God in the fast lane

June 15, 1994|By A. James Rudin

HERE'S HOW religious life will look in the fast lane of the electronic information superhighway . . .

* A clergyperson's sermon is E-mailed to members of the congregation. Members, also known as "subscribers," are those people who link their computers, modems, and TVs to a particular synagogue or church. Members pay a fee for this service that is divided between the congregation and communications companies.

Electronic congregations are not limited to a neighborhood or city. Worldwide membership is the norm, and simultaneous translations are offered for subscribers, but one thing remains constant: Clergy still get reactions to their sermons. Only now they come by E-mail:

"Good but not great. You were better with Moses at Mount Sinai. Keep trying. I look forward to next week's message."

"Sorry to tell you, but your predecessor did much better with the same theme, but thanks anyway for sending me your sermon."

"We've never met, but your sermons have helped me over some rough spots in life. Right now I'm having trouble with my two adult children. They live far away and never fax me or send me E-mail. What should I do? Please help. Send me your advice as soon as possible on my computer."

* A congregational choir performs in a television studio. Only technicians are present, and there is no audience.

The choir sings the holiday liturgy many, many times until the TV producers are happy. Then the tape is carefully edited and sent via cable to congregational members for private viewing.

The choir's performance is available for home viewing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but the religious music must compete for attention with thousands of movies, sporting events, newscasts, and, of course, pornographic TV programs. Religion is in a highly competitive informational-entertainment marketplace.

* Rabbis, priests and ministers are always made up for TV appearances. Like other TV performers, the clergy must look good for the cameras. The dark robes that were previously worn at services are discarded for more colorful ones. Rabbis' skull caps and prayer shawls appear in every hue. After all, religious personalities need to be "viewer friendly" to attract a wide audience.

* A terminally ill hospital patient sends a fax to a clergyperson. The handwriting is faint and the letters are poorly shaped, but the words are clear: "I am dying. I want to pray before God takes me. I look forward to your immediate reply. Hurry."

Fortunately, the desperate message finds the clergyperson in the office, and the traditional prayer of confession recited by a dying person is quickly faxed back to the hospital room. But it arrives after the patient has died.

A nurse sends this fax message to the clergyperson: "Sadly, your congregational member died before receiving your prayer. But I was standing near the bed just moments before the death, and we heard the bell ring on the fax machine. We both knew it was a message coming from you. The patient at least heard the bell, and was comforted knowing that you were concerned. Thank you."

* A congregant requests a particular clergyperson to officiate at the person's funeral. But at the time of death the designated rabbi, priest or minister is 3,000 miles away attending a conference. Not to worry.

A service with an appropriate personal eulogy is rapidly taped and sent back home via satellite. The funeral service is shown on a large silver screen in the synagogue or church, and it is also made available via cable TV to friends and family around the country who cannot personally attend. A shorter taped service of interment led by the clergyperson is used at the graveside. Cemeteries provide TV monitors for mourners on such occasions.

* Youngsters receive their religious education at home via TV and E-mail. The term "Sunday School" no longer has any meaning since students can tune in or tune out of teaching material at any time. And, of course, they never meet their fellow students or teachers in person. Everything is done electronically.

* And, finally, synagogue and church buildings are archaic symbols of the past. Interactive religious services are now conducted in TV studios, and members can view the event live or see a replay at a more convenient time. Youth group meetings, adult education classes, board meetings . . . everything is done by TV, fax or E-mail.

To turn on one's electronic equipment is considered a profound religious act. Welcome to the brave new world!

A. James Rudin is national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.

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