In the days when reading was synonymous with printed words on paper, people who wanted to learn about Christianity and politics in America would dig into books such as The Naked Public Square. Readers curious about Buddhism consulted books by famed practitioners such as D. T. Suzuki or Thich Nhat Hanh. Those books are still available, but because of the Internet, people can now sample the mix of religion and politics at a Web site called “Barack Obama the Antichrist,” or learn about Buddhist practice from A Monk Amok.
Welcome to the world of weblogs, or blogs, and the cyberspace they all inhabit, known as the blogosphere. This is an inherently democratic realm where Kathy from Kalamazoo has the same platform for her views on religion as a scholar with a fistful of advanced degrees. Therein lies the greatest opportunity and the greatest difficulty with how Christians engage the religion blogosphere.
“The beauty and danger of blogging is that it gives a voice to the common man,” said Rich Tatum, a blogger who has been on the cutting edge of all things Internet in various capacities with church denominations and ministries including the Assemblies of God and Christianity Today International. “Everybody becomes a publisher. They create a lot of noise, and sometimes it’s hard to find the signal in the noise. But there’s a surprising number of interesting writers out there who are posting interesting content.”
Blog Basics. Since blogs made their first appearance on the Internet in the late 1990s, they have changed in appearance and function while proliferating in numbers. The first weblogs were simple lists of Web sites of interest to the site host. These blogs also contained chronological lists, arranged from oldest to newest, of any changes made to a Web site. That style quickly evolved into the current arrangement of posts, arranged from newest to oldest, of short items written in a journalistic, diaristic style, Tatum told the Journal.
Internet surfers can interact with a blog in a variety of ways. The vast majority of visitors simply clicks on the blog and reads its content. Others may subscribe to the blog and automatically receive any new posts. Each blog contains a mechanism where readers can comment on a post and thereby interact with the blogger and other commenters.
There’s plenty to comment about, according to Web sites such as Technorati (http://technorati.com) and BlogPulse (http://www.blogpulse.com), which monitor the world of blogs. A feature on the front page of BlogPulse offers stark evidence of how massive the blogosphere is. As of August 3 this year, the blogosphere contained nearly 79 million identified blogs. In the previous 24 hours, 93,041 new blogs became live, and 651,253 posts were indexed.
Cats, Bosses, and Other Denizens of the Blogosphere. Bloggers, including those who comment on religion, fall into one of three categories developed by business author and blogger Seth Godin. “Cat bloggers” are so called because they tend to be the kind of people who will share very personal items, such as what their cat did today, that would be considered by many other people to be trivial or mundane. A Christian cat blogger is someone who shares personal details of their daily devotional lives. “Boss bloggers” are those who speak with some authority for an organization through their blogs, such as pastors and CEOs. An “idea blogger” is anyone who has an idea they want to share with others. These bloggers can be authors, teachers, and theologians.
Michael Kress, managing editor of Beliefnet, sees two general categories, personal blogs and issue blogs, each with subcategories. “Some personal blogs are pure diaries from doubters and people who are struggling or from people who are more devotionally oriented and who want to get other people to worship and pray with them,” said Kress to the Journal. Issue blogs comment on news stories and how they affect particular religious beliefs and practices.
Devotees, Skeptics, and the Inquisitive. Web surfers normally read religion blogs for two reasons. The first is to monitor current events and trends. “People are thinking about the interaction of Christianity and everyday life on their own, and now they can see how other people are thinking. That’s how we view our blog: as an application of Christian worldview to life,” said Melinda Penner, co-founder and blogger for the apologetics ministry Stand to Reason, in an interview with the Journal.
The second reason is belief-centered. People will search out blogs written by like-minded thinkers in an effort to bolster their own beliefs. The reverse is also true: readers occasionally will monitor and engage with bloggers opposed to their own beliefs. “People read bloggers they identify with,” said Kress. “This person articulates how the reader sees the world and becomes a mouthpiece on an issue or a factor of life such as religion. But there are also those who love to pick a fight and argue. They get so riled up and incensed by this person that they must read their blog in order to respond.”
Non-Christian Blogs. Evangelical Christians have plenty to choose from when exploring the portion of the blogosphere populated by those who do not share their religious faith. All the other major world religions are represented with the tone and subject matter ranging from serious to whimsical. Judaism features sober-minded issue discussions on Jewschool (http://jewschool.com) and more personal reflections from The Velveteen Rabbi (http://velveteenrabbi.blogs.com). People interested in Islam can consult a comprehensive blog called Mere Islam (http://www.mereislam.info). There are even blogs devoted to Shinto and Zoroastrianism.
Blogs about New Age religion and atheism are easy to find and often provocative. Quest for Personal Nirvana (http://success-nirvana.blogspot.com) offers assistance in using “New Age tools such as Subliminality, Lucid Dreaming, Hypnosis (and) Binaural Beats.” Atheist Revolution (http:// www.atheistrev.com) features the tagline, “Breaking away from irrational belief and opposing Christian extremism in America.” Scientology backers will like Scientology and Me (http://scientologyandme.wordpress.com), but will not find comfortable reading in Formerly Fooled and Finally Free From the Deceptive Cult Called Scientology (http://free-from-scientology.blogspot.com).
Other blogs are found on Web sites that invite participation from all religious beliefs and practices. A major player in this category is Beliefnet, which was started in 1999 and was purchased in 2007 by Fox Entertainment Group, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Blogs are a small but growing part of Beliefnet, according to Kress.
“We have a wide net, but we’re always looking to fill certain gaps where we feel we need more content or a balancing voice. If we tilt too liberal, we find a more conservative voice to balance it out. Since bloggers are opinionated, we are committed to providing content to everyone on every side of the spectrum,” she said. Beliefnet blogs, which can all be found from a pulldown menu at the site’s homepage (http://www.beliefnet.com) include “God’s Politics” by liberal evangelical Jim Wallis and its more conservative counterpart “Crunchy Con” by Rod Dreher; “Conversations With God,” based on the book of the same name by Neale Donald Walsch; and “Deepak Chopra and Family.”
The God Blogs. Christians were quick to catch on to the potential of blogging, said Tatum. Today, nearly every denomination and official organization’s Web site has a spot for a blog. Pastors, priests, and ministry leaders are frequent contributors as boss bloggers and idea bloggers. Anglicans who were not able to attend the once-a-decade Lambeth conference in Canterbury, United Kingdom, could keep informed by reading the blogs of a number of attending bishops, from both the conservative and liberal viewpoints. Some local church Web sites include boss blogs from their pastors.
Christian cat bloggers use their sites to share devotional thoughts or other items for everyday people. For example, “Sprittibee” is the nickname of a Christian homeschooling mom and also the name of her blog (http:// sbees.blogspot.com). Other blogs blur the categories of cat, boss, and idea blogs. Tatum’s “Blog Rodent” (http://tatumweb.com/blog) is primarily an idea blog, but has also featured posts updating readers about family news. Other blogs take an outside-the-box tone, such as “The Shrine of the Holy Whapping” (http:// holywhapping.blogspot.com), which consists of posts by a group of self-styled “Catholic nerds.”
Within Christianity, a subcategory of blogs focuses on apologetics. Some of these blogs are concentrated on a particular tenet of Christian belief or against a particular perceived error. Examples include “Faith and Gender” (http:// faithandgender.wordpress.com), which defends “the Bible’s teaching on the nature and relationship of the sexes”; “Reformed Baptist Apologetics” (http://reformedbatistapologetics. blogspot.com), which is based on the beliefs and writings of seventeenth-century Particular Baptists; and a defense of young-earth creationism from the blog of Ken Hamm, founder of Answers In Genesis (http:// blogs. answersingenesis.org/aroundtheworld/feed).
Another category of apologetics blogs is more general in nature. Stand to Reason, an organization that equips believers to give a full explanation for Christianity and Christian values, started its blog after overcoming some initial reluctance. “People had been suggesting it as long as three and a half years ago,” said Penner. “At that time I saw blogs as mostly political, and we are not a political organization. But then I realized that the staff here was always talking about things in the news and evaluating things we had read. Then I realized a lot of other people might like to hear the kinds of things we talk about.”
Stand to Reason blog posts have explored topics such as the arguments made by the new batch of best-selling atheist authors, the place of doubt in the life of a Christian, same-sex marriage, and the Trinity. “What interests us about the specific topics and events we blog about are the interactions of ideas and life and understanding what people believe,” said Penner.
Opinions vary on the effectiveness of apologetics in the blogosphere. “I enjoy reading apologetics from people who have written a text, but I’m not a huge fan of following it on a blog,” said Tatum. “Blog authors tend to generate an audience of like-minded readers. The people who disagree with you on a blog are not likely to be devoted readers. They will cruise by and probably drop a comment here and there and never come back again.”
An Evangelical Navigation Guide to the Blogosphere. The sheer amount of blogs and the shortage of discretionary time in the average person’s day make exploring the blogosphere a daunting prospect. How can Christians best develop the ability to separate the gold from the dross? One motivating factor may be the awareness that people and organizations hostile to Christianity are active and aggressive in the blogosphere. Case in point: Atheist Revolution has a series of postings instructing other atheist bloggers how to get the most visibility from their sites.
For readers of blogs, discernment and an assessment of the credibility of the blogger are keys. Kress suggests reading the “About Me” biographical sketch. “Some of these have very little information, and that bothers me,” she said. “I want to know about this person before I decide to read.” Examine the “blogroll,” which is a list of favorite blogs. If the work of a blogger receives consistent mention from his or her peers on blogrolls, readers can take this as a sign of quality. “You get a real sense of who’s respected when you see them listed over and over,” said Amy Hall, one of the Stand to Reason bloggers.
Thinking of starting your own blog? The first notion to dispense with is that blogging will be lucrative. Very few blogs are profitable. Most are maintained for reasons other than cash flow. Blogging, if done properly, will require a significant investment of time. There is also a certain kind of writing that works best in blogs. “You need immediacy. You need to get straight to the point,” advises Kress. “Longer posts are fine, but they have to be relevant. Does your blog have a point, and does it stay on point?”
The best apologetics blogs have a set of qualities in common, say Stand to Reason’s Penner and Hall. One of them is a winsome ability to make a strong argument without overstating the case and maligning the character of an opponent. They recommend taking the same tone on a blog as you would when standing face-to-face with a person with whom you are sharing faith.
Tatum adds that changing minds on a blog depends on building a relationship with someone who disagrees. “That’s the biggest problem with mediated communication like blogs, instant messaging, and Skype (an Internet telephone software). It’s not face-to-face. You don’t have all the nonverbals, which means you don’t have an easy way to communicate passion and concern. You have to be very good with words,” said Tatum.
—Lee A. Dean