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Influencers Offer a New Challenge to Church Leadership

‘Orthobros’ are drawing converts to Orthodox Christianity on social media, but their version of the religion doesn’t mesh with what the faith’s ordained priests are offering

Maggie Phillips
September 07, 2023
Religious Literacy in America
Tablet talks about Judaism a lot, but sometimes we like to change the subject. Maggie Phillips covers religious communities across the U.S.—from Christians to Muslims, Hindus to Baha’i, Jehovah’s Witnesses to pagans—to find out what they’re talking about.
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Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

Myriad political and theological disputes contributed to the early Christian Church split between Roman Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity in 1054 CE, but the overarching question was one of ultimate authority: When it came to the eternal, where should the faithful look for answers? Today, the Orthodox Church is experiencing a new kind of tension over authority, one emerging within its own ranks: between the traditional leadership of the church, and online influencers.

“There is an Orthodox mindset that takes time to develop,” said Father Tom Soroka, a priest in the Orthodox Church in America, an independent branch of the Orthodox Christian Church. It was in 2022, during wide-ranging discussions about his denomination for Tablet’s experiment in interfaith dialogue, The Tent, that Soroka first brought to my attention the effect of the so-called crisis of masculinity on Orthodox Christianity: Since 2020 and the onset of the pandemic, he has dealt with a specific type of online influencer, sometimes called the “Orthobro,” both as a pastor and as a host on Ancient Faith Radio, an online Orthodox radio and podcast network. Often converts, sometimes merely Orthodox-curious, and usually male, Orthobros are self-described traditionalists who can be found online on sites like Discord and Twitter, arguing the finer points of Orthodox theology in a vernacular peppered with misogynistic and homophobic language.

Soroka views himself as offering members of his flock an approach to life’s challenges that is legitimized not just by the authorities within his faith tradition (priests must be formally ordained by bishops after completing seminary), but by a holistic understanding of parishioners’ particular situations that comes from being part of a community. Recently, however, he has seen a challenge to this paradigm. Twenty years ago, he could recommend a book to a prospective parishioner who had a question. Today, seekers and converts can take their questions to online Orthodox influencers who are preoccupied with obscure theological takedowns of Nestorianism and Monophysitism, who also peddle conspiracy theories about the occult and government, parrot right-wing political talking points, and make the case for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Most of them are very young in the faith,” Soroka said—and young in general, lacking much in the way of life experience. “But if you have a webcam …everybody becomes an expert.”

Eastern Illinois University assistant professor of political science and religiosity researcher Ryan Burge shared data showing that even as the number of Orthodox adherents and church attendees in the U.S. dropped between 2010 and 2020, the share of those who are between 18 and 49 is now at 62%, compared to 34% of Protestants and 41% of Catholics. Moreover, even as the average age of many denominations has trended upward in the same period, Orthodox Christians have remained relatively stable, hovering around the early 40s.

As the name “Orthobro” suggests, the influencers and especially their followers skew young, which may go a long way toward explaining how their converts’ zeal can easily give way to intolerance for shades of gray, and implicit trust in YouTubers. A Reddit thread from about 10 months ago on r/OrthodoxChristianity asked other converts when they outgrew their “Orthobro phase.” When one poster requested a definition of “Orthobro,” another provided this: “Young Orthodox men (often converts, sometimes not) who are zealous about their faith but usually not spiritually developed yet.” Another was told by the original poster that he “nailed it” when they asked if Orthobro culture was at all related to “the heavy meme culture of rejecting modernity and doomer type of sentiment of misguided young men who are in an identity crisis in the western world?”

It is difficult to get much beyond anecdata on the average age of young men who are drawn into Orthodox Christianity through online influencers, but the apps where Orthodox influencers can be found—Discord and Telegram, for example—are popular with teens and young people. YouTube, where controversial Orthodox influencer Jay Dyer has a channel, is used “almost constantly” by one in five U.S. teens, according to a recent Pew Research study.

Noah Jefferson is a former Orthobro who went public with his journey away from the movement earlier this year on his Substack, The Open Ark.

Jefferson’s journey into online culture reflects a common arc for those in what Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, an assistant professor of religion and anthropology at Northeastern University whose research has focused on both former evangelicals and the Orthodox Church in the U.S., calls “Reactive Orthodoxy.” To paraphrase her explanation of this phenomenon at the International Conference at the Orthodox Volos Academy for Theological Studies in Greece last year, Riccardi-Swartz described a conversion movement driven by online communities. They are dominated by young, predominantly male converts (and aspiring converts) who synthesize the denomination with elements of Christian nationalism and socially conservative and traditionalist politics. Riccardi-Swartz’s field work focused on a community of socially conservative Russophile converts from evangelical Protestantism to the Russian Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR), a distinct branch of Orthodox Christianity from the OCA.

A politically conservative convert to Orthodox Christianity from Protestantism, Jefferson’s initial contact with the small denomination occurred primarily online (although there are many ethnic Orthodox churches, the Orthodox Church in America has fewer than 1 million members). Jefferson initially became exposed to Orthodox Christianity online, prior to his formal 2021 conversion. He was seeking a sense of tradition and history that he felt was lacking in his nondenominational Christian community. “The internet continued to be my catechist for quite some time,” he wrote, both during his conversion process and just after he joined the Orthodox Church. Miles from the nearest Orthodox community in his native Canada, he sought out the next best thing on a Discord server moderated, among others, by Orthodox influencer Jay Dyer. “I was simply looking for interaction with other Orthodox who had the same love for theology as myself,” he wrote, “and it appeared to me that I had found such.”

Jefferson was initially willing to let a lot of things slide—describing himself as “socially awkward and naive,” he was making friends, and soon became “desensitized to” the epithets used against those who disagreed with them. Jefferson credits his professors while he worked on a master’s in Orthodox theology and his parish priests for his current understanding of the theology of the Orthodox Church in America, especially regarding ecumenism—progressing toward reunion with other Christians without compromising their own faith—a concept that is anathema to much of the online Orthodox right. But developing this worldview, he acknowledges, was a process, and in the meantime, his online community was readily available when face-to-face community often was not.

Jefferson was soon a moderator on the Discord server himself, and became drawn into an online ecosystem populated by other Orthodox influencers, which he now describes as a “distortion of Orthodoxy” and “neglect of common human decency and integrity.” His full-throated defense of ecumenism led to his being banned and doxed by other members on the server.

Jefferson’s story jibes with many other stories of toxic niche online communities, where ad hominem attacks and the doxxing of perceived heretics within the group who refuse to toe the ideological line as set out by the charismatic personalities are more or less the price of admission. Where Jefferson’s account differs from a YA novel authorship controversy is what he describes as “a group of priests and charismatic laymen that are acting independently to censor others in the name of Orthodoxy.” Like fandoms that turn on their progenitors (Harry Potter fans who no longer have any use for J.K. Rowling’s politics, or Swifties urging their idol to dump her latest boyfriend), suspicion is the order of the day, with influencers—and even a handful of clergy in their orbit—mistrustful of OCA clergy who may have shut down their churches at the onset of COVID-19, and who embrace outreach to other denominations.

The experience of the Orthodox Church has parallels and echoes in other denominations. Internet influencers’ impact was, for instance, the “backdrop” behind a recent conference on education at Brigham Young University. While the internet and social media have made it possible for religious leaders to reach more people than ever before, they have also launched a crop of enthusiasts, dilettantes, and swindlers who are competing for their audience share. From secular masculinity influencers like Andrew Tate, to “trad” Christian accounts encouraging women to stifle their ambition so they can stay home and serve their husbands—and a number of flavors in between—both the faithful and “nones” alike have access to a smorgasbord of religious opinion to suit their taste, or to serve as a ballast in a confusing world.

Ultimately, the tension between religious leaders whose theology is informed by two millennia of tradition, and influencers who often lack formal pastoral training—but can boast charisma and engaging arguments—is best understood not as a culture clash, but the meeting of fundamentally contrasting mindsets.

The OCA traces its origins to the Russian Orthodox missionaries who arrived in Kodiak, Alaska, at the end of the 18th century. Today, it operates as a self-governing “autocephalous” church with its own leader, known as a primate, and it enjoys recognition from other autocephalous Orthodox Churches around the world. No single governing body oversees the entirety of every Orthodox Church worldwide; there is a confederation of churches that observe the same doctrine and canon laws, and honor the decisions of seven Ecumenical Church Councils (historic conferences of bishops that took place between the fourth and eighth centuries to resolve questions of dogma). In each autocephaly, there are priests who are subordinate to bishops, who are subordinate to regional authorities called metropolitans.

That’s the idea, anyway.

Whereas traditionally, the authority of priests over their congregations was legitimized by belief in the sacred authority conferred on them by tradition (and their bishops), in the age of social media, religious authority “is dialogic and performative.” That’s according to Pauline Cheong, professor and director of engagement and innovation at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University, in her article “A Holy Influence: Understanding Religious Authority in Hyperconnected Times.” A particular threat is to “preaching and pastoral care,” she writes, where “self-proclaimed guides who have posted their teachings online can offer alternative perspectives and incorporate popular psychology to expand religious discourse.”

The result is something Soroka calls the “gamification” of religion. “Having their worldview formed by online gaming culture,” he said via email, referring to the young male converts to Orthodoxy, “they see anyone who disagrees with them or criticizes them as the enemy. As a team, their goal, like gaming, is to destroy the enemy—their critics, through immediate denunciation, and even in certain cases, very aggressive doxxing. This gamification is also present in their obsession with debates, which often devolves into an atmosphere more indicative of the UFC than a respectful discussion.”

As a team, their goal, like gaming, is to destroy the enemy—their critics, through immediate denunciation, and even in certain cases, very aggressive doxxing.

The National Bureau of Economic Research found that the time young men spent playing video games annually increased by 99 hours between 2004 and 2015. Given the amount of screen time and isolation experienced by young people during the COVID-19 pandemic, Soroka’s theory about the gamification of religion may have merit.

Popular online multiplayer games like Europa Universalis IV can serve as an entry-level introduction to medieval and early modern Western history for many young people. In “EU4,” players can dominate large swaths of territory through religion—which the game translates into quantifiable characteristics, such as their missionary strength, the acceptance of its “patriarchal authority” in a given area, and the amount of popular unrest that can be expected there based on the populace’s “tolerance of the true faith.” Players can deploy Orthodox icons, such as the icon of Christ Pantocrater and St. Michael the Archangel, to boost manpower and discipline in war, or of the Virgin Mary and child Jesus to reduce civil unrest. Under certain conditions, players who obtain the status of “defender of the faith” in the game increase their percentages of missionary strength and prestige.

Jefferson describes the conduct of self-appointed defenders of the faith in his Substack article: “It is regularly claimed by this group of online influencers that the vilest rhetoric is permissible to be used against one’s opponents, whether non-Orthodox or even Orthodox who do not meet their standards. Anyone that disagrees with such vulgar behavior is called a ‘piety signaller [sic],’ and the moderators may even ban people for such so-called piety signalling [sic].”

In an email to Tablet, Jefferson said that although many of the converts he encountered are gamers, since they are primarily young men, he is unsure how many were initially exposed to Orthodoxy through games like EU4. The “defender of the faith” aesthetic is popular, he acknowledges, “but I also think that is true for all young male conservative Christians across denominational lines.” The attraction is as much aesthetic as anything, he said, citing “the influence of online ‘trad Cath‘ crusader fandom and right-wing meme culture around MAGA and Putin’s Russia, which the online Orthobro community is constantly borrowing from and reacting to.”

“There is a lot of baggage and overzealousness,” Jefferson said in another email of the Orthobros who haven’t actually converted, “Especially for ideas they desire to find in Orthodoxy that are not actually there.”

There are a few stars in the Orthobro ferment whose names come up frequently among both critics and fans. Among them are sometime Infowars host Jay Dyer, who has 116,000 subscribers on YouTube and 50,000 followers on X (formerly Twitter), and Father Peter Heers, a purported Orthodox priest whose official backing from any Orthodox bishop remains hazy, and who was considered problematic enough to prompt an official statement from the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States that Heers is “not a clergyman of, or on loan to, any other canonical Orthodox jurisdiction in the United States.” The Orthodox Christianity Discord server that Jefferson was on claimed 8,000 active users as of last year, according to Father Deacon Ananias Sorem, a close collaborator of Dyer’s and founder of the website Patristic Faith, on which Jefferson had once published a few articles (Jefferson said in his Substack essay that it was his request earlier this year to have his articles removed from the site that led to his doxxing by Dyer in another Discord server that Jefferson had joined anonymously).

“My theory is that COVID had a big hand in this,” said Timothy Hojnicki, an Orthodox priest and pastor of Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, via email. “For the first time young people who saw themselves invincible had to wrestle with the idea of mortality. Being told daily ‘you could die’ tends to make people think introspectively. The Orthodox Church presents the remedy for death, a life in Christ, who has conquered death and we believe gives life to the world. In that sense it’s appealing to be a part of a Church that isn’t afraid of the ‘last enemy’ (death), but in fact teaches its followers to prepare for it every day.”

At the same time, online Orthodox influencers began asserting that bishops who closed parishes, said Soroka of his experience via email, “were ‘not truly Orthodox,’ compromising the Faith, and were possibly even government subversives. While such notions are entirely absurd, the lasting effect has been a continued distrust of bishops and priests among a very narrow element in the larger church population, but which has an inordinate influence online since they shout the loudest.” Priests, who are meant to bring the spiritual and the theoretical into the realm of the experiential, directing the hearts of the faithful and answering their questions, he said, are now valued depending on whether they are “based” or whether they are “ecumenists,” theological squishes open to other religions. It is a conflation of tradition with social and political conservatism among novices that, Jefferson said, results in young converts putting “the doctrine of the Trinity and anti-vaccine beliefs on the same continuum.”

Supporting Soroka is a recent study of the impact of COVID-19 on Orthodox congregations in the U.S., which found that the typical Orthodox Church is composed of 40% converts, and congregations where the pastor is himself a convert are more likely to consist of other converts and young people under the age of 18. The majority of parishes that grew by more than 20% during the pandemic were those that never closed for in-person services, and those predominantly composed of converts.

“We do know that those who identify as evangelicals have long been converting to Orthodoxy broadly in the United States,” said Riccardi-Swartz. “Seeking out Orthodoxy and then seeking out the priesthood is a common trend among former evangelicals who become Orthodox. And there are certainly parishes where being a convert is the status quo. In terms of trends, I will say that the new type of evangelical converts, particularly since the 2010s, are much more ideologically and politically motivated, whereas the converts in the 1990s and early 2000s were often just looking for a more ancient form of Christianity.”

“I think the appeal of the Orthodox Church is structure and order,” said Hojnicki. “There’s a purpose to life, and people like having something tangible to interact with. Feasts, fasts, cycles of the year. In the sense of the attractiveness to males, the Orthodox Church is one of the few institutions that still maintains and encourages traditional gender roles. Men are encouraged to be men, and women, women. While most of the world would see this as sexist or something, we see these roles as holy, bearing responsibility for families and the upbringing of children in traditional models that have worked for millennia. People see this and it’s a refreshing thing as opposed to the “everyone is the same” approach, which just isn’t true.”

Jefferson, Hojnicki, and Soroka see in-person community as the antidote to what often resembles a toxic online fandom, where increase of appetite for controversy grows on which it feeds.

A real parish community that contains what Jefferson calls “the multiplicity of Orthodox experiences” contradicts the aesthetic notions that are driving young online idealists to the faith. “They are entering the Church hoping to find a community which is an amalgamation of their already held socio-cultural or ideological viewpoints, giving them the strength of an unshakeable tradition,” he said in his email. Engaging with a real church community, he said, gets them out of the atmospherics of what he calls “an online echo chamber,” which by its nature is given to abstractions and the theoretical.

“It’s not just about facts,” said Soroka over the phone. “It’s what we call in Orthodoxy a phronema—a worldview.”

Soroka is hopeful that community will win out in the end. For one thing, it is a matter of practicality: The Orthodox community in the U.S. is small, and a priest is necessary to enter into the Orthodox Church through its rites of initiation. There is no going to another Orthodox Church if a priest at a particular parish decides you aren’t ready. “We all talk to each other,” he said.

Hojnicki said that a militant prospective convert, who comes to him purporting to know more than the bishop, is “a sure sign” that they don’t have the spiritual maturity to enter the church just yet. “Having done this for the last 18-plus years you see the patterns,” he said. “People read all sorts of things and then have expectations of what it should be like in a parish. Now adherence to church doctrine, canons, traditions … all of this is important and necessary. But trying to make the case for a practice that was discontinued in the church hundreds of years before (probably for good reason) that someone read in a book with no context to a local parish. That’s just not helpful.”

The hope, he said, “is that the priest can be patient enough and work with the newcomer, and the zealous neophyte can have a little humility that they might not understand everything as they think they do.”

The predominantly masculine Orthobros are not the only online Christian influencers. There’s also the “Prairie Woman of Shame.”

Catholic author Claire Swinarski coined the term in a recent edition of her Substack newsletter, The Catholic Feminist. The Prairie Woman of Shame is what she calls the social media-induced voice in her head, a judgmental phantasm created by the Christian ideals of femininity she sees scrolling Instagram: beautiful, heteronormative, seemingly doing and having it all. While Swinarski notes that there are liberal Christian influencers, the accounts that conjure the Prairie Woman of Shame tend to favor traditional gender roles and socially conservative views, but they are run by women, without the performative machismo of the Christian online manosphere.

“The Prairie Woman of Shame would never use paper plates for dinner three nights in a row just because she’s too tired to do dishes,” Swinarski wrote. “The Prairie Woman of Shame clucks her tongue at my inability to muster up the energy to tidy the basement.”

This specter is summoned by the woman Swinarski calls “the you’re-not-doing-enough influencer.”

“Who the influencer is doesn’t matter,” she writes. “Because there are a thousand of her and I’m sure you can name at least six. She has one able-bodied child, a husband with a large paycheck, and a beautiful home. She is, of course, in an MLM [multi-level-marketing scheme].” She is a woman who makes Christian life look like a magazine spread, and anyone who is struggling has only to follow her formula. “If you’d just listen to her,” Swinarski writes, “everything would work out fine.”

The female Christian influencer ecosystem is much larger and more diverse than that of the Orthobros. While there are liberal Christian influencers, a quick search on Instagram for the terms “Christian mom” and “Christian girl” turns up multiple accounts with tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of followers (many follower counts rival Dyer’s on X and even YouTube).

The motherhood-oriented accounts often extol some combination of the virtues of homemaking, natural living, home schooling, and protecting your children from the government, schools, day care, and babysitters. For the Christian girls, author Ashley Hetherington tells her nearly 300,000 followers in a video aimed at “the girl who needs this reminder right now” that God will send them a man “who will lead you to Jesus instead of the bedroom.” These accounts are often performatively feminine, providing beauty, fitness, and fashion recommendations (not always sponsored); still others offer women the opportunity to pay for Christian life-coaching, or—as with Hetherington’s own initiative, The Honey Scoop—monthly paid memberships to online communities for women of faith.

Swinarski began a podcast, also called The Catholic Feminist, in 2017, and at that time, “Instagram felt very much like a supportive community,” she told Tablet in an email. “It was a lot of women posting multiple times a day about their days, their faith, their jobs, their mothering.”

But as time went on, the dynamics on Catholic social media, as in other corners of the internet, became more ideologically fraught, and Swinarski left Twitter and Instagram. “There really wasn’t a space for someone like me,” she shared in her email, “who’s just looking to learn and grow in the spiritual life without having all of the answers all of the time, who also believes in fidelity to the church and her teachings.”

Like Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism is a hierarchical faith with canon laws and doctrine, as well as priests who are subordinate to bishops, all of whom answer to the pope at the Vatican (although COVID and internet conspiracy theories have yielded American Catholicism’s own rogue priest problem). Yet for all that, Swinarski said what she sees online—influencers telling her she is a heretic if she works and chooses to “outsource motherhood” by using childcare, others telling her “true happiness and freedom are found in doing whatever the hell I want”—are people using little more than the fact that they are baptized Catholics or who went to 12 years of Catholic school to set themselves up as authorities. “People with zero training beyond a gut feel and a prayer habit,” she said, “are acting as if they’ve studied the faith for years and know better than 2,000 years of teaching and tradition.”

Where Soroka likens his job to being a general practitioner, trained to know a little bit about a lot in order to accompany and pastor his congregation, Swinarski sees a corollary effect from her perspective as laywoman. “The laity is absolutely using social media for religious information the way the general public uses WebMD to diagnose themselves,” she said.

Swinarski’s not letting the priests off the hook, however. “People often turn to WebMD because they don’t have access to healthcare,” she said. Similarly, “people often turn to the internet because they don’t even know their parish priest or he doesn’t ‘have time’ to lead his flock. If priests and parishes and dioceses were actually doing their jobs and giving proper, accessible spiritual leadership and formation, people wouldn’t be flocking to the internet for answers.”

Hojnicki uses another medical analogy. While zeal is an important attribute for those who commit to Orthodoxy (not “for the faint of heart”), he said “when the faith is used as a weapon to insult or to hurt other people, then there is a problem.” Just as ex-smokers are hard on smokers and people who have lost a lot of weight are still critical of the overweight, he theorized, those who have left behind one set of beliefs for Orthodoxy, can be hypercritical of those they see as struggling under the weight of their own ignorance. “But,” he said, “we need to thank God for those confessions who laid the foundation which brought them the questions which brought them to Orthodoxy.”

“Social media movements are much more emotionally driven than they’ll often admit,” said Hannah Long, an editor of Christian books who has spent years in the Evangelical Protestant world, from her native Appalachia to New York City, where she currently lives.

Long is active on Christian Twitter, and laughed when I told her over the phone about an Instagram post I saw from a Christian social media influencer about the link between skincare and spiritual attack (it ended with a pitch to comment or DM her for a $10 discount link).

Long has experienced Christian communities that are mistrustful of institutions from an early age, between her Appalachian upbringing, and her education during the first real wave of Christian home schooling in the 1990s and early 2000s. Long notes that many of her peers ultimately ended up more liberal than their parents. “Everybody has a narrative that is being appealed to,” she said. “If you kind of find your activist identity online, there are different movements that I think it’s easy to get swept up into.”

She sees it on the left as well as the right; she said many of her peers who were raised in the Christian home schooling movement have become more liberal, some being swept into parallel social media movements. “If the narrative that is very strong is telling you that like, your parents were backwards and that everything they taught you was bad and that you kind of just need to identify everything as trauma,” she said, “then that’s a very strong, appealing narrative to some people, especially when you’re at a certain age in life and you’re thinking oh, well, they were kind of cringe.”

For right-wingers feeling embattled by the culture, said Long, who want a way to express that in a way that is rooted in an intellectual and historical tradition, “then you have a lot of these sort of trad movements, that I think, especially sort of disaffected evangelicals who are looking for some sort of church history, they’re like, ‘oh, these people seem to know what they’re talking about,’ and immediately go there.”

Echoing Jefferson, Long said, “It’s almost like people looking for something to confirm what they already feel—which is true of everybody, I guess.”

Long identifies a need for discernment among those drawn to online extremes, including herself at times. “So much of this I think just comes down to, are people trying to compare it to scripture, are they trying to think about what does this mean in the broader context of ethics, of how we should live our lives? Am I just getting swept up into a movement without thinking about it?” she said, “And those are all big issues of epistemology, of critical thinking, and of just wisdom.” Long means not just making good life choices, but loving one’s neighbors, and realizing the isolating effects of a social media environment where there “are fewer consequences for being loud and abrasive, and acting like your opinion is the only one that matters.”

As a layperson coming from a more democratic Protestant faith tradition, Long sees fewer immediate threats to clergy from the flattening effects of social media. She does, however, identify a potential pitfall that has resonances of the experiences cited by Jefferson and Soroka with regard to Orthobro influencers: “I think the underlying question there is kind of, what authority should a pastor have over his parishioners’ lives? In what issues should he speak to and for them?” she said.

For a congregation where there is little in the way of doctrinal and spiritual formation beyond a vague moralism and emphasis on the emotional and experiential, said Long, “that actually increases the power of a pastor,” because “there’s nothing but vibes,” and “charisma is the only thing that matters, because we’re not comparing our opinions together against scripture, and against some sort of serious authority or unchangeable text. We are just kind of vibing our way through things, and big colorful personalities tend to really rise to the top in that setting.”

Speaking in another context about a tendency she identifies in liberal Protestantism, to outsource understanding of religious texts and doctrine to a seminary-trained authority, Long nevertheless sounds similar to Jefferson and Soroka talking about the difference between knowing the arcane theological arguments of an obscure medieval theologian, and developing a genuine Orthodox worldview.

“You can know the Bible inside out and not be wise,” she said. “The orientation of your heart toward God helps you to know to properly apply the knowledge that you know, and that’s what wisdom is.”

Since she has largely turned away from social media, Swinarski found a new way of connecting with other Catholic women. In 2021, she led a pilgrimage for Catholic women to holy sites in France, an experience she said “has changed my life.” She is planning another one to Poland later this year.

“Getting out from behind the computer and spending time in France with 50 women who came from all different backgrounds, occupations, and seasons of life was just incredibly life-giving,” she said. “To be able to have the conversations we had, and experience the tangible parts of our faith together, was transformative in a way you’re simply not going to be able to do over social media. We didn’t all vote for the same people, or have the same opinion about the pope’s off-the-cuff interviews, or appreciate the same aesthetics at Mass. But we all loved Jesus, and we all tried to come together with a real desire to get to know one another and live life together for two weeks.”

At the same time, Swinarski is not technophobic: “How did we come together? The internet! So I do think the internet has a place when it comes to evangelization and connection. It just needs to have a way to foster transition offline and in more meaningful ways.”

Like Swinarski, Long also talks about the need to be anchored by “wise and edifying friends,” when, despite unprecedented access to knowledge and information, “everybody is in a logical bubble.” The reason, she said, “is because we’re isolated from each other, and social media makes that worse.”

Soroka sees the influence of certain “dark corners of the internet” that suspect “subversion around every corner” as an extension of the contemporary mental health crisis among young people. Amid an ambient sense that the times and the world at large are going badly, the idea that a small group of insiders have the answers can be very tempting—“it makes complicated issues seem overly simplistic,” he said.

But traditionally for Christians, “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” not the expectation of satisfying explanations. Long paraphrases a G.K. Chesterton parable, about how the only way to reason a madman out of his position—which has its own internal logic—is to read him poetry. “You have to get somebody to imagine their way out of that,” she said, “To make connections that are not strictly logical. And I think so much of that happens through relationships, and through loving your neighbors.”

Everyone I spoke to agreed that in-person community, which can be diverse in all kinds of ways, but also messy and complicated, is the remedy for the abstract certainties of online discourse.

“The contact with differing experiences and expressions of Orthodox life,” Jefferson said in his email, “hopefully break down any reactionist or sectarian leanings as one learns to engage in love and understanding with other persons.”

Long acknowledges that “love thy neighbor” can sound simplistic and sentimental, but in fact, doing so in practice, and in real life, requires giving something up. “It might mean I have to be less angry,” she said, “which I don’t think a lot of people want to be.”

This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.

Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.