Preaching and Worshipping in the Information Society. Prophet Jonah and the Way of the Magi

Source: Chapnin.ru
Sergei Chapnin | 18 September 2014
Presentation at the ‘Christianity – Orthodoxy and the media in modern world’ conference. 12–14 May 2014, Thessaloniki

The conference that has gathered us here is without doubt a historical event. In May 2014, representatives of various local Orthodox Churches have met for the first time to share their experience and discuss the problems that the Church encounters while preaching in the context of information society. No, this is not a mistake – it is indeed the first time we meet, since the last gathering of Orthodox journalists took place 15 years ago when there were no social networks or multimedia formats and when most of the Orthodox Churches had neither the experience of online presence nor even any information departments or press offices to gain it.

I am grateful to the organizers of this conference, the Interparliamentary Assembly on Orthodoxy, for inviting me and especially for letting me be the last one to speak. I will allow myself a short digression and share with you my vision of what has been and what has not been achieved within the given theme’s framework.

Firstly, I see a great desire on the part of participants to discuss the issues under consideration not only in the form of reports and short Q&A sessions, but also in the form of presentations and roundtable discussions, i.e. formats that are aimed on dialogue and sharing. I hope that we will be able to continue our discussion.

However, it is with sadness and distress that I must note that we are considering Church and media issues today from a deeply and I would even say hopelessly secular perspective. The language of information society is used by the laity, clergy and episcopate to describe our activities without any attempt to adapt it to the Church context or reflect on the reality of the information society in the light of the Church teaching and practice.

Are we able to right this wrong? Being an optimist I am ready to say ‘yes’, but only if we invest special efforts into developing such theological disciplines as theology of image[1], theology of communication[2] and theological aesthetics[3].

* * *

The world as we know it differs significantly from the world that was inhabited by many generations of our ancestors. However, it is even more crucial to understand that our world differs markedly from the world in which the tradition of the Church and the Christian culture in their broad sense were formed and developed.

Onrush of various technologies in the late 20th century has drastically changed our lifestyle and worldview. Home appliances have freed us from daily chores that used to take so much strength and time over the history. We have lots of free time to communicate. And, in response to our communication needs, new information technologies gave us means to send instant messages to virtually any place in the world, to form and manage our circles of contacts in social networks, to communicate anonymously or pseudonymously. All this is very important, but it is not the key point.

The worldview of our contemporaries is formed not so much by personal communication as by the information obtained in the course of indirect, media communication. This has its benefits and drawbacks. However, the key problem that modern society faces but is not aware of yet is the domination of theoretical knowledge over practical skills. The world perceived through the lens of media becomes fragmented, clipped. Emotions and ideological attitudes become the absolute measure for the evaluation of events. Moral component is usually ignored. Unprecedented ways to manipulate human conscience emerge. Christian values are shelved.

These are not merely philosophical problems. It is equally crucial to reflect on their theological, pastoral and practical implications.

By now there is more than one generation of people who know a lot: how a nuclear plant works, which songs made it to the tops of the charts last month, what was mentioned in the recent statement of the U.S. Department of State and which zoo welcomed newborn koala bears to the world yesterday…

However, our fellow human beings have more and more problems with showing compassion and love or helping their neighbours.

News, especially TV news, account for these changes in no small measure. It is much easier to show events than to analyse or comment. In journalistic terms, a growing tree is incomparably harder to ‘cover’ than a tree uprooted by a hurricane. One needs special skills to see the event in its context, to observe an emotional upsurge and a deep feeling, to discern facts from comments.

News radically accentuate the key problems of Christian apologetics. According to the news, the world consists only of wars, calamities, crime, political and social conflicts. Such picture pulls the carpet from under the viewers and makes preaching the Divine love manifested in history an enormously difficult task.

News in their essence are a telling illustration of the Lord’s words from the Gospel of Matthew:You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. (…) Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold (Mt 24,6-7.12; NIV).

Eschatological character of TV news is amplified by their hourly repetition. Our contemporary doesn’t read the Scriptures every day, or listen to a good sermon every week, but he or she sees a catastrophe, a tragedy or a crime presented as the main news of the day. As a result, the world seems to be more frightening and dangerous than it really is. Beauty of the world vanishes from the news.  And by beauty I mean not an aesthetical category (from that perspective TV does more than enough to set or even impose trends and preferences on us) but one of the key notions of Christian theology, beauty that inspires us to long for our Creator.

One of the most respected American journalists, Tom Fenton, claims that news media focused on entertaining instead of educating is not just irresponsible but truly dangerous.

As an example, I can share a story of how information delivered by the ‘entertaining news’ affects our church life. Some years ago, on the first day of Lent, NTV channel in Russia aired yet another spot of what has become a traditional series, ‘Lent time has arrived for Orthodox natives’. This spot featured some infographics on what foods fasting believers cut back at this time of the year: here’s a slab of meat, and now you see it crossed with red lines. Here are dairy products, and here they are crossed as well. Eggs follow suit. And then we see carrots and tomatoes – again forbidden. Before I even had the time to raise my eyebrows, the narrator explained: carrots and tomatoes are banned for being red, which is the colour of Christ’s blood. At that moment, I could only give a hearty laugh at this naïve but provocative dilettantism of the news writer.

However, this was not the end of the story. Couple of weeks later I delivered a lecture several hundreds of miles away from Moscow and witnessed an interesting discussion between two priests. While they were sharing their pastoral experience, one of them said: “You know, this year for the first time ever I heard people confessing eating carrots and tomatoes during Lent. And I have absolutely no idea where this comes from.” The other reverend, being no less surprised, denied ever hearing anything similar or having any clue as to the origin of this phenomenon. Had I not seen that news spot, I would have been as puzzled as those fathers. Fortunately, I could explain it all: those old ladies must have watched NTV. And since their habit of trusting what is said by The Box dates back to the Soviet times, it was hard for them to believe that the newsmen were even less competent when it came to Church rules than they were. However, the problem remains: any televised word, as irresponsible as it may be, can influence Church practices.

In the information society, we find ourselves more alienated from the real world than ever. In its biblical sense, the word to know means to communicate. Yet, impersonal information on the world situation or even other people’s suffering does not make us look for ways of communion, but rather turns us into outside observers. This bystander behaviour stops us of from experiencing the presence and action of the incarnate Love of God in the modern world.

Media policy to air bad news that would entertain the viewers has brought about not only the devaluation of words, but also the depreciation of the conventional visual images. They are increasingly becoming mere tools to describe or illustrate the events, clichés that support propaganda and ideologies. They do not help to understand or comprehend the present. As Jean Baudrillard once said, we live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning[4].

I will illustrate my point by comparing two images: Descent into Hell / Resurrection of Christ fresco from the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora, Istanbul, dating from the 13th century, and a caricature on the Resurrection of Christ by a contemporary painter. Over the course of history faith has been perceived as an action that presupposes your active involvement, participation, collaboration between God and man. The 13th century fresco shows this in an incredibly expressive manner: the Lord reaches out to Adam – and through him to the whole humankind, and Adam responds to the call of the Saviour by putting his hand into the Lord’s hand. Today however even such an important event as the Resurrection of Christ does not evoke the desire to partake. Present-day humans easily settle for external observations – they opt for the role ofbystander.

Unfortunately, the Orthodox Church could not help giving in to the bystander temptation and organised its life and activity based on the model provided by large corporations. Instead of theological reflection on modern world challenges, the Church chose to concentrate its information activity on PR. It not only agreed to replace the words and ideas of the Gospel with ultimately secular notions of ‘spiritual and moral revival’ or ‘traditional values’, but also adopted the technique of conscience manipulation.

Such substitution would work successfully only if the message and core of what the Church preaches is no longer a living faith but an ideology comprising of concepts, rules and relevant practices serving as goods for marketing and promotion.

Reversing the momentum will require a lot from our side.

Prophet Jonah

Yet, the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-­edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Heb 4,12; NIV).

When ten years ago, in 2004, I was involved in preparing and conducting the first Faith and Word festival of Orthodox media, the organisers faced a dilemma: whom to choose as the patron saint of the event. And the choice that was made may come as a surprise at first. It was Prophet Jonah.

Each Orthodox Christian is familiar with the story of miraculous rescue of Jonah from the whale’s belly. This powerful image, being a pre-image of Christ’s Resurrection, is used by Christ Himself (e.g., in Mt 12,39 or Lk 11,30-32). The Lord Jesus Christ rose from ‘the belly of hell’ just as Jonah went out of ‘the belly of the fish’. That is exactly why we were reading the Book of Jonah recently, at the Vespers of Holy Saturday. The same image firmly established itself in the Orthodox hymnography.

However, I would like to draw our attention to another aspect of the story of Prophet Jonah, which perhaps would be of great importance to those connected or dealing with the media. “Jonah is a wonderful example of how the cooperation between God and man in preaching the Word can be creative, intense and even dramatic. The prophet is called to announce the Word of God to the people, yet he is no passive or will-less medium. He is to be a conscious participant in the act of preaching through whose mind and heart the Word passes on the way to others. At the same time, this is not the only thing God is expecting. Or, in other words, He is ready for more than just that. He endures human feebleness and resistance so that the Word of God would become entirely the Word of Man”[5]. Similarly, the Old Testament prophets were preparing the World to welcome the New Covenant, the Word that became flesh (Jn 1,14).

Jonah’s story gives us an image of serving the Word. The Word is difficult, hard to grasp, it makes you want to run away from carrying its burden (and our emblem showed Jonah exactly this way – carrying a heavy load). However, neither can you throw it out of your heart or blow out its flame.

It is noteworthy that Prophet Jonah did not remain the Faith and Word festival’s patron for long. When in 2010 the responsibility for the festival was taken away from the journalists (editorial team of The Church Messenger newspaper) and given to the PR team and officials of the Church (the Synodal Information Department of the Moscow Patriarchate), changing Prophet Jonah for Saint Paul was the very first decision of the new administration. They had a hard time understanding and accepting that image. And that change has its spiritual meaning and symbolism: ever-troubled, doubting and protesting prophet was not congenial to the Church bureaucrats.

A linear storyline is much closer and understandable for many these days: yes, Saul used to persecute Christ’s disciples, but since the Lord revealed Himself to the future apostle on the way to Damascus, Paul became a relentless preacher and servant of the Word.

Way of the Magi

Our conference agenda has linked all reports and presentations with media and journalism. However, I strongly believe that such a 20th-century approach is insufficient today, for it imposes significant limits.

Let me reiterate this: in the information society, not only the words are essential, but also the visual images. And those who create those images deserve very close attention of the Church. I don’t mean just iconographers and church architects. I am also thinking of artists, sculptors, designers, wide circle of film-makers, be it documentary or fiction, those who work in theatrical production, those who produce musical shows, street performances, exhibitions, etc.

There’s another important question that we should ask ourselves: how will our time go down in history of the Church and world culture? Will we be remembered for merely copying (even if professionally and even virtuosically) the best examples from the past, or will we, the Orthodox Christians of today, learn to create the new grace-filled images, styles and movements that will be our unique contribution to the treasure chest of Christian culture? This remains an open question.

Liturgical art is in crisis, for it is based on Divine Liturgy and Eucharist, which are only entering the centre stage, as the Church is only beginning to discuss its understanding of liturgy and the role of bishops, priests and laity in liturgy. At least in Russia it is only beginning. And there are more questions than answers. If we remain barely as passive participants in the liturgy without much insight into its composition and content, then it would be quite naïve to expect the liturgical art based on seeing and understanding the liturgy to flourish.

The questions that follow are even harsher: how much longer will the Orthodox Church surrender to the onslaught of mass production of Church commodities? How much longer will the manufacturers, in pursuit of better (lower) prices, remorselessly sacrifice not just quality, but canon and the Orthodox Tradition itself? How much longer will the churches and church shops sell this kitsch without giving it a second thought?

These very questions stem directly from the Church teaching. Can we say that problems of theology of image and iconoclasm issues were successfully resolved at the Seventh Ecumenical Council? In a negative scenario, mass production of low-quality church goods can lead to something bigger than just loss of reverence for the holy images. We risk losing the very ability to read and understand the language of icons, Orthodox hymnography and symbolism of church architecture. Do not be surprised if new iconoclasts knock on our door sooner or later. I would like to be mistaken, but there are real forewarnings for that happening.

Moreover, quite a few artists and cultural professionals are ready to dialogue with the Church. But does the Church extend the invitation for such dialogue? What tasks can the Church entrust them with? What does she have to offer them?

Our experience in exhibiting Christian art in Moscow proves that the Orthodox Church does have its own contemporary art. However, it takes a lot of courage, wisdom and sobriety to rebut the claim that Church art consists purely of imitating the prototypes of the past. Living tradition of the Church art is represented by a constellation of bright, accomplished artists and iconographers, movie and theatre directors, musicians, composers, sculptors… Unfortunately, it would be hard to mention even the most prominent of them within the time given for this presentation.

Recent years saw the development of what Irina Yazikova, one of the leading experts on Church art, has called ‘the original icon’. It is no longer an experiment, but a wide range of signature styles of accomplished iconographers, sculptors and embroiderers whose work now adorns modern churches not only in Russia, but also in Georgia, Serbia, and the UK.

Besides the need for an international association of Orthodox journalists (its absence is really a shame), the Church is also in need of a community of Christian artists and art experts. We need to join efforts in organising exhibitions of not just Byzantine or Old Russian icons, but of contemporary Christian art as well – icons, embroidering, sculpture, paintings, architecture and design projects.

In Russia, this task has become the mission of the Artos Fellowship for Contemporary Christian Culture (www.artos.name). Despite being fairly young, this association established in the fall of 2013 in Moscow is quite unique. It brings together not only artists but all those who believe that the development of contemporary Christian art has no alternative.

* * *

Interaction of the Church with artists and journalists should be based on the well-known verses of the Gospel of Matthew: On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh (Mt 2,10-11; NIV). In the beginning of the collaboration, it is important to have the desire to bring one’s gift to Christ. However, that alone does not suffice. Three Magi not only brought their gifts to the Divine Child. As the Scripture puts it, they bowed down and worshipped him.

In other words, bringing the gifts is inseparably associated with worshipping the Saviour. Is the artist, writer or journalist ready to bring his gift wholeheartedly worshipping the Lord and confessing his faith? Only a positive answer to this question can pave a way to develop Christian culture.

I am deeply convinced that the Church operating within the information society should develop theology of image and theology of communication, along with designing a meaningful cultural policy.


[1] Theology of image could be developed, inter alia, based on Valery Lepakhin’s concept of iconicity.

[2] Theology of communication could be developed, inter alia, based on the articles by Alexandr Filonenko and ‘The Church in the information society. Theology of communication’ course by the author.

[3] Theological aesthetics could be developed, inter alia, based on such works as The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth by David Bentley Hart and God After Metaphysics: A Theological Aesthetic by Rev. Archimandrite John Panteleimon Manoussakis.

[4] Baudrillard Jean. In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, or, The End of the Social and Other Essays. Translated by Paul Foss, John Johnson and Paul Patton. News York, Semiotext, 1983, p. 95.

[5] Rev. Alexander Sorokin. Prophet Jonah. An unpublished essay from the private archive of the author.

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