The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth
I’m as evangelical about computers as I am about my faith,” says Rev. Canon Tony Harwood-Jones, a Sympatico subscriber who happens to be the rector of the Anglican parish of St. George Crescentwood in Winnipeg - not exactly the kind of person you expect to refer to himself as a “computer geek of the fourth order.”
Harwood-Jones adopted technology early on. The sometime jazz clarinetist (his band once opened for Louis Armstrong) bought his first PC way back in 1982 - a 64K Atari upon which he composed his weekly sermons. By 1995 he had upgraded to a modem-equipped Macintosh PowerBook and signed up for Internet service with pre-Sympatico MTS - hence the old-regime URL for his Sympatico homepage: www.mts.net/~tonyhj. Since plunging self-taught into online biblical scholarship, church administration and community outreach, Harwood-Jones has discovered the Net to be a “a great tool for parish-building.”
In the early days, Harwood-Jones surfed online Bible resources and seminal Christian literature. He downloaded scripture including the original Hebrew and Greek, plus several English versions, using their cross-searchable properties to assess shades of meaning on contentious passages. He started his own homepage, which has since grown to include family info, favourite prayers, moral contemplations and even computer-related religious jokes.
Unlike many Christian-oriented Web sites, don’t expect any fire and brimstone or pleas for cash. “If you run the word ‘Bible’ through a search engine,” Harwood-Jones points out, “you’ll come up with any number of wild-eyed evangelists trying to convert you. They figure they’ll draw in dozens of newcomers a minute - but it ain’t going to happen.” Rather, he is content to convey a reasoned, quietly passionate approach to a living faith.
As for his use of e-mail, Harwood-Jones finds it handy for co-ordinating the work of the vestry, the board of volunteers who run church business. He also sends out a newsletter to wired parishioners and takes appointments for spiritual guidance. “No e-mail counselling though,” he says, “That has to be face to face.”
But perhaps Harwood-Jones’ biggest online project is his A Little Bible Handbook, available in its entirety on the site or in book form, which can be ordered online. When it comes to actually reading the Bible, he notes, “Most people stop at Leviticus. That’s why I created a guide to keep you from getting stuck in the boring bits.” The chapters of the Bible are hyperlinked to Harwood-Jones’ capsule descriptions of the major events and their spiritual significance. Especially enlightening are his prefatory comments about the diverse circumstances of the Bible’s original authors, and how centuries of retelling invariably distort the original meaning.
Amazingly, Harwood-Jones has done all of this work with a computer whose built-in modem runs at a glacial 9.6 Kbps. He remains loyal to the Mac he has affectionately dubbed “Thomas,” after a number of Christian heavyweights, including Thomas à Becket, Thomas Aquinas and “Doubting” Thomas Didymus. But until he can afford his dream laptop*, he’ll lament the sites that don’t offer text-only versions. Nor will he be building a page for St. George’s as he did for his previous Winnipeg flock, St. Chad’s. “The pastor shouldn’t do the church’s site.”
Such wisdom doesn’t end there. Asked the question posed by anyone who has suffered a data-damning crash - Is God in the machine? - Harwood-Jones replies, “Absolutely. I like to quote C.S. Lewis on that: ‘The devil never invented anything in his life.’” Does that mean that prayer can help straighten out computer problems? “Praying,” he says, with utter conviction, “helps everything.”
* Since this review was written, I did get my dream laptop! Now, with more powerful hardware and software, I can see what my web designs look like in colour, and the site is beginning to evolve. Hopefully, however, it will never be difficult for those with older browsers to load! - Tony (January, 2000)