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`GOOD NEWS’ IS SPREAD BY BITS AND BYTES

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The computer age is converting everyone from Baptists to witches; not to some New Age techno-worship ritual, but to the use of electronic bulletin boards for the exchange of religious or spiritual beliefs.

Computerized religion bulletin boards, covering beliefs ranging from agnosticism to Islam, have spread like wildfire during the past five years, their popularity increasing along with mainstream electronic communication.With just a computer and a modem, people can fill a void in their lives, engaging in intense but faceless debates with individuals from different backgrounds and regions in the country.

Most bulletin board discussions concern religious perspectives on contemporary issues or historical and doctrinal debates, said Mike Allen, a history professor at Brigham Young University who started a Mormon bulletin board on the Internet system.

A participant on a religious bulletin board on the network American Online initiated a debate about the worship of Mary, the mother of Jesus, with a brief comment about Mary worship and the comment "I welcome anyone's scriptural justification for this practice."

The message generated dozens of responses. One person suggested praying to Jesus only and another advocated praying to Mary to intercede on behalf of sinners.

Topics like the nature of God, abortion or eternal punishment often result in many responses for those who broach these subjects. The responses, in turn, generate additional discussion, weaving an ongoing, evolving chain of arguments.

Most messages are well-thought out, with scriptural or historic data for support, while others are merely judgmental and insulting.

Many bulletin boards prompt debate and discussion of theology; others are cooperative or friendly communications among people with similar beliefs.

Allen said that a subscriber to his "Mormon-L" bulletin board told him, "I don't know what I'd do without it - there is no one to talk to locally."

The Rev. Alan Tull, rector of St. Mary's Episcopal Church in Provo, said he uses a computer network to communicate with other rectors in Utah.

"It's a great asset because the phone interrupts what you are doing," he said. "With this, you can see your messages when you log on."

The Rev. Tull uses the network to communicate news quickly, engage in theological discussions and share ideas or interpretations of biblical passages for weekly church meetings.

"When I put down a quote, someone may say, `I agree with you,' while someone else will say, `No, I don't," he said.

While the local Episcopalian bulletin board is used by clergy, most bulletin boards are used by non-clergy people looking for advice or friendly chatting.

One individual who felt nervous about praying in church asked for advice and was told to "keep it simple" and "open your heart and let the spirit flow."

A woman who started a file entitled "Church-Free Christians" received a myriad of responses to her question about holding church meetings at home. A horrified bulletin board participant warned she could be starting the next Branch Davidian and advised her not to abandoned her formal church.

Another supported her decision to stray from organized religion and shared experiences about meeting in homes.

"With electronic bulletin boards, you get something you don't get with face-to-face meetings or seminars," Allen said. "You can be more open because the encounter is faceless."

"It broadens the circle of people you can talk to, to include national and international participants," he said.

Bulletin board users range from housewives and househusbands to professional and academic people, depending on the network, Allen said. There are more than a dozen computer networks that feature religious bulletin boards.

For example, America Online has four separate message boards - Christian, other religions, pagan/new age/philosophy and ethics and debate. Each board lists dozens of possible topics a computer user can choose from. The Prodigy system has 20 different religious bulletin boards.

Allen said that starting a bulletin board requires a powerful computer with storage and distribution capacity. Information is stored in one location and others can access the material without having it stored on their computer, he said.

Allen's "Mormon-L" bulletin board, which began three years ago, has 200 subscribers and even more readers who use networks at university libraries.