|By Steve Tomkins, December 1998
It's hard to believe, but the Ship of Fools Bulletin Board has only been in existence since last 17th July. Since that date several thousand messages have been posted on almost 200 threads. Stephen Tomkins, regular provocateur on the Board, took a gruelling trawl through five months worth of posts to offer the rest of us a brief history of the Bulletin Board.
YOU CAN SAY what you want about Ship of Fools (you probably do anyway). But where else in the world or anywhere at all would you find an informed, compassionate discussion about Christian attitudes to homosexuality running alongside a passionate and equally well-informed debate about nose-picking in the Bible? If you know the answer, keep it to yourself.
Five long months ago, the Ship of Fools monthly newsletter had an announcement:
'We're about to replace the Letters Page with a Bulletin Board. This will make it easier for people to post messages, set their own agendas for discussion, talk to each other, make embarrassing spelling mistakes in public, etc... We see this as a major step forward in finding out who you are and hearing your thoughts on the great and small issues of the day.'
You might have been forgiven for thinking it would just be a place for people to say: 'Hello, my name's Mallory and I'm from Kettering! I'm completely mad!!?!??!' Or at least I hope so, because I did.
It all turned rather different, and seriously good news.
THE VARIETY OF discussion has been quite amazing. But more on that in a minute (depending how fast you read, of course).
The one thing that struck me most, trawling through all the old threads in order to write this stuff, was what a phenomenal amount there was. There really is a hell of a lot of it. It took weeks simply to flick through the good bits. Just imagine if all that time and effort had been put into something worthwhile.
It seems that people found a place to talk.
So, we had plenty of good old way out of it abstract theology about whether God is in time, and if not what he's late for. And about whether God controls everything cosmic nanny versus absentee landlord.
We had a trawl through the pages of Holy Scripture looking for rude words. We called in all the ship's resident Bible scholars for an exhaustive study of biblical flatulence.
Then we had people putting theology to the novel use of trying to work out the best thing to do in real life. Relationship break-ups, abuse and forgiveness, bereavement, and being beaten up by deacons.
Many people have even felt safe enough to share seriously personal experiences of such stuff though not always finding themselves quite as safe as they thought. Stories moving, enlightening, thought-provoking, enraging, heartbreaking, and of course hilarious, banal and stupid.
AS SOMEONE WHO works for a church, it's been quite a spine-chilling revelation to hear the stories of people rejected by churches over the years. But then to hear that they somehow managed to keep hold of God despite all our best efforts, is something else again.
In fact, I imagine it must be quite something for the good folks who set up the BB to see that it's become a virtual church for many people. A welcoming and caring community for mulling over questions about God and people and pretty much everything else and sharing lives.
'You folks', someone said, 'are more accepting of me than any pastor or priest I have dared to approach.'
Another person wrote: 'This BB manages to do something that I don't think I have ever seen. It is a forum where Christians of many different traditions and points of view are actually listening to others' opinions with humility, willing to review why they hold a particular view.'
Anything like this is shaped entirely by the contributions of individuals. So when one shipmate gave us the benefit of his monumental obsession with speaking in tongues as the answer to any conceivable question, it meant that for quite a while every single thread was side-tracked into the same issue. Monomania about glossolalia.
But then that gave rise to some very interesting experiments in typing in tongues. The product happily turned out to be Welsh obscenities.
Over the longer term, it's difficult to know who's responsible for the worrying number of conversations that end up being about The Toilet and other related issues (so to speak).
THE SHAPE OF things to issue forth was prophetically foreshadowed by one very early thread. Starting with the pretty hot topic of whether the early Jesus was guilty of racism, it glided in one graceful movement into the subject of taking your own paper into public lavatories. Perfect.
There's a seriously educational side to this, though. Did you know that St Augustine claimed to know people who 'have such command of their bowels that they can break wind continuously at pleasure, so as to produce the effect of singing.' Or translated into modern English: 'Ere, I know this bloke who can fart the National Anthem.' The Blessed Augustine remembers his lager drinking days.
And here's my favourite irony. There were these massive, ever-multiplying threads about tolerance. Impassioned debate between fiery conservatives and furry liberals, about whether we're all too tolerant, or whether tolerance is the best thing in the whole world ever. And of course it gave rise to more vitriol and intolerance than any other subject on the board. Ho ho ho.
Meanwhile, in the science department, there was an impressive debate on the possibility of computer-generated human evolution. Spawn-U-like kind of thing. Sounds a jolly good idea, of course, but I gather the verdict was that it wouldn't work. I can't really make any fatuous comments beyond that as I didn't understand a word of it.
And back in the theology department, another valuable project was under way. From somewhere in the cyber-heavens, 'The Apocalypse of St Alex' appeared. A flurry of scholarly posturing and textual criticism ensued, and eventually we were left with an academically sound result: the entire 13 verse epic was reduced to one authentic saying of the true St Alex, that wasn't even in the original 'Mmm, fish.'
ANOTHER BUSY DEPARTMENT of the BB was Mission to Non-Existent Species. Those concerned threw themselves into producing a harmonization of the Bible and 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy', and into the issues involved in translating it into Vogon. Which it then turned out would be pretty pointless, as the Vogons would have Babel fish in their ears.
Someone also pointed out that biblical Christianity is a lot closer to the religion of Viltvodle VI than hitherto realized. The Jatravartids there firmly believe that the entire universe was sneezed out of the nose of a being called Great Green Arkleseizure, and of course live in perpetual fear of a time they call 'The Coming of the Great White Handerkerchief'.
According to such texts as Exodus 15: 8 'At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up...' they're not far wrong.
The event that will haunt the Editor for all eternity is the obituary that, due a case of mistaken identity, was written for a BB regular who was merely away for the weekend. It was devastatingly unfortunate, and yet you have to admit there was something very Ship of Fools about it...
WHAT ELSE? Reports of prophetic pictures of frogs and umbrellas in church. And of Rev Ian Paisley laying into the Scout movement. Scatological messiahs. Plans for a theological theme pub The Everlasting Arms. Paperback philosophizing about whether a sinless man would sin by saying: 'I have sinned'. Some pretty cool online, and even offline (for those who remember where that is) friendships happening.
There was even a rather surreal and shortlived discussion about whether there was a better website than Ship of Fools somewhere.
And a rib-shatteringly funny parody of the Footprints story. A thorough analysis of the Alpha Course, which developed into an entirely inaccurate and unnecessary, yet ultimately fulfilling, character assassination of Nicky Gumbel.
The priceless and the worthless. With a pretty thin dividing line, usually. People from Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches of 100 different colours, and people from nothing of the kind. People from places as different as Scotland.
Picking out highlights is all very subjective, of course. Which is my way of apologising for missing out the best bits.
If you think you remember who said each of the quotes above, and in which thread, send the answers on an e-postcard, marked, 'I Have Too Much Spare Time', to anyone but us.
As the blessed St Bob Hoskins once said: 'It's good to talk.' And as the diminutive Cockney actor who used to advertise British Telecom, St James (hang on, am I getting muddled here?), said: 'It's good to listen'.