07 August 2007

A holy day in cyberspace

Out in meatspace, we all celebrated the Transfiguration yesterday. Here in cyberspace, today is a holy day of another kind. On August 7, 1991, sixteen years ago today, Tim Berners-Lee posted a message to the alt.hypertext newsgroup announcing his World Wide Web project.

Today seems to be a fitting day to mull over the importance of the www for the church. Have we used this technology well? Has it been good for the church, or bad for the church? I'm not sure, frankly.

In the parish I served for two years, around one-third of our new members during my time there came to us via Google. They looked for a church online, checked out our website, came to church, and then joined our community. Chalk that one in the "good" column. Churches are able to tell their story to people who might otherwise miss it. Church communities can stay in touch in ways that would otherwise be impossible. That's all good.

Now turn your gaze the present controversies within the church. It is clear to me that we would not be in this mess to our current depth were it not for the blogosphere. Anyone can publish, which is part of the positive, democratizing influence of the web. But perhaps not everyone should publish, or at least not without a deep breath first. Inflammatory messages are written, posted, and then read by thousands of people. Counter-arguments emerge. Soon people are vilifying one other, without every having met, and without knowing the other side well.

Sure, technology does not cause bad behavior. But it makes it much easier. There's no barrier to entry -- no stamps, no telephone toll charges, no need to get in the car -- so sometimes we say things that we might not say if more time passed. And, of course, the Internet is available all over the world, so our partially-formed thoughts can be read by people everywhere.

Of course, this is not a new problem. Print media helped foster Reforming zeal 500 years ago, and the church was improved as a result. On the other hand, vitriolic prose was quickly distributed throughout Europe, leading to hasty schism and perhaps even to wars.

I am no Luddite. I'm writing this on a shiny new computer, using WiFi, sitting in a coffee shop. My phone has a better Internet connection than most businesses had 10 years ago. You are reading this because I offer my own (often half-baked) thoughts in blogospheria Anglicana. If I am so concerned about the www, why do I contribute my voice to the din?

My point is not that the web has been all bad, or that we should bemoan technology. Rather, I think we should give thanks for what the web has been possible, even as we are repenting of our often bad behavior. As a church, we need to find ways to engage technology to God's glory and to the benefit of God's people. In our present controversies, perhaps we should think of the ways we might use the web to learn more about those with whom we differ. This would be much better than merely using the web to talk with those of our own ilk as we denigrate others.

So today, on the Commemoration of the Invention of the Web, give thanks. Maybe we should utter a kyrie eleison for good measure.

(Photo of Tim Berners-Lee, from the Wired article linked above.)

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