Blog Is My Copilot:
The Rise of Religion Online

By Rachel Barenblat

Originally published in Bitch Magazine, No. 26, Fall 2004. Order a copy here.


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. According to Rebecca Blood's essay Weblogs: A History and Perspective, there were about 50 webblogs in early 1999; 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.

Relapsed Catholic, founded in 2000, was one of the first godblogs, along with Holy Weblog! Naomi Chana's Baraita (the name means "external teaching in the context of Jewish law") debuted in 2001, and in 2003 Amy Welborn started Open Book (named after the "open Book that roots me.") 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 are 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
, Others are 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; Faith Online, a Pew study released this past April, 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.) Old-school online culture, like the Usenet forums, was heavy on the Y chromosomes. Most religious communities, too, have historically been male-dominated; female ministers and rabbis are still remarkable, 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. Initially, recalls Relapsed Catholic's Kathy (like many bloggers, she goes by her first name only), the godblogosphere was all-female, though she notes "a lot of men piled on after that: the mix is now about 50/50."

There may be a good reason why women go online to talk about religion: the safety of keyboard and screen emboldens us to enter public discussions that in real life might seem daunting -- or forbidden. The anonymity of the web allows women who are marginalized in many offline religious spaces -- synagogues, prayer groups, etc. -- to take on historically patriarchal traditions.

"Some male readers don't quite know what to make of me," observes 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." Alicia, of Fructus Ventris ("fruit of the womb,") writes mostly about Catholicism, parenting, and midwifery, and assumes most of her audience is female -- but she acknowledges that men are regular readers, too.

For some, self-expression blurs into inadvertant pedagogy. Karen, who writes The Heretic's Corner, is a seminarian at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and 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 a new way to connect with strangers and reexamine our own ideas of religion. However, occasionally bloggers find themselves lapsing into old patterns, rehashing futile or negative 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 own blog, Velveteen Rabbi, to chronicle my messy life as 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. The 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 email (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 a chair to join in.

And while blogs' interactivity sometimes facilitates flame wars, it also enables fascinating friendships. Most godbloggers report having befriended other bloggers or readers -- and those ties inevitably stretch beyond faith and geographical boundaries. Still, the self-consciousness and self-reflexiveness of the larger blogosphere make it 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 get a charge out of the varieties of religious experience. And sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised by genuine human connections that form. The group blog Kesher Talk leans to the right, but they seem happy to have me as a token lefty voice. Then there's the Orthodox guy who e-mailed me to chat about High Holiday melodies. On the street, we never would have exchanged glances. 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 my blog 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 for the most part the media didn't address the broader religious questions at the root of these topics. Where media coverage often reduces discussions of religion to wild-eyed fundies vs. atheist culturalists, godboggers 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 disclaimer that individual mileage varies, though, Fructus Ventris' 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 religious types.

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," says Karen of The Heretic's Corner, "to reflect on issues of justice, peace, and the goodness of creation." What's more real than that?

***

Rachel Barenblat blogs at Velveteen Rabbi. She also runs a literary arts organization at Inkberry.org. (And just as a reminder, this article was originally published in Bitch, No. 26, Fall 2004, and I encourage you to buy that issue here.)