's going to scold us for this time. . . . What is this connected to? Are the parts connected to each other? Is this connected to the universal Church? Are we connecting to God?"
Or this from the Weblog Mark Byron of Lake Wales on Alabama Gov. Bob Riley's proposed tax plan:
"The tax package is the brainchild of a tax lawyer named Susan Hamill, who found a so-so Methodist faith strengthened during a sabatical (sic) at Samford University's Beeson Divinity School. Hamill started seriously studying the Bible and grafted a help-the-poor message of the Bible to a left-leaning political outlook."
Religious bloggers say that blogs have proliferated just within the past few years. A "semi-definitive list of Christian blogs," http://blogs4god.com, cites 844 blogs. A humorous Weblog ring, www.thinkhalal.com, lists 179 Muslim blogs. And a Jewish Weblogring, www.gavroche.org/jblog. html, lists 110 blogs.
There are even a couple of bloggers who have near-celebrity status. Andrew Sullivan, the self-proclaimed conservative gay Catholic writer, has a much-referenced blog (www.andrewsullivan.com). And Jewish World Review columnist Eve Tushnet is similarly admired for her blog (http://eve-tushnet.blogspot.com).
Momentous events, such as Sept. 11 or the war in Iraq, tend to cause new ones to spring up, as a way of exchanging articles and opinions. Welborn said for Catholics, the sex-abuse scandal in the church had the same effect.
"People started coming to us for news and opinions. It seemed no one else was trustworthy. The secular press had news but not trustworthy motives, and the Catholic press is a glorified church bulletin. We wanted the truth about what was happening and to talk about it honestly. Blogs gave a real forum for that," she said.
Welborn has had her blog, titled Open Book (http://amywelborn.typepad.com/openbook) for about two years. It replaced her personal Web page, which she used to promote her articles and books but found difficult to update. Welborn said blogs are like a seminar or creative writing class.
"It gives you a forum to hash out ideas," she said, speaking by phone from Fort Wayne, Ind., where she lives with her husband and children. "It gives me a way to work out columns and articles in a more intimate setting."
"Intimate" may seem a strange word to use for such a public device, but Welborn said there are about 20 or 30 people who regularly comment on her blog postings that she thinks of as a circle.
"In the Catholic church, there's a lot of division. Blogs give people a chance to hook up with like-minded people. It doesn't replace a face-to-face church, but for people interested in ideas and issues, it's a great place," she said.
Byron, an assistant professor of business at Warner Southern College, started his blog (http://markbyron.blogspot.com) in January 2002. A reader of other blogs, especially political ones, he decided to start his own.
"At first, I wrote more on secular politics and economics, albeit from a Christian perspective. Now I'm putting more Christian content on it," he said.
Byron began adding a scripture verse -- "Edifier du jour," he calls it -- in the margin of the blog, then began adding a devotional comment to it. Christian readers began responding to them.
"The value is that it's a way to express yourself, to vent your spleen in a way you might not be able to in real life, at a fairly high intellectual level. It allows you to assume what you're doing is of value, of edification to others. You share your struggles and maybe that touches someone else's heart," he said.
Sharing your personal problems with the world might seem risky. Byron occasionally writes about his wife's struggle with depression.
"It takes some nerve. I'm fairly open about myself, but I have to clear things with my wife before I post them," he said.
Writing too much about one's own life can also seem egocentric, a perennial danger for bloggers, Welborn said.
"I try to balance what I do. I have family and friends who read my personal stuff, but I'm not under the delusion everyone's going to be interested. But the kind of writing I've been doing for a long time is digging out spirituality in everyday life. If I mention my kids, it's because I'm drawing something out of it," she said.
For those who think that the media gives a distorted view of religion, individuals and organizations can set up blogs to serve as a corrective.
"A vast majority of blogs do have some sort of media watchdog function, as a fact-checker," said Ted Olsen, online managing editor of Christianity Today, who began running a Weblog within the magazine's Web page (www.christianitytoday.com) in 1999. "When Weblogs started, it was `Here's an interesting article.' Now it's `Here's a really stupid article.' Ranting is a fun thing to do, and blogs make that easy."
A new blog in the works aims to give visibility to unreported stories about religion. The blog, tentatively titled faithwatch.org, will "purposely look for stories where they missed the religion angle," said Terry Mattingly, a columnist and associate professor of communications at Palm Beach Atlantic University, who is helping start the blog along with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank.
Yet another future for blogs may lie in theological education. The Rev. A.K.M. Adam, associate professor of New Testament at Seabury-Western Seminary in Evanston, Ill., is helping to organize a "disseminary" -- an alternative online seminary -- that borrows a page from Napster.
According to The Disseminary Web site (http://disseminary.org), the alternative seminary would consist initially of group blogs on a couple of topics that would run for six or seven weeks. Organizers started accepting applications this week. Eventually, Adam said, he hopes The Disseminary would offer a slate of courses led by top scholars and run online academic journals.
"It's imperative to let our imaginations be instructed by the medium," he said by phone from his office. "If we make an opportunity for people to get information they're interested in, they'll follow it. The academy prevents that by requiring people to relocate, put up vast sums of money and meet certain requirements. Theologians especially ought to be willing to extend knowledge to people who are interested in it,"
Adam also suggested that congregations could use blogs as a way of giving prospective visitors an honest look at the inner life of a church, synagogue or mosque.
"If we don't make that public at the start, it's asking someone to invest the energy to find the church before having a strong reason to know if he wants to go there," he said.
The public aspect of blogs offers a chance to engage the world in a positive way, said Olsen, the Christianity Today editor.
"I think there needs to be more thought given to what we're trying to do with blogs. Are we trying to influence culture? Rant? Talk to a circle of friends? I'm not sure most bloggers have thought it through," he said.
"It's too ad hoc -- `here's a bunch of stuff I like.' There needs to be a mission, a focus, more intentionality."
Cary McMullen can be reached via e-mail at cary.mcmullen@ theledger.com or by calling 863-802-7509.
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