Internet Orthodoxy: Opportunities and Pastoral Challenges

by Richard Barrett 

The second International Conference on Digital Media and Orthodox Pastoral Care (DMOPC) took place at the Orthodox Academy of Crete in Kolymbari from 18-21 June of this year. The event’s principal sponsors were Pemptousia and Vatopedi Monastery, and it was attended by Orthodox Christians from Greece, Lebanon, Russia, Ukraine, the United States, Canada, Australia, the Czech Republic, Kenya, and more. Over four days, one hundred and three presenters discussed theoretical, theological, and practical impacts of technology on the Church of today.

As an American participant, what I saw very quickly was that the questions and concerns the presenters were talking about were deeply informed by vastly different cultural contexts. There were two basic categories of presentations on the Greek side; the first was academic, represented by the panel discussion “The Progress of AI as a Challenge for Theology” and the paper “Paul and the Ethics of the ‘Internet’ in the Globalized World of the 1st Century and the Post-Modern 21st Century.” The other category expressed anxieties about technology threatening the Church’s status as a majority religion. These concerns tended to emphasize the Internet as a medium by which people were exposed to other religions, perhaps even deciding to change religions as a result; in addition, the problem of webcasts of services becoming a substitute for in-person attendance was frequently referenced.

By contrast, the tenor of the American presentations was rooted in the status of Orthodoxy as a minority religion struggling for visibility, any visibility. Our tiny 1% provided a completely different context for these issues—yes, the Internet is an avenue by which people change religions, and this is in fact a benefit for us. There are parts of the country where Orthodox parishes are hundreds of miles apart, which means that webcasts are the only way some people can participate in a service at all. The innovations of technology provide survival and growth tools for a Church that is still very much in the Wild West, so to speak. If this gives rise to something that looks rather like a churchless “Internet Orthodoxy,” well, we’re not quite ready to problematize that yet.

As a result, for most of the American presenters, the principal emphasis was on their platform and how they used it. This included figures who work in popular media, such as Dr. Norris Chumley, Jonathan Jackson (who appeared via Skype), and Hank Hanegraaff; it also included contributors to Anglophone Orthodox media platforms like Ancient Faith Media, such as Dr. Nicole Roccas, Fr. Thomas Soroka, and Fr. Barnabas Powell. (My own presentation demonstrated the Digital Chant Stand platform, which distributes liturgical texts and music by means of digital technology.)

Another flavor represented by the American speakers had to do with the pastoral challenges of digital media, particularly Orthodox-branded digital media. Indeed, among these talks, the pastoral challenges presented by particular Orthodox digital platforms seemed to be the predominant concern, so much so that Internet porn did not even rate a mention in any of the presentations I attended.

The problem concerns something I wrote about in a 2005 article for the Antiochian Archdiocese’s pastoral magazine The Word, “Becoming Orthodox In Spite of the Internet.” While the digital landscape has evolved considerably since I wrote that piece, this nonetheless continues to be an issue.

There is no barrier to entry with respect to posting pages on the World Wide Web; anybody with a computer … can publish anything they want and make it accessible to anyone using a search engine. … Unfortunately, the signal-to-noise ratio with respect to what’s out there on the Net is so low, the wheat will sit right next to the chaff and most inquirers—and frankly, most Orthodox laity—won’t be able to tell the difference.

To put it another way, digital media tends to flatten the perception of authority, and the spectrum of quality on which Orthodox bloggers fall, priestly or lay, claiming scholarly expertise or no, does not help. As Fr. Constantin Coman pointed out in his talk “The Use of Digital Means in the Church among the Dangers of Self-Promotion and the Challenge of Self-Reproach,” the Internet tends to reward self-aggrandizement; a premium theme on WordPress and an invented organizational name with “Orthodox” in it turns a group blog into an “institute” and individual blogger is now a “journalist.” Not only that, but the instant universal access to everything flattens questions of audience and objective. Not everything needs to or should be evaluated according to catechetical value, but not every new inquirer typing search terms into Google is going to understand the difference, and search results are not going to distinguish between catechisms and academic journals—two very different media formats with vastly different audiences. In America, where some hope that a united Orthodox front might be a powerful tool for evangelism, there is neither the cultural security nor the institutional self-assuredness that would allow us to compartmentalize the function of an academic journal’s blog. The uncritical manner in which Americans currently consume media further exacerbates the issue. Whereas some of the American presenters may have demonized particular platforms, the real problem seems to be that in our cultural context, with apologies to Virginia O’Hanlon, “If you see it on the web, it’s so.”

At the conference’s conclusion, Pemptousia’s director Nikolaos Gouroros announced the formation of the International Union of Digital Media for Orthodox Pastoral Care. It is clear that these issues are not going to go away, neither for Greeks nor Americans nor anybody else, and this association will serve as a space for member organizations to continue the exchange of ideas. My hope is that this will be beneficial for all involved. Perhaps this venue will allow America to be a model for Greece and other Orthodox countries of a healthy appreciation of digital media as a means of growth and outreach. In turn, maybe we North Americans might have the opportunity to see what dissenting discourse can look like in the context of Orthodox cultural security.

Richard Barrett is Artistic Director of the Saint John of Damascus Society in Bloomington, Indiana, a sacred arts organization that seeks to promote excellence in the liturgical music of the Orthodox Christian Church.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.