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on March 21, 2001
Brenda Brasher's "Give Me That Online Religion" is a must-read book, a superbly written, insight-packed exploration of what happens when ancient faith fuses with tomorrow's technology. One of our most adept guides to modern religion, Brasher provides the first serious look at how the Internet is transforming spirituality -- and gazes into the always-intriguing, sometimes-frightening future of global religion in the brave new era of cyberspace.
-- Gershom Gorenberg, senior editor and columnist, The Jerusalem Report
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on August 12, 2001
I agree with almost all of what Dr. Brasher has to say about the potential of online religion. That being said, however, this book (which makes at least some attempt at being academic, with footnotes and a chapter contextualizing technology and religion historically) fails to delve very deeply into specifics. Unsupported generalizations are rife, and anecdotes (accounts of individuals' experiences with religion on the Internet) are related without any evidence to suggest how widespread these kinds of experiences are. Overall, the book fails to look at enough specific Internet resources in enough detail to justify Brasher's sweeping claims for the future importance of online religion. Her speculation on the character and potential cultural effects of online religion are certainly interesting, but they make up the bulk of the work. As a result, _Give Me That Online Religion_ is an interesting personal vision, but a very weak piece of scholarship.
I originally faulted this book for lacking any reference to major Internet religion hubs such as Beliefnet, but Dr. Brasher has since informed me that the book went to press before Beliefnet came online. I still think, however, that a print directory of religion-related websites with brief descriptions would have been an excellent addition to the book. Even though the directory would have been outdated after a year, such a listing would have provided specific information about the context in which Brasher was writing and given her argument additional weight. Brasher does, however, provide a directory on her website, which is listed in the back of the book.
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The author of this book, Brenda Brasher, got her Master of Divinity degree from my seminary prior to getting her doctorate at the University of Southern California. Brasher's earlier book, `Godly Women: Fundamentalism and Female Power', showed that she likes to push the envelope and go into subjects that are not without controversy. `Give Me That Online Religion' is another book like this - the whole idea of culture and society on the internet is riddled with controversial aspects. Far from being simply a new technology or a new and faster method of communication, the internet is transforming the very idea of communication in ways not thought of by even the most prophetic of observers and science fiction imaginations.
Brasher sees the realm of cyberspace as being the ultimate diaspora (she entitles one of her early chapters with this phrase) - people need no longer rely on physical proximity or geographic groupings for their associations; like the Jews of old, the community can be far flung and multicultural while maintaining certain key ties - one primary difference now being that the people involved in these virtual communities may never actually meet another person of their religious persuasion.
The ideas of authenticity (of communication, of individual truthfulness, and of actual spirituality) come to the forefront of much of Brasher's discussion, as questions about the validity of persons online and the reality of experiences that exist primarily or solely in virtual space are exposed. At what point does the virtue become a vice? While the internet is an incredible tool for the dissemination of information as has been available never before, it is also true that the number of questionable sites (ranging from the mildly prurient to the bizarre and violent) seems to multiply at an even faster rate. This same trend holds true in religion, in which there is sometimes no reality at all behind the words on the website. What kinds of values are being expressed and exposed?
Brasher compares the deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and Mother Teresa as a case study, comparing their media presence - particularly on the internet - against their actual lives and the grounding each had in certain communities and `real' life. Brasher locates the websites of celebrities such as these as pilgrimage sites similar to the old saintly sites of earlier times; they become important continuations of a celebrity's seeming power and influence.
Brasher speculates on some of the influences and trends for congregational life - that pastors and theologians grounded in an education influenced by agrian culture and pastoral concerns might find a difficult time in relating the modern technological-cultural issues to their communities. This is not to say that pastors and theologians are not technically savvy - many will have the latest computers with fast-speed internet access, palm pilots, cell phones and the like, but still not be able to adapt the changing trends these bring in society together with their more traditionally-based theological training.
Brasher ends by looking at the apocalyptic element online, not only with situations like the Heaven's Gate tragedy, but also the more general ministry portals run by evangelical and fundamentalist preachers such as Jack Van Impe, whose focus for ministry online (as well as in other media) seems to start with the prophetic apocalyptic message. She examines the potential and the pitfalls for future use of the internet in the religious field mystically, institutionally, and socially.
This is a fascinating text for any person in the twenty-first century, given that no matter where one is, the influence of the internet will be felt, and two so pervasive things like religion and the internet cannot help but be influenced by each other, one hopes for the better of both.
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How will we do religion twenty, a hundred years from now? Will buildings still be important? Or, perhaps, will there be e-religion that people practice at home, just as they e-shop rather than going to the mall? According to Brenda E. Brasher, we already have e-religion, as shown in her book _Give Me That Online Religion_ (Jossey-Bass). A funny, imaginative work, it is also a serious look at how online religion has gotten its start in what humans will surely look back on as the most primitive days of the internet. Brasher teaches religion and philosophy, and for more than a decade has been taking a look at various religious websites. She has had her work cut out for her; there are more than a million sites of diverse religious affiliation, drawing believers as well as those simply curious. Perhaps this is just the internet way of distributing tracts, but Dr. Brasher says no: "online religion is the most portentous development for the future of religion to come out of the twentieth century" and "could become the dominant form of religious experience in the next century."
Those familiar with basic traditional religions will find that they have moved onto the Web without much change; perhaps the literal Bible, apocalyptic ones are over-represented, just as they are on TV. There are others in this book that any reader will find strange. Some sites are direct offshoots of IRL (In Real Life) religious practice, like online prayer chains and chat rooms where people can go for a more-or-less directed Sunday school. The site of EvilPeople, Inc., invites people to click on a button in order to sell their souls. (A soul was recently put up for sale on e-Bay.) There are memorials to many dead people; there are 8,000 Brasher has counted devoted to Princess Diana alone. There are strange and comic religious sites. Brasher never mentions the surrealistic site of the Church of the Subgenius ("The World Ends Tomorrow and You May Die!") or the subversively comic realism of the Landover Baptist Church ("Where the Worthy Worship and the Unsaved Are Not Welcome.") She does explain that much of the religion on the web is suffused with over-the-top humor. There are what she calls "Celebrity Altars," devoted to some sort of worship of someone famous, and she gives extensive quotes from the site "Dudes of the Keanic Circle," devoted to finding, among other things, the esoteric meanings of the films of Keanu Reeves. Keanu as Christ-figure is very weird, and so is another site that holds Keanu as the Antichrist, confusingly enough. The Transhumanists are interested in the typical religious goal of eternal life, but intend to do so by uploading their brains onto the `net (undoubtedly Windows is merely withholding this software until their legal problems are worked out). There are many strange religions in this book. There are some not so strange, as the cyber-seder, and the woman who was drawn to convert to Judaism because of it.
Brasher does a good job of explaining how chat rooms and Web sites work, for those who don't know much about the `net. She draws instructive parallels about previous shifts in media within religion; who is to say that the Web will not, as the years go by, have as much effect as Luther's use of the new technology of the printing press? She is an advocate for watching with curiosity the way religion branches in cyberspace, and for its protection in the face of commercialization. She is right to point out that those who grow up on the web may find the agrarian and pastoral images of inherited religion less credible than they find futuristic fiction. We are just at the beginning, but she has given us a start on a way to thinking about what might come.
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on March 15, 2001
this book is of interest to both people interested in religious behaviuor and those studying the web phenomenon. brasher surveys how both traditional amd new religious movements have used the internet to further thier interests and causes. religion on the net now is not contained by time or place and is accessible to any and under no obligations. cult and other credes are descibed too from lady di, elvis to mother theresa. alternatively all means of approaching religion are noted such as sending messages to god, requesting absolution or placing a note at the wetsern wall.religion is one of the main areas of activity on the internet and new sites are opeining by the minute with the most up to date tools.this fascinating book also raises ethical questions as how to avoid abuse and encouraging criminal and other actions. she suggests that standards and codes of practice be considered. what is also remarkeable is the fact that in this modern day and age, religious practice is on the increase and many relgious institutions are using the web effectively and via this new medium able to attract new followers. the book is both learned and highly readable suitable both for scholars and the genral public. i enjoyed reading it immensly and am now a fan of this author.
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