Imagine yourself walking the High Street of a ‘new town ’in the UK. In a blaze of publicity,the town has come into being within the past two decades.
Purpose-built for the post-modern age,it has promised the best possible facilities,the best deal for its citizens.Community spaces;welfare provision; social interaction:all needs would be accounted for in a Technicolor lifestyle free of the divisions,decay,inequality and inhumanity of old-style urban settings.
The town ’s bold and award-winning architects have since moved on to new projects,and as you wander the High Street you wonder what became of their vision.You find the same shops you have seen in every other town in the country,their brash advertising competing for the same consumer pound.Well-intended community space is abandoned,vandalised or re-scheduled for some more functional purpose.The small and friendly local shops that opened with such optimism when the world was new are long gone, their leases taken over by multi-nationals with more marketing muscle.
Welcome to www
Welcome to the Internet:the most promising expansion of human community in centuries:and the quickest to fall to gold-rush commercialisation.Surfing today ’s internet,it is hard to imagine what the founder of the world-wide web,Tim Berners-Lee,had in mind as a “universal space ”in which “collaborative thinking ” could take place,creating a world “in which the regular person has been re- enabled as a writer,a thinker and a linker, rather than just a clicker.” Imagine real,physical surfing in which you can ’t simply follow the wave to the shore,because you have to dodge floating posters anchored at random in the swell and urging you to think about what you ’ll drink,eat,smoke or rub onto your body when you get to the beach. Imagine skiing down a mountainside on which slalom is essential just to dodge the billboards.Imagine a movie so interspersed with in-your-face advertising that you completely lose the plot.
These images seem far-fetched,until you log onto the web and find yourself ducking and dodging a screenful of adverts screaming at you to click and enter.Bill Gates,who once thought of the web as an amusing but insignificant side-show and now rules it as High King,predicts that in 2001 “more than 400 million people world-wide will surf the web ’s 4 billion pages -and spend half a trillion dollars on goods and services in the process.”There has never been a technology that has moved so swiftly from the fringes of academia,the arts and alternative culture to the very centre of the commercial world. Internet pioneer Douglas Rushkoff laments this sad loss of what once seemed an exhilarating journey.‘Once the conversation itself was no longer the highest priority ‘,he writes,‘marketing took its place...The Internet became the domain of businessmen.’The result,he claims is that ‘A journey into cyberspace is about as paradigm-threatening as an afternoon at the mall ’. ‘The question is no longer how browsing the Internet changes the way we look at the world;it ’s which browser we ’ll be using to buy products from the same old world.’ The benefits of commercial involvement in the World Wide Web are considerable.A cash injection like none that has gone before,has boosted the scope of the net and blasted its speed. Millions are now being poured into research that will produce a new generation Internet that is exponentially deeper and faster,and available to all through mobile technology.But something has been lost in the process.An interactive datasphere that promised unprecedented levels of communication and collaboration has become,i effect,history ’s largest market place. Each month produces a new array of high-tech tricks and temptations set up to snare the unwary surfer.Banner ads that purport to offer both a ‘Yes ’and a ‘No ’ click-box,but are in fact set up as a single hyper-link,whisk surfers instantly away to a site they never intended to visit.Ads disguised as a Windows dialogue box bear a ‘Cancel ’button that in practise has the opposite effect.And what about e-mails that automatically launch your web browser and attempt to connect to their sender ’s homepage?There are wolves loose in the wilds of Cyberia.
Sacred space spoiled
This is not the first time a space that promised so much has been over-run with traders.When Jesus passed through the ‘Court of the Gentiles ’in the Jerusalem Temple,the volume and variety of their hawking enraged him.Angrier than in any other recorded incident,Jesus created holy disorder:stampeding the cattle,scattering coins and giving a whole new meaning to ‘market turnover ’.If you ’ve ever seen cows,goats and pigeons all panicking at the same moment,you can begin to imagine the sheer chaos of the scene. The impact of this brief incident on the disciples can be seen in the fact that it features,in one form or another,in all four Gospels.Whatever else the story reveals, it was clearly believed by the early Church to reveal something of the character of Christ. As the dust and chickens fly in all directions,Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah saying ‘my house will be called a house of prayer for all the nations ’.The reference hints at what may have lain at the root of Jesus ’rage.Isaiah 56 is a chapter that celebrates the Temple not only as the centre of Jewish life,but as something much more.It proclaims that even foreigners and eunuchs -those by definition excluded from the inheritance of Israel - will be drawn to God in this holy place. The house of prayer will be open to all those seeking God,as he promises to ‘gather still others …beside those already gathered.’ By the time of Jesus,this promise had been reduced to a begrudging agreement by the Jewish leaders that foreigners would be allowed to come and pray in the outer courts of the temple -on condition that they never strayed further in.But this was the very space,of course,which devout Jews passed through on their way to pray and make offerings.In their longing to get to the inner courts,where God would surely meet with them,they would use these outer courts to change money,buy animals for the sacrifice and generally engage in pre-and post-worship transactions. Was this the source of the anger of Jesus -that the very place intended to draw outsiders into the presence of God was overwhelmed with the noise and nonsense of insiders passing through?Was it that a space that was intended to be holy and offer hope had become commercialised, offering only corruption?
That the sacred silence in which the excluded might reach out to their God was lost in the tumult of moneymaking? If this is the case,then there is much to anger Jesus in the public spaces of our 21st Century lives.Where ordinary peo- ple might otherwise seek the silence of God,we are hounded by the hawking of commercial interests.At a High School in the United States recently,a girl was suspended for being improperly dressed. The school had signed a sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola,and the girl ’s crime,on “Coke Day ”,was to wear a Pepsi T-shirt. Is it time for the Church to make a stand for sacred silence and seek-out the places,in our ordinary world,where a house of prayer might be built? If so,the Internet might well be an important space to start.I suggest this for two reasons.*The first is that the Net is set to become,at least in the developed world,the foundational social space of much of our lives.‘The Internet,specifically the Web ’writes Tim Berners-Lee,‘is moving from appearing as a neat application to being the underlying information space in which we communicate,learn, compute,and do business.’If the church has been slow to catch up with this development,then the time is right for change. Of all the places in the world in need of missionaries,Cyberia is an important and demanding destination.
*The second reason is that the Internet already is,for many people,confessional space.There is an ‘anonymous intimacy ’in web surfing that can draw out both the best and the worst in individuals.The space encourages both spiritual exploration and self-exposure.Crass commercialism has become the dominant theme of today ’s Internet, but beneath the surface there remains the deeper and more personal purpose of spiritual quest. The Internet may be a multi-media mall,but it is also the closest the 21st century comes to a cathedral.It is for many a place of pilgrimage,an interactive milieu of intimate strangers.For the western world,there is probably no more urgent missionary need than the reclaiming of this holy ground.What might it take to turn the tables on the net-traders;to foster worship on the web and make the Internet ‘a house of prayer for all the nations?’