You Are Not a TV Show

The modern world, with the advent of technologies such as the internet and other instantaneous forms of digital creation, has created what is easily described as a virtual world. In digital comprehension, a virtual world is not a real world, but increasingly feels like one and, to some extent, can be experienced like one. Doubtless, human experience has known a variety of experiential worlds, but this latest, the virtual world, stands perhaps as a primary exemplar of those things that are not real or true. Any photo, any video, cannot only be taken for what it is, a photo or a video. Technology is such that the trustworthiness of such phenomenon has plummeted to near zero. Are we seeing what the camera has shown, or are we seeing a digitally altered version of reality?

On another level, any digital presentation of reality is not the same thing as reality – but is, at best, a digital presentation. To see a film of an animal in the jungle is not the same thing as to see an animal in a jungle. But the lines between reality and the presentation of reality have become increasingly blurred.

This is not just a phenomenon of our computerized world: it is a pattern, long established, in human behavior. Archimandrite Meletios Webber has written very aptly about the difference between the true human self, and the falsely constructed human ego:

The mind is the great defense system we need to process all the information we receive. However, in so doing, the mind is self-centered, judgmental, and fearful of attack. It expects and assumes the worst from the world, from other people, and ultimately from God. Every detail in the universe is measured by the mind against its usefulness to the mind’s story of the self, the ego. The mind attempts to replace the real center of being, the heart, with a center of its own creation.

Thus, in Fr. Meletios’ description (which is consonant with that of the Fathers), the ego has long been living in a virtual reality, creating a story and a version of the self which is not our true self – but a project of imagination and creative distortion.

This project of imagination and creative distortion has been raised from the level of personal, self-deception, to public presentation within our digitalized world. It entices people towards a reality that is no reality at all, and towards a false presentation of the self – upheld and preserved through the digitalized version of the self.

Some of this temptation is manifest in the drive to fame through various forms of modern media. We have witnessed numerous attempts by individuals and families to acquire a “reality show” based on some bizarre action or performance. Of course, reality show is among the ultimate contradictions. Such shows do not depict reality: they depict false projections and reports of a constructed ego.

You are not a TV show.

Of course, the more time we spend defining our world through various virtual experiences, the more we come to mistake such virtual realities for reality itself. Even without the aid of technology, we all experience a form of virtual reality through the construct of stories, true and false, which we tell ourselves and relate to others in our efforts to construct, define, and defend the false reality of the human ego.

The ego, as defined by itself, is not our true self and can never be: we are not self-constructed. The reality of who we are – the meaning and purpose of our existence – is constructed by God – who alone gives us existence and purpose. Our efforts to avoid our dependence on God is simple a symptom of sin – not a true existential problem.

St. Paul offers this observation:

Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory (Col. 3:2-4).

Perhaps the most fundamental exercise of the Christian life is found within St. Paul’s simple admonition. It is a directive that points us towards authenticity. The self which St. Paul describes is not the same as the ego which we construct. I am not defined by the stories of my abuse or my public perception. I am not defined by my choices or my genetic inheritance.

The life which is “hidden with Christ in God,” is the life which St. Paul describes in Galatians 2:20:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.

The false constructs of the ego – the virtual reality defined by sin and imagination – are dead. They have been crucified with Christ. The life which we now live, which alone is authentic, is the life lived by faith in the Son of God. Who I am is a matter which is hidden and which is a matter of constant discovery in my life in Christ.

I have long had a deep aversion to the depiction of Christ and holy things within the confines of the cinema. The power of the virtual image easily creates its own reality. We do not worship the Christ of Zeffirelli, or other false depictions of the media. James Caviezel is not the Christ. Max von Sydow is not the Christ.

There is no prohibition against images within Orthodoxy – but the images of the Church point to their prototypes. Thus far, the images of the cinema have difficulty in pointing beyond themselves – frequently they point to images within the culture and contribute to the ongoing distortion of the Christian faith which is endemic to modernity.

It is a daily struggle to know God. In the same manner it is a daily struggle to know our true selves – for they are only found within Christ our God. The true self is not my own construct – but a new man – fashioned in the image of Christ. I cannot know my own self unless I know myself in Christ.

I am not a TV show – nor am I any of the false versions of the ego which I may tell myself or believe when told by the lips of others. I am only to be known in Christ. And thus I can only know others in the truth of their being as I know them in Christ.

It is a great kindness within God.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.





47 responses to “You Are Not a TV Show”

  1. AlyssaSophia Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    As always, thank you for writing, and especially for this! So much in here that resonates with things I’m dealing with right now.

    However, on a slightly less personal note regarding your comments to the images of Christ as portrayed in the media…do you think it’s possible for us to create an image that “points beyond themselves”–that is more accurate than what has be done already–apart from our Orthodox icons? Do you have an idea of what a better portrayal would be, or is this impossible because of the very nature of the medium?
    Alyssa Sophia

  2. Darlene Avatar


    The passage in Galatians 2, which speaks of being “crucified with Christ” and it is no longer I who live, but Christ in me”, is this not specifically directed at the one who is truly united to God

  3. Darlene Avatar


    I didn’t get to finish…Is this passage not really speaking of those who are truly united to God in Christ? IOW, this passage is not referring to the wicked whose lives are living in rebellion toward God. They are not “in Christ.”

    Thus I wonder about your last statement, “I can only know others in the truth of their being as I know them in Christ.” I understand this to mean that Christ is our guide, the Truth by which to gauge the truth about human beings. But, I do not consider when I engage in conversation with others, that all are united to Christ. Not all are His children, and thus, not all are “in” Him. The tares even within the Church are not “in” Christ, but rather, outside of His fold, just as the world that has neither seen Him nor known Him.

    I say all these things because I have discoverd for some time, that while I long to have sweet fellowship and communion in Christ with others, many times this is not possible. Sometimes it is because the person may be overcome by anxiety and the cares of this life. Other times it is because the person has no life of God within them, they are. as the Scriptures say, “dead in sin.”

    So it is that I have, and continue to learn, that in each encounter I have with others, I must aim to build upon those things which honor Christ and give Him glory. This I can do regardless of the disposition/demeanor of the other person’s heart. It may fall upon fallow ground in some cases, while in other cases, it will fall upon cultivated ground.

    I hope I’m not to obscure in my comments.

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m not entirely sure. I’ve pondered the question a fair amount. Icons do something fairly unique. I’m not certain how to put that into cinematic form. I don’t say that it cannot be done, I just think it might be different than anything we’ve seen.

  5. fatherstephen Avatar

    Of course it is. But to be truly united with Christ, is still the only true existence.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Someone whom I encounter may not yet be “formally” in union with Christ, and yet the truth of their being, which they themselves may not know at all, remains the truth of their being. In some sense, the calling of others to relationship with Christ is a call to the truth of their being. Thus a loving relationship with a discerning Christian may indeed be a wonderful revelation, if the Christian involved is truly loving and discerning.

  7. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    I have long held that the Last Judgment will consist of our facing God, Who holds in His hands two objects: in His right, an icon, and in His left, a mirror. The icon is *our* icon, the image of us He had in mind when He created us. We are the ones who get to say how much the image in the mirror resembles the image in the icon; but the catch is, this being God, we can only speak the truth. So it behooves each of us to figure out who it was that God had in mind when He created us. The best part of that is, since that’s what He truly desires, He gives all the help we ask for in figuring it out.

  8. Marsha Avatar

    This may be a hard-to-answer questions, but how does one begin to “know themselves in Christ”? It is easy for the mind to take over again, and create a self that thinks it’s “in Christ”? Right?

  9. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    Confession is a good place to start. 😉

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Prayer, confession and always, the practice of humility

  11. Prudence True Avatar

    So follows the hesitation for many Orthodox Christians to reach outside their traditional church community, and perhaps we should not be puzzled by the “silence” of cradle Orthodox.

    “All about me” blogs, books, and pod casts are a modern twist on Orthodox Christian expression. (Which, Fr. S. yours is not.) Talking about your faith, within the traditions of Orthodoxy, is done in private. Respecting the faith of others is paramount.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Thank you for the kind exemption. Orthodoxy is in new waters in the modern world. Sometimes we’ll get it right, and sometimes not. Such is our lot.

  13. Darlene Avatar


    You said, “Perhaps we should not be puzzled by the “silence” of cradle Orthodox.”

    Do you think this silence is a good testimony or bad? I’m not quite sure what it is you’re trying to say here.

    You also said, “Talking about your faith, within the traditions of Orthodoxy, is done in private. Respecting the faith of others is paramount.”

    I’m not quite sure what you’re saying here either. On one hand, I agree with you that there is way too much “me” focus going on out there in the Christian blogosphere. And the kind of “me” focus can often result in Christians elevating themselves to some level of spiritual pride, often pointing to their spiritual feats or exercises or knowledge which they believe will benefit their hearers. Often this can be someone trying to show others that they have grasped the “true” understanding of what it means to follow Christ. Sometimes we are side-tracked into thinking we are right and the rest of the world should get with it and on board with us.

    But with that said, Jesus has called his disciples, those that bear His name, to reach out and love their neighbor in His name. Often, we are called to be burden bearers. Sometimes we are called to sympathize and empathize with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We can only do this if we get past the “repectable” boundaries and love one another as Christ loves us.

    Some of the most refreshing times in my life are when a sister or brother in Christ sought to console me in my faith when I was going through an intense struggle. Other times, the Lord Jesus allowed me to bless someone in the same way. I considered the latter to be a privelege and very humbling experience, that the Lord would see fit to use me, a sinner, in such a way.

    I once heard a phrase and it has always stayed with me because it seems apropos. We are to be Jesus to others, Jesus with skin on. And now I understand that we are to be living icons of Christ. There can be no greater calling. May we all be fit for the task.

  14. Damaris Avatar

    I agree that cinema is a dangerous substitute for reality. A young Kyrgyz seeker I knew watched the Jesus film after having read the gospels. She told me how happy she was now to know the “truth” from the film; she had found the gospels “contradictory.” I talked with her at some length about what film was and what truth was, so far as I could describe it, but I don’t think I made an impression. Of course she had been raised on a diet of Soviet propaganda, where you believed what you saw on tv or heard on the radio — or else, even if it contradicted your own experience of reality.

  15. Miha Avatar

    With regard to the topic of visual perception and “truth/reality” we see on TV and in magazines, I fondly recall a radio lecture of a Jesuit priest p. Marko Ivan Rupnik, who is also an art historian and artist, known especially for his work in mosaics. He is therefore very aware of the influence of visual information we receive in our day-to-day life.

    He was discussing, among other things, questions of Love, following Christ and Christs reality in the moment of his execution. He gave examples from Christian art through the ages and showed that in times when the faith was strong, the Christian art was also on a very high level, the paintings, statues and so forth still inspire us with their messages, be it of suffering, love, hope, faith, bliss etc.

    But in times and places where faith is poor (such as today), “puppets come out”, he says, meaning that the Mother of God, Jesus and Saints are depicted in a false way, bearing no or very little inner meaning, with even “Kitschy”, childish esthetics and lack of taste on behalf of their author.

    Another thing he pointed out is that to understand Christ (as much as that can be done), it is irrelevant to depict (in a movie, for example) the exact details of his passion and death. Because at the moment of his death on the cross, practically no one was convinced that he was indeed the Son of God. The majority mocked him, some changed their minds shortly after he died, but Christ, looking to his disciples and the people, among which he lived, saw almost no great effect of his teaching. So what is the point of showing the exact details of his passion and letting these details entangle you until you no longer see the meaning behind it?

    The problem p. Marko sees with our perception (visual and otherwise) of the world is that of faith, hence that of Love. If there is no faith and Love within us, we cannot hope to understand and see the world properly.

  16. Kevin Maness Avatar

    Thanks for your reflections, Father Stephen. I wonder, though, if it’s fair to say that contemporary technologies have created a virtual, unreal world–or even they it is these digital technologies that have created gaps between reality and representation. I tend to think that any medium, by definition, operates between us and our perception, on one side, and what we may want to understand as “objective reality” on the other. Even the holy scriptures themselves are a kind of virtual reality located between us and the reality they represent, and we tend to blur the distinction, as emblematized in Christians’ habit of calling the scripture (or even the physical pages themselves) the “word of God,” rather than attesting that the true presentation of God’s Word was Christ (John 1).

    Moreover, any observation of “reality” changes it. You mention that seeing a video of an animal in the jungle is not the same as actually seeing that animal in the jungle. I would add that if you’re close enough to the animal in the jungle to see it, then your presence will insure that the animal will not behave as it normally would, and so your presence changes the reality of the jungle and its inhabitants. Ironically, through cameras and other advanced technology, we may have a better chance of observing “reality” as it operates in our absence than we do with the naked eye (and ear).

    It concerns me a little when people make easy distinctions between aspects of their lived experience that are “real” and aspects that are “unreal.” Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t think that every scrap of text or image that I see is equally true or even accurate. And it’s also important that we seek to understand the differences between, say, exchanging email and conversing face-to-face, or between attending a social event and reading about it in the newspaper, or between an experiential communion with God and an intellectual study of theology.

    But I do think that I spend every second of every day in the real world, even if some of those seconds are spend in an engagement with what you term “virtual reality,” whether that be reading a book, playing a video game, or surfing the Web.

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Prudence, you say that “respecting the faith of others is paramount”. Unless I totally misunderstand your point I have to ask: Why? What if that faith is destructive to the human person, and to others? What if the faith lies about God and induces others to participate in that lie or actively forces others to participate? The anathema’s of the seven Ecumenical Councils clearly condemn the faiths of many people and even specific people. Many of the same types of faith the Councils condemned are still active today. Why must we respect them?

    The prophetic voice of the Church needs to be heard now more than ever. Clearly it must be the voice of the Church and not individual opinion and/or ideology, but she must speak in both a positive declaration of the Gospel and directly against the false faith(s) that predominate in our culture. The word must be spoken with love, but that does not mean to ‘respect’ a lie. Does a doctor respect cancer? False belief is more deadly than any cancer.

    Belief, even strong belief by itself is not worthy of respect. We are made by God to believe in Him to love Him and nothing else. We can easily misplace that faculty into all sorts of idolatry. Jesus asked, “Where is your faith?” That is not a question of how much faith but a question that asks what one has faith in–God or mammon?

    Perhaps you meant to say that we must respect each person as a unique creation of God? If that is what you meant, of course. That means that we must work that much more dilegently to allow the Holy Spirit to transform our own hearts so that others we meet are not turned aside from the truth and are led to believe in God, not the vain imagings of false faith and the world.

    Forgive me if I have not comprehended your words.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Digital technology is fundamentally reductionistic, it flattens and distorts reality. Emoticons are a perfect example. Cute little pictures are used in an attempt to communicate actual emotion that the words we type seem incapable of communicating.

    Digital communication and media give not the heightened sense of reality that great art does, there by allowing us to transcend our own perceptions, but rather a truely two-dimensional sense of reality and a false intimacy while remaining essentially anonymous. It takes great effort to not allow the restrictions of the medium to distort what one says. It does not easily allow for subtlety or nuance–which makes Fr. Stephan’s posts that much more remarkable.

    Digital technology is easily counterfeited–images especially. Not only that, as opposed to the visual richness of Orthodox worship that draws us more deeply into communion with God and one another, digital images tend to do the opposite–isolating and leading us into private fantasy.

  19. Prudence True Avatar

    The confusion on all points here, I believe, rests with our different frame of reference. The Orthodox mind and heart allows for a respect of all – even those we may see as wrong. It is not for me to decide or judge. That is God’s domain.

    Sharing and supporting others in their faith is done without an overt call of attention to yourself. And squelching someone else for their belief, even in the name of evangelism, is in poor taste – though this runs counter to the heavy hitting evangelism I’ve encountered over my lifetime as an Orthodox Christian here in America.

    You are not a TV show.

    Some tools are Orthodox, and some are not – figuring this out may take years . . .

  20. Darlene Avatar

    Dear Prudence,

    Won’t you come out to play? Sorry, I couldn’t resist, just a little friendly banter.

    First of all, I think you should consider what Michael has said, perhaps read it again. There is a way that we can compromise the faith and in so doing, allow others who are believing in false gods to merrily go on their way. There is a loving way to dialogue with others and a disrespectful, offensive way. We must strive toward doing the former.

    For example, several months ago my husband and I began a conversation with a Hindu couple in his place of business. Actually, the husband was the one who came over first and sat down with us. As we starting sharing our faith, he with us and us with him, he began extolling the vritues of Karma and reincarnation. Well, I coulda just said, yeah, I think it’s great that we get to come back again and again over several lifetimes until we finally make it to Nirvana. And I coulda agreed with him when he said that people who are poor and/or suffering are getting their just desserts because they deserve it due to their bad Karma and the kind of lives they lived in the past. I could have left him with his delusions. But LOVE demanded far more of me.

    So, I kindly explained to him the Christian position on these matters. That we only have one life – “for it is appointed for man to die once and then comes the judgment.” I also explained to him the error in Karma and how that results in a lack of compassion toward one’s neighbor. And guess what, he listened and did not take offense. And he was left with the knowledge that the Christian faith differs quite a bit from his own.

    Recently, I listened to one of Fr. Patrick Reardon’s homilies in which he was teaching about this very subject. He said that none of us, if asked directions by someone would purposefully mislead them. Or if we knew they were going in the wrong way toward their destination, we would not purposefully let them continue on the wrong route. Such a thing would be cruel. He went on to say that if Christians, when in an ecumenical gathering, pray in the name of a false god, or do not point others to Christ as “the way, the truth, and the life” are responsible for wrongly influencing those same people toward believing in a lie.

    Fr. Daniel, the priest who was killed in Russia last November, knew the stakes of living for and loving the truth, and openly pointing the Muslim community to Christ and His Church. He was “overt” in his proclamation of the gospel among the non-Orthodox. And he offended many religious people within the Church. He paid the ultimate price for loving Christ and the truth by becoming a martyr.

    Ecclesiastes refers to a season for various “opposites” – a time to be born, a time to die, a time to weep, and a time to laugh – and as regards our discussion – a time to keep silence, and a time to speak. Such matters take wisdom, most certainly. But nonetheless, the Scriptures make it clear that we as followers of Christ must be ready to speak. “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” And our Lord Jesus said, ‘He who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven. But he who denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

    Prudence, some kinds of evangelism, are indeed done in “poor taste.” However, the abuse of something does not justify the dissolution thereof. For example, we know of our Lord that many religious folks thought Him to be in poor taste, because He offended their sense of religious self-righteousness. The preaching of the cross is folly to those that are perishing. The truth of the gospel of Christ is offensive to those living in sin.

    Granted, these matters take wisdom and maturity, and point to the disposition of our hearts. If our hearts seek our own glory, we do a disservice to our Lord. Yet St. Paul even commended those preaching the gospel out of envy and rivalry.

    St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” The Church has given us the tools through the testimony of Her Holy saints and martyrs, and through the Holy Scriptures. We do well do pay heed to these witnesses.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Prudence, I don’t feel you addressed my questions, so let me expand a bit, then I’ll shut up. We are required to discern truth from lies then conform or lives and our words to that truth as we are able. While the consequences of one’s believing a lie are to be left in the hands of God and He is merciful, it is not Orthodox to say that all belief is equivalent, valuable, true or slavific. To say that we are unable to discern the truth as you words imply to me, is to approach saying that we can not really trust anything the Church teaches as a normative standard as actually true. Belief is important and to believe properly is embodied in the very word, Orthodox.

    There are irenic ways of making these points and there are more confrontational ways. Given the wide use of both throughout Orthodox history, I’m afraid that I am not willing to say that confrontational ways are not Orthodox though they are not usually used for evagelization.

    Speaking personally, it took a few 2X4’s to the forhead for me to begin to consider Christianity, let alone the Church–but then I’m a hard-headed old crumudgeon. Neither am I prepared to support another person in a faith that is destructive. Such support is, IMO, neither loving nor Christian. I am prepared to talk to people without rancor in order to see what truth they hold and encourage that truth–attempting to follow the example of the Orthodox Alaskan saints.

    Some belief systems make such an approach well-nigh impossible, at least for me. That too has to be recognized. When I have run across folks who profess belief in a Jesus Christ that is antithetical to everything He has revealed of Himself in the Church and the Scriptures, I can’t support that. I testify to what truth I can and let the chips fall where they may. Sometimes that testimony has been strongly worded without being unecessarily confrontational in a personal way other times more gentle–but it is still confrontational. It has to be when a lie is faced with the truth. You see Prudence I’ve seen too many friends and acquaintences destroyed spiritually and physically because of wrong faith, untrue faith. Perhaps you are fortunate and have never had that experience. I pray you never do.

  22. easton Avatar

    a person’s life speaks volumes without saying a word. it is not our place to judge and direct another heart.

  23. Curious Reader Avatar
    Curious Reader

    The quiet and loving witness will hold sway.

  24. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    It seems that this thread has become a perfect example of the weakness of digtial media for communicating in a serious and productive manner. I cannot help but feel that I am in essential agreement with Prudence and others, yet the nuances which the medium disallows prevent complete communication and that further attempts to communicate the nuance will be detrimental.

    God is merciful. May He forgive me a sinner.

  25. Darlene Avatar

    Michael, I understand exactly what you are saying. I also think there is an and/both understanding of this. Easton, a person’s life often does speak volumes in many cases. For example, I say nothing to my son about God who is a hard-core atheist – to do so would be pearls before swine. He would take the precious truths of Christ and spit them back at me, so I’ve learned my lesson. And furthermore, because he has witnessed his mom and dad’s lives over the years, he knows we live the faith we profess.

    As regards our Hindu friends, such is not the case. God actually opened the doors for us to speak with them because thhe went out of their way to talk with us. To be silent or agree with Hindu teachings would have been compromising on the truth of the gospel, and by our silence we would be giving assent.

    As far as judging, I think in all situations in life we must be discerning. We should not judge in the sense of condemning, but that is not the same as lovingly pointing others to Christ. Our Lord has said, “Do not judge by appearances but judge with right judgment.” We cannot go through life with blinders on.

    Curious, sometimes a quiet witness will convict. Sometimes a witness that speaks the truth in a direct and loving manner will convict. Such was the case with me and I am glad someone took the risk in caring enough to correct my wrong thinking.

    There are many members in the Body of Christ and we each have a role, a function. Some of the Holy Martyrs boldly proclaimed the message of Christ, while others in silence were put to death. But they each at some point had to openly defend their faith. St. Elizabeth the new Martyr went to her husband’s murderer in prison with the gospels in hand and spoke to him of Christ. What a bold and loving action, but one blessed by Christ.

    May we each know how it is that God is calling us to be His faithful witnesses in these times of darkness.

    Forgive me if I offend any, for that is not my intention.

  26. Prudence True Avatar

    Eastern Orthodoxy has an inherently *Eastern* component. Adapting Western minds to an Eastern heart is challenging. I embrace the opportunity to visit with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, or other. I have close friends who are die-hard atheists (though I find my close friendship with a die-hard, muckety- muck Evangelical Christian a greater challenge).

    Healthy debate is fine, setting out to prove you’re right is offensive. (My Godfather spent the past year attending Bible study at a Jewish temple. He loved the debate and had hopes of converting them to Orthodox Christianity.)

    But, respect for the beliefs of others is paramount. (Didn’t I already say that?).

    Think Eastern,
    Drop the Western,
    and your on the long, slow path . . .

  27. fatherstephen Avatar

    Because many, like myself, are converts to Orthodoxy, and are products of the West, we participate in what Fr. Georges Florovsky called the “Tragedy of the West” (The East has its own history and its own inherent struggles). But Fr. Florovsky said that it was the call of Orthodoxy in the West to encounter the “Tragedy” and, more or less, take it within oneself and the life of the Church, and engage it for the sake of its salvation. I’ve quoted that badly, but the point remains. I cannot help but be a product, to some extent, of the “tragedy of the West.” And that tragedy comes into dialog with Orthodoxy as I confront God in my heart and in the life of the Church. But the tragedy (like all tragedies) should call for compassion and prayer and the willingness to take up the Cross of Christ. If God has called you to share the faith with someone – he will also give the love to make it possible. I love my own people and the culture from which I come (the American South) though it is decidedly not Orthodoxy and dominantly Protestant (of various stripes). But this is where I’ve been called to be and to serve – and God has given me the heart for it. I admit, as well, that I like the diversity that I encounter through writing the blog. It has been a blessing in my life.

  28. optina Avatar

    I am trying to think of a good way to read “respect the beliefs of others,” but it keeps boiling down to relativism in my mind. For example, take the belief among at least some Hindus that the people who Mother Teresa ministered to “deserved” their lowly status because of Karma. I have no respect for that kind of belief. I can respect that people who hold to that belief are made in the image of God and respect them as such, but the belief that leads to conceiving of suffering as deserved base on a former life is horrid to me.

  29. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    Optina — maybe it would help to think of “respecting the beliefs of others” as respecting that God leads each of us to Him by a different path, and not all of us have the same gift from Him of the fullness of Orthodoxy (I’m thinking of some of the Protestants who are horrified by our kissing icons and so forth). In the example you cite, some of these people equate Christianity with the colonial rule of Great Britain, which wasn’t the best advertisement for Christianity, and it’s a safe bet that very few — if any — have even heard of Orthodoxy. So we have to respect that they have a right to their beliefs, which mean a great deal to them, without in the least *accepting* that we could incorporate these beliefs in any way into our understanding of God. And of course, we need to be praying that they are enlightened to Orthodoxy, and we need to support our missionaries and the excellent work they do.

  30. Prudence True Avatar

    Thank you, Mrs. Mutton. Your explanation was much better than mine. And, I take no offense at any of this discussion.

    As I see it, the “Tragedy of the West” left some living in a forest. If you leave the forest and find the clearing, there is still some comfort in lingering near the edge of the forest. And perhaps even a pull back toward the warmth, safety, and familiarity of the forest (Western thought).

    If we believe Eastern Orthodoxy is the clearing, then I’ve spent my whole life with many (other than my Orthodox family, friends of family etc) tugging me toward the forest. I’ve watched the crowds in the forest, and wondered why they preferred the forest to the clearing. But, I’ve spent years on the receiving end of “evangelism”. It’s not a comfortable place.

    Fast forward to the present, and some from the forest now seek solid footing here in the clearing. The line between the forest and the clearing meanders and blurs. But from the wide open space of the clearing, the edge of the forest is more apparent. And now those from the forest at times tread with a heavy steps here in the clearing. There is plenty of space in the clearing for everyone.

    The sunlight in the clearing is much brighter than in the forest, and I believe others will wander out of the forest in their own time, as they watch us living at peace in the sunshine.

  31. Darlene Avatar

    Mrs. Mutton,

    I think what I hear you saying is that there is a ‘balanced’ view that we must possess. While I, like Optina, think of Karma as a cold and heartless belief system, I need to make a distinction between the system and the person. An expression I often used as a Protestant, but I think it applies is, “Hate the sin but love the sinner.” There is a way to reach a person in the love of Christ and regard them as someone whom God loves who is made in His image. The distorted view would be to think that somehow we are the “enlightened” ones who must bring these poor wretched people out of their misery. I think the world view of “manifest destiny” mixed in with Darwinism was popular during the colonialization period. Each and everyone of us is dependent upon the mercy of God for our existance, and in His eyes we are all sinners.

    Truth is, all societies and cultures have their element of delusion. Ours in these United States is materialism run rampant. All false systems, whether they be religious (Karma) or social/anthropological (Darwinism), or philisophical (Nihilism), have their destructive elements, since they reject the worship of the true God, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

  32. optina Avatar

    Mrs. Mutton,

    I am not sure where you disagreed with me.


    You appear to have no respect for Western thought so I think you are confirming what I mean. I think you dismiss it all too easily, but I respect that you aren’t giving destructive ways of thinking any quarter in your own way of seeing the world.

    I say all of this assuming that most of the time one would simply remain silent about the ideas one considers wrong. If we live our lives according to what we believe to be true then this is the strongest “argument.” But I am reminded of an incident with Flannery O’Connor at a social gathering. One of the women present remarked that she did not believe the Eucharist was the body and blood of Jesus and O’Connor replied “then to hell with it.” I think she was right to say it.

  33. Karen Avatar

    Interesting discussion–ISTM quite valid concerns on both sides of the “evangelism” issue. Some might find the articles found here useful:

    Coming from a western, Evangelical background myself, yet finding refuge in the clearing, to use Prudence’s analogy, my Orthodox instincts make me wary succumbing to an excessive anxiety about the Orthodox faithful doing (or not doing) the work of evangelism. In my evangelical experience, my most effective times of sharing my faith with others were when I wasn’t specifically attempting to do so. I was just sort of overflowing, being myself, out of a genuine love for Christ and in a relationship of mutual trust (friendship) with another person. My two best friends in high school, both from churched backgrounds, humbled me greatly when they confessed to me a few years after high school that they began a pursuit of a personal relationship with Christ because of what they saw of my relationship with God. They simply wanted the same thing. I certainly never set out to convert them (I assumed they were Christians like me, which they were at least nominally), and the conviction of their hearts was entirely the work of the Holy Spirit, not any design on my part.

    Many years ago and some years after that experience with my best friends, I took part in a Christianity Today survey about evangelism. I discovered in completing that survey that by the end of my early adulthood, I had participated in and attempted to use just about every mode of “evangelistic outreach” tool employed by evangelicals (at least once). I would evaluate the effectiveness rate (as employed by me at least) of those tools as totally lacking any real spiritual power. I felt like David trying to use Saul’s armor.

    In addition to the Scriptures Darlene mentioned above in support of the appropriateness of speaking out, a Scripture also came to mind for me which is the admonition to be “slow to speak and quick to listen.” Lately, it is being brought to my attention again and again what an abysmal listener I am. I interrupt people constantly when they are trying to explain themselves to me and my first instinct is to respond or react to what someone says out of my own self-centered experience without clarifying or further exploring what they are saying. I see how dominated I am by my ego, and that is humbling, which really brings us back to the point of Fr. Stephen’s post. I have concluded that my job is to keep struggling to become humble and honest, with myself, God, and others. I know from experience that it is only here that the Holy Spirit can work in and through me. As I see it, my job is to approach others with no agenda other than to try to love them as God gives me grace to do so. Sometimes that may mean speaking a difficult truth (most often in my case, about myself!); sometimes another form of service. Always it will require self-denial and humility.

  34. Prudence True Avatar

    Optina –

    If I appear to have no respect for Western thought, then you are correct and I, too, have erred. America is Western, and living Eastern here is sort of swimming upstream.

    My apologies for any offense.

  35. Barbara Avatar


    I really love your description of the forest and the clearing. Thank you for sharing it and for reminding all of us westerners why we came into the clearing. Part of the tragedy of the west is that our identity is locked into our ability to use words. Words and ideas are the trees in the forest. To have voice is to have power. We are not at all incarnational, we are epistemological. We like ideas and we like to try to match our practice with our ideas and we like to be right and certain. We don’t understand that to be is to commune with others, and that you cannot possibly commune when you build a wall of difference by determining in advance another’s wrong belief. I became Orthodox so that I could begin to open my heart and let the world walk in. I could no longer live in a world that was divided between the saved and unsaved. Fr. Sophrony talks about the kind of love that bears the other’s sin or error, knowing that we cannot separate ourselves from any other, or from any wrong-doing. This kind of love doesn’t ignore wrongs, it bears wrongs, it remembers how often we have been wrong. I am frequently amazed at how heretical I have been and how patient and gracious God has been to me.

    I am so grateful for the long, slow journey ahead of me.

  36. Darlene Avatar

    Just as we are not a t.v. show, we are not merely the words and conversations that we have on blogs. Case in point. I think the comments here represent the limitations of being able to communicate the thoughts and intentions of our hearts properly. We do not have the benefit of sound, touch, body language, looking into the other’s eyes, and voice inflections. In the absense of such things, when issues of depth arise, we have the propensity to speak past each other, or dismiss each other, or disagree, and then it can become a “Mexican standoff.” Such difficulty in communication would be diminished considerably if we were in a room looking at each other in the flesh.

    I truly believe that if each of us here who are Orthodox, were we to attend Divine Liturgy altogether, would find that we have far more in common upon which to agree than those things upon which we disagree. The limitations that are present here which confine us to our words and thoughts on a screen, would not be an issue is we were able to worship with one another, and afterward converse face to face.

    So in the spirit of Father Stephen’s post here I concur that we are not a t.v. show, and we are not merely words on a computer screen either.

    May we each trust in the love of our Savior Jesus Christ every day as we journey to the Celestial City.

  37. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The Western Tradgedy which Father Stephen references has its root, for me, in the bifurcation of the human soul into thinking vs feeling or soul and body. In the most extreme formulation it becomes either an extreme rationalism or an exteme anti-rationalism. Since all dualism is heretical that poses a great problem for Christianity.

    One of the fruits is the two-storey universe in which not only are we divided internally, a great gulf exists between us and our own life in God.

    Barbara’s charaterization of us being either epistomological or incarnational is instructive, yet is infected with the same sort of disease. Similarly, we must be cautious not to fall into the bifurcational trap ourselves by using an east vs west paradigm. Rather than either/or, a both/and approach. The ultimate expression is Jesus Christ Himself being both God and man–IMPOSSIBLE, but true.

    The interesting thing about this tendency to think in mutually exclusive categories is that the binary code that forms the basis of all computer and digital technology follows that same process.

    It is one of the great challenges faced by the artificial intelligence researchers in they Babel-like quest to replicate human thought in machines. Binary logic can’t replicate human thought.

    It is not too much of a stretch to say that the more we submit our own intelligence and ways of thinking to a binary structure, the less human we become.

    Converstation on the internet so quickly becomes confrontational, in part, because such confrontation is built into the medium at a ‘code’ level.

    A college history professor of mine told us that the difference between a machine and a tool is that a machine sets the rythmn of work for the human while a human sets the rythmn of work for a tool.

    Computers tend to take that a step further and direct us into a mode of thought rather than adapting to our human way of being. As Darlene points out, our humanity is automatically truncated by this medium unless we make a great deal of effort.

    One of the great values of this blog is the moderation (in all senses) that Fr. Stephen gives it.

  38. Karen Avatar

    Good thoughts above. Thanks to all.

    On the “evangelism and Orthodoxy” issue, there are some thoughtful articles here some might enjoy:

    Always wanting to see both sides, I see valid points well made on both sides in the debate above. For myself on the issue of speaking vs. silence/listening, I have been reflecting on this in a broader context than that of evangelism and realizing to my chagrin what a poor listener I am. I catch myself interrupting others, and then in my responses, rather than exploring the speaker’s own thoughts in more detail, asking clarifying questions, etc., I race to relate my own self-centered experience. Basically, in my speech and actions, all too often, I demonstrate Fr. Stephen’s point above. So, in addition to the Scriptures Darlene mentioned above regarding the admonition to be prepared to speak to defend our faith, etc., the Scripture about being slow to speak, slow to become angry, and quick to listen came to my mind.

    Conceding that there is definitely a place for speaking up about our faith (and our actions definitely “speak” louder than our words), it occurs to me that admonitions in Scripture about actively preaching and teaching the word, evangelizing (in a formal sense), etc., are generally addressed to apostles and pastors (Priests and Bishops) and these gifts are most often to be employed with members of the flock–not that there isn’t a place for prophetic ministry as well to the public at large. It seems significant to me that the Scripture Darlene alludes to above that applies to all Christians about being prepared to give a defense presupposes inquiry on the part of the one to whom we are to give our defense. Perhaps if in our concerns for evangelism of our neighbor, we were more attuned to this “readiness” to hear as our cue, we would cut the risk of bringing a word to someone whom God has not prepared to hear and thereby bringing greater condemnation upon them. There’s a quote from one of the contemporary elders of Greece I’d like to bring here, but I have to look it up, so I’ll supply it later when I have more time.

  39. fatherstephen Avatar

    My apologies to all. I am attending my Diocesan Assembly this week and have very limited time. Your patience is appreciated.

  40. syrian88 Avatar

    Nice articles Karen.

  41. Prudence True Avatar

    Barbara, Thank you.

    Michael and Darlene,

    I think you both are a lot more intelligent about all this than I am, so thank you for sharing your thoughts (even in this flat, limited digital medium).

  42. Dean Arnold Avatar
    Dean Arnold

    Great post, Karen.

  43. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    BTW, despite the limitations, this medium can be used fruitfully. This blog is evidence of that. We must be aware of the inherent challenges and work diligently to overcome them.

  44. Barbara Avatar


    Thank you for the link and for your thoughts. Vigen Guroian has written a book on Eastern Orthodox ethics called, “Incarnate Love”. In it, he discusses the issues of evangelism and witnessing. He describes the Church’s and the Christian’s best witness as being agapeic – charismatic but intentionally powerless (this does not mean the absence of words). He also makes many of the points you make above. Paul Evdokimov also writes about the Church’s and our need to become ontologically brilliant – the “burning bush” – identifying the Theotokos as our model. To me the “burning bush” is agapeic. The icon of the “Burning Bush” which includes the Theotokos, evangelists, saints, apostles etc is now one of my favourites and a constant reminder and prayer for me.

    Michael, I do agree that it is not wise to consider this issue an either/or dichotomy leading us to discursive reasoning about every encounter. What matters is that all of our gestures/words/actions are qualified by pure hearts/self-emptying hearts as we offer ourselves to God and others. To me, becoming incarnational is not the opposite of epistemological. But that discussion is beyond this brief response.

  45. Karen Avatar

    Thanks for the kind comments. The quote I had in mind I found was from Fr. Sophrony’s teaching in The Enlargement of the Heart. on page 167 as presented by his spiritual son, Archimandrite Zacharias. In discussing the responsibility of the spiritual father toward his disciples he says:

    If the word of God is to bering about the regeneration of man, and not “grind him to powder” (Matt. 21:44), then one must be ready to make sacrifices. This word is a gift of God’s love and the call to the acquisition of such love. But this love begets within man “a whole gamut of different torments for the spirit.”. . . Because of this, when the spiritual father realizes that the disciples is operating on a psychological level and has not the resolution or the self-denial for struggle, he may not seek a direct word of God through prayer, but instead he condescends and speaks from his human experience. Out of pity for the person, he thereby avoids leading him into the grave sin of fighting against God. . . .

    Fr. Sophrony said that he did so when he saw that people were psychological human beings, and resisted the things of the Spirit. In such cases, he would not ask for a word directly from God, but would simply say something from his mind, or from his experience, so as not to set man against God.

    (End of quote.) Although this is talking about a mature spiritual elder seeking direct guidance from God for those he is discipling, I think everyone who seeks to lead another closer to the Lord can draw wisdom from it. The principle is the exact opposite of what I was often inclined to long for in the face of someone who was unreceptive to the truth of God I wished to communicate in the past, i.e., that God would give me that exact insight so as to pound the truth home and make it irrefutable! The effectiveness of our witness is as dependent upon our readiness to respect the needs and limitations of the one to whom we seek to bring the word as it is upon our readiness to speak.

    Thanks to Fr. Stephen for pointing me and others who read his blog to The Enlargement of the Heart and other such wisdom from the Fathers. Father, bless!

  46. Byron Avatar

    Thank you for this wonderful article, and an all-round excellent blog, Fr Stephen!

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  1. Greetings, Father Stephen, Thank you so much for this reflection and all of the tremendous amount of work you have…

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