Boston Filter's Maura Welch - a never-fail source of quirky stories - has done it again with a brief on an Israeli company called POIP (Pray Over Internet Protocol). Here's Maura:
Can't make it to the holy land in person? An Israeli startup called POIP (Pray Over Internet Protocol) makes it possible for you to broadcast your prayers over the Internet. The company sells phone cards that allow you to record your prayers in your own voice and then send them via Internet phone and webcam speakers to places like the Western Wall or the Sea of Galilee. The company's chairman says it's a better deal than buying a lottery ticket. "It's just $5 or $10, and you get eternal life."
Well, talk about a compelling value proposition. Plus a pretty safe bet for POIP, given that they'll never really have to make good on any money-back guarantees now, will they?
But wait, there are even more benefits. On the POIP web site there's a header that reads Pray Over IP & save. They don't specify where the savings comes from, but I guess it could be either saving on a trip to Israel you don't have to take, or saving your immortal soul. Wow! That's some ROI.
POIP has certainly thought a lot of things in their business model through, and when it comes to ways to get your prayer across, they leave no stone uncast. According to their web site, you can use a phone (a VoIP phone, presumably) to make a recording of a prayer in the language of your choice, which is then "delivered to the Holy City of Jerusalem and will be heard in as it was recorded using your own voice!"
If you don't like the sound of your own voice - and who does? - you can key in your prayer, which is "converted automatically to a person's voice that will be heard in the Holy City of Jerusalem." (I wonder how real a person's voice it is, or will it sound like one of those atonal sci-fi voices...'Ah-ten-shun-the-doors-will-now-be-clo-zing.' ('Make that gates-of-heh-ven-will-now-be-clo-zing.'))
Further, you can send a video that POIP will play for you, or mail a letter that they'll deliver to, Jerusalem.
I wonder if the folks at POIP do any quality control to make sure that people aren't sneaking in the wrong sorts of prayers - things along the lines of 'may bad things befall my enemies." And do they make sure that people don't record something in gibberish just to make fun of the whole thing. Or slip in a prayer that people come to their senses and not let the pay-to-pray folks at POIP prey on the vulnerabilities of those who think that this is really the path to eternal life.
But I suppose that if you want to get cute, it's a case of buyer be-damned. You want to play around here with false prayers and gibberish, hey, it's your eternal soul, not POIP's. You pay your money and you take your chances. Want to mess with The Big Guy, well, have at it.
POIP's web site also has web-cams of a number of different places in Israel, and I think that you can direct your prayer - in whatever format - to any of these sites. (The web cams actually do make a lot of sense to me. I'm quite sure that people who will never have the opportunity to visit Israel draw comfort from being able to view places that are sacred to them. So why not just pray with the webcam going? Why is it better to have a recording played at the site?)
A few years ago, I read about a service through which you could send a written prayer request to Israel, and someone would run it over to the Wailing Wall and tuck it in a crack for you - an idea that actually doesn't seem to me to be all that odd. POIP's services may just be a high-tech extension of that business concept, but they strike me as infinitely odder.
All this techie-ness around something as personal and, largely, private, as prayer is exceedingly weird to me. Call toll free and record your prayer...Click here for a pin code...24/7 web-cams. POIP also has a place on their web site that talks about their partnership program, that doesn't sound on the surface all that different from every other techie partnership program I've been involved in. The exact details of the partnership program, however, are only available via e-mail (or maybe from the Hebrew part of the site, which is the main event).
Let Us Pray or Let Us Prey?
Who knows if these guys are on the up and up or just exploitative charlatans who are taking advantage of people's vulnerabilities and deep desires. I guess it could be both - well intentioned people using technology in a novel way to both make a buck and provide a service that they believe will be meaningful to people. Maybe my problem may just be that I just don't get how it could be meaningful.
If God is indeed everywhere, what difference does it make if your prayers - make that a recorded version of your prayers, in your own voice or someone else's - are played in Jerusalem? Does that really make them nearer, my God, to Thee?
The POIP site doesn't specify whether both prayers - the one you make when you're recording and the one that gets replayed - count. Is there an implicit two-fer out of the deal - when you're praying live and when it's replayed? And does the offer scale? Can you request multiple replays and do they all count the same?
As I said, the whole techie-ness and business-y aspects of POIPare a little too weird for me. (Plus that it smacks of the medieval Catholic practice of selling indulgences - sort of "Get out of Purgatory quick cards" - which was outlawed by the Church.)
Then there's one of their marketing claims, that I can only describe as a bit of hyperbole if I ever saw one (the bold letters are POIP's):
We provide your soul unlimited access to holiness - try it now!
It's statements like this that lead me to believe that the POIPl people are going right over the top with misleading claims. "Unlimited access to holiness?" Huh?
What I do understand is why people want to go to Israel. Religious, historic, literary locations have a true and strong emotional appeal to most of us. (Me? I tear up at Ellis Island and the Louisa May Alcott House in Concord. ) I can even understand how someone who knew someone going over to Israel might ask them to say a prayer for them. Or even to tuck a prayer into one of those Wailing Wall crevices.
But, oh me of little faith, I just don't "get" how someone could believe that their prayers can yield better results, will matter more, if they're said - or, rather, played - in Jerusalem. From your lips to God's ear, but from your Skype account to God's ear? I just don't get it.
Maybe POIP is all very well-intentioned and sincere. Maybe I'm just way to much of a skeptic. I just pray that they're not preying on all those souls just hoping that they're prayers will be answered - and not on a VoIP phone.
Of course, it really doesn't matter, does it? The people who believe in prayer in this way will get something out of it.
The POIP people may be "inventing a need", but they certainly won't be the first ones in the history of business to create a need and exploit it.
And maybe you can serve God and Mammon.