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Christians in a Dot Com World

by Gene Edward Veith

Chapter One
Introduction: The Last Frontier

Imagine a shopping mall the size of Australia. Or a collection of writings bigger than the Library of Congress, where the books are all scattered on the floor and some appear and disappear without notice. In fact, other people are willing to pay to make sure their books get tossed your way. They fight with one another to get their words in your hands.

Think about a never-never land where anybody can be anyone or anything they want, where present or past conditions matter nothing. Or a political convention where everybody in the planet can give a speech. Or a Turkish bazaar where anything can be bought or sold, both legal and illegal.

Picture a theme park for grown-ups where you can find true love, make a million dollars, or max out your credit cards. Or a hot-air balloon that travels at the speed of light, letting you drop in on any culture or people and study how they live.

All these are metaphors about the Internet, which sprang up seemingly out of nowhere in the 1990s, hooking up millions of people through digital connections and personal computers. This is cyberspace, a placeless realm where one can find the civilization heights of the Renaissance and the Reformation, the moral pit of Sodom and Gomorrah, and every culture’s dreams of the future.

Just as Christians latched on to the printing press, so should they grab hold of the Internet for the kingdom of God. The whole universe is His domain, including the world of information translated into data packs, fed through high-speed routers, and sent off on fiber-optic lines. This new technology is a chance to exercise discernment, take some risks, and possibly change the world.

Buy! Buy! Spend! Spend! Click! Click!

Nearly everyone wants a piece of the action. Cyberspace beckons to all races, ethnicities, and belief systems, and each is represented somewhere. Anyone who can read a screen, tap a keyboard, and get an account is welcome. And new tribes of buyers and sellers want to turn those users into customers.

The technology has left people swimming in information. College students wind up with more E-mail than they can read, businesses have instantaneous market information from tracking statistics extracted from customers, and stock traders can risk fortunes by tracking the market minute-by-minute. Those who cook up ways to turn data into dollars (or can make computers deliver it better) can be well rewarded.

The opening of the online frontier is a new gold rush, with unimaginable fortunes being made (and lost) and prospectors scrambling to stake their claims. A rash of dot-com startups lined up to get launched and hit the stock market, with fast-talking CEOs boasting bright Internet ideas, even if the company was without a profit or even a product. These dreams hit a reverse reality check when their stock traded for millions of dollars in hard, real currency.

The oft-hyped e-commerce aspect of the Net is mind-boggling. Everything imaginable from Bibles to canned beets can be found or bought on the Internet. Entrepreneurs adore it, governments hate it, and no one can find everything they’re looking for. Many new industries exist that consist simply of online businesses helping online businesses.

Virtual shopping malls have opened in the virtual neighborhoods. The salesman at the door has been replaced by an innocuous-looking blue link to a web site. Online auctioneers take bids on any object imaginable. Just look at, the Seattle-based retailer that went from being a startup bookseller to the embodiment of retailing’s future. With no profit but high stock prices, the company leveraged itself farther and farther, expanding from books only into music, video, toys, software, and even tools. It even opened its infrastructure to outsiders via online auctions and what it calls zShops, which allow other retailers to open storefronts on its site.

Superstores are popping up online faster than anyone can build them in the physical world. While they don’t require the real estate and upkeep of brick-and-mortar stores, the rivalry is fiercer than in any city. Ironically, the sheer number of players in the market means that margins are plummeting, making profits hard to find. There are seemingly endless competitors offering the same golf clubs, disk drives, and hymnals. In speculative areas, prices can be driven to wholesale cost or lower. Stores gladly lose money today to gain a market share for tomorrow.

All this cutthroat competition means the Net is a buyer’s market. The government is still searching for ways to tax the Net, and state and local governments cringe at the idea of lost sales and property taxes. Is all this an opportunity for mindless commercialism and consumerism? Yes, but so is the mail system and every exit on the interstate highways. For people looking for a deal online, the ultimate goal should not be endless spending but improved stewardship. No system for finding the best product at the best price has ever existed before in human history. Such a free economy is working exactly the way Adam Smith thought it would.

E-mail, E-commerce, Economy

The digital boom doesn’t mean that the Internet is just a destination. For some it can be a career as the Net becomes a bigger and bigger factor in the economy. The stock boom of the 1990s, which might have been impossible without the dot-coms, is just one example. If the Internet was weaned with dreams of freedom, it grows on dreams of free markets. People can surf for goods or for work from anywhere in the world. The result is capitalism unchained.

A simple E-mail account opens the door for knowledge workers to freelance, consult, outsource, contract, and otherwise labor for the highest bidder. Mobility is increased because people can work wherever they are—at home or on vacation. It is mobility while staying where you are. Online auctions turn housewives into steely-eyed traders, bidding on whatever they want and putting the laws of supply and demand directly to work.

In the new economy’s offices, company workers thrive in a permanent casual day as utilitarian companies scrap dress and behavior codes in a drive for efficiency not seen since the Industrial Revolution. Those who know how to make computers work are recruited like star athletes and are given stock and higher salaries to jump from company to company. (Who cares if they wear shorts to work? They can write code!)

Keep in mind that the earth-shattering boom came even as the technology was (and is) still growing up. This technology is brand-new, but it’s never going away. New applications are dreamed up daily, and the technology keeps getting better, cheaper, and more innovative—opening up even more possibilities and raising more and more questions.

Even if the Net changes the way people work, it doesn’t change human nature. It isn’t the road to utopia, eternal prosperity, or an easy path to success. The new economy simply expands the options for smart people willing to roll up their sleeves. Work is still work, and a boss is still a boss, even if he doesn’t wear a suit and tie anymore. Personal discipline, hard work, and ingenuity are still critical and are still well rewarded in a crazy Net economy.

Call Me, Page Me, E-mail Me, Talk to Me!

Yet the most important communication is not what movers and shakers do with the Net, but what ordinary people say to each other on the Net. E-mail is the lowest common denominator of the online world. To be plugged in means to have an address where one can send and receive messages. Everything else pales in importance. It helps both the loner and the social traveler.

Cheaper than a phone call and easier than a fax machine, E-mail lets people meet and stay in touch who could never connect before. Friendships can survive that would have been blown away by winds of physical circumstance. An accountant in Montana can get help from a computer programmer in India. A kilted Scotsman can find love with a southern belle. And your next chess opponent could as easily come from Russia as from down the block.

Such things would have seemed extravagant, expensive, and downright impossible for most of the twentieth century; yet today they are taken for granted. Nowadays who cares if any of the people in your online Bible study live in the same state?

E-mail is nonintrusive and deceptively simple. It doesn’t knock on the door, ring, or interrupt dinner. There’s no need to worry about handwriting or special stationery or a trip to the post office. It can have the immediacy of a phone call or the leisure of a vacation postcard. E-mail just sits in the in-box waiting to be read. It can be ignored, devoured immediately, printed out and read the old-fashioned way, or passed around to as many people as you want. E-mail software comes and goes, but the basic format has gone unchanged for years. You input the address of the recipient, add a subject line, type a message, and send. There’s hardly a learning curve.

Time, place, and geography have not disappeared, but they have new meanings. While calling someone in the middle of the night might be rude, no one cares about writing or receiving an electronic letter at 2 a.m. They never interrupt anything and can be attended to at one’s leisure (and if some social initiative is undesired, a quick tap of the delete key makes it go away).

E-mail has brought the moribund art of letter-writing back to life. It strikes against the dumbing-down trend by requiring some literacy. After all, one must write to do anything. One must also learn to think before typing. Something that might be said by talking on the phone now requires a short essay. Thus many are learning the strengths and weaknesses of their own writing style. E-mail has its own rules for tact, grace, friendliness, and geniality. A few words can cover acts of public boorishness or make a gentleman look like a creep. Something dashed off in the heat of the moment may be totally misinterpreted by someone reading slowly at leisure. But effective writers are learning that the keyboard is mightier than the sword.

Unfortunately, the beauty of E-mail is being endlessly tarnished by the specter of spam, junk E-mail. It piles up in the world’s mailboxes, and no hope is in sight. A mid-1999 GartnerGroup survey of 13,000 E-mail users1 found that 90 percent of users receive spam at least once a week promoting everything from cyber-porn to pyramid schemes to quack health remedies. Almost 50 percent of users get spammed six or more times per week.

Gartner’s analysts say that spam increases as one stays with the E-mail account. Unlike paper junk mail, which costs only the sender, spam costs the recipients and service providers in the form of wasted online time, bandwidth, and disk space. Merely entering a chat room or publishing one’s address can get a person flooded with crazy ads—and worse, the most degrading pornography. Porn used to be something that you had to actively hunt for on the Web, which made it accessible but easy to avoid. Now, thanks to spam, it hunts for you.

For those who want more direct two-way communication right away, time can stretch in a different direction. That’s where E-mail’s flashy little brother, the chat client, comes in. People can pop messages back and forth in real time. The trade-off is that while E-mail gives someone a stationery that fits anyone’s writing style, chat forces all conversations into bursts of only a few lines.

Chat comes in two flavors, the chat room (where a bunch of people come together like strangers in a cocktail party) and instant messaging (where individuals talk back and forth as if they were on the phone). Either gives people the chance to make friends, do work, or be a complete jerk. With instant messaging, you can see whether or not a contact anywhere in the world is online; and if so, you can pop that person an instant message, complete with a little box for the reply. (Assuming the person on the other side wants to talk.)

America Online streamlined the process with an invention called the “buddy list” and used the leverage to conquer the world of online services. Millions keep little directories of people to greet, converse with, or even harass over the Net. It’s simple, cheap, and revolutionary. Whether with private instant messages or in chat rooms open to the public, electronic conversations can go for hours. Everything from business relations to love affairs has been turbocharged this way.

Since electronic messages are almost always both interactive and written down, they can be even more thoughtful and expressive. A strange sense of immediacy hangs over conversations based on pure words, without either facial expressions or vocal timbre. One reason electronic correspondence can be more personal, paradoxically, is because it is more anonymous. Hiding behind a cryptic screen name or a vague electronic identity, a person can express himself with great freedom, free of social conventions, shyness, or embarrassment. (Some avant-garde chat software even lets people play cartoon characters who wander around an on-screen window.) A person is more likely to express unfashionable opinions that might never be heard at the dinner table or the office watercooler. Some culture vultures have waxed loudly about how an individual can drop all real-world characteristics and live as a self-invented being on the Net. This, of course, is not going to be a good thing. If, as has been said, one’s true character is how one acts when alone and no one can see, the anonymity of the Internet allows a person’s true nature—the sinful nature—to come to the surface and to roam without inhibitions.

For all of the serious friendships developed online, there are also freaks lurking in the chat rooms. Every good conversation on AOL or IRC is matched by a stack of babbling and a dumpster full of real-time sleaze. Finding a good chat is like panning for gold.

Electronic conversation requires a trained ability to quickly weed out garbage and fluff. For all of the serious discussions, personal support, and genuine human relationships made possible through this new technology—even between people who may live on the other side of the world from each other—it is also an occasion for flaming (unrestrained, hateful, and usually obscene invective), virtual sex (erotic, self-stimulating chats), and phony self-presentations on a grand scale (with men pretending to be women, women pretending to be men, and other elaborate scams of identity and deception).

The whole mad scene is expanding beyond the desktop PC. Eventually millions could see their Internet connections, phone lines, and cable TV hookup all combined into one jack in the wall. With a fast enough connection, TV channels and web pages will start to look alike. Entertainment, information, and personal communication are merging now. Though this will create a total media environment, it will not be another collective, homogenizing appeal to the masses, as television has been. It will be more like a private cocoon, for each individual will have access to whatever appeals to his idiosyncratic tastes.

Television used to have only three networks; then cable allowed for fifty (most of which were merely recycling network fare). But the merger of television and the Internet will mean that viewers can watch whatever they want whenever they want it. As broadcasting is replaced by narrowcasting, viewers will be able to choose from a vast menu of options, from classic movies to avant garde experimentation, from Bible studies to New Age seminars, from family fare to the most perverse pornography. The individual will be his own program director, editor, and censor, filtering out whatever he doesn’t like, his every whim catered to.

Pondering the Situation

While all this is often proclaimed as the biggest innovation since Gutenberg’s printing press, no one quite understands what it all means. Communication, trade, and information move faster, but moral reality stays the same.

Most of what gets said about the Net is practical—how to get online, E-mail your boss, or start a billion-dollar web site. (Since the medium is so utilitarian, this should be expected.) Occasionally someone pooh-poohs the whole project, calling it complicated, overpromoted, and unprofitable. Sometimes people mock the male-dominated subculture of geeks who work and play at cultivating this new frontier. Journalist Paulina Borsook overreacts to their sometimes anarchist behavior, complaining of “testosterone-poisoned guys with chips on their shoulders and too much time on their hands.”

Two groups have presented the most optimistic paradigms about the Internet—the futurists and the Gnostics. The futurists talk of a “New Economy” forever changed because of technology. Meanwhile, the Gnostics proclaim cyberspace as an alternate universe, complete with new politics and new religions. In this libertarian-leftist mix, one can live as an autonomous free citizen with absolute privacy, away from taxation, geography, governments, race, gender, ethnicity, and obscenity laws.

The Futurists

Futurists take a look at technology, have a great “Oh, Wow!” moment, and then postulate what this means for everyone. Usually the trend is upbeat. The Internet is fulfilling the vision of many who saw the world changing from an industrial society to an information society. TV, satellites, and the telephone all fit a pattern, and the Internet is the next quantum leap.

Alvin Toffler was the popularizer who made this point in a mass-market way. His 1980 book The Third Wave predicted grand shifts in the global economy. Toffler didn’t predict the Internet revolution we know, but he explained that inexpensive computers were going to create big changes in the way we live, including access to massive archives, the ability to generate new ideas easily, and even the rise of telecommuting.

Toffler, despite his New Age flavor, helped people focus on the fact that rapid shifts were about to come. The world would be guided by something more than merely the “military-industrial complex” that some people talked about. Toffler stepped into overkill with his talk of a “new civilization,” but when people today speak of the digital revolution, they enter into discourse that he helped define.

Today futurists are everywhere. Perhaps today’s most pragmatic futurist is a libertarian pundit named George Gilder. Before it was fashionable, he came up with two buzzwords describing the great movements in technology—microcosm and telecosm. Microcosm simply refers to the fact that computers get more and more powerful as they get cheaper. Telecosm is the exponential rise in value when all these computers come together in a network. In the early 1990s he was saying that these computer networks would be far more important than TV or consumer electronics or the movie industry. When Gilder talks, people don’t just listen. They run to their broker, scrambling to buy stocks. When there’s a company recommended in his monthly Gilder Technology Report, the price often spikes.

Gilder’s philosophy of the future centers on a theme—ever increasing bandwidth. Bandwidth refers to the amount of data a computer system can transmit back and forth. When you buy a faster modem, you have more bandwidth and can do more online. When everyone gets more bandwidth, the economy explodes.

So Gilder looks around and finds the companies he thinks will push the bandwidth envelope further. Better Web browsers, faster cellular connections and more efficient corporate networks are the sorts of things that strike his fancy. While he has a reputation for being a stock picker—critics say he encourages speculation and “irrational exuberance”—he’s working from a well-grounded methodology.

At one point he criticized conservatives who have a “blanket skepticism” toward technology as if it is just another piece of the modern world to attack. “They’re inclined to believe that technology is the machine,” Gilder said in a 1992 interview. Thus they unfairly attack what they should embrace.

Numerous others have come along since the Internet boom started, especially as business gurus. On the newsstands, Wired, Fast Company, Business 2.0, and others have all taken up a get-connected-and-get moving attitude. All this is intended to help people figure out what to do with these nifty (and often expensive) tools. Just looking at the ads in the magazine gives one an idea of the energy involved and the pots of gold being chased after.

The Gnostics

While Timothy Leary, the drug guru of the sixties, lay dying of cancer, rumors persisted that he was going to kill himself online. His followers could watch him on a net-camera, and he kept himself turned on and tuned in to this new kind of mind expansion. Leary, knowing that he was dying, conceived the idea of somehow downloading his whole mind onto the Internet. His consciousness would thus be immortal, plugged into the global interconnected consciousness emerging in cyberspace, so that he would attain a virtual eternal life. The whole scheme was a last big publicity stunt before the cemetery and the most obnoxious example of gnosticism hidden behind technological buzzwords.

His cancer-ridden, drug-ravaged body—his “meat machine”—met death the old-fashioned way, and no supercomputer has ever been invented big enough to store what is in a human being’s mind, let alone his soul. But this sort of conceptual possibility is being turned into something people are putting their faith in, so that for many the mystification of the Net is amounting to a new religion. In effect, this expresses New Age metaphysics in terms of tangible, down-to-earth technology.

Some thinkers and artists are proclaiming that we are entering a “post-human” era in which the limits of the body—including the physical facts of gender, race, appearance, and sexual orientation—will soon be transcended. No one knows who you are online. Your mind alone matters. Your physical body means nothing. The limits of the material universe will be transcended, so that we will exist in a state of true “spirituality” in a universe that we will have created for ourselves.

The reality, of course, is that few people want to live like this. People like having arms and legs and physical identities. What all the verbiage usually describes is dirty talk in chat rooms. This is no substitute for real love and real life.

A fleet of books has tried to explain a religious dimension to the Internet. For example, science writer Margaret Wertheim has written one of the most historical and esoteric, titled The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace. She says that the modern idea of the online world revives the supernatural world of Dante’s Divine Comedy and the medieval cathedrals.

By diminishing the importance of physical space, the rise of the Net makes people rethink their ideas on how the universe works. As the book TechGnosis points out, cyberspace has become the religion of taste for an influential few. Writer Erik Davis thinks that’s way cool, telling of a vast pagan feast amid the digital revolution. Skepticism, nihilism, and materialism don’t fill that great personal void within, he writes. So our new tools feed on our inner desires and produce “UFOs, Gaian minds, New World Orders and techno-utopias that hover above the horizon of the third millennium.” Pseudoscience follows science, and pseudoreligion follows them both.

Such technomystics range from Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite to Lotus developer Mitch Kapor to Al Gore. Each of them have latched on to the wonder, perplexity, and novelty that comes with new inventions and have steered toward a spiritual goal—salvation from the “noise” of the material world into the “signal” of pure knowledge.

The great gnostic dream rose and fell throughout the 1990s and was reborn on the silver screen in the movie The Matrix. It is the tale of Neo, a computer hacker who has stumbled across a dark secret: Normal life is just a computer-generated simulation imposed on us by machines that breed, enslave, and consume us. The character winds up playing Luke Skywalker to Morpheus, an Obi-Wan-like figure, as they fight a bunch of enemy agents who look like the corporate-clad Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black.

Since, according to the movie, the normal world is just a piece of software, nothing “really” exists. In an anarcho-Buddhist fashion, Neo learns he can do everything from spoon bending to zero-gravity kung fu just by using his mind to manipulate the Force, er, the Matrix. The movie piles on the rhetoric about how the usual reality is just a bunch of electrical impulses fed into our brains. A whole pile of science fiction novels by William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Bruce Sterling tell similar tales along these lines, constituting the genre known as cyberpunk.

Yet The Matrix doesn’t entirely invoke a world full of meat machines. The not-so-hidden utopian fantasy of the movie is that once “the system” is overthrown, then people can live free of rules and power games in a real-life, physical world. From a Christian standpoint, such a worldview is completely bogus, but millions are astounded by such mythology. This worldview encourages people to see the Internet as a catalyst into a mountaintop experience. It offers the sense of meaning and the mystical jolt of religion without the drag of morality, discipleship, theology, and the Cross.

God, the Real World, and Real Christianity

So where is God in all of this? Cyberspace appears to be a universe wholly created by human beings, enabling them to be oblivious to the real Creator. Yet the world is obviously still His domain. History has moved, but God hasn’t.

So what should Christians do? Should they embrace the Amish option and have nothing to do with the new technology because of all the hate and smut and evil? Of course not. For one thing, as society becomes more and more dependent on the Internet, it can hardly be avoided. After all, the Net is a tool, like the phone system and the postal service. Not to mention the fact that Christians are finding the cyberworld extraordinarily useful—in their vocations, on the personal level, and in their ministries.

Christians should use the Net, opting out of the idolatries, tech-worship, and much-ballyhooed paradigm shifts that pale before the biblical worldview. In fact, the Net can be used to promote a Christian view of the real world.

Meanwhile, Christians must protect their families, their children, and themselves from the pedophiles, predators, con artists, and pornographers who have established a major presence in cyberspace. With such a burden, one may wind up wondering if the Amish have the right idea after all. But it need not be that way.

One of the purposes of this book is to demystify the Internet in a jargon-free way that speaks to nontechnical people. When the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, they fell into serious sin, which was punished by a plague of poisonous snakes. At God’s direction, Moses used his Bronze Age technology to construct a bronze serpent on a pole. God provided that if anyone bitten by a snake would look at the bronze serpent, he would be healed—a startling typological proclamation of Christ, who bore in His body lifted up on the cross all human sin, the punishment it deserves, and the curse of the Satanic Serpent himself. “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:14-15, NKJV).

But in time, as the Israelites settled into apostasy, even this evangelistic work of art was turned into an idol, interpreted according to the line of their snake-worshiping neighbors. When Hezekiah became king, however, he worked to stamp out idol worship and bring the nation back to the true God. This included dealing with the relic from Moses’ day, which did not, we may regret, include putting it in a museum. Modern translations obscure the significance of exactly what he did, but the reading from the Authorized King James Version has good support in the original Hebrew: “He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan” (2 Kings 18:4). “Nehushtan” means “a bronze thing.” Hezekiah destroyed it, but to fully stamp out idolatry, he also needed to demystify it. “This is a piece of bronze,” he was saying. “Yes, it is a wonderful relic of our history, and, yes, it is a wonderful work of art with an evangelistic message. But it isn’t magic, it isn’t something to worship, and we dare not let it lead us astray. It is just a piece of metal.”

The prophets were always doing this, trying to bring the people back from idolatry. “This image isn’t a god; it’s a piece of wood. You build your fires out of this kind of thing. There isn’t anything in this object that will save you, nor is there anything in it to be afraid of.” (See, for example, Isaiah 44:12-20.)

There are human limits to all technology. In the old Wonderful World of Disney TV show in the early 1960s, Tomorrowland would project what the next century, specifically the year 2000, might bring. All of our nutritional needs would be met by pills and freeze-dried nutritional packets, we were told. But it will never happen. Human beings will always like to eat real food. The Tomorrowland landscape was one of concrete and plastic, with round houses on stilts in the air, with nature nowhere to be found in this triumph of scientific ingenuity. But as a matter of fact, now that we have passed the year 2000 we are restoring Victorian buildings, living in new houses that look like old houses, and insisting that our cities provide lots of green places. Human beings, for all of their modernist pretensions, have a need for beauty, history, and nature.

By the same token, human beings have a need for objective reality. They will never escape their human condition, no matter how much they play at it. They will never fully withdraw into a virtual reality they have made, even if they would like to. The real uses of the Internet are those that have ramifications in real life, whether they lead to making money or to making marriages. And the real world is the domain of God.

One of the disappointments being registered about the new technology is that it has not really had much of an impact on education. For all the hype and all the mega-investment in equipment made by school boards, the computer labs are not really doing much beyond word processing, E-mail, and allowing the students to play lots of games. Reading and writing scores are way down, and science education, for all of our infatuation with technology, is in even worse shape. Unless the curriculum works, computers are a waste of money.

Certainly the educational potential of the Internet has hardly been tapped, but all of these information systems, so far, have not made young people more knowledgeable. As one educator said, giving a child a piano will not make him a musician. And giving a child a pencil—or a word processor—will not make him a writer. The old educational tasks and the human condition with all of its limitations, sufferings, and yearnings remain the same.

The point is, technology is a tool. The tool’s value depends on what one does with it. From a Christian perspective, the Internet opens up vast potential for evangelism. It is possible to communicate with people around the world without regard for borders or anti-Christian laws. It is a way for Christian thought to enter the marketplace of ideas without being restricted by intellectual gatekeepers that have for the last century excluded the biblical point of view. Or it is possible to use the Internet as a black hole of withdrawal, self-deception, and vice.

Of course, the Internet is not a tool like a hammer or a skill saw. It is a tool that we can use, but it is also a tool that can use us. Dealing as it does with information, language, and thought itself, the Net can shape our thinking and our experiences in complex ways, sometimes without our realizing it. But essentially, like all tools, it becomes an extension of us. In fact, the Net extends what we really are.

In the ultimate entertainment center—which is coming, as has been said, with the integration of television, computers, and the Internet—when every taste can be indulged, the vulgar will be vulgar still. In fact, vulgarity will be unbounded, reaching depths of vulgarity not yet seen (and you thought it couldn’t get worse). But good tastes can be indulged as well, tapping into great works of meaning, morality, and insight currently unavailable on the mass wasteland of television.

The challenge for the Christian will be, first, to sometimes leave this entertainment immersion in order to visit one’s sick neighbor down the street. It will also be the Christian’s challenge to resist the temptations to which one’s sinful nature is heir. Christians have often thought of sin as if it is something they can stay away from. Evils are external, a contaminant to stay clear of. On one level, this is a valid way to look at evil, avoiding the occasion and the temptation for sin, and it is important to protect one’s children and even one’s culture from the presence of corruption. But ultimately, as Jesus Himself warns, it is not what comes from outside that makes a man unclean, but what comes out of a man’s heart. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19). That catalog, as a matter of fact, sounds like a pretty comprehensive list of the uncleanness found on the Internet.

So it will be important for Christians in this digital age to internalize virtue—that is, to grow in sanctification through the life-changing faith in Christ. Discipleship is a survival skill. The Church, God’s Word, the sacraments, doctrine, worship—in the real world—will be foundational, as they have always been, but especially in a climate in which everything solid, material, and objective seems to evaporate away.

In a medium in which we are deluged with unfiltered information, so that truth is all mixed up with urban legends, gossip, hoaxes, lunacy, and lies, the danger becomes information overload, disorientation from an indiscriminate sensory and intellectual assault. For the information to be meaningful, we need to process the deluge through a filter, so we can sort out what is valuable from what is worthless. Some people are trying to design software to serve as the gatekeeper we really need after all. But ultimately Christians grounded in God’s Word can become their own filters. Having a biblical worldview will give them criteria, standards, and discernment, so they can function in this new sea of information without being washed away.

Dr. Gene Edward Veith is the Culture Editor of World Magazine.

From Christians in a Dot Com World by Gene Edward Veith, copyright © 2001. Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois, 60187. This material is not to be electronically transferred. Down-load for personal use only. You can order Christians in a Dot Com World for a total of $14 by calling the Issues, Etc. resource line at 1-800-737-0172.

Bible Reference
Isaiah 44: 12-20

12 The blacksmith takes a tool and works with it in the coals; he shapes an idol with hammers, he forges it with the might of his arm. He gets hungry and loses his strength; he drinks no water and grows faint. 13 The carpenter measures with a line and makes an outline with a marker; he roughs it out with chisels and marks it with compasses. He shapes it in the form of man, of man in all his glory, that it may dwell in a shrine. 14 He cut down cedars, or perhaps took a cypress or oak. He let it grow among the trees of the forest, or planted a pine, and the rain made it grow. 15 It is man's fuel for burning; some of it he takes and warms himself, he kindles a fire and bakes bread. But he also fashions a god and worships it; he makes an idol and bows down to it. 16 Half of the wood he burns in the fire; over it he prepares his meal, he roasts his meat and eats his fill. He also warms himself and says, "Ah! I am warm; I see the fire." 17 From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, "Save me; you are my god." 18 They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand. 19 No one stops to think, no one has the knowledge or understanding to say, "Half of it I used for fuel; I even baked bread over its coals, I roasted meat and I ate. Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left? Shall I bow down to a block of wood?" 20 He feeds on ashes, a deluded heart misleads him; he cannot save himself, or say, "Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?"

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