Three years ago or so I received a Facebook message from a thoughtful young friend-of-a-friend. After studying Christian history, she concluded that she knew too little about the Orthodox Church, so I answered her questions as best I could.
I also admonished her to discover the Church through its liturgical and communal life, not the abundant resources available about Orthodoxy online. In North America, where Orthodoxy is a tiny minority, it is often easier to learn about the faith through the Internet than from the nearest Orthodox priest, who may be a long drive away, speak poor English, or be baffled by the very existence of a “regular American” interested in the Church.
The Internet has given us Orthodox the solidarity, confidence, and courage to be increasingly visible among American Christians, where once we were easily ignored or forgotten. This visibility demands greater humility, love, and integrity from us, and we should welcome the opportunity to practice these virtues. But it also offers greater room for error, sin, and self-centeredness, of which we must remain vigilant.
It is unhealthy to have more co-religionist friends online than in your own parish. I have seen this happen to some converts who first encountered Orthodoxy onlinean increasingly common phenomenonand therefore naturally built their new identities around people and ideas from the Internet. The parish, characterized by creative chaos, is by definition a place to practice humility, patience, and brotherly love, and to be challenged by how others live the Christian life, not to have one’s biases reinforced.
By contrast, the online inquirer is comfortably anonymous, and can freely consume a wide variety of viewpoints and opinions. And there is a lot of junk out there: Anonymous blogs make the Orthodox case for every outré cause, from monarchism to Marxism. Faceless vigilantes harbor dark vendettas against bishops. And respectable-sounding forums provide a place for lonely sticklers to pursue uncharitable acts of Pharisaism against everyone from Roman Catholics (ultramontane Latinizers) to Muslims (bloodthirsty Turks) to the wrong kind of Orthodox (new-calendar ecumenists, or heartless liturgy-fetishists). One can easily find a sympathetic corner of the Internet and stay there, without having to face uncomfortable alternatives to one’s preferred vision of Orthodoxy. This is dark and monstrous.
But the Internet can also be an effective vector for the very best of the new American Orthodoxy, enriched by fresh converts and by opportunities for connection beyond one’s own parish, diocese, or ethnic jurisdiction. Orthodox Arts Journal, for example, showcases an ongoing creative revival in Orthodox architecture, iconography, music, and liturgical craft. The star of this movement is perhaps architect Andrew Gould, whose church designs are highly faithful to old-world antecedents, yet embrace the local idioms of South Carolina, New Mexico, Texas, and so on.
And in some ways, the Internet has helped American Orthodoxy better fulfill its churchly ministry. Metropolitan Savas (Zembillas), the Greek Orthodox hierarch in Pittsburgh, has thousands of dedicated Facebook followers. The campus ministry Orthodox Christian Fellowship owes its success in part to its leaders’ and members’ embrace of email lists, social media, and other ways of coordinating geographically scattered networks. So do charitable ministries, from the Fellowship of Orthodox Christians United to Serve (FOCUS) to International Orthodox Christian Charities (IOCC). And to help mitigate the learning curve associated with the various traditions of Orthodox sacred music, many websites offer video, audio, and print resources for overworked liturgists.
Inevitably, a twenty-first-century American Orthodox culture includes Internet humor. The Onion Dome, a satirical news site, has existed online in some form since the early 1990s. Its scrupulous Russian priest character, Fr. Vasily Vasilievich, is invoked whenever an Orthodox Christian jokingly exclaims, “IS OUTRAGE!” or asks, “Was it tofu pad thai in 19th-century Russia?” More recently, Facebook has given rise to the inevitable Eastern Orthodox Ryan Gosling and Grumpy Orthodox Cat , as well as Hyperdox Herman, which has become a meme factory in its own right. On YouTube, Sr. Vassa Larin has found a loyal audience by mixing an academic pedigree with hilarious self-awareness. In a sense, American Orthodoxy’s maturity can be gauged by its willingness to laugh at itself.
Last February, after hundreds more Facebook messages, texts, and emails, my young friend was received into the Orthodox Church. She reached that place of reconciliation by confidently making our common faith her own. Shaped by the Church’s services and practices, she brought her local experience of the Church to her online life. The Internet is the social and cultural public square where Orthodoxy is encountering its future. With every earnest Tumblr blog and well-intentioned Facebook message, Orthodoxy presents Christ’s Gospel, at once intimate and strange to every human heart, to a new and spiritually hungry world.
Ivan Plis is an Orthodox Christian in the Washington, DC area.