Revisiting Jew in the Lotus after 20+ years
More gun violence; more racism; more grief

Reprint from 2004: Blog is my co-pilot

Cover-issue-26In 2004 I wrote an article for Bitch Magazine about women in what some of us were then calling the godblogosphere. It ran in their fall 2004 issue. I titled it "Women Who Blog Faithfully." They titled it "Blog is my co-pilot: the rise of religion online."

Here's my original post exhorting readers to buy the issue, which links to all of the bloggers I interviewed for the piece.  Amy Wellborn is now on Twitter, and The Revealer still exists. All of the other blogs I cited are now defunct, except for this one.

Anyway, I think the article is an interesting snapshot of what at least one corner of the religious internet used to look like. (Also, wow, I used to like long paragraphs!) Enjoy.


Blog is my co-pilot: the rise of religion online

In the beginning (or “in a beginning,” or “when God was beginning,” depending on which translation you favor) God created the heavens and the earth. Some millennia later, the earth’s stewards created blogs.

In early 1999, there were about 23 webblogs; today, there are thousands, many of them eschewing the characteristic links-and-commentary format in favor of straight-up personal pontificating. The blogosphere has turned out to be a great place to discuss the kinds of things we’re discouraged from airing in polite company: among them, politics, sex, scurrilous gossip, and religion. It’s this last subject that had always interested me—after all, God tops the list of polarizing topics one isn’t supposed to bring up at the dinner table. But since I’m the kind of person who itches for a good theology throwdown, godbloggers are, well, my people.

The godblog phenomenon started early, in weblog chronology. Relapsed Catholic, founded in 2000, was one of the first godblogs, along with Holy Weblog! 2001 brought Amy Welborn’s Open Book (named after the “open Book that roots me.”) and Naomi Chana’s Baraita (the name means “external teaching” in the context of Jewish law). Chana, a professor of religion, says the name appealed to her “as an analogy for what people generally do in weblogs: provide not-especially-authoritative opinions on subjects ranging from the crucial to the trivial.” And her blog posts are true to her word: some crucial (“Have I ever mentioned why I prefer the term ‘tzedakah’ to ‘charity’ or ‘philanthropy’? It's not just the Dickensian dystopias and class warfares evoked by the latter two; it's because I know my etymology and I am trying to focus on doing something for reasons of justice, not love”), some trivial (“Is it really true that there are no kosher-for-Pesach capers? The chicken will be fine without them, but in a world with Passover cereals and egg noodles, I find it difficult to believe that nobody has plunked rabbinically examined caper buds into kosher-for-Pesach vinegar and marketed it at extortionate prices.”)

In my years of trolling the online havens of religious web philosophers, I’ve found that the most interesting godbloggers are women. Maybe that’s no surprise; a recent Pew study shows that most online spiritual seekers are women. (I suspect women make up a majority of offline spiritual seekers, too; we’re just easier to track online.) Social constructivists might link the friendliness with the gender breakdown. Old-school online culture, like Usenet, was heavy on the Y chromosomes, but not so the godblogosphere. Initially, Kathy recalls, the godblog world was all-female, though she notes “a lot of men piled on after that: the mix is now about 50/50.” Most religious spheres have historically been male-dominated; there’s still something slightly remarkable about a female minister or rabbi, and we may never see female imams or Catholic priests. But women have been godblogging from the start, so we’re not relegated to the sidelines.

There may be a good reason why women speak up on the subject of religion online—as with any online pursuit, the safety of keyboard and screen embolden people to enter public discussions that might seem daunting in real life. Furthermore, the anonymity offered by blogs let women marginalized in many offline religious spaces—synogogues, prayer groups, etc.—to blog historically patriarchal traditions from our point of view.

“Some male readers don't quite know what to make of me,” observes Relapsed Catholic’s Kathy. “They find me too hard to pin down, an admixture of orthodoxy and irreverence that shakes up their limited knowledge of women, especially [fortysomething] women like me." On the other hand, Alicia, of Fructus Ventris (“Fruit of the womb,”) mostly writes about Catholicism and birth/parenting/midwifery, and assumes most of her readers are female as a result. But, she adds, “I also have a lot of men who are regular readers and commenters.”

For some female bloggers, self-expression blurs into teaching others—though the pedagogy can be inadvertent. Karen, the blogger behind The Heretic’s Corner, is a seminarian at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific who calls herself “a mess of walking contradictions.” She figures that her very existence is educational for some: “I'm a middle-aged lesbian feminist who’s studying to become a priest. Publically putting that information out there has confounded many people. I hear from queers and straight feminists who wonder why I'm bothering with an institution that is perceived as homophobic and patriarchal. I also hear from conservative Christian men who are as shocked as hell that they can connect with me on a spiritual basis. I didn't aim at any of these people, and in fact, they educate me all the time. It's a great mutual teach-in.”

The give-and-take (or quite often, the dish-it-out-and-take-it) nature of blogs offers new chances for connection with strangers and with our own ideas of religion, but occasionally we find ourselves marginalized within them, rehashing old modes of communication—only now with more links. I used to post on several Judaism-focused message boards, but I jumped ship when arguments got nasty. So I started my one-year-old blog, Velveteen Rabbi, in order to chronicle my messy lived experience of being an intermarried and increasingly involved Jew. In my blog, I can set the tone, nurture conversations, and geek out about contemplative practice and Torah interpretation to my heart’s content.

Since starting the blog, I’ve come to feel that the online realm of godblogs feels surprisingly like my sweet little New England town—if random conversations in my town included discussing Leviticus with a minister and a Quaker half-Jew, or trading prayer techniques across denominational lines. The first time I got hate mail at Velveteen Rabbi (in response to a post supporting the rights of gays and lesbians to marry), I was furious—as though someone had come to my tea party and thrown a drink in my face. Some days, the blog feels like a pulpit with an unresponsive audience; other days it’s more like a theology pow-wow at a collegiate dining hall table, where somebody’s always pulling up another chair to join the conversation.

The goal of blogs is to relate in what philosopher Martin Buber would call an I-Thou mode, rather than relegating the other to object status. Interactivity is what differentiates blogs from newspaper columns: readers can talk back with a click of the mouse. And while that sometimes facilitates flame wars, it also enables interesting friendships. Most godbloggers report having befriended others in the religious blogosphere—and those ties inevitably stretch beyond faith and geographical boundaries. Still, there’s such a general self-consciousness in the larger blogosphere, though, that it’s worth asking whether our forums are connecting us in a meaningful way, or whether we’re simply shouting past each other about our various spiritual worlds. Most likely, it’s both. Relapsed Catholic’s Kathy writes, “I am old and cranky and find it impossible to read ‘pro-choice Catholic’ blogs or those of Chomskyite Moore-lovers without ruining my day. Life is too short.” For me—someone who believes that the real religious divisions aren’t between faiths, but between liberals and literalists—there are simply some times when I avoid conversations with bloggers from “the other side.”

On good days, though, I try to read widely. In the right frame of mind, I can get a charge out of the varieties of religious experience. And sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised by genuine human connections that form: Kesher Talk leans to the right, but they seem happy to have me there as a token lefty voice. (The blog, says managing editor Judith Weiss, “is stronger and more interesting with more diverse views.”)

Another example: an ultra-Orthodox guy emailed me a while back to chat about High Holiday melodies. On the street, we never would have exchanged a glance.We’d never have met in synagogue, either—since he wouldn’t come to mine, and at his I’d be consigned to the women’s side of the curtain. But Velveteen Rabbi got us talking.

The bonds that forms across orthodoxies and faiths may simply testify to a basic dissatisfaction with the level of public discourse about religion. Given mainstream reportage in America today, it’s easy to conflate “religious” with “fundamentalist.” The Passion of the Christ, the Federal Marriage Amendment, usage of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the question of whether or not John Kerry deserves Communion all got major ink this year, but mainstream media didn’t do a very thorough job of addressing the broader religious questions at the root of these topics. Where mainstream media coverage often reduces discussions of religious to wild-eyed fundies vs. atheist culturalists, godbloggers live to show gradations instead of stark dichotomies. Most of the godbloggers I read don’t fit the mainstream mold: We cherish our sacred texts, but roll our eyes at posting the Ten Commandments in schools. We blog our all-night Easter and Shavuot and Laylat ul-Qadr vigils, but scoff at the televised National Day of Prayer.

As if to prove the internet axiom that individual mileage varies, though, Alicia points out that plenty of blogs are spiritually (and politically) conservative and “support authority that the bloggers see as legitimate.” She argues it’s “impossible to generalize about blogs and bloggers, because the blog is a reflection (or occasionally a refraction!) of the blogger.” Regardless of what divides us, what unites godbloggers is our need to connect with other God-types. Let’s face it: mentioning church is a buzzkill in most situations, and the play-by-play of my latest retreat bores non-initiates. Godblogs offer a place to hold forth.

But do they matter? At The Revealer last April, an unnamed blogger wrote, “Religion blogs are ornery, plagued by bad puns, narcissistic, and most of all, not real. Ok, they're ‘real,’ but they're not flesh and bone[.]” I think that’s a cheap shot at the blogosphere, and I don’t buy it. True, pixels are no substitute for genuine spiritual encounters, but my religion places a high premium on dialogue and on text.

Godbloggers are not only real, but are doing something that’s important to many in a time when religion seems more than ever like a scapegoat rather than a source of strength: We are contemplating our faith and our place in the world, caring enough to speak up about what we think matters, and, when we’re lucky, genuinely connecting with other human beings. ”I’m asking people,” Karen says, “to reflect on issues of justice, peace, and the goodness of creation.” What’s more real than that?