Online Religion II: Net Wits Set Free

All Quentin Schultze did was run the "Top 15 Biblical Ways to Acquire A Wife" in his online "Internet For Christians" newsletter.

No. 1 was: "Find an attractive prisoner of war, bring her home, shave her head, trim her nails and give her new clothes. Then she's yours (Deuteronomy 21: 11-13)." No. 2: "Find a prostitute and marry her (Hosea 1: 1-3)." And so forth.

The problem was that the Calvin College professor's decision to run the list in three installments caused a cyber riot. Legions of readers fired back digital demands for items six through 15.

At that point in March, the "Internet For Christians" site on the World Wide Web already was being used 5,000 times a day, while thousands read copies and copies of copies via e-mail. Before the "Ways to Acquire A Wife" rush was over, the incoming messages "fried" the software that controlled the newsletter.

"That was like the last domino," said Schultze, who recently revamped his newsletter to handle the load. "That told us we had created a real community, of some kind. ... It also told us that humor was a key to establishing that sense of community."

Modern humor takes many forms -- from the crass broadsides of network TV to gentle winks that cue friends' inside jokes. However, it's more common to hear people joke about faith at the dinner table than on the Tonight Show. While religion may be a funny, researchers have found that relatively few entertainers dare to prod sacred cows in the secular marketplace. It's safer to ignore religion altogether. Meanwhile, religious media tend to avoid humor that makes people squirm.

However, it appears that the Internet -- offering both global networks and personal niches -- may actually encourage funny faith.

"Everybody knows that the great masses out there have a whole different approach to life," said Rob Suggs, whose "Brother Biddle" cartoons appear on Christianity Online and in many magazines. "Normal people think a whole lot of things are funny or interesting that cautious editors don't think are funny or interesting."

Net wits can joke around all they want without the blessings of secular producers or skittish preachers. The Web features everything from gentle jokes about church life to biting theological satires. The former will appeal to anyone who frequents a pew or reads Bible stories to toddlers. The later -- much of it anonymously written -- may appeal only to those who, perhaps, grew up in Dutch Reformed Calvinist pews or face Unitarian toddlers.

Much of the religious humor in cyberspace mirrors mainstream fads. Lists are everywhere, such as the "Top 10" ways for pastors to know if their sermons are boring. (No. 4: When you dream you are preaching and wake up to discover that you are.) Another site notes that "you might go to a fundamentalist church if" women's bee-hive perms keep getting caught in the ceiling fans.

Some of best Net humor blurs the line between computers and faith. One famous example was a bogus Associated Press story saying that Microsoft's Bill Gates had bought the Catholic Church. A later story said IBM retaliated by purchasing the Episcopal Church. Many reports claim to prove that Gates is the Antichrist.

Also, with its interactive blend of text and graphics, the Web is a natural home for cartoonists.

Dennis Hengeveld's "Reverend Fun" site on the Gospel Communications Network combines modern and biblical images, such as a cartoon showing Satan glaring at a beeping smoke detector on the ceiling of hell. Suggs has allowed his readers to offer punch lines and characters to expand on the themes previously explored in books such as "Preacher From The Black Lagoon."

"I think we're about to see a whole new approach to humor and, maybe, media in general," said Suggs. "Things are starting to bubble up from people out there on the Net, instead of just coming from the people who are used to calling the shots. We're all going to have to listen and learn."