Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Convert Orthodoxy as Media Echo Chamber

The following was written by a young man who is currently looking to become ordained in the Anglican Province of Christ the King (APCK). He wrote this after having been in a congregation that departed from Anglicanism altogether for that illusive and greener grass on the other side of the fence. He is now a member of St. George's APCK parish in Las Vegas, Nevada. He begins by quoting my brother, Dr. David Bentley Hart.

Convert Orthodoxy as Media Echo Chamber

by Christopher Cox

“[Theology] has led to some pretty ferocious debates between people who, as far as I can tell, live in their mothers’ basements.” – David Bentley Hart, “Orthodoxy in America and America’s Orthodoxies.” (28:50)
In the last century, mass media and the atomization of Western culture have led to two developments that are important to traditional Anglicanism in the 21st century United States. First, all messages delivered by modern mass media in a global, postmodern society are over-simplified and distorted. Reddit is gospel to many. Second, people reacting to instability seek authenticity in commodities that are marketed by the same mass media, which they consume selectively. Hipsters find refuge in vintage denim, courtesy of nostalgia. Anglicans have a pale imitation of Eastern Orthodoxy. But Anglican converts to Orthodoxy, like hipsters who think they are authentic, choose to exist in a “media echo chamber,” only consuming media that tells them what they want to hear about their product of choice. The term is usually used in the study of media to refer to readers of politically biased news, becoming worse informed as they consume fewer media they disagree with. Here, it applies to a subculture of Orthodox converts who are misinformed for the same reason: They think they are right. 
I take up the case of the Catholic Anglican, and his echo chamber. He is an inquirer, often a cleric, often of Anglo heritage, who is unhappy with secular modernity. He is introduced to a solution by a missionary. The missionary is a pious convert from the friendly neighborhood Orthodox bookstore, who convinces the inquirer that the Eastern Church lacks the problems of the Western. The missionary makes theologically ignorant, sweeping claims with breathtaking confidence. Statues are idols, for example. By his surety and appeal to antiquity, he deludes the inquirer, just as he had been deluded before. It’s the way that fraud gurus gain converts. Imagine what Screwtape tells such missionaries:
“Give them a distorted, idealized story about a miniscule part of a foreign culture; that will lead them astray. They won’t check the facts – knowing these things will make them feel superior! And don’t stop at the laity. If you have the fortune to delude insecure or undereducated clergy, they can answer every question with an obscure ‘fact’ that sounds vaguely mystical!”
This missionary believes in “Convert Orthodoxy” (CO). CO is not the Christian faith, but a Western take on Eastern Church history that sounds like it instead. The CO narrative makes two claims. Its first claim is that fashionable, current Eastern interpretations of patristics are, in fact, the entire Faith. Its second claim is that Western Christianity was always tainted by Scholasticism (the missionary means, “Any serious idea that I don’t understand”). Thus, the West lost all heart religion by sacrificing inner peace for polemic. This last claim is the most dangerous: Basic reading in convert circles includes deep monastic writing that was not always intended for non-monastics. Combined with a hatred of cataphatic theology, it leads to spiritual delusion.  
The inquirer privately convinces himself that CO, which he mistakes for Christian dogma, is in fact the full deposit of the faith. He never considers that Eastern cultures have changed as much as Western cultures since the first century. He spends the rest of his ministry feeling inadequate and experimenting with Byzantine liturgical norms, such as the use of icons. He may not read the text of the Seventh Ecumenical Council, which lacks an anathema against statuary. He forgets that Our Lord is a three-dimensional Icon. This black-and-white mentality sounds eccentric, but remember: he now believes in a narrow interpretation of Church history, not the Christian religion. Eventually, this inquirer becomes a convert, taking his parish or family with him to the doorstep of an Eastern jurisdiction, with CO firmly in tow. If he joins a jurisdiction full of secularists, modernists, and hipsters in expensive denim, he won’t even notice. He brought his trad echo chamber with him!
The Eastern Rite convert abandons his tradition and appropriates another, thinking that his foreign affectations (which confuse the ethnic Orthodox) are signs of his renewal. The Western Rite convert claims to be returning to the Orthodox Faith of the Celts, though British Christians always answered to the Western Patriarchate, itself part of the pre-schism Church. The second narrative isn’t even taken seriously by historians, but good marketers go after the heart, not the head. If a critic disagrees with the convert now, he is brushed off. “The ‘Latins’ aren’t arguing with my interpretation of Christianity,” he tells himself. “They’re arguing with the Catholic Faith!” This mindset is called “epistemic closure,” a belief that only those who agree with oneself are right.
Ethnic Orthodox wonder what religion it is that these deluded converts think they have joined. It is meet and right so to do! The former Anglican also learns that most of his fellow converts, whom he meets on the doorstep of the Eastern Church, have left the very fringes of Fundamentalist Protestantism or a New Age cult. People who escape these backgrounds are often abuse victims, lack social skills and unconsciously surround themselves with people who have similar problems. Wherever they go in large numbers, they run the risk of continuing the cycle of abuse they were formed by, resulting in toxic convert parishes. Thus, CO colonizes the Eastern Church like a Gnostic cult, adopted and spread by a subculture that lacks social skills, but attracts people of many backgrounds. CO isn’t Gospel, it’s 4Chan spirituality.
Evangelicals call this process “spiritual abuse.” It’s the reason that so many Orthodox converts belong to the same toxic parishes, full of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists, domestic violence survivors, and recovering addicts. The convert described above might plant a church with a bookstore and start inviting inquirers to learn about (his version of) the primitive Church. Taken together, all these things are expressions of “convertitis,” and serve as a warning to those who would even consider entering the Eastern Church at this time. They won’t be entering Orthodoxy, but they will think they are.
As much as all Christian converts like to see their conversion as a Platonic ideal, unspotted by the world, conversions are made in space and time and matter. Maybe conversion is a holy mystery in which an outward physical sign points us to an inward spiritual grace. Anglicans, like members of all faiths, often use a narrative to convince people to see the light. That’s not wrong. The problem with CO is that the narrative is false, and toxic parishes aggressively use it to steal Anglican sheep. This cycle has repeated itself many times. Many well-meaning CO missionaries were spiritually formed in dark places by sick people, long before they came to the Eastern Church and brought their made-up religion with them.
Now it’s 2018. Tens of thousands of Anglo-Catholics in Fort Worth, San Joaquin, Quincy and MDAS are being targeted by CO missionaries. When ACNA voted to continue WO, orthodoxwest.com was released, Rev. Mark Rowe became active on social media, and Anglican Radio went over. This is likely an intentional strategy of clergy with experience in public relations, who mean to convince Anglicans that the Eastern Church cares, and will suddenly save Anglicans by a “miracle” (dirty PR trick). Psychologists call it “love bombing.” It’s a form of psychological abuse. The only serious counterattack in this game of chess has been the October 2017 agreement between four Continuing Churches. It was heroic, but too little too late. Thousands of Anglicans remain outside the merger. Many are quietly entering the Western Rite, or are in secret talks to do so. The Orthodox are moving to checkmate opponents who don’t know they’re playing chess! If traditional Anglicans don’t widely circulate a serious case for their existence in months, they will go extinct.
In conclusion, the age of mass media has come to the Church. CO is a biased version of Church history that replaces the Christian Faith in the minds and hearts of most converts to the Eastern Church. Thousands of former Anglicans and others now assent to CO because their biases have clouded their thinking without their knowledge. It’s difficult to convince people to leave CO because they think that their former brothers in Christ are in fact arguing against Christianity itself, instead of a bizarre, childlike, consumer version of Church history marketed by media-savvy clerics. Thus, it’s better to head off conversions now. Debate will only reinforce the convert siege mentality.
It’s hoped that this article correctly explains the misgivings that some feel but can’t express. The Western Rite may be the proper end of Anglicanism; God isn’t beholden to logical constructions. But it must not come to pass because pious, learned men were taken in by a gimmick.
Put it this way for the laity, clerks in Holy Orders: Orthodox converts in America are just like people who think that Disney’s Aladdin is a serious study of Middle Eastern culture.
For those familiar with the vocabulary of literary criticism: Convert Orthodoxy is an Orientalist fabrication, constructed discursively by Westerners in mock-serious dialogue with a straw man of an Eastern expression of faith and their own unwitting biases.






Pat Reardon said...

After thirty years since the move from Anglicanism to the Orthodox Church, I don't believe "convert orthodoxy" is nearly so uniform as this article presents it.

Canon Tallis said...

This is so totally right on that I am astounded that it was written by one so young. As someone whose baptismal certificate is in Cyrillic and who spent a great deal of thought about returning to the Church of my baptism, I can only hope that it receives the widest circulation among Anglicans in the Continuum. We have our weaknesses and our unwillingness to face the full demands of the Bible, the Fathers, the Creeds and the very text of the prayer book itself, but we are much closer to the Catholicism of the first five centuries than Moscow or Rome.

Kevin Holsapple said...

Thank-you, Fr Hart! This post shows the reason I return to this site, week after week!

Warwickensis said...

Not sure, Father, whether you've seen these comments on this post by a rather "interesting" RC polemicist.



Typical of the engrained "one true church" attitude, methinks.

Anonymous said...

Good afternoon. I can speak to these issues, having spent time in the Episcopal Church (Christ Episcopal Church, Denver), AMIA, the Antiochian Archdiocese and now with some involvement at a local ACNA parish up the street (while remaining Orthodox for now).

The divisions in the Episcopal Church have hurt many people over the years, going back to the schisms of the 1970’s and then the VGR Schism in the late 90’s / early 2000’s.

Some sought a solution in a continuing Anglican group. Some sought it in AMIA and the ACNA, and some looked for a home in Anglican Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy or the Roman Catholic Church. There has never been a perfect solution, IMO.

After some deep disappointments in all of these places, I’ve concluded there really isn’t a “one stop shop.”

I’m still “officially” Western Rite Orthodox, but I’ve chosen to join a Men’s Group at an ACNA parish ten minutes away from my house. I’m finding blessing there, even though the parish has female deacons (of course I disagree with that).

And my son is going on a short mission trip to the homeless in Denver through Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Church at the cathedral in downtown Denver.

I started off my “christian” life as a fundamentalist / independent Baptist, encountered the writings of C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer (among many many others), went to Biola University, encountered the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements (and wrestled with those), became an Anglican at Christ Church, and then bumped into a fellow in the Christ Church library who was looking into Eastern Orthodoxy. I really didn’t know a thing about it, but if there was an alternative to Roman Catholic errors, I wanted to know about it.

The point is, it’s quite a mixed ecclesiastical world. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that people look into different movements that label themselves as “Christian.”

Competing against each other, though, in a mad attempt to build “brand loyalty” is just following the way of the world.

Instead of engaging in polemics, why don’t you ask what your Orthodox brothers and sisters are struggling with and simply try to help them find some peace in Jesus Christ? These divisions have been hard on everybody and are not God’s original design for the Church or Anglicanism. Perhaps the Ephraim Radner approach is the best one. Let’s all choose humility and forbearance wherever we are.

Lord, Have Mercy.

Blessings in Christ,

The lowly reader,

Columba Silouan

Fr. Robert Hart said...

I believe that Continuing Anglicans are rightly warned not to be easily influenced by self-appointed missionaries of the Two One True Churches. We are not a mission field needing to be saved.

The Embryo Parson (Fr. Christopher Little) said...

"I believe that Continuing Anglicans are rightly warned not to be easily influenced by self-appointed missionaries of the Two One True Churches. We are not a mission field needing to be saved."

Truer words were never spoken:


Anonymous said...

My problem with the continuing churches is that they still reflect the divisions of the old episcopal church but lacking the pension fund. I can read Robert Jordan on the new ACNA Liturgy and come away with a different understanding of communion from that advocated by an Anglo-Catholic.

The nice thing about being with the Orthodox is that I can share the fundamentals of belief without any controversy. Moreover I can say my English Office and celebrate the HC through Orthodox eyes.

Of course I’m the idiorrhythmic type of individual, but I do appreciate what you continuers do, and would never advocate poaching by the Orthodox or that other one true church.


+Anthony said...

As the former Pastoral Vicar to Metropolitan Hilarion for Western Rite I assure you there is no perfect Church. Western Rite Orthodoxy may be the answer for some who are so inclined. It is difficult at times to be close to other Orthodox Christians who come from a different culture and mindset. Most modern day Anglicans can find the calendar, fasts, and discipline a bit challenging. So, though they like the idea of Western Rite Orthodoxy the actual practice is not as appealing. For the record, both icons and statues are part of Orthodoxy, however the cost of decent statues make the icon far more desirable. Finally, we do not poach, there is no need to, many want the stability of Orthodoxy and come to us. Archpriest Mark Rowe (the current Vicar General) is the most pastoral person who understands fully the problems of transition and does not sugar coat the potential problems to people who apply.