Grace, Virtually

Although Yom Kippur is now over, I have a confession to make. My wife just showed me eScapegoat, the website where you can confess your sins over the virtual priest laying electronic hands on a disturbingly cute animated goat. Even before I owned a computer (or one owned me), and even before I knew of the internet, I used to joke with friends what the technological revolution would mean for religions. Would we eventually go to an ATM for virtual communion? Would the screen glow with the words of the eucharistic liturgy, Rite 1, or would it be more contemporary (Jesus raised the glass and said, “This blood’s for you!”)? Would a physical wafer come through the slot? If so, would it have to have been pre-consecrated? So our bemused musings ran. But our idle thoughts held a touch of prophetic insight, it seems. Can the force of religion come through the keys upon which your fingers rest? The monitor that glows like heaven itself? Whence electronic salvation?

There can be no doubt that religion is a huge topic on the internet. I generally don’t go looking for it, because it will come to me. Religions, by their very nature, spread. They are aggressive memes, wanting desperately to replicate themselves. Our frail human minds want so much to believe that we have found the truth, and once we have, we want to share it with others. Bibles were among the first books off the first printing press. Television soon evolved televangelists. The internet became the home of virtual religion. For some it is reality, nothing virtual about it. Concepts such as grace, however, defy any kind of clear exposé, there’s always shadows in this room. Can it make its way, preveniently, through the wires and waves of the internet?

eScapegoat is lighthearted, but I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a more serious side to it. Confession on the internet can be cheap. Anonymity (excepting, of course, the NSA) is easily maintained. Your confession, visible to the faith community, is really between you and the Almighty, right? The book of James tells us confession is good for the soul, or something similar. We all know that admitting a mistake has its own cathartic release, but I found confession, in my Anglo-Catholic days, terribly invasive. Surely I knew that I’d made errors, and I knew that I felt badly about them. Did I really have to tell someone else so that I would feel bad about them all over again, reopening wounds that had already begun to heal? Isn’t this the beauty of eScapegoat? You can make a serious confession that others will see anonymously as a joke. Our poor, blinking goat will pay the ultimate price.




I am not sure if this cycle has a name—sociologists have noticed it, I’m sure—but is as old as at least civilization itself. My experience with it has been in the realm of religious studies. A number of years ago I read a study that indicated that within a decade of the founding of a religion it will have changed beyond the recognition of its original form. In other words, it will evolve. I suspect this is true of most memes. In literary studies this recognition goes by the sobriquet of “Reader Response” theory. Once an author (or any initiator of something new) produces a written work s/he has lost control over what it “means.” Each reader interprets a piece in the light of her/his own context, some perhaps close to the original intent of the author, some far distant. In the broadest sense of the word, this is a corruption. According to Reader Response theory, it is natural and to be expected.

On a larger scale, human endeavors are often beset with divergent agendas. A founder may start a school with the intention of training teachers. Soon interest and clientele grow and further program options are offered. The teacher’s school becomes a college. If the college meets a larger societal need, it becomes part of a university. Universities, despite all posturing and muttering, are becoming very much alike through the mediation of the Internet. Is this a corruption? Perhaps not in the sense of being a benign development, but it general terms it reflects the dilemma of changing ideals. Various religions point in different directions to explain it, but most explanations are mythological. The “fall” in Eden does not fit the view of the Hebrew Bible, but it is a popular Christian explanation for why corruption sets in.

A more humanistic response might call it “human nature.” We are fully capable of lofty ideals. In my admittedly limited experience, I have found that those with such ideals are often ill-equipped to realize them. Those who grow such ideals into institutions tend to have an entrepreneurial outlook that benefits from following the greatest returns. To court investors, a tangible payback must be included. We see this all the time in churches: popes, archbishops, televangelists—soon they find themselves powerful people with access to great wealth. A far cry from a working-class carpenter preaching love. The pattern is ubiquitous throughout history, and there seems to be no cure other than, as you suggest, to begin again.

Chaz and I would like to invite comments and discussion on this issue. Idealists and more pragmatic types are both encouraged to reply!

I’ve Been Meming to Tell You . . .

There’s a tag game going on among the blogging community in an attempt to get a new meme going. Perhaps in payback for my researching memes for years, I was tagged by Dr. Jim of Dr. Jim’s Thinking Shop to reveal something about myself you wouldn’t normally guess. Now, I’m not much of a tag player, but I am a good sport, so I’ve been trying to think of something I wouldn’t mind letting the world at large know.

A little background first: I am a pacifist. When I had to register for the draft back in the Dark Ages I learned how to sign on as a conscientious objector. I don’t kill bugs in the house. Even the scariest looking ones I capture in a jar and release in the wild. In Wisconsin we used humane mousetraps and any captured rodents received a complementary automobile trip across a river a few miles away so that they couldn’t tunnel their innocent way back into our kitchen. I believe life is a good thing.

So far anyone who knows me could have guessed most of that. The new meme to be added is this: I am a good shot. With guns. I am not some gun-slingin’ ranger, but on the occasions when I’ve been invited to heft a sidearm and let fly, I’m not a bad shot.

melvin-purvisHow far back does this go? It’s hard to say. I am related to Melvin Purvis, J. Edgar Hoover’s “Little Mel,” probably the most famous FBI operative in history. Purvis was responsible for tracking down such characters as Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and John Dillinger. Less famously, he married my father’s aunt. My cousins who saw his house before he died (apparently shot himself accidentally while cleaning a gun) tell me that it had a grand entrance hall lined with guns. Well, I’m related by marriage, and as much as I’d like to blame my short stature on him, it just won’t wash.

Little Mel with J. Edgar Hoover

Little Mel with J. Edgar Hoover

Probably more to the point, I grew up in redneck territory. The first day of deer season was a school holiday (not kidding here), and my high school had a rifle range in the basement. This latter point is unbelievable in the shadow of Columbine, but it is true. When I worked as a janitor in the school I saw the (by then disused) range with my own eyes. All boys were required to pass a course on gun safety before going to high school. Every week we sat in the Junior High School auditorium with Mr. Meade, the very masculine gym teacher, while he lectured about the parts of a gun, how to use one, and general safety issues. I shot my first rifle before I was twelve.

A typical day in seminary

A typical day in seminary

Well, there you have it. A pacifist who knows how to shoot. Now, I’m not sure if anyone on my blogroll plays tag or even if most of them read my humble attempt at a blog. If you’re out there reading this, I would tag my following colleagues: Wulfila of the Lonely Goth’s Guide, Alan of Feeling Finite, James of Kethuvim, Stephen of Biblische Ausbildung, and Daniel of O. McClellan. Let the meme-pool remain ever refreshed.