I Got My Religion Online

Moments after being dismissed from my first Mass ever, I raced on loafer'd feet to the local university library. There, having installed myself behind one of the public access computers, I logged on to my favorite message board, clicked furiously until I reached the religion forum, and started a thread to announce my conversion. The title (which I thought very clever at the time): "Okay, God: Make Me Pure." 

For the next hour, I swiveled impatiently in my chair as the love-bombing commenced. One by one, they all posted: the Jersey girl; the Florida girl; the retired cop; the Baptist convert; his wife, the re-vert. Most touchingly, some friendly mainstream Protestants and a Pentecostal PM'd me their wishes for a happy eternal life. 

It was the cyber-social event of the decade; I gloated as I marched the three miles home, my car having broken down irreparably some weeks earlier. 

Maybe that sounds like escapism? Our debased age's answer to the opium binge? Pope Benedict would take a gentler view. Last January, he gave online social networking a cautious plug. "Entering cyberspace can be a sign of an authentic search for personal encounters with others," he declared. For balance, he added, "The Gospel demands to be incarnated in the real world and linked to the real faces of our brothers and sisters, those with whom we share our daily lives."

His Holiness gets it—mostly. I do wonder whether he knows just how great an improvement cyber life can represent over the other kind, or how authentic online encounters can be. True, if St. Francis de Sales had spent all day IM-ing St. Jeanne-Françoise de Chantal, he'd have had no time to convert the Calvinists. But for those of us whose vocation is less easily discernable, the ‘net can be exactly that: a net, over the abyss, and even a path toward the light. 

In late 2003, when I first found the board, I wasn't looking for God. I was looking for wit. That's the first thing you miss if you're a disgraced former grad student, earning his crust of bread closing mortgages, among people who mistake reality shows for reality and fantasy football leagues for culture. "Play us or trade us!" My higher-reasoning faculties shouted each morning as I gulped down my Red Bull and opened Excel.

So great was my desperation that I felt no surprise, only relief, at finding the wit I sought on a right-wing discussion board, in the religion forum, and among the Catholics. Before Ted Haggard's fall and Rick Warren's rise, a certain section of American Bible Christianity was feeling its bloodiest and most thunderous. Members of the board's fundamentalist contingent approached religious debate as they would a drunken game of Spades. Raise any objection in discussion and they'd slap down scripture verses like trump cards. Bam! How you like me now, sucka? For me, whose literary tastes ran to Philip Roth and Joe Queenan, it was a daunting sight. 

The Catholics were less easily impressed. From their sleeves spilled quotes from Irenaeus, Ignatius of Antioch, and Justin Martyr that their opponents could not but read and weep.

And they showed such panache. One Marquette grad (who, it must be noted, had drifted into gnosticism) capped off a link-heavy post too detailed for me to summarize by demanding, "Anyone want to quote John 3:16 to that?" He sounded like he was training an Uzi on a bank teller.

Impossible to miss, though, was the good humor with which Catholics regarded themselves and their faith. They treated the Gnostic not as a dangerous subversive, but as a slightly louche hero—their side's own Jean Lafitte.Once, in a discussion of the early martyrs, I extemporized these verses:

Polycarp, Polycarp

Oh, Poly- Poly-Poly-

Polycarp! 

Ba dum bum bum 

Call my baby Polycarp,

Tell you why:

He wrote a letter to Philippi;

Told them to be steadfast in their faith,

So they tried to burn him at the stake.

And nobody threatened to burn me.

But if I came for the bravado, I stayed for the community. Yes, the board's regulars, whatever their faith, exemplified that hardest-to-define of all Catholic concepts. They were not, generally, intimate friends. Yet their relationships, unlike those among co-workers, were more than strictly pragmatic. They were like the wallpaper on one another's lives: constant, generally pleasing, and worth a little maintenance from time to time. 

Just when I had appointed myself mascot to the Mystical Body of Christ, two things happened. First, I slipped further down the occupational ladder. After escaping subprime for an online university's enrollment department, I soon learned that education was no easier to sell than 2/28 ARMs. I ended up working on the ramp for a major airline at coolie wages, tramping off to work every day in grease-stained Dickies and steel-toed boots. This made me submerge myself even deeper in my online existence. There's nothing like a brisk debate on child sacrifice in Carthage to scrub a man's nose of the burnt coffee in the break room.