- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009

John Wycliffe made waves in the 14th century when he created the first English translation of the Bible. Today, religious dialogue is being translated daily into the language of online users.

At the forefront of this paradigm shift is a public-relations agency called Global Tolerance Ltd., which describes its communications work as “positively different.”

Global Tolerance created Faithbook, a group on Facebook, to promote interreligious dialogue in a forum that welcomes users of all faith traditions to form friendships, hold discussions and move toward a shared understanding of one anothers’ beliefs.

“A major problem churches face is how to stay relevant and engaging in today’s culture,” said Global Tolerance managing director Simon Cohen. “Faithbook achieves this because it allows users to speak in their own voice to peers and begin discussions on faith that matter personally to them.”

Discussion prompts are posted by users, such as reactions to Tarif Khalidi’s newly published Koran translation, faith in the context of financial crisis, and conversion experiences.

Faithbook has almost 3,000 members and is growing daily. The site has been self-regulated by users. In its two years, Global Tolerance has never had to delete a comment, Mr. Cohen says.

Faithbook can tackle extremism because real believers are given the chance to correct misconceptions about their faith in real time,” he said.

The instantaneous, conversational feedback provided by social media such as Facebook and Twitter has marked the major shift into a new era of interreligious dialogue.

Mr. Cohen was in Washington last month lecturing on the interfaith movement and how to employ Mohandas Gandhi’s message of nonviolence in a post-Sept. 11 world. He talked about being uncomfortable with terminology that was used to describe Islam in the media, such as “Islamo-fascist” and “Muslim extremists.”

He gave a hopeful message that instead of complaining about negativity and misrepresentations of faith in the press, social media gives everyone the chance to “be the change you want to see in the media.”

Yet just as Wycliffe was met with confrontation for translating from the Latin Vulgate to the people’s language of English, some might be queasy about religion entering the world of LOLs and tweets.

“For better or worse, the Internet is playing a definitive role in the way our generation looks at faith,” Mr. Cohen said. “The Bali bomber, Imam Samudra, said, ‘The Internet is now the most important method of spreading jihad.’ Now Faithbook can be used in a positive way to promote debate and tolerance.”

One of the discussions on Faithbook prompted the question, “Why is Faithbook necessary?” A user named “Tim” responded, “I had never actually met a Muslim until I was around 25 years old. … the little I did learn, now and then, came from newspapers and hearsay. So the mental picture I had of Islam was very fragmentary, second-hand and inaccurate.

“Very few have the chance to discuss their beliefs with a variety of people who hold other beliefs to the extent that we understand enough of what’s different and what’s alike that we can all avoid tragic misunderstandings and live together,” Tim wrote.

Social-media conversations often have been criticized for condensing religion into inspirational quips and pop theology. Can the tradition, depth and complexity of a faith tradition be captured by a Facebook post or a 140-character tweet?

“Twitter isn’t responsible for the dumbing down of religion; we are,” Mr. Cohen said. “Technology is a tool, and Twitter is a conversation. The degree of complexity is the degree to which we are willing to share.”

At his Georgetown University presentation, Mr. Cohen showed a slide that read, “Church of Twitter: a place for everyone to preach.” Interreligious dialogue within social networking demonstrates 21st-century progress from a past of authoritative discourse in which religious leaders had exclusive access to holy books and the faith conversation.

Today, instead of the media dictating what the public thinks about a certain religious tradition, Faithbook users can discover in real time the actual language of believers in that tradition and respond with questions.

“Instead of complaining about misrepresentation and sensationalizing in the media about religion, you can ask yourself, ‘How am I texting? What am I posting?’ Mr. Cohen said. “Social media can help us turn ‘the other’ into ‘brother.’ “

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