"I leave the absolute truth to those better qualified than I."
Chief Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes

From the pulpit to the bully Internet pulpit--from denominationalism to universal spiritualism: in this so-called "new age" proselytizing has moved to the World Wide Web, and in doing so, the ownership of religious inquiry has been challenged. Traditionally, well-controlled within the domains of churches and universities, deliberations on dogma and canonical interpretation have been usurped by a global no-holds-barred heuristic evangelism.

From the beginning of recorded religious history, what was dogma or canon was determined by the scholar or the ordained. The public-at-large did not analyze ancient scripture or participate in biblical commentary. They may have listened to sermons in their respective temples or churches or even watched Bishop Sheen on television. But canonical interpretation was not entrusted to the congregations and church dogma was faith.

Is the Stuff in Cyberchurch Serious Religion?

In some instances yes. As with all serious academic inquiry, the Internet offers many advantages to scholars. Unfortunately, within the confines of serious studies of religion, the answer may be no, as the apocryphal proliferates. It certainly is the stuff of passionate belief systems. Amazingly, one Web search matched 13,116 documents to "the absolute truth" and another, 11,545 hits to "the gospel truth." There are over 200,000 responses to a search on "religion." There are new religions, sites that claim they have the correct version of the truth about all the world's religions, new styles in religious artwork, ancient scrolls, commercial advertisements, and some very ardent sermons.

Such passionate belief systems are examined from a fresh perspective by Professor Vernon Robbins in Emory's Department of Religion, and the general editor of "Emory Studies in Early Christianity." Robbins wants students to reflect on the more disagreeable ways of being religious, or what may be said today as, acting out one's religion. Together they examine what can be analyzed about people's social, cultural, and ideological behavior because of their beliefs.

He asks the question, "What does this information age mean to the students' ideologies as electronic communication makes its impact on their lives?" Religions have a particularly important tradition of creating differences--people are easily stereotyped--religion separates them from each other's acceptable norms. We see these reactions to one religion or another on the evening news. One of the most difficult for the public to understand was the beliefs of the Branch Davidians. A typical reaction might be to discredit completely "the child abusing wacko at Waco."

To explore such reactions, Dr. Robbins, with his co-teacher Dr. Paul Courtright, implemented a study on five religious actions that would qualify as unacceptable to an individual outside the relevant religious sect. They were: Waco and David Koresh, Louis Farrakhan and the Million Man March, the Assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, female circumcision, and the burning of the Muslim Mosque by Hindus in Ayodhya, India. Dr. Robbins downloaded basic information from the World Wide Web for three of the topics and encouraged the students to find and examine more.

The affect of new and different constructions of information on today's learning experience is unimaginable to generations who spent hours in the libraries just to extract a few contradicting, and typically, narrow perspectives on a current event. Today, live television and radio reports can be downlinked directly to computers. And there are far more extensive and diverse news reports on the Internet. For example, on the Waco disaster, there are sound files from 911 negotiation tapes, pencil sketches of Koresh and others, uncensored photographs, transcripts of radio conversations, and congressional testimony, to name a few.

The Waco disaster was the most controversial among the students, with Louis Farrakhan's role in the Million Man March the second most conflicted topic. They were surprised by analogies between Koresh's interpretation of the "5th seal" and interpretations of the Torah by rabbi's in Israel in the context of peace negotiations that promised to give some land back to Palestinians. The congressional reports, the commentary by religious leaders, and the many Web debates brought fresh perspectives into the discussion. The students had started off with the expected reaction to the topics, i.e., they wanted their interpretations of the Waco disaster to fit their personal predispositions before the research began--not unusual, for that is the common feeling when challenged by those whose religious beliefs are perceived to be on the fringe.

The interesting aspects of this method of implementing electronic information in the classroom is the way the students interacted with each other. The class was culturally mixed with all topics having at least one advocate, and in some instances, one could say even a disciple advocate. This adds an interesting element of taking some things personally when the loonier aspects of situations emerge. When discussion about the topics became more sensitive, some of the students turned to e-mail conferencing via LearnLink, noted Dr. Robbins. Once in a while a student would start out with, "Perhaps everyone will attack me on this, but I have been thinking about it and feel it is important...."

The outcome of the Waco disaster research was an interesting and insightful final report by the students. They came to the conclusion that too little is known about the motivations and beliefs of religious extremists, for example, millennialists such as Koresh, and that there is little room in our society for their types; they are people who will always be vulnerable. They also concluded that regardless of the extremism or intolerance, people involved overreacted, and that with appropriate intervention and expertise, the disaster could have been avoided.

Meanwhile, students who were looking into the assassination of Rabin were receiving e-mail reports directly from university students inside Israel as events were taking place.

By participating more closely with the events, students learned how people live their idealism and what it is like to want to make one's personal truth acceptable to and understood by others. Thus, electronic communication has changed the experience of learning about our religious world communities and why one person's aversion is another person's comfort zone.

Sorting Out the Electronically Published Testaments

Traditionally, the scholars and ordained within various religious communities have kept a very tight control on their religious publications. Without the sanction of a religious body, university educational department, or church community, little was published. If something slipped passed the scholars onto the library shelves, it would do so with little fanfare. It was doomed to sit and collect dust--the scholars ignored it--and the public as a whole did not spend its spare time in the analysis of Docetic or Gnostic opinions.

There are now hundreds of thousands of religious documents published electronically. While there were many pretexts in the past, they were frequently ignored. But unsubstantiated testaments could closely resemble legitimate texts and had to be sorted out by the scholars. Many of the hoaxes and pretexts of the past are popping up on the Web in the context of new religions. Interestingly, the original apocryphals that were typically ignored are also fair game for the Web evangelists. There are just no existing electronic publishing standards to verify sources, authenticate originality, or substantiate authority.

Does this mean the Internet will contribute to the delinquency of your personal religion? It could, or it could be just the path to conversion you have been looking for and not found in a traditional church. On the other hand, if authentic church sanctioned information is what you want, how can you know what body, group, or religion approved this or that Web Page? Some postings have carried disclaimers by those who are not official spokespersons for a religious sect, church, or who otherwise are lacking specific authority to speak for a congregation, and that information does make it easier for the reader to go forward.

Back to Web Canonisticalism--or Something Similar

With the advent of the Internet, religious debates among scholars are being published on the World Wide Web, including one sponsored by HarperCollins, the publisher of various religious books such as The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and The Truth of the Traditional Gospels, by Dr. Timothy Luke Johnson, Emory's Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins.

This World Wide Web e-mail debate was an extension of the Jesus at 2000 symposium, which was held during Lent at Oregon State University. The symposium was downlinked by satellite to over 300 colleges, universities, churches, and religious seminaries to commemorate the 2,000th year anniversary of Jesus' birth in 4 B.C.

TIME Magazine's April eighth issue, in an article entitled "The Gospel Truth?" concluded that, "the iconoclastic and provocative Jesus Seminar argues that not much of the New Testament can be trusted." Included in the e-mail debate were: Marcus Borg from Oregon State, who wrote, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith and John Dominic Crossan of DePaul, author of The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant.

What does the "iconoclastic" look like in the debate? A very small (and taken out of context, therefore, begs the reader to read the debate) sample reads, "... how does your description distinguish Jesus, on the one hand, from a programmatically Christian terrorist in a suicide car-bomb or, on the other, from Gandhi? There is, after all, another Jesus in the book of Revelation (the killer Son of a killer Father?) where revenge rather than justice is awaited through divine ethnic cleansing." Reading this in print, within a scholarly context, and further, within a traditional format that is arguing the "docetic, apparent, or seeming" physicalness of Christ is very different than reading it in electronic format on the Internet.

Publishing the Heat Electronically Is Just Different!

As a participant in the debate, and in retrospect, Professor Johnson believes that the serious theologian gives away at least as much as is gained by engaging in electronic publishing. He might be described as the Internet's best and worst advocate--torn between its efficient nature to provide access and speed up communication, with on the other hand, its temptation to slack and produce the lackluster in scholarship.

This is an interesting paradox for a professor who has crashed head-on into national notoriety for participating in a religious debate on the Internet. So why-- what does it really feel like? Well, for Johnson, it felt like a TV talk show where three individuals might be exchanging positions with the aid of clever and titillating sound bites, instead of engaging each other in serious discussion--wherein lies the rub, a sense of personal loss of deliberation, and well-constructed arguments. Meanwhile, as evidenced by the example, the experience took on the typical characteristics of a public debate as well. Both the public and scholarly electronic lists exchanged additional opinions, such as on crosstalk-digest, a listserv that solicitated broader public participation. In some instances, in fact in several instances, all hell broke lose, as the professors were subjected to some rather insufferable Internet chat and e-mail.

So as Internet tools help speed up communication among scholars on works from within the traditional university settings and churches on one hand, on the other, they allow those outside the conventional religious communities to appear sanctioned when their sources cannot be identified or authenticated. Indeed, you may need the help of a highly skilled scholar to sort out the religious wares on the World Wide Web.

Within the Discipline, There Is Hope for Greater Fellowship and Community Among Students and Teachers.

From a more utopian perspective on the future of the Internet, Johnson believes there is some optimism for the teacher and student of the information age. Concomitant to taking responsibility for increasing single silos of learning and discourse, the academic using electronic communications must take responsibility for offsetting these experiences with equal social interaction and learning opportunities.

Today's religious student comes from a diverse scholarly background. Some are urban workers by day, students at night, or on the weekends. They are more likely to be return-to-school students then ever before, or looking at changing a career later in life. They are more likely to be over-stressed and coping with competing demands. So while we give way to the efficiencies of distance learning, we can reconstruct our time, space, and other academic resources to build new social learning experiences. While students can spend more time with Internet tools, current practices of broken-up hours of class work can give way to opportunities for less frequent, but longer and more meaningful social interchange--a sort of conference of students who can work with each other and their teachers in the relaxed atmosphere of a retreat.

An example of just such an occasion is highlighted by a remote exchange of work between Dr. Robbins and a young scholar who submitted a book manuscript on Romans 13 for publication. While teaching at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, he and Dr Robbins, as editor, communicated over e-mail to work on a manuscript for publication in Emory Studies in Early Christianity. This is a change in the way writers and editors are now free to exchange comments efficiently and promptly as work is being prepared for publication.

The electronic interchange, of course, lacks the community of academic fellowship. So it is important to take advantage of communal opportunities as they may present themselves. In this case, Dr. Robbins noted that, "though not a student of mine, he received a two month research leave for the Spring term to attend my graduate seminar and discuss his work with me, Dr. Luke Johnson, and others here in Atlanta. Since then I have been invited to teach at his university this summer. Together we currently plan to have our students in a class on Early Christianity communicate via e-mail this Fall."

The Absolute Truth or Just an Ancient Collection of Public Postings?

Computers have become an important tool to religious scholars who study scripture and ancient papyri. A most satisfying experience for scholars is the fact that ancient documents now can be scrutinized with computers. Fragments can be scanned at a very high resolution, for example, up to 600 dpi (dots per inch.) While the computer screen itself only displays 72 dots per inch, software allows the user to magnify the images many times over, thus, allowing a rather remarkable view of markings.

Several universities, including Emory, Duke, the University of Michigan, Columbia, and others, have posted remarkable views of ancient papyri along with interesting educational and historical stories. One story notes that the first recorded purchase of ancient papyri was by European visitors to Egypt in 1778. An antique dealer, who bought documents dated 191 to 192 A. D. set fire to about 50 of them just to enjoy the aromatic smoke that was produced by the exquisite papyri.

The Dead Sea Scrolls were not discovered until 1946, and after many years of wrangling for access to them among interested scholars, they too have become part of the public-at-large school of religion. You do not have to be a holy scroller as ancient text scholars are called to be fascinated by the work that is being done with computer-aided text transcription and reconstruction. Just imagine the imaging of two ancient fragments, previously unaccessible to most scholars, as they are magnified many times over and moved across a computer screen --fitting together like a perfect piece to a truth puzzle.

Relatively speaking, it has been a short time between these discoveries and current public access to original paper fragments, scholarly electronically published works, and a stockpile of apocryphal on the Internet. It seems that the world has jumped into theological deliberations. Information Technology: is it shifting the sands of time, from an ancient, to a recent past and speeding up the course of human events?

"The Gospel Truth?" TIME Magazine April 8, 1996. Volume 147, No. 15

Related URLs

Jesus at 2000 E-mail Debate on the Historical Jesus with Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Luke Timothy Johnson. Lent, 1996, sponsored by HarperCollins San Francisco.

The Ashes of Waco: An Investigation by Dick Reavis.

The Duke Papyrus Archive at Duke University, providing electronic access to texts about and images of1,373 papyri from ancient Egypt.

The Advanced Papyrological Information System, a joint project of Columbia University, Duke University, Princeton University, The University of California, Berkeley, The University of Michigan, UniversitŽ Libre de Bruxelles, Yale University

Computer Aided Text-Reconstruction and Transcription: CATT-Manual. Tuebingen: Mohr, 1993. Reviewed by Peter van Minnen, Duke University.


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Last Update: August 20, 1997