A lively, interesting discussion seems to be developing on various websites about Jonathan V. Last's article in the last issue of FIRST THINGS, "God on the Internet." The blog-search-engine Technorati offers three pages of links to websites that mention the article. Against the Grainone of my favorite sites, a blog run by the Ratzinger Fan Club, the site swamped when Cardinal Ratzinger recently changed jobs in Romehas collected links to discussions of "God on the Internet" as well.
Arguing that the web tempts us with "consumer satisfactions, politicizing impulses, and substitutions for the body," Last's article garnered its share of praise. The immensely popular websites of Hugh Hewitt and Power Line recommended the article, for example, and over at Catholic: Under the Hood, Seraphim Beshoner recorded a thoughtful podcast taking up Last's worries.
Others objected. For instance, Amy Welborn, who runs what is by a long stretch one of the most regularly rewarding religious blogs around, suggested that Last had overemphasized the blogging of the people he mentioned, as though that were all they do. "I cringe every time someone refers to me as a 'blogger' in print," she wroteand rightly so, since she writes many other things; just last week she sent in a book review commissioned from her by FIRST THINGS. The point of her objection, as I take it, is that by leaning too much on the blogging that bloggers do, Last artificially strengthened the evidence for his claim that the Internet lures religious people into substituting thin communities for thick onesor, as he put it in his peroration:
"A tool for co-laboring. That's the most we might hope for. And in the days of Pope Pius XIII and ceaseless politicking and Spiritual Weightloss, even that much seems a pipe dream. The great blessing of the Internet is that it lets people find each other. Of course, this is the great curse of the Internet as wellfor not only can model-train collectors share their joint enthusiasm, but so can anti-Semites, child molesters, and gang members. But even at its best, the Internet is a weakening of reality, and with its consumer satisfactions, politicizing impulses, and substitutions for the body, it constantly lures us up into thinner and thinner air. Isn't religion supposed to enrich the world around us instead? Shut off your computer. Take a deep breath. Go to church."
Welborn's objection is an interesting one and worth engaging. I tend toward the view put by Seraphim Beshoner, who suggested that even if we decide Last's point is overstated, still there are manifestly some people allowing the Internet to substitute for physical community, and that is a possible effect all religious websites need to keep in mind. "Shut off your computer. Take a deep breath. Go to church" is never bad advice. But Last will have an opportunity to take all this up again when he replies in a later issue of FIRST THINGS to the letters we have received.
I'm not able to follow some of the other objections to "God on the Internet." As a general rule, the Internet does not take kindly to criticism. [RJN: As a general rule, Jody, nobody takes kindly to criticism.] A fun literary blog called Clairity's Place insists that Last's article "masks a very different gripe about blogs. But somehow it's never said. And that is the unprofessionalism of it all. Who are these people anyway? Often they're not credentialed journalists, they didn't get their Ph.D.s, and who asked them for their opinions?" Against the Grain takes this line as well: "If, as a journalist, [Last] sees it as something of an impingement on his chosen profession, he certainly isn't the first."
That doesn't feel quite right. As Hugh Hewitt has often noted, a lot of the standard criticism of the Internet is motivated by the desire to defend the old mainstream media's influence against the threat of all those pesky, upstart bloggers. But surely not every criticism of the Internet is, by its very nature, born of this desire. Last blogs himself, and though he works for a serious print magazine called the Weekly Standard, he is, after all, the online editor there. One reason FIRST THINGS published the article is that it wasn't a carriage-maker's moaning about what that blasted Henry Ford was doing to the buggy-and-bridle business. It seemed, rather, an insider's expression of concerns about his own profession.
Other bloggers have granted this point, but then turned it around to form an accusation of Last's hypocrisy. For example, a philosophy professor named Scott Carson runs a blog called An Examined Lifeevery time I start exploring an Internet story, I find yet another set of sites filled with good posts; who can possibly keep up with it all?and Carson observes that Last is criticizing "something that is actually a fairly widespread and, ethically speaking, perfectly acceptable, practice which appears to be condoned even by the venue in which Last airs his outrage."
As I read his work in the Weekly Standard's online edition and his blog, Jonathan Last has always been suspicious of what we might call "Internet triumphalism," the occasionally encountered notion that the new media will solve all the problems of the old media, without creating any problems of their own. Perhaps there is an unavoidable tu-quoque charge of hypocrisy waiting for, say, a Madison Avenue figure who expresses mistrust of the advertising business or a Hollywood actress who says she's worried about the effect of her movies. But the hypocrisy isn't a first-order self-contradiction: What better reporter than a murderer, after all, for the news that men are mortal?
Meanwhile, a blogger named Stephen Ray has been posting notes on a number of websites to say that he was maligned in Last's article. You can find his complaint in the comments section on Last's own blog, for instance, and on one of the best Catholic sites around, Mark Shea's Catholic and Enjoying It!. It's in the comments section on Catholic and Enjoying It! that Ray complains Last accused him of "siphoning money off the faithful." The line actually occurs a paragraph earlier in the article than the mention of Ray. Last used it to describe online stores that sell such things as "GiggleWings® guardian angel dolls" and "Jesus poker chipsbecause 'Jesus went all in for you!'" I hadn't thought Last was equating these with Ray's work, but Ray seems to have taken much of the article as personal, along with the observations Last made about Ray's own site, the top elements of which show the blogger dressed as Indiana Jones and promote his video series as "the most original and dynamic" in "Catholic Church history!" Last will have an opportunity to respond when he replies to letters in FIRST THINGS, and in the meantime, readers can take a look and decide for themselves.
Anyway, it all makes for a good discussion. Should everyone agree there is no need to be concerned about any of the Internet's effects? FIRST THINGS recently started posting regular web-only items like this one. Richard John Neuhaus began by insisting that it isn't really blogging, but I say if it looks like a blog and sounds like a blog, then it pretty much is a blog. Leibniz's rule of the Identity of Indiscernibles enters somewhere along the line. [RJN: The "Identity of Indiscernibles," Jody? Like you're some highbrow type reluctantly donating your time to this lowbrow enterprise? Ummm...] But are such postings the right thing to do? The use of commercial advertisements in magazines, like the politics fueled by magazines and the communities formed by magazines, has had time to settle in the two centuries since coffee-house journals such as the Edinburgh Review established what still remains the model for all opinion publications. But the proper use of commercialism and politics and communitiesLast's three fundamental worrieshasn't yet been fully determined for the online world. The entire web is feeling its way, and I, for one, found Jonathan V. Last's "God on the Internet" a fine provocation for thinking about all this.