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MATTINGLY: Facing modern chaos, priests need old symbols and truths
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MATTINGLY: Facing modern chaos, priests need old symbols and truths

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Terry Mattingly | On Religion

Terry Mattingly | On Religion

Chaos is coming, so get ready.

That was the warning that — four years ago — iconographer and YouTube maven Jonathan Pageau offered to leaders of the Orthodox Church in America’s Diocese of the South.

The French-Canadian artist was reacting to cracks in “cultural cohesion” after Donald Trump’s rise to power, with wild reactions on left and right. And corporate leaders, especially in Big Tech, were throwing their “woke” weight around in fights over gender, racism, schools, religious liberty and other topics. Fear and angst were bubbling up in media messages about zombies, fundamentalist handmaidens and angry demands for “safe spaces.”

Pageau didn’t predict a global pandemic that would lock church doors.

But that’s what happened. Thus, he doubled down on his “chaos” message several weeks ago, while addressing the same body of OCA priests and parish leaders.

“If some of you didn’t believe me back then, I imagine you are more willing to believe me now,” he said.

Pageau focused, in part, on waves of online conspiracy theories that have shaken many flocks and the shepherds who lead them. Wild rumors and questions, he said, often reveal what people are thinking and feeling and, especially, whether they trust authority figures.

“Even the craziest conspiracy nuts, what they are saying is not arbitrary,” he said in a Miami meeting of the Diocese of the South, which I attended as a delegate from my parish in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. “It’s like an alarm bell. It’s like an alarm bell that you can hear, and you can understand that the person that’s ringing the alarm maybe doesn’t understand what is going on. ... They may think that they have an inside track based on what they’ve heard, and think that they know what is going on. But the alarm is not a false alarm, necessarily.”

The chaos is real, stressed Pageau. There is chaos in politics, science, schools, technology, economic systems, family structures and many issues linked to sex and gender. It’s a time when conspiracy theories about vaccines containing tracking devices echo decades of science-fiction stories, while millions of people navigate daily life with smartphones in their pockets that allow Big Tech leaders to research their every move.

This chaos will lead to change, one way or another, he said. The goal for church leaders is to listen and respond with biblical images, themes and stories — as opposed to more acidic chatter about politics. The pandemic was especially challenging for bishops and priests in ancient, liturgical churches, since life in their parishes is built on intimate sacramental acts including confession, Holy Communion and anointing the sick.

In Eastern Orthodox flocks, leaders are also trying to make sense of two conflicting trends. A census for 2010-2020 found that the number of Orthodox Christians in America shrank by 17%, with the large Greek Orthodox Church declining 22%. Other jurisdictions, including the OCA, showed slower declines, while the number of new parishes increased.

Meanwhile, Father Andrew Stephen Damick, an Antiochian Orthodox priest who specializes in online ministries, recently asked priests around the country about anecdotal accounts of rising numbers of “inquirers and catechumens showing up” at their parishes during the pandemic. Only three priests said that wasn’t the case at their churches, while 28 affirmed the reports.

“A number said that they noticed that the newcomers skew younger,” wrote Damick on his Ancient Faith Ministries blog. “Several said it’s more than they’ve ever had — in some cases, double.” At his own Pennsylvania parish, the number of newcomers last year topped the total from the previous decade.

The vast majority of priests at the Diocese of the South meetings reported the same phenomenon. Several reported a pattern frequently seen online, with young men turning to Orthodoxy after following the writings and YouTube posts of University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson. This led them to online dialogues between Peterson and Pageau, which then led them to Pageau’s “The Symbolic World” YouTube channel and other online Orthodox outlets.

“All these guys ... These young men in their 20s and early 30s, they’re out there urgently hunting for something,” said Pageau. “I sympathize with the warrior, crazy-aggressive energy in these young men — that crazy ball of warrior energy.

“You can change the world with 2,000 guys like that. It has happened before.”

(Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.)

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