Condemned or Redeemable? Thoughts about Internet and Ministry after the #DMOPC18 Symposium

As many of you know, I have recently returned from a trip to Greece, in which I participated in the Second International Symposium on Digital Media and Orthodox Pastoral Care, held from June 18-21 at the Orthodox Academy of Crete (of Great and Holy Council 2016 fame). The symposium was organized by Pemptousia, with support from various other groups like Ancient Faith Ministries and OCN. The talks will be made available online gradually, but if you’re interested in a more “on-site” experience, make sure to check out the most recent episode from Fr. Barnabas Powell’s show Faith Encouraged LIVE–it features me, Fr. Powell, and the rest of the “North American” delegation representing Ancient Faith at this conference while we were still in the thick of the conference. Now, on with this post…

The DMOPC18 was convened at the Orthodox Academy of Crete in Kolymbari, near the large port city of Chania. Below, Gonia Monastery–not to mention the Aegean Sea and surrounding countryside–is visible from the parking lot of the academy. The complex is most famous for hosting the Great and Holy Council two years ago.

The conference has given me much to think about and I think all of the participants are still processing. I will undoubtedly have more to offer in the future, but in the meantime, here are some thoughts. I’ll start not from the beginning, but from the end–the end of my time in Greece.

After the conference, I spent another week in Greece, both on the island of Crete and in Athens. I spent my final day of the trip visiting the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens, a priceless repository of Christian historical artefacts. After spending a full seven hours walking its galleries, I finally got to the exit of the museum and assumed I was finished. “Time for a gyro!” I mused. But as I approached the exit sign, something caught my eye. It was an artistic re-rendering of the traditional Icon of the Resurrection. In this depiction, attributed to the Holy Cenobium of the Annunciation of the Mother of God in Ormylia (Greece), Christ was pulling all sorts of people from the abyss of Hades–not just Adam and Eve, but minorities, monks, prisoners, drug addicts, prostitutes, and other folks who’d clearly had their share of temporal struggles. At the bottom of the painting, among the rubble, are strewn the paraphernalia of postmodern life: computers (both a PC and Mac, mind you, see lower left corner), cell phones, junk food, drug syringes, poker chips…

The Resurrection, by Holy Convent of Annunciation, at Byzantine and Christian Museum (Athens, Greece).

It is a visual testimony to the extent of the redemption offered to us in the resurrection of Christ, and I was speechless. Also on my mind was how it seemed to sum up much of the tension I’d been contemplating since the conclusion of the DMOPC18 a week prior…

The Tension

Something that began to surface from the first session of the conference was a palpable tension between pessimistic and (if not wholly optimistic, then at least) redemptive views of digital media and its uses in the Orthodox Church. Those opting for a more optimistic or redemptive view of the internet pointed out the necessity of having a digital presence as a Church. When it comes to strictly pastoral content like sermons and informational resources, internet ministry serves an important catechetical and apologetic function. For creative content developers like myself, leveraging digital genres like blogs and podcasts allow Orthodoxy to speak and contribute to culture in ways that would otherwise be impossible. Speaking for others in the “optimist” group, while we recognize the dangers and limits of the internet, we nonetheless see it as an important tool to offer a meaningful apologia of Orthodoxy, guide believers in their spiritual formation, and ultimately connect more people to the embodied Church or other in-person encounters. In this paradigm, the internet is not an end but a means, a bridge–we seek to help people move beyond so-called “internet Orthodoxy,” and into the Church.

As you may imagine, a large contingency saw things differently. I’m labelling this the “pessimist” camp, not to denigrate them, but because that term best sums up how I interpreted their views. Speakers in this category tended to emphasize the many ways digital media is misused not only in the Church but in society at large. This included such tendencies as:

  • The dissemination of false information, news, and teachings;
  • Its role in facilitating anticlericalism and disrespect for Church authority;
  • Its implication in fostering addiction, narcissism, and consumerist attitudes, particularly in younger generations.

While the optimists acknowledge the same risks, folks in the pessimist group weighed them more heavily and thus devoted much of their time collaborating on how best to face (or avoid) them. Although I was unprepared for the amount of airtime that would be devoted to cautionary tales of the internet, the symposium was ultimately a beneficial space to wrestle with a phenomenon (the internet) whose potential for self- and community-destruction is recognized by both secularists and Christians alike.

Still, the more I began to listen to these concerns, the more I sensed the possibility for them to lead to dangerous outcomes: hopelessness, judgment, cynicism, or avoidance.

From my vantage point, this possibility came to fruition in the presentation given by Jean-Claude Larchet, whose talk petitioned the Church to formally include internet use among the items to abstain from during fasting seasons. While this idea is vital and life-giving (my own meagre Lenten effort always benefits from at least partial social media fasts), Larchet’s manner of supporting his argument was far harsher than it needed to be. During the course of his argument, he publicly remonstrated individuals in the audience for looking at screens during his talk (from my vantage point in the back of the room, I could see many were simply using their phones or computers to take notes), and argued that we should not be devoting so much effort to online ministry since most people simply use the internet for porn and gaming. Instead of demonstrating loving, pastoral concern for the human person, his statements revealed more about his own pessimistic anthropology and judgmental tendencies. I say this not to attack Larchet (and encourage you to make up your own mind by listening to his talk when it becomes available), but rather to illustrate the need for us as Orthodox Christians to always be guarding ourselves against the destructive allure of cynicism and hopelessness. When we give into those temptations, we risk judging our fellow man and implying that they are either unworthy or incapable of being redeemed.

Speaking of judging one’s fellow man, the symposium challenged me to hear people out and really listen to their concerns. Larchet’s presentation aside, I met many folks whose concerns about digital ministry initially made me feel defensive (as someone who spends much of her professional life developing online content). Yet the more questions I asked in conversation, the more I learned that not only their concern but their reticence toward the Internet as a ministry tool were worth understanding and heeding. They indicate something about what the Church is experiencing and witnessing to in a digital age.

Internet in North American versus Greek Orthodoxy

As an example of this… On the last day or two of the conference, I had several eye-opening conversations with one of my “arch nemeses” there (I say that lovingly because it is a blessing to be able to hash it out in a spirit of mutual Christian respect with someone you thought you disagreed with). Based on his explanations, it became apparent that the whole optimist-pessimist fault line largely boils down to geography and history. Folks from a North American context were far more likely to see the potential and redeem-ability of the internet since Orthodoxy here is so much more disparate and loosely assembled than in the “Orthodox bloc” countries of Europe, especially Greece. Through platforms like Ancient Faith and others, the internet has served as a crucial tool to expand and stabilize the Orthodox voice in our corner of the world. When destabilizing currents emerge in the Orthodoxy of North American internet, however destructive they can be, their impact is limited and more disparate, simply because demographically we have fewer Orthodox people–online or otherwise, destructive or not.

In the Greek context, the issues are reversed. The number of online voices in the internet of Greek Orthodoxy who seek to undermine the Church are much more numerous; they have reached a critical mass that is currently impossible in a North American context. Thus they are louder, more vociferous, and able to do real damage. This trend has been exacerbated by the reality that the Church in Greece was relatively slow to recognize and respond to the internet phenomenon, mostly because there are more local churches and it is thus easier to maintain traditional forms of communication with parishioners.

And so, although the concerns many of the Greek speakers voiced in regard to online ministry initially struck me as paranoid or unproductive, I have now realized that they are dealing with real and critical issues–that is, their concerns are not groundless. Moreover, the issues they are facing serve as a lesson for North American churches and content producers in terms of how we face the increasingly turbulent current that is online discourse. What happens when we encounter points of disagreement and discord in the Orthodox internet? What happens when people begin to live more of their faith in online venues than actually going to church? How can we craft content that reconnects people with the embodied life of faith? Can we afford to avoid the internet as a ministry tool? How do we face the undeniable reality of the growing phenomenon of addiction and consumerism? Is the message of Christ compatible with the digital environment?

These are tough but rich and important questions. Moreover, I do not think the Orthodox Church is the only one wrestling with them. At the heart of these questions or quintessential tensions about what it means to be human and to have hope in a world that is drastically changing. This is a struggle anyone alive today can relate to. As a Church, I wonder if our contribution to that struggle is not simply offering judgmental, gut-response answers, but simply providing a place of love and hope in which to wrestle and struggle to hang on to our identities as created, eternally loved, human persons.

Condemned or Redeemed?

Back to the depiction of the resurrection icon in Athens… As I stared at that piece, I realized it was unclear whether those things–the computers, the cell phones, etc.–were among the chains of death Christ had broken, or whether they were included in the swell of bodies and tombs rising up to encounter Christ in His resurrection. In other words, had they been condemned or redeemed? How far does this salvation thing extend? Are there aspects of human experience that are, unequivocally and without exception, condemned?

For me, after the DMPOC18, these are still open questions as they relate to the internet and digital media. And perhaps they should remain that way. After all, computers and cell phones are not human persons, they are not made in the image of God and thus do not bear the same dignity as a living, breathing creature. Yet, to denigrate the internet as fully beyond the reach of redemption–fully incapable of bearing any wisp of the message of salvation–constrains the saving love of Christ, and also places limits on the mandate to preach the good news to all nations.

Maybe the internet is neither condemned nor redeemed, but both. Or capable of both.  What do you think?

***

For pictures of my travels, make sure to follow me on Instagram and Flickr.

10 comments:

  1. Insofar as it is made up of inanimate technology, the internet can neither be condemned nor redeemed. Insofar as it is made up of human beings—which is the part that really matters from any spiritual perspective—the Orthodox view must surely be that it is redeemable.

    1. I kept thinking (and several times verbalized in thorn-in-the-side style) how much of a risk God the Father took in sending His Son. In a way, Christ functioned as a form of media–a mode of communicating a message. The “pessimists” advocated for in-person communication for all pastoral matters. Part of me sees the value of that but it’s simply not practical in many cases, nor is it a de facto perfect form of communication. People can misunderstand, abuse, and/or manipulate messages no matter how they encounter them. Even in the Gospel, Christ’s message was manipulated by the Pharisees in countless in-person encounters. When we denigrate certain modes of communication, we are ultimately turning our back on the people who use and attain information through those channels. That, I think, is the danger and the crux of the condemned-redeemed question.

  2. Hi Nicole

    With respect to your question: “Are their aspects of human experience that are, unequivocally and without exception, condemned?”

    An interesting frame might be: “Are there aspects of human experience that can be redeemed?” This question might be considered with respect to the apocalyptic statement: “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Rev. 21:24).

    To what extent might human learning, experience, art, know-how, technology or any other product of human thought, knowledge or artifice constitute mankind’s “glory”?

    1. Aethelwold, what a fascinating connection. I like the reframing of my question in this way. What do you think?

      I suppose it could go either way, just like anything else in life.

      One thing that is striking to me is that the conference served as a challenge to many of us who ARE active in online content creation or ministry to investigate our attitudes and behaviors regarding pride and self-aggrandizement. I do believe that seeking glory in a negative sense is a temptation, but it’s a temptation anywhere–online, at a job, preaching a homily, chanting a hymn… Can’t seem to get away from the allure of pride 🙂 The verse you bring up reminds us that in some sense, the glory of humanity is ultimately the glory of God–we can offer it back to Him as such. It also recalls to me this verse from the Psalms: “The earth is the LORD’S, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.”

  3. “Instead of demonstrating loving, pastoral concern for the human person, his statements revealed more about his own pessimistic anthropology and judgmental tendencies.”

    Nicole,

    How familiar are you with Larchet’s theological anthropology? I ask because I can’t tell if your statement above reflects a familiarity with his work in this area or is simply your impression from this one talk. I am not all that familiar with him though I have a deep interest in theological anthropology as it is at the center of THE questions of the day (the recent Met. Kallistos controversy to mention just one example). In any case if you do have a grasp of his wider work I would be interested in how you find it “pessimistic”.

    Thanks for the summation of the conference and the subject. To my mind, the Internet and all the related issues are really a subset of “secularization” or “modern life”. Your description of the divide between the “old bloc” and NA/western europe is informative I think in that both are variously struggling with secularism/modernism. Neither I think are really doing a good job with it. Orthodoxy, this Imperial Church of the East, is for various historical/geographical reasons somewhat new to secularism. My assessment is pessimistic: we are doing no better than RCism or Protestantism, we are just not as far down the road of secularization as they are because we are newer to it…

    1. Thanks Christopher! I am most familiar with his Theology of Illness, and the ways his notions of illness intersect with his anthropology. I have yet to read his other books on mental illness and the body. Although I have some minor issues with what I have read from him, that’s not what I was drawing on in my critique here–I was referring strictly to his talk. It was, in my view, largely irresponsible and unloving, especially for one claiming to have a pastoral intention. I could go into more detail but since it’s not yet online, I’d rather wait until it’s out there for other people to form their own intentions… 🙂 I do think that the notion of abstinence and fasting is a valuable one re. the internet, but I think that has to be arrived at in a loving way that ultimately upholds freewill. To go about it in a way that’s forceful, shaming, or immediately puts people on the defensive is neither loving nor helpful. There is ample evidence that shows addictions–whether to alcohol, the internet, or anything else–are fueled more than anything else by shame and isolation. I’m convinced people go to social media more than anything else to find love and community. That’s a good and God-given impulse, so let’s start with that and build on it–and steer people into life-giving means of connection and fellowship–rather than turn our backs on them.

      I share your conviction that theological anthropology is THE issue today, on so, so many levels. As far as my comment about a pessimistic anthropology… I suppose what I mean by pessimistic anthropology is something akin to political realism, a view of humanity as fundamentally brutish, morally impoverished, and prone to anarchy, war, corruption, evil. In this view, we have to endlessly concoct rules and punishments to constantly keep people in check because otherwise they’ll just devolve into evil. (This is taking that concept to an extreme end, not saying Larchet himself ascribes to this viewpoint.) I don’t necessarily think idealism (the opposite of political realism) is the answer. In Christianity I believe we find something potentially more restorative than realism or idealism. Salvation affirms our brokenness and inclination toward evil, but points us to a better way, a way that will always be a struggle but will also always offer Life over death and corruption. And that path, to truly travel it, can only be taken in truth and love (and freedom), not by compulsion of shame, guilt-trip from others, etc. It also reminds us that before the fall–before the moral impoverishment–was paradise. When we return to salvation, it’s less that we overcome our inner brokenness and more that we return to our true way of being in the world.

      I think when that is really our view of humanity, we ought to make sure to deal with other human beings through the lens of what one might call Redemptive Realism, rather than political realism. We ought to perceive them through the lens of dignity and salvific potential rather than through the lens of sin, corruption, or our worst fears and assumptions. Whether in 1:1 relationships, or corporately in Church and society, I believe engaging people on those terms is the only way any hints of restoration come about.

      1. Follow-up, because I don’t think I answered your question / comment as pointedly as I could have: When I wrote that his statements revealed more about his own pessimistic anthropology, although I was not necessarily inculcating his written work, I don’t think a person could make some of the comments I heard in his talk without a certain anthropological slant. His talk was not subtle and was by far the most controversial of the four-day conference.

      2. Thanks for the follow up Nicole. I like how you put it, “redemptive realism”. I have to confess when I look out at the landscape of Orthodoxy in America or even other traditional Christians (necessarily through my own experience and thus limited) I find Idealism to be the more relevant and ever present error rather than political realism. That said of course are both missing the mark.

        I send my daughters to the local RC school rather than public school. Recently there has been a push by the administration and a minority of parents to take seriously the issue of phones, screens, social media, etc. What we have found is that a majority of parents are at first simply naive about the issues surrounding screens and social media, but even after a bit of education they tend toward an Idealism. They don’t want little Johnny to “fall behind”, my little Johnny would never bully, become a screen and/or porn addict, etc. etc.
        When we note the two most serious incidents involving students in the past 5 years have involved texting and social media (the 1st was a sexual relationship between a 16 year old female student and an 35 year old male teacher, the 2nd was a suicide of a very recent high school graduate) they admit the danger, but fall back to various denials and Idealisms. On the other hand they are as a group very concerned about the hypothetical school shooter and have approved real changes to the schools security system and procedures like very expensive camera, door lock, and security guards – a real stretch for a small poorly funded private school for a danger that despite the attention that these very real tragedies get in the press, are statistically highly improbable.

        I say all this to simply relate the fact that I certainly understand the temptation towards a political realism. During one particular meeting I became frustrated with the majority and I said something to the effect of “what is wrong with you people!” Of course such shaming is ineffective even on rhetorical level.

        We live in an Idealistic age, an age of distraction and comfort. You *really* swim upstream if you question it! 😉

  4. The internet is a tool and as such can be used for good or bad. Gaming and pornograhy is not limited to the internet. I agree that we should probably apply fasting rules to the internet, but in a manner of abstinence and not total withdrawal, like we do with food. I have found good orthodox websites that give me tremendous support during the week between liturgies and other services. I would say as valuable as reading the wisdom of the church fathers. We as individuals must learn to make good choices, just as we do in daily life. The internet can’t replace the church or our life in the church, but through good choices can support that life.

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