On-line Easter, 'cyber-Seder' are set

April 14, 1995|By David Plotnikoff | David Plotnikoff,Knight-Ridder New Service

In the virtual world, there are on-line services and then there are on-line services.

The Prodigy system is about to launch the first test of wired worship -- with an interfaith Easter service on Sunday and a sixth-night Passover Seder Wednesday night. The on-screen observances, to be held in Prodigy's real-time "chat" area, are aimed at those who either can't or won't get away from the keyboard long enough to attend traditional services.

What makes these two cyber-chats different from all others? Religious leaders from the Rev. Billy Graham to New York Cardinal John O'Connor have participated in on-line forums before, but this week's events are billed as the first true religious ceremonies to be held on the digital frontier.

"This is a very efficient way to bring faith to a lot of people," says Carol Wallace, spokeswoman for the 2 million-subscriber computer service. "We've seen the strength of on-line communities in times of crisis, such as the L.A. earthquake and the Gulf War. And we've seen how popular religion is in our chat areas. We think it's natural that religious communities would have a strong interest in meeting here during their holiest days."

Sunday's interfaith Easter service will be led by the Rev. Paul Keenan of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York and Presbyterian minister Byron Shafer. The two have teamed up for many similar ecumenical events off-line.

"It won't be a Catholic Mass. It won't be a Eucharistic service. But it will be a bona-fide service," said Father Keenan, who hosts regular Tuesday chat sessions on the service. "We'll have an invocation, a call to prayer and some readings from the Bible. And we'll share a homily and a meditation -- all text-based, of course."

Although Prodigy has the capacity to provide two-way interactive links to up to 20,000 members simultaneously, Father Keenan says this first service won't have much interactivity to it.

"We're really planning this as a 'read-only' deal for now," he says.

Couldn't the new digitally aided divinity be construed as another sign people are becoming more isolated from their real communities?

"Our job as church leaders is to reach people wherever they are and take them to some better place. I see this as a way of reaching people and encouraging them to get out beyond their walls and help society," Father Keenan says.

Unlike the Easter service, Wednesday's Seder will feature a significant interactive element. After the 20-minute, lightning-fast Seder, there will be a 40-minute question-and-answer session.

"This isn't intended to replace the traditional Seder," says Dru Greenwood, director of outreach for the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which is sponsoring the ceremonial meal. "For people who are not able to be with family or are isolated from the Jewish community, this should be one way to feel connected."

The Seder, to be led by Rabbi Larry Hoffman, a professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College, will probably be more of an educational exercise than a ritual.

"We're calling it a cyber-Seder -- a model Seder," says Rabbi Greenwood. "People can read through the Haggada [the story of Exodus] and see what happens. It will be basically a skeleton of the real [ceremony]. Without sound, obviously we'll just have to say things like 'Here comes a song . . .' "

But is the bare-bones model a real Seder?

"Absolutely," Rabbi Greenwood says. "We're on theologically solid ground. Unless you sit down around the table with the matzo and the other elements, this is a demonstration. But users could perform all the elements of a real Seder along with this -- quickly. It'll be really interesting to find out what they actually do."

The idea of using new technologies to bring ancient rituals into the home is anything but revolutionary.

"It sounds to me as if they're extending the notion of the radio and television services, which is actually a very traditional type of outreach," says the Rev. Paul Soukup, a Jesuit priest who teaches in the communications department at Santa Clara University and frequently advises the U.S. Catholic Conference on communications issues.

"There's a long tradition for American Christianity of using broadcast for religious service. And the very nature of the on-line medium means this could be interactive in a way other media is not. I'd be concerned if this kept people from real communities. But I'm hopeful it could be the starting point for some great discussions that would actually involve people more," he says.

It would be premature to even guess at the long-term impact of wired worship. For now, the sponsors and participants are simply relishing the chance to inject a little levity into the solemn rituals.

"We're telling everyone bring your matzo and your wine and have a good time," says Rabbi Greenwood. "We're having great fun with this already. We keep saying things like, 'Don't drip your 10 [ceremonial] drops into the keyboard!' "

Father Keenan is asked if he'd ever considered how to deliver a communion wafer on-line. After he finishes laughing, he deadpans: "I'm more concerned with the on-line collection plate. I suppose we could leave that to Prodigy's billing department."

So Father, is god(at)heaven.org answering e-mail? "Good question," says Father Keenan. "It'd probably have to be god (at)prodigy.com"

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