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Saturday, December 03, 2005

"God and the Internet" - Responding to Jonathan Last

A friend brought to my attention the article "God on the Internet" (First Things No. 158, December 2005), which is presently making its rounds through St. Blog's. I'll post a roundup of some responses in a minute, but first I wanted to offer a few brief points of criticism of my own:
Even diligent students of the papacy may be unfamiliar with the pontificates of Michael and Pius XIII. . . . In a simpler time, these two men might have been town eccentrics, doing no more than attracting the snickers of their neighbors. Today, thanks to the vast wiring of the world, their pages have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times, by onlookers from around the globe.
Out of the hundreds of possible topics with which to begin writing on "God on the Internet", Last picks the looniest: self-deluded anti-popes. Methinks this puts a bit of a spin on the rest of his treatment.

Last notes that thanks to the internet, the radical fringe have gained an audience of thousands. Judging by the ever-resourceful Internet Archive, Pope Michael's website has been in existence since 2001, during which time he has received 68,290 page views (average of 1,200 a month). Furthermore, if Google is correct, at the time of this writing, he has approximately 30 links to his website.

Pope Pius XXIII is by far the more popular of the two, having been around since 1999 and currently boasting around 268,800 hits, and 38 external links.

Jonathan Last quotes approvingly Fr. Sibley, who:

recognizes potential pitfalls, particularly the “vapid spirituality of the web.” And he notes that in cyberspace, "Everyone can be their own magisterium" — a point the existence of Popes Michael and Pius XIII would seem to demonstrate . . .
Yet, if the attention lavished by the internet upon these two "town eccentrics" is of such concern to Mr. Last, one must wonder why he displays little reservation about shoveling hordes of First Things' readers onto their doorstep?

After all, anybody with a rudimentary understanding of search engine technology will realize that one's ranking in Google/Yahoo is bolstered not only by the quantity of external links, but the quality of those links as well. Consequently, a direct link from a popular website like is certainly helpful in getting one's website spidered and further establishing its presence on the web. [Anti]-Popes Michael and Pius XIII should thank Jonathan Last for this significant gesture of recognition.

* * *

According to Last, one of the troubling features of blogging, and the internet in general, is that it "lends itself easily to politicization." He cites and Priests For Life as two prominent examples. (I know little about the former, but I can say I'm personally glad to have a 'politicized' organization like Priests for Life nipping at the heels of oxymorinic "pro-choice Catholic" legislators and defending Catholic teaching).

Bloggers in particular come under heavy scrutiny, since each one "commands a tiny audience, between a few dozen and a few thousand visitors a day. But taken together [they] wield disproportionate power in the virtual world" -- a fact demonstrated by the outcry over the court-enforced starvation of Terri Schiavo. One might also recall here the ousting of CBS News' anchor Dan Rather following a scandal of forged memos, and the Swiftboat Vets for Truth, fellow Vietnam war veterans who took issue with the phony war crime charges and exaggerated claims to military service of the Senator from Massachussets.

I'm not sure whether Last is appreciative or critical of this "disproportionate power" wielded by the blogging masses. If, as a journalist, he sees it as something of an impingement on his chosen profession, he certainly isn't the first. In any case, I find it a trifle odd that the online editor of one of America's most influential political newsweeklies (The Weekly Standard) is concerned about the politicization of the internet.

If anything, one might welcome the manner in which this technology has awakened the interest of millions of Americans who, with every election, are demonstrating an increasing participation in serious political debate and discussion of the issues.

* * *

Last goes on to register some concerns about

". . . the web’s general disposition toward consumerism. The Internet is filled with stores and businesses designed to siphon money from the faithful.
No more, I'd say, than any other medium in the world today. In fact, I see more advertisements in the back of my parish's bulletin than I do perusing the daily blogroll.

Yet, while Last does make a legitimate point about the temptations of mammon, he offers some biting remarks about a few individuals with which I'd take issue.


. . . A more personal strain of consumerism leads people such as Stephen Ray to hawk their wares on the web. Ray, the author of several religious books, runs a website called Defenders of the Catholic Faith. On it he features a photo album of his family and his travels, conversion testimonials from readers, and even his own blog. But the primary mission of Defenders of the Catholic Faith is to move product. Books, audio tapes, videos, DVDs—it’s all there, mingled with explanations of “Why I’m Catholic” and lessons about St. Mark. There’s also a press kit describing Ray, showing his upcoming speaking schedule, and telling you how to book him at your event for a mere $600, plus expenses. (That’s for local talks; overnight events are $1,800, plus expenses and, as his site explains, “Steve rarely travels without his wife Janet.”)
I don't know Stephen Ray personally, but I would think the nature of his website is no different from a dozen other prominent Catholic apologists and/or writers (David Armstrong, Karl Keating, Carl Olson, Amy Welborn and Mark Shea), who devote their time and effort in the defense of the Catholic faith, and who have helped to usher many a convert across the Tiber.

I'd say they no more "hawk their wares" on the web than First Things peddles their subscriptions or recommended books.

Secondly, there is Lasts' mischaracterization of the Catholic website, in the context of religious dating and singles websites:

Dating services are trying to cash in on religion, too, whether it’s Catholic Singles, JDate (“the largest Jewish singles network”), dharmaMatch (“where spiritual singles meet”), or Spirit Personals, a site with every possible permutation, from Christian, to Jewish, to lesbian matches: “SpiritGayandLesbianSingles promotes personal and spiritual growth, while encouraging a healthy lifestyle. Whether you’re interested in a sexy, traditional relationship or fun alternative online dating, we have what you need. Join now to enjoy your free membership!”

If you meet the partner of your dreams online, get married, and find things rocky, the web can help there, too. offers counseling and aid in the form of quizzes designed to test the health of your marriage, an advice blog, tele-counseling services, and a store with enough books, videos, and trinkets to fix any relationship, traditional or alternative. Think of it as the virtual mall for spirituality: Shopping, entertainment, and socializing—everything the faithful soul needs for earthly comfort, all marketed with the shiny gloss of religious morality.

What's the problem with mentioning ExceptionalMarriages in this context? -- This particular ministry is maintained by Gregory Popcack, a psychotherapist with a degree from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, host of a 13 part television series on marriage for EWTN cable network and author of seven books on faith and marriage.

The "advice blog" that Last refers to is none other than Heart, Mind and Strength, co-hosted by Kevin Miller, Assistant Professor of Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville. It was one of the first Catholic blogs that I encountered as a new convert and remains one of the best, in my opinion.

ExceptionalMarriages distinguishes itself as a marriage-counseling website dedicated to "[finding] solutions that are consistent with and respectful of your Catholic faith." Jonathan Last advertises it as offering a quick fix for "any relationship, traditional or alternative." (What does Last mean by "alternative", exactly?).

I'm sorry if I appear to be over-reacting, but Last's poor treatment of these individuals was infuriating. That they receive only a cursory mention and are misrepresented in such a manner indicates his unfamiliarity with his subject matter -- which is rather unfortunate, since he is a blogger himself.

Responses to "God and the Internet"

  • When Magazines Make Mistakes, response from Steve Ray:
    It is one thing to make an objective statement but quite another to assert a subjective opinion imputing evil or questionable motives -- especially with no proof or verification. How does he know my motives or what the main purpose of my site actually is? He never asked me nor the thousands of people who frequent my site.
    (By the way, if you're inclined to pop over to Steve's site to convey your support, congratulate him as he celebrates his 29th wedding anniversary). =)
  • Al Kresta of AveMaria Radio has penned an eloquent critique of Last's article and defense of Steve Ray. You can find it here [Microsoft Word format]. We had similar criticisms on the "politicization" of the internet and the portrayal of ''.
  • Karl Keating (Catholic Answers) comes to the defense of his friend in his weekly e-letter. Speaking of Catholic Answers, I'm sure glad they "hawked their wares" . . . I ended up with a subscription to the excellent This Rock. =)
  • Regarding Last's criticism of the formation of "like-minded" online communities, Domenico Bettinelli, Jr. wonders:
    any different from the parish-hopping we see today among people who want a more conservative or more liberal priest or an older or younger crowd or what have you? Is this just a problem of the Internet or is such compartmentalization in evidence across the spectrum of life. I will note that Last’s own magazine, The Weekly Standard, is itself a conservative magazine which one presumes seeks to attract like-minded readers.
  • Amy Welborn defends her readers:
    I think what I disagree most strongly with Jonathan on his is implication that those drawn into religion discussions and interactions on the internet are abandoning real life for virtual religious reality. I have simply found this not to be so. In fact, I've done surveys here before, in response to snide comments that the commentors here are just complainers who don't actually want to do anything in the real Church in the real world. I was overwhelmed - the commentors are all, to a person, involved in church in some way - they are catechists, teachers in Catholic schools, priests, writers, speakers, church musicians and liturgists, diocesan personnel, they serve on boards supportive of Catholic education, they help parishes sort out finances, they do pro-life work, work with the poor and elderly....and all of them go to Mass, somewhere, with other human beings.
  • Response: Ben Diction Blogs On Dec. 2, 2005.
  • No Respect, by Clairity (Clairity's Place). Nov. 22, 2005: "This is the first time in history that mass communication has become available to those who don't have the economic means. It is truly democratic. Democracy is a mess, but it's a whole lot better than the alternative."

  • My 15 seconds of fame, by Alicia (Fructus Ventris) Nov. 17, 2005.
  • Steve Ray is understandably hurt by First Things, says Mark Shea.
  • Trousered Ape critiques the article, and, later, corresponds with the author.
  • Update - Jody Bottum responds to the critics from First Things' blog, "Observations and Contentions." (Reactions and follow-up at Amy Welborn's and Mark Shea's).
  • "Blogging Kills", warns Fr. Jape ("The Japery", blog of The New Pantagruel Dec. 5, 2005). =)
  • The Internet - Friend or Foe - Fr. Seraphim Beshoner, TOR (Friary Notes) registers some of the same (perfectly legitimate) concerns about blogging and the internet, minus the snide remarks.

What occurred to me as I read Fr. Seraphim's reflectiosn on blogging: back in May/June 2005, Valerie Schmalz of Ignatius Insight did a multi-part series on Catholic blogging, surveying a number of bloggers regarding the questions Why Blog? Catholic Bloggers Post Their Reasons and The Problem with Blogs: What criticisms of blogs are most valid. By no means a comprehensive treatment, but worth reading in light of this discussion.

From the new blog Against The Grain

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