Pulling some old things out of the trunk

In light of some very recent events, I thought it might not be the worst idea in the world to repost this, albeit with some introductory matter; it does seem to me that there is more to say, six years after it was published. For five of those years I’ve been a fairly regular reader of several blogs. For four of those years I have been a minor contributor to “Orthoblogdom”. There have been some, in their own way, high-profile (let’s agree that there’s an asterisk there) conversions to and high-profile departures from Orthodox Christianity that seem to have happened within the blogosphere (even within the last couple of weeks), as though their actual baptisms and chrismations and communion and living out of the Christian life were themselves more or less irrelevant — rather, what was important was how it was going to validate or invalidate what they blogged about. In the last couple of days, it looks like perhaps Orthodoxy in America has developed, at least on a very small scale (although, considering what I expect some of the consequences will be for at least one of the players, perhaps not so small to that person) it’s own version of WikiLeaks-style problems. There are attempts out there, generally bad, to create an Orthodox version of Facebook; to some extent, Orthodox blogging is Orthodox Facebook. It’s looser, less structured, less organized, but would we expect any less — or, perhaps, any more?

I said that there was an asterisk next to “high-profile” earlier. You want reality? Reality is that there is a group on Facebook called “I Bet I Can Find 1,000,000 Orthodox Christians on Facebook” that, three years after it got started, has just over 25,000 members. Reality is that a few months ago, statistics were publicly released for an Orthodox outreach website that was touted as a huge success. When I did the math, I found that the site in question had had less traffic in its entire two years of existence than this very blog had in its first year — a blog that something like five people read on a regular basis. The Internet has a way of papering over this state of affairs. One can start a group blog and call it an “institute”. One can have an individual blog and call themselves a “journalist”. Perspective is important, particularly as regards self-selection and the signal-to-noise ratio. If you’re a blogger, you’re part of a self-selected bunch. If you’re Orthodox, you’re part of a smaller self-selected bunch. If you’re an Orthodox convert, you’re part of a self-selected bunch that’s even smaller than that. If you’re an Orthodox convert who blogs, you’re part of an unbelievably tiny self-selected bunch. You can call yourself whatever you want and you can style yourself as representative of whatever you want, but don’t kid yourself about what you actually are just because you’ve got a premium theme on WordPress and a word in a dead language in your blog title (something I have been in a small way sticking my elbow into the ribs of since day one here, even if I don’t call a lot of attention to it) or because you’ve got a group blog with some pretend organizational name. Some of the self-appointed heroes and prophets of Internet Orthodoxy would do well to remember that a blog that nobody’s paying you to write doesn’t make you CNN, or Meet the Press, or Edward R. Murrow for the twenty-first century. It doesn’t even make you the Drudge Report. It makes you freaking public access, folks. The way some people smugly pat themselves on the back for whatever change they think they’ve effected, or are effecting, by virtue of a self-important blog, and use it to justify some pretty nasty actions (like, say, posting e-mails that aren’t yours that were sent to you by yet another person to whom they didn’t belong knowing full well that somebody else is likely going to lose their job over it — something like that) — how can we call this any form of Christianity with a straight face, let alone Orthodox Christianity? Really? I call it public backstabbing.

Besides the wannabe Woodwardopouloi and Bernsteinevskies, there are the Orthodox bloggers (or ex-Orthodox bloggers, I might also say) who are, plain and simple, cranks who just get crankier with every post. This is a phenomenon that I suspect would be unnecessary in an Orthodox culture; cranks have a social function after all, it’s just that Orthodox cranks don’t have a social function in American culture. What they do have are broadband connections and/or library cards. They may be entertaining from time to time, they may be thought-provoking, they may be outrageous, but what the Internet also teaches them to be is narcissistic and arrogant.

I recognize that somebody criticizing people who blog by means of a blog is problematic, and I don’t have an easy way around that one. What I can say is that as somebody who keeps a blog, even one that virtually nobody cares about (I get 60-70 hits on a busy day, and most of my hits come from people looking for Greek answer keys), I have always tried to be mindful that I published an article called “Becoming Orthodox in Spite of the Internet”. I don’t blog about theology, I’ve never made this about my conversion experience, and in general I don’t get into the various online cockfights (which is why, I think, I’m generally ignored). It’s a wannabe academic’s notebook of random things. I’ve spent more time writing about not getting into (and then getting into) grad school and why I think Christopher Nolan is influenced by The Prisoner than I have about this or that theological position. I’ve written about places I’ve been and things I’ve learned and the things I’m interested in, but I don’t use this blog to try to style myself as an Orthodox Prophet for the Digital Wilderness. The point is, I still think the things that concerned me about Internet Orthodoxy six years ago are legitimate points of concern today, if not vastly moreso, and I’ve tried to not contribute to the problem — probably unsuccessfully, but that’s the reality of being a human being.

Anyway, here it is:

Becoming Orthodox in Spite of the Internet

The Internet provides an unprecedented amount of information on virtually any topic, all at the click of a mouse. Fly-fishing, comic book collecting, the history of woodcarving, how to knit sweaters for your dog–it’s all out there. Some of it’s even useful. Not only that, it so happens that there are a huge number of websites out there devoted entirely to Orthodox Christianity. Sounds like a wonderful thing, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not. The Internet has the potential to be the biggest stumbling block over which an inquirer might trip. As somebody who was recently received into the Church after a two-year period of inquiry and instruction, I certainly found this to be the case.

I still recall my first time in an Orthodox church, and my reaction to it. It was St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Seattle, Washington–it’s a seventy year-old building, with a very tall and ornate iconostasis, candles and icons covering virtually every space on the walls, and decades’ worth of incense permeating everything. As a liturgical environment, it was like nothing I had ever experienced before, and it all added up to a very tangible awareness of the presence of God. You could have knocked me over with a feather. My reaction came in three stages: first, while still in the nave, I felt compelled to light candles. Second, before leaving the premises, I dropped about $50 at their book counter. Third, as soon as I got home, I did a Google search on “Orthodox Christianity” and browsed through the hits.

Sound familiar? And why not? That’s how we’ve been trained, in this age of the Information Superhighway. When I was a little kid, if a new topic of interest made itself known to me, the first thing I would do was to go to the library and look it up there, but the Internet makes it so that you don’t even have to leave your home. Googling “Orthodox Christianity” gives you lots of interesting-looking web pages right off the bat: the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese home page, the Orthodox Church in America home page, something called “orthodoxinfo.com”, the Orthodox Christian Fellowship site, another page called “Orthodox Ireland”, a document called “Celtic Orthodoxy–the Celtic Orthodox Christian Revival”… hm. And here’s a site run by something called “The American Orthodox Church” that claims to be the “Voice of American Orthodox Catholic Christianity”. A note on the page says “The American Orthodox Church was originally established in 1927 with the blessings of the Holy Patriarchate of Moscow. No Other so-called ‘Mother Church’ or jurisdiction has been in existence until 1971-1972 and this is why we are the true Mother Church in the USA and Canada.”

And herein lies the problem with the phenomenon of “Internet Orthodoxy”. There is no barrier to entry with respect to posting pages on the World Wide Web; anybody with a computer and a phone jack can publish anything they want and make it accessible to anyone using a search engine. (Or, as UC Berkeley computer science professor Robert Wilensky puts it, “We’ve all heard that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the entire works of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the Internet, we know this is not true.”) There is a lot out there that the wide-eyed inquirer can easily encounter, for which they simply will not have the spiritual maturity to deal with. At least two of the sites listed above are going to be controversial for people within the Church; how in the world is an inquirer who might not even have attended a service yet going to make any sense of it?

Which brings us to another issue–no amount of information and no amount of reading is going to make one Orthodox. Knowledge will not bring one into the Church; the Holy Spirit has to do that. That’s sounds like a horrible thing to say in our rational day and age, but the books and websites are, plainly, no substitute for prayer, going to services, establishing a relationship with and receiving instruction from a priest. I truly wonder how today’s inquirers would do with the early practice of catechumens knowing nothing of the Mysteries of the Church until after their baptism–and not even being told exactly what was happening to them in their baptism until after it was already done! The Church at that time held that knowledge wasn’t going to do one a lot of good until they were already part of the family and could put that knowledge in context. Perhaps, in this time of unrestricted, instantly available information, there’s something we can learn from that.

In this “do-it-yourself” world, the truth of the matter is that you cannot teach yourself to be Orthodox, regardless of how good the instructional materials seem to be. A close family member of mine is undergoing her own inquiry right now; we recently had a conversation where she told me about having spent three-quarters of her day reading things on the Internet, but she hadn’t yet been to a service. I gently suggested that the next thing she needed to do was to go to a Divine Liturgy, and that perhaps she had better not read anything more until she had done so. If you want to learn more about the Church, go to church. It’s that easy, and that difficult.

Something else that one is likely to encounter on the Internet: chat rooms, discussion groups, mailing lists, newsgroups, whatever you want to call them, proclaiming to be places where one can discuss Orthodoxy. I spent a lot of time in these early on in my inquiry, and for my part, I found the tone of most of these to be as un-Christian as one could get–petty, contentious, often with the overall message of “my jurisdiction is holier than your jurisdiction”, and frequently becoming dominated by arguments over secular politics. What also would inevitably occur is the appearance of non-Orthodox and sometimes non-Christian posters who weren’t truly interested in honest discussion, but rather just being gadflies. Even in some of the milder of these groups, where in theory jurisdictional discussions were off-limits, it seemed that folks had a tendency to be on a fairly short fuse, and exchanges could turn into yelling matches rather quickly. I reached a point where I realized that these groups were distracting my catechesis; they were in no way contributing to it. It was so much “godless chatter”, of which St. Paul counseled avoidance (1 Timothy 6:20).

Are there good uses of the Internet for the inquirer and catechumen? Of course. The home pages for the canonical Orthodox jurisdictions, as well as for most individual parishes, provide a lot of wonderful information, and the outside links they provide are in general quite trustworthy. There are excellent resources out there with respect to the Orthodox approach to prayer, liturgical texts, setting up the home icon corner, as well as a wonderful database of the writings of the Church Fathers. Other websites have made the acquisition of previously not-so-easy-to-find liturgical items a fairly simple matter–prayer books, icons, prayer ropes, incense, home censers, candles, recordings of the music of the Church, and so on. At the same time, it is also true that many of the suppliers of these items are themselves of a questionable status; that’s not to say they’re off-limits, but the inquirer visiting some of these online establishments must exercise caution and discernment about where they venture on these sites. Perhaps, if a local parish has an ordering relationship with a supplier like Light and Life, the inquirer is better off going that route–and that way, the parish will benefit. Ask your priest, once you have a relationship with one.

For my part, I can honestly say that I became Orthodox in spite of the Internet, rather than because of it. It wasn’t until I decided that I would limit my exposure to those sites run by a canonical jurisdiction or to online shops, and avoid pretty much everything else, that a lot of things became clearer for me on my road to conversion. At most, an inquirer’s Orthosurfing needs to judiciously supplement, rather than supplant, their attendance at services, prayer, and talking to a priest. If you want to know more about the various historical and doctrinal issues, your local parish has either a good library, a well-stocked book counter, or both, and the priest can suggest which books to read. Books are still no substitute for going to church, but at least it is more likely that a book by a reputable author and publisher will have been carefully vetted in a way that a website probably will not have been.

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. If you still want to attempt to use the Internet as a resource, a search engine is only going to give you a list of hits that will be, at best, confusing once you start working your way through all of them. Better to start out with the home pages of the canonical jurisdictions, and take note of the pages to which they’ve linked.

But hey, a Google search is still great for figuring out how to spin thread from cat hair.


16 Responses to “Pulling some old things out of the trunk”

  1. 1 rjhargrav 2 May 2011 at 7:54 am

    Well, I’m glad to be one of the five- and your blog has an INTERNATIONAL following, you know. Your writing as a “wannabe academic’s notebook” is generally well worth reading; generally, it’s more information than it is opinion. Which is nice. It’s good that you’re not a crank. Don’t become one.

  2. 2 Richard Barrett 2 May 2011 at 10:32 am

    Thanks, James.

    The academic in me is realizing that I never actually cited the original publication; it’s The Word, May 2005, pp. 17-18.

  3. 4 Teague 2 May 2011 at 11:39 pm


    You make some really good points here. It made me think of John 7:17–“If anyone chooses to do God’s will, he will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.” Faith seems to precede or be the pretext for understanding in Biblical epistemology. “By faith we understand….” & “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see….” (Heb. 11:3; John 11:40).


  4. 5 owen white 19 May 2011 at 9:51 pm

    Personally, after 10 years as an inquirer and almost 10 more years in Orthodoxy, I am inclined to think that it is amazing how much Orthoblogdom does represent the personalities one encounters in real parish life, broadly speaking, at least among converts and younger cradles. Something that is often lost in these discussions is that most Orthoblogs are written by Orthomoms writing about their kid’s name day celebration or the ex-Baptist telling us some aspect of how neat it is that he can drink now and how so obviously true it is that we should invoke the aid of the saints, or somesuch. I have heard plenty of scandal and controversy and cheap apologetics talks in Orthodox coffee hours, and if anything I think that might be under-represented among the totality of Orthodox blogs. But not among the more widely read ones, of course.

    I personally think there is something quite gothic-lovely in a Flannery O’Connor sort of way that one of the most widely read Orthodox blogs is written by a transexual traditionalist who hates everybody, even someone as lovable as me. But hey, I am sometimes eccentric.

    As for the easiness of the medium of the blog – I love it. Among other things it does exactly what it should – takes power from the powerful. The rhetoric is sometimes inflated, inaccurate, misleading, outlandish, etc., etc. Often enough one finds the same in academia and in official journalistic outlets. The fact is that most hard facts that get into public discourse these days begin to be disseminated in the new media. That fact is not going away. One can long for the previous days of official means of information control, but I am inclined to think we were as much or more misled then that we are now. The long and the short of it is that is that official power structures are by nature going to be inclined to hate the new media because it undermines their power, though they often have to deny this or restrain their hatred through the petty and silly “rules” such as we have seen institutions like SVS put out (for their seminarians).

    But I’m with you on the kids these days. They need to actually spend some time on the ground, pay their dues. Then again, God help them if they never hear about the stick and all they get is the pious carrot before conversion. A priest who remains a good friend of mine, a convert but from atheism in South Africa, thus avoiding all the usual American pathologies, told me prior to my conversion that I had to go visit some of the worst Orthodox parishes in town. He also had me read some things online concerning some of the scandals going on then (HOCNA stuff, etc.), not that there was much online then. It was good advice.

    • 6 Richard Barrett 20 May 2011 at 12:26 am

      I guess I’m something of an odd duck in that I’m an academic who despises Foucault. That means I think there are better channels than others for information that I’m supposed to take seriously and I think that all of the nonsense about power and discourse amounts to saying that human history is all about whose petty nastiness had best jockeyed into a position to take advantage of everybody else’s petty nastiness at a given moment, and there’s no way out of that. I find that to be a perspective on history and humanity absolutely irreconcilable with Christianity, since the whole point of Christianity is that God entered into human history and gave us the way out. Of course, the Foucauldian rejoinder to that would be that as a Christian I am part of the problem either as one of those wielding the power or one of those having it wielded over me, or maybe even both, so again, there’s no way out.

      I also suppose I might be considered naive and pietistic in that I think Christian catholicity (which is what you seem to be advocating as something well-represented by the internet) is best looked for in our worship and in the Eucharist, not by what way we disseminate our narcissistic gossip and backbiting. (Not that our liturgical texts don’t occasionally enshrine gossip and backbiting — see, for example, the stichera at Vespers for the various Ecumenical Councils.) Guess I’m just old school idealistic like that.

  5. 7 owen white 20 May 2011 at 1:02 am

    I don’t know what it is you are suggesting Richard. I would think it must be very hard writing history of actual human relations when one as a rule must leave out facts related to petty power struggles. But you stated that you have a problem with those historians who view history as only competitions in petty nastiness. Foucault certainly did not teach that common conservative caricature of his work, not that I would look to Foucault for my historiography. It is interesting to me that conservative Christian intellectuals cannot fathom a use of critical theory that is not a totalizing use of it. The same often goes with Marx – if one uses Marx, one must support the slaughter of Ukrainian peasants, etc. As I said on another blog recently, often these same people openly admire racists like some of their beloved Southern Agrarians, or their own brand of sociopathic murderers, say a Churchill. Not that you are among those, I have no idea where you stand with regard to such persons. I just don’t know why an acceptance that dirt is going to be discussed within the new media, and the view that this is generally a better thing than the previous official spin mediums, all from a person who makes use of some critical theory, brings about the expressions-of-catholicity-aside-from-the-Eucharist-are-raunchy posture and the fretting about all this dirty pettiness. Pettiness with always be with you. It dominated Church life long before the internet came along. The only difference now is that the information power structures are more egalitarian.

    • 8 Richard Barrett 20 May 2011 at 8:56 am

      I never said that “one as a rule must leave out facts related to petty power struggles”. What I said was that I have a problem with the point of view that human history is ALL about those petty power struggles. And if that’s a caricature of Foucault, well, it’s a caricature the lefties are also promulgating. “History is about power, who has it and who doesn’t,” is something I’ve been hearing professors tell undergrads for some time now.

      To put it really plainly, what I get from what you’re saying with this whole “more egalitarian information power structures” business is that hey, now everybody can see whatever dump anybody just took in the last fifteen minutes, and there’s also a more-or-less complete history of bowel movements available for purposes of comparing size, texture, shape, color and smell. Fantastic. Well, if that’s “more egalitarian,” then consider me unimpressed. Yes, Owen, I think the Eucharist is a more fitting manner for the Christian to seek catholicity than that; sorry if that puts me amongst the sentimentalish piously-affected crowd, but I genuinely think we can do better.

  6. 9 owen white 20 May 2011 at 12:31 pm

    Richard, your first paragraph restates something I explicitly stated in the comment above. Yes you did not say what I said you did not say. “History is about power, who has it and who doesn’t,” seems a bit more broad than the original accusation of “history is all about whose petty nastiness had best jockeyed into a position to take advantage of everybody else’s petty nastiness at a given moment.”

    With regard to your second paragraph, I ask you this: was Archbishop Job wrong to keep asking the question “are the allegations true or are they false?” Was he wrong to publicly press for answers and to support laypersons who publicly pressed for answers? Was it wrong for laypersons who knew first hand of Archbishop Seraphim’s alleged history as a sexual predator to go public with that information when the Synod refused to act on that information and the information had, by multiple parties, been vetted thoroughly by way of speaking with alleged victims and with law enforcement? Was it wrong for first Catholic bloggers, and then mainstream media journalists to report of certain incidences of Catholic bishops protecting priests who were sexual predators? I mean, you can protest with vague moralism about the parsing of bowel movements. You can suggest that you offer a nobler “Eucharistic” path. But let’s get specific. Were these actions wrong? Why?

    • 10 Mostly Quiet 20 May 2011 at 12:44 pm

      Richard, you really don’t have to follow this rabbit-trail. I value your voice, but one reason I value it is because it tends not to holler, grump, or get mired in provocation. Owen may be displeased if you fail to answer all questions to his satisfaction, but my bet is he’d be the only one.

    • 11 Richard Barrett 20 May 2011 at 12:51 pm

      You may see a reasonable amount of air between those two statements about history and power; I’m afraid I’m not sure I do. If people don’t want critical theory to be seen as a blunt instrument, then they need to stop using it as such.

      With respect, Owen, I’m going to take Mostly’s advice and decline to pursue this with you any further. If you, somebody who represents a segment of past rather than present “Orthoblogdom” anyway, disagree with me, fine. I’m not interested in letting you pick a fight with me over it. That would seem to run contrary to my original point in the first place. Go argue with Michael Liccione and the First Things crowd; I don’t have a fight with you.

  7. 12 owen white 20 May 2011 at 1:08 pm


    Fair enough, your ball your court.

    Best of luck to you and yours.

  8. 14 business daily 24 May 2011 at 5:25 am

    Writing or talking of the specific traits or character concerning Church and religion one would at the first glance think that there is talk about the differences from other churches in this case other Orthodox jurisdictions. This means that one ethnic group or geographical region receives the right to administer to its own needs use its own language in worship and have its native clergy.

  9. 15 Demetrios Kehagias 29 September 2014 at 2:41 pm

    I am glad you said what you did. Too many people call themselves an authority on Orthodoxy and many I have noticed, are extreme. Our faith is beautiful in its simplicity while at the same time very complex. There are so many different levels to Orthodox Christianity unfortunately, I have encountered Orthodox clergy who bash churches that are not part of the ‘diocese/metropolis’ they belong to. I remember one clergy on the radio who boasted “We are true Orthodox because of our oil burning lamps!” Let’s just say i fell to the floor laughing hysterically. Others hear this garbage and take it at face value which is very dangerous.

    Unfortunately I am one of those bloggers who writes about the faith being a theologian and a priest knowing there are some things that I write that will offend people.

    God bless you!

    • 16 Richard Barrett 21 October 2014 at 3:00 pm

      Thank you for your comment, Father! I stumbled into a bookstore once in Athens that was run by Old Calendar monks who claimed that electric light in church was heretical, so I know precisely what you mean.

      Hope to see you again!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

adventures in writing alexander lingas all saints bloomington all saints orthodox church american orthodox architecture american orthodox music american orthodoxy Antiochian Archdiocese Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America Antiochians books byzantine chant cappella romana chant church architecture ecclesiastical chant ethnomusicologists ethnomusicology fellowship of ss. alban and sergius Greece Greek greek food greekness hazards of church music international travel tips ioannis arvanitis joe mckamey john michael boyer kurt sander Latin liturgical adventures liturgical architecture liturgical music liturgical texts and translation liturgy liturgy and life lycourgos angelopoulos medieval byzantine chant Metropolitan PHILIP militant americanist orthodoxy modern byzantine architecture modern greek music music as iconography my kids will latin and greek when they're newborns my kids will learn latin and greek when they're newborns orthodox architecture orthodox architecture is bloody expensive Orthodox choir schools Orthodox Ecclesiology orthodox outreach orthodox travel pascha at the singing school Patriarchate of Antioch Patriarch IGNATIUS IV Patriarch of Antioch publishing random acts of chant richard barrett in greece richard toensing rod dreher sacred music st. vlads st john of damascus society Syriac the Bishop MARK fan club the convert dilemma the dark knight The Episcopacy The Episcopate the only good language is a dead language this american church life travel we need more american saints why do we need beautiful music in churches?

Blog Stats

  • 242,865 hits

Flickr Photos

%d bloggers like this: