For many, the Internet supplies a safe forum to debate matters of spirituality and tradition
Think of Steve Beard as the missing link.
Without him, you might not find anything to connect “Roy’s rock” to rock ‘n’ roll, bikinis to the breastplate of St. Patrick.
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But log on to his Weblog at www.thunderstruck.org and you’ll find links to those topics and dozens more.
Together, they serve as Beard’s so-called “truckstop for the soul.”
Weblogs, best known as blogs, are online journals dedicated to particular subjects that often offer legions of links to relevant news or other Web sites. While it’s unclear just how many blogs are out there, it’s evident that spirituality — and the intersection of faith and culture in particular — saturates many of them.
Beard said he started his blog five years ago, when he wanted a place to post some articles that he had written, along with others that were of interest to him.
Web surfers responded, writing to tell him he had a “weird mind” and that they appreciated the eclectic nature of his site.
“There’s as much stuff on there about surfing and punk rock as there is about theology,” explained Beard, one of the authors of “Spiritual Journeys: How Faith Has Influenced Twelve Music Icons.” “For me, faith includes all areas of life.”
Beard, the 38-year-old vice president of Good News — a network of United Methodist evangelicals in Wilmore, Ky., — said he spends between 3 and 4 hours every day maintaining his Weblog.
“It was first just a hobby…just a way for me to express myself,” said Beard, who also edits Good News magazine. “I live in a very small, conservative town and I’m from southern California….The two worlds are very, very different. It ends up being a better way for me to maintain my sanity here.”
Now, he said: “I’m addicted to it…and feel this weird responsibility….It’s a blast for me, and I’m stoked when other people like it.”
While many may appreciate the diverse nature of Beard’s blog, surfers seeking religion seem to gravitate toward like-minded believers.
Richard Flory, a sociologist at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif., said surfers are adept at using the Internet to create and solidify networks that they already have.
Through the blogs, Christians have formed international communities, Flory said, noting that it “seems like they all know of each other.”
But Flory doesn’t think the congregation of these virtual networks means the end for traditional religious communities.
“I don’t think it’s one replacing the other,” Flory said. “People are never going to want to lose the human contact.”
Kathy Shaidle, the Toronto-based founder of the blog www.relapsedcatholic.com, said the Internet will never supplant the sacramental nature of Catholicism. What it’s done, she said, is help many to discuss difficult issues and clarify their thoughts.
“It can’t replace it, but it’s a wonderful adjunct,” she said.
Shaidle, who started her blog in July 2000, said she noticed a proliferation of sites when the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church began garnering national attention. Today, the number of sites seems to have “leveled off,” she said.
“I think it really was a wonderful way for people to let off steam,” she said. “It was probably a very healthy thing.”
Many seem to sense a certain security online and may feel comfortable engaging in conversations they might shy away from in person.
Brenda E. Brasher, author of “Give Me That Online Religion” and a sociology professor at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, said she believes one reason individuals feel comfortable turning to the Internet for answers about their religious questions is “due to the feeling of privacy many people associate with computer communications — even though it is not especially a private way to communicate.”
“There would be a lot of back-and-forth between the bloggers,” she said. “It was a wonderful outlet.”
The experience was arguably empowering for many, and in the end, may offer some lessons for the Catholic Church.
“I think that the church…is simply going to have to accept the fact that we’re all talking to each other,” said Shaidle, who describes herself as “an orthodox, conservative Catholic.” “There’s a permanent record of everything and we can find it.”
Ultimately, Shaidle said, church officials should recognize the value of transparency.
Beard said he believes blogs and Web sites of interest have leapfrogged over the gatekeepers of the establishment.
Said Beard: “Blogs give people another voice….”
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