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Can Anything Good Come from the Internet?
Saint Mary of Egypt and my withdrawal from "content" culture.
“I’m really glad the internet led you to the Church. But now, I need to you to stop paying attention to it.”
I recently spoke to a presbyter who—like many parish clergy—has noticed an increase in the number of inquirers visiting his community.
And, while he’s happy about the development he—again, like many parish clergy—is honest about the challenge this presents the Church.
Because many people are approaching real Orthodox Christian communities with skewed visions of “Orthodoxy” that they develop online. And, because of the nonsense that passes for “Orthodoxy” online, parish clergy are finding it harder to form people into the Mind of Christ.
This has led some to reach out and ask why I decided to stop making videos and online content. After all, with all of the nonsense circulating in online “Orthodox” circles, don’t we need more good content to drown out the bad content?
So why is this on my mind now?
Well, on the Sunday of Saint Mary of Egypt, we celebrate a great saint who withdrew into the wilderness. And her commemoration inspired me to think about my own decision to withdraw from quite a few things in the past year:
my old job in youth and young adult ministries,
a potential new job in youth and young adult ministries, and
online “content” creating (a phrase I absolutely hate, as we’ll see).
I don’t think it’ll be fruitful to discuss the first two items—at least not publicly. But it may be helpful to explain why I decided to step back from the internet. Especially because, in the many talks I’ve offered in the past few months, a bunch of people have told me how much they miss things like Be the Bee.
So, in this blog, I’ll explore the four basic reasons I stepped back from the internet:
there are no canonical boundaries online,
online “Orthodoxy” is shaped by market forces rather than ecclesial hierarchies,
virtual, parasocial interactions lead to weird cults of personality, and
“content” only exacerbates the challenges of our Secular3 world.
Finally, I’ll offer a few thoughts on why the internet is such a dumpster fire for the American Church in particular.
But first, an important caveat…
Online Orthodoxy Isn’t All Bad
For years, I was nourished by the wise words of Father Thomas Hopko and the astute conversations of Kevin Allen. Their podcasts kept me company on the long drives between seminary in Boston and home in New York.
And they inspired me to make media an important part of our strategy when I started working for the GOARCH Department of Youth & Young Adult Ministries in June 2013. When we created Y2AM that summer, multimedia was a bit part of our strategy—we started Be the Bee in September 2013, Pop Culture Coffee Hour in December 2015, on so on.
But we had some important safeguards around that work:
we worked for a canonical Church,
our team was led by a seminary graduate appointed to the role,
we avoided personal attention and kept pointing people to Christ, and
we focused on supporting parishes and families rather than “content” meant for solo consumption.
In retrospect, 2013 was a simpler time. And, as the internet continues to flood with more “Orthodox” multimedia, this “content” is subject to less and less safeguards.
At this point in history, I think the internet is doing more harm than good.
Each of the safeguards I listed above correspond to the four reasons I stepped back from the internet. And we’ll take a look at them in order.
We’ll start with a quick look at the chaotic nature of online “Orthodoxy.”
Canonical Boundaries Matter
In the dismissal at the end of a service, you’ll often hear prayers to “great hierarchs and ecumenical teachers” like Saints Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, and John Chrysostom.
The Church will, in exceptional circumstances, raise up certain teachers whose words can edify all the faithful. Every seminarian reads Saints Irenaus of Lyon, Dionysios the Areopagite, and Maximus the Confessor, for example.
But these are exceptions to the norm. Because most teaching is offered by particular teachers to a particular flock.
And that’s because the two most basic words I’d use to describe the Church’s organization are local and eucharistic.
The Church is local in that, as an old saying goes, there is but one bishop in one place. And the Church is eucharistic in that this one bishop is called to lead his people in worship of the One Living God, which is the center of our one shared life together.
And inherently tied with that worship is the “opening of the Scripture,” the instruction that helps the faithful know Christ and know themselves in Christ.
In the Liturgy, for example, we pray that our bishop may continue “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). So we gather around the bishop of a particular place in a particular place, drawing closer to the One True God as we draw closer to each other in fellowship and love.
Saint Ignatius of Antioch beautifully describes this unity:
Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God. (Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Philadelphians, chapter 4).
The canons of the Church exist to give shape and structure to this local, eucharistic reality. Canon XV of the First Ecumenical Synod, for example, prohibits “either a Bishop or a Presbyter or a Deacon to go from one city to another.”
Because the clergy of the Church do not simply serve “at large” or in a detached sort of way, but are grounded in a particular group of people gathered in a particular place.
Because relationship is an integral part of formation.
And the clergy are expressly prohibited from transgressing these canonical boundaries and wandering into other places—where other bishops oversee the faithful.
A teacher’s words may be given ecumenical weight, but even such rare figures began as local teachers of a particular flock. Before we read him at seminary in Boston in the 2010s, Saint Irenaus was the bishop of Lyon in the 2nd century.
So why do I mention these canons and basic principles?
Because they’re impossible online.
The internet is neither local nor eucharistic. Online interactions are centered, not on the shared Table presided over by the bishop, but on influence. And this influence carries far and wide, regardless of canonical and diocesan boundaries.
I’m not even talking about the self-appointed teachers I’ve complained about before. Even where a teacher has been called and ordained to preach, the internet broadcasts those messages to anyone and everyone around the world. And that stands in stark contrast with the spirit behind Canon XV of the First Ecumenical Synod, for example.
Precisely because the Church is local, an outside teacher can’t simply walk into a diocese and start preaching.
Except, thanks to the internet, that’s precisely how it works. Because anyone—from the validly ordained to the deludedly self-proclaimed—can start preaching anywhere.
And what kind of preaching tends to attract attention?
Unfortunately, it’s usually the wrong kind because market forces rather than ecclesial hierarchy gets to define “Orthodoxy” online…
Who Defines Orthodox Christian Doctrines?
“Do you have any idea how demeaning this job is?” he complains. “Night after night, I’m the one out of everyone in the room who knows the most about comedy and I’ve got to win your approval.”
I think about the joke every time I think about internet “Orthodoxy.” Because, while the Church has historically depended on hierarchs to “rightly divide the work of truth” in their dioceses—and for those hierarchs to gather in councils to address larger issues that arise—things work differently on the internet…
Online, we don’t don’t approach the Church based on ecclesial hierarchy. Instead, we define “Orthodoxy” based on our individual, self-defined criteria.
Remember our observations about authority last week: here in Secular3, meaning is something the individual gets to create for himself. Rather than obey persons and institutions with inherent authority, the individual is the sole authority.
We’ve seen this repeatedly over the past few years. When bishops instructed the faithful to wear masks when gathering for worship, many people rebelled. Rather than simply obey their hierarch, they chose to leave their parish—if not their diocese entirely.
Because, in our postmodern age, individual preference governs.
I don’t want to do X, so I’m going to find a church where I’m not asked to do X.
It’s also why people flock to online influencers that traffic in outrage and scandal…
Does it matter that these influencers aren’t blessed by a bishop to teach? Does it matter that they don’t get invited to teach at seminaries or preach in parishes?
Of course not!
So our broken, individual preferences build platforms for people who would never receive any authority in a local, eucharistic community. The market rewards people who would never be invested with ecclesial authority.
Which leads to some weird consequences…
Parasocial Interactions and Cults of Personality
I’ll never forget the first time someone asked me for my autograph.
It was in the summer of 2014, less than a year after “Be the Bee” premiered. And I was manning our Y2AM booth at the GOARCH Clergy Laity Congress in Philadelphia.
A bunch of teenagers came to the booth to meet me. And one of them asked for my autograph.
To my eternal shame, I obliged.
But that shame helped us set important boundaries. Because, while online content creation (more on that shortly) was a big part of our work, we created safeguards to help us avoid falling into the trap of online culture.
Digital media can lead people who consume that media to develop a parasocial relationship with the personalities they watch or listen to. It pushes Christ to the side and puts the influencers squarely at the center, keeping eyes and ears on him—rather than Him.
So we created a few rules for ourselves:
everything leads to Christ and only to Christ;
no autographs or other “celebrity” interactions;
no fan pages or online interactions centered on a personality or audience cultivation (live streams, chats, etc); and
no materials designed for individual—rather than communal—use.
That last one was particularly important. Because even Christian media (again, more below) is designed around postmodern, Secular3 conceptions of the human person.
Media is designed to be consumed by the individual in isolation from others, facilitating parasocial relationships with influencers rather than Christ-centered relationships in local, eucharistic communities.
You often see this in online chatter about why people “convert” (another self-directed, Secular3 way of approaching the Church). They’re far more likely to point to their influencer of choice rather than, you know, a love of Christ.
Which seems like a problem…
To avoid that risk in our own work, we decided that we didn’t want people watching Be the Bee on their own, for example. We wanted people to watch Be the Bee in youth group or catechism class or with family. We decided that the media we created needed to bring people together in Christian community rather than reduce them to consumers of digital content.
If Be the Bee was a path that led people into the Church, we wanted people to be motivated by Christ rather than the online persona of “Steve.”
But, given our postmodern assumptions, it’s very easy for people to fall into those parasocial relationships even when safeguards are in place. So, after a decade of making digital content for the Church, I realized that the best thing we could as Orthodox Christians is stay way from the internet and double down on local, eucharistic community.
I realized that the best “content” I could make would simply show what it looks like to walk away from “content” and towards Christ.
Because, no matter how hard we try, content creation inherently plays into the broken assumptions that lead to broken ministry…
“Content” and Secular3 Christianity
As I implied above, the materials we made at Y2AM bore (mostly, I hope) good fruit because they challenged the atomistic anthropology at the heart of our Secular3 age.
In our postmodern world, humans are individuals who belong to themselves and create meaning for themselves. And “content” is fodder for this atomistic anthropology.
Postmodern man consumes this material alone—his eyes glued to his screen rather than to another human face, his ears plugged by earbuds and flooded with digital noise.
But human beings are not isolated individuals. We are persons. And, as such, we do not belong to ourselves.
Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price… (1 Corinthians 6:20).
And we are called to live neither by nor for ourselves, but in loving community that is governed by a sacred order.
That’s why, when we made an episode of Be the Bee, for example, we did so with the blessing of the hierarchs of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. And when a parish used that episode in a catechism class or Sunday School, they did so based on the canonical authority of the presbyter guiding his local community with the blessing of his ruling bishop (whether Greek or Antiochian or OCA or whatever).
And we intentionally never cultivated fans. We avoided leading people into online pseudo-communities or creating para-church structures to compete with established ecclesial governance. Rather, we supported local, eucharistic communities according to the safeguards of good, canonical order.
Contrast this with the recently uncovered scandal of popular online influencer Father Peter Heers who, according to the Assembly of Canonical Bishops, “is not a clergyman of, or on loan to, any other canonical Orthodox jurisdiction in the United States.”
Father Peter has established a significant online presence as he’s taught on a variety of topics (including ecclesiology) to a wide audience. Yet the hierarchs of the Church—whom Father Peter has actively encouraged people to disobey under certain circumstances—have now confirmed that he has been acting and teaching “in a manner outside of the Holy Canons.”
Many fans are already rallying to Father Peter’s defense. And this shouldn’t surprise us. Here in Secular3, the individual gets to decide what “Orthodoxy” is. The individual gets to decide who correctly preaches this “Orthodoxy,” and who is worth supporting.
The individual gets to decide what “content” he will consume.
Because, here in Secular3, there is no authority outside of the individual’s will. Even if that individual chooses to identify as a “traditional” Christian, he is still acting under postmodern assumptions and beliefs.
While the internet may not have created our flawed anthropology and ecclesiology, it’s certainly not helping matters.
And, if the internet isn’t inherently bad—if the internet has actually borne good fruit in the past—I have to ask…
How Did This Happen?
A friend of mine recently attended an international conference on Orthodox Christian media word. When explaining what he learned, he offered one key takeaway:
The United States faces a unique problem.
He didn’t see the same internet wacky in other local Churches. And the main different between the US and other Orthodox Christian areas is that we lack coherent canonical order.
As we noted above, the Church is traditionally organized with a local and eucharistic structure. But here in United States, we have a variety of ethnic churches with overlapping geographies. Rather than one bishop in one place, we have many bishops in one place.
And the COVID pandemic fully unleashed the chaos of such canonic disfunction as people—with the encouragement of some “Orthodox” influencers—began to shift and self-sort.
People left parishes (and even entire dioceses) rather than obey a local hierarch who made a choice they disagreed with.
Of course, jurisdictions existed when Father Tom Hopko was recording his podcasts. But the last few years have fully revealed our ability to act as consumers faced with a variety of choices.
And we navigate these choices as residents of a Secular3 age: based on our individual choice.
The local parish—and even the Liturgy itself—have been reduced to “content” we consume on our individual terms.
One Last Word
Like the presbyter whose words started this piece, I thank God for those who somehow find a path to the Church. But I hope that path leads to analog rather than digital interactions. I hope it leads people to local, eucharistic community under the guidance of spirit-filled leaders who follow the canons in healthy, ecclesial hierarchy.
But that means coming to terms with the fact that what leads some people into the Church, especially in our Secular3 world, will not keep them in the Church.
What leads some people to “Orthodoxy” will not lead them to Christ.
And it’s the job of our hierarchs—and those our hierarchs choose to lead local, eucharistic communities—to “rightly divide the word of truth” and help all who enter the Church to grow in Christ.
To do that, we’ll need to consume something far more nourishing than “content.”
The words of Matthew the Poor seem like a fitting way to end things today:
We need to understand the significant different between a religious teacher and a spiritual servant. The first relays information; the second builds souls. The first extracts knowledge from books and places it before the student on paper. The second feeds the ones he serves from his own fullness: he shares the inner riches of his faith, his love, his self-sacrifice, and his humility. He provides genuine experiences and a living example to those he serves, for it is himself that he gives, and it is his own life that he offers. The first transmits words and concepts that he has heard externally. The second brings forth words and concepts from within, an outpouring that rises from his depths, like lava erupting from the depths of the earth. The first prepares a lesson to convince his listeners; the second labors to give birth to children in Christ. (Matthew the Poor, If You Love Me: Serving Christ and the Church in Spirit and Truth, p. 10)