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A "Call of Duty" Spirituality

By. Fr. Lawrence Farley - March 11th, 2024

Presented for your consideration (as Rod Serling used to say):  an old man dressed up as an Orthodox priest-monk who is actually neither priest nor monk, performing outrageous antics both in public and online in a furious attempt to draw attention to himself.  Mr. Milton Kapner calls himself Brother Nathanael, and he is a Jewish man who has attracted a large following of online listeners to his regular virulent anti-Semitic rants.  Though he was once a novice in an Old Calendarist monastery in Colorado, he was kicked out of that monastery and is now not a monk at all, despite wearing monastic garb, but “a showman with a persecution complex who likes to be the center of attention” (from “Orthodox Christianity Then and Now”). 


As you might suspect, Mr. Kapner is not a well man.  He is, however, very popular online with a certain crowd.  A recent interview with him entitled, “On the crisis in the Orthodox Church” garnered 11,000 views in less than 24 hours.


My concern is not really with Mr. Kapner, since people like Mr. Kapner turn up repeatedly, churning out the same conspiracy theories, lashing out and denouncing all those around them without any real insight or forethought.  Admittedly Mr. Kapner does it very considerable flare.  Both his visible appearance and verbal demeanor are calculated to draw attention to himself.  Kapner is living proof that in the online world, style trumps substance every time.

 

But more important than Mr. Kapner is the social significance of his apparent popularity.  Given his complete lack of real insight and his outlandish rants, the real question is why anyone would find time to listen to him at all.  I mean…11,000 people in less than 24 hours?  What’s going on?

I suspect that what is going on is the emergence in North American Orthodoxy of a new and pathological spirituality.  A dear priest friend of mine in the OCA I thought put his finger on it:  there is now a certain group of young men (my guess is that Kapner’s fans are almost always young men) whose formation included spending far too much time playing first-person shooter games like Call of Duty, and listening to long online podcasts.  These games trained them to see the world in terms of combat, of no-holds-barred fighting, of hunting down the enemy and shooting him quickly, and of blowing stuff up. It is Us against Them:  we have to shoot first before asking questions before They shoot Us.  The Call of Duty world is starkly binary and  violent.  You get points and status for a quick trigger finger, not for careful thought and discernment. 


My priest friend surmised that young men with this kind of toxicity in their formation are primed to follow men like Kapner and crew—men who also divide the world into Us versus Them, and who also shoot first before stopping to think, question, dialogue, or do anything else that might provide genuine insight.  I believe my priest friend was on to the something.


In this Call of Duty “spirituality” virtue consists in hunting down the heretics lurking around each dangerous corner, and then gunning them down before they can speak.  Hesitation (i.e. genuine dialogue—admittedly now a rarity in our culture) cannot be tolerated, since it is too dangerous.  Don’t hesitate or talk with the potential target beforehand—just shoot.  Denunciation therefore takes the place of dialogue—and of course for denunciation to be effective, it must preclude such things as nuance or fact-checking.  That explains why so much of what people like Kapner says is simply gas, and also why conspiracy theories are so attractive to them.


The Call of Duty spirituality embraced by these legions of young men is, like the Call of Duty games they played, based on the binary of Us versus Them—or, to give it another name, tribalism.  The people out there are no longer individual persons with all the complexity, richness, contradictions, and quirks that all people share.  The person becomes identified with a certain view they hold (or are said to hold), and all their personhood is collapsed into that view.  That is how labelling works:  you are no longer Thomas, a man a man of nuance with a number of possibly contradictory views, but a Liberal, or a Fundamentalist, or a New Calendarist, or a White, or a Black, or a Jew. 


Speaking of this last label, we saw in the Second World War how effectively such labelling works (and also of the violence inherent in all labelling) when millions of persons were killed simply because they wore the label “Jew”.  In those dark and demonic days a person’s name, character, past, opinions, or behaviour didn’t matter.  All that mattered was the label “Jew”.  The Jews were part of “Them” (the enemy tribe), and those of our tribe (the “Us”) must shoot them on sight.  That is how the first-person shooter games work. And that is how labelling works.


As you can see, the Call of Duty spirituality is actually an anti-spirituality, containing none of the elements that make for a truly spiritual person.  Real spirituality refuses to divide the world into Us versus Them, but sees everyone in the world as a potential brother in Christ, someone for whom the Lord died.  Real spirituality does not speak before it listens.  And real spirituality is always ready for real dialogue, for flexibility, for self-examination, for repentance.  That is because real spirituality is rooted in humility.

St. James expressed it like this:  “Who among you is wise and understanding?  Let him show by his good behaviour his deeds in the gentleness of wisdom…The wisdom from above is first pure, then peace-loving, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, free of hypocrisy.  And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” 


This is hardly the approach of those embracing a shoot-em-down approach to life.  The young men cheering on men like Milton Kapner have opted for a different approach to life and to Orthodoxy.  St. James described that rival approach as well:  he said that such so-called wisdom “is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, sensual, demonic”.  Let all the young Orthodox men take heed.

So:  what is the answer and the antidote to a Call of Duty spirituality?  In a word, love—the love that lives in a parish community with its many opportunities for service and self-sacrifice.  Making the parish community and not the computer the matrix and center of one’s spiritual life includes the following benefits.


First of all, in the parish one finds in the parish priest a more reliable guide and catechist than is available than in the Wild West world of online Orthodoxy.  Any whacko with a computer can set himself up as a guide, a prophet, a staretz, a shining light to the lost and a corrector of the hopelessly confused.  His location online means that he is basically accountable to no one, and can say whatever he likes without fear of repercussions from bishop or congregation. 


The parish priest, on the other hand, if he goes off the theological deep end, will very quickly get himself in trouble with his bishop or his people, and will find himself either suspended or abandoned.  This alone helps to keep him on the royal via media between the extremes of liberalism and fundamentalism.  He is likely therefore to simply preach plain Orthodoxy, and not his own idiosyncratic brand of it. 


As a part of his congregation, young men can also ask the priest for clarification and guidance in a one-on-one pastoral relationship hard to find in the online world.  The best that an online teacher can manage is to be a loud voice; the local pastor, on the other hand, can be a true shepherd who calls each of his flock by name as he leads them out (John 10:3).  The pastor can help his young men discern truth from half-truth, true wisdom from the false, what the Scriptures and the Fathers actually teach, and which paths lead to spiritual maturity.  Such personalized care can only be found by being part of a parish.


Secondly, making the parish the center of one’s spiritual life brings with it the possibility of serving others.  The Church does not only need prophets; it also needs people who will wash the dishes after coffee hour, vacuum the church rugs, give rides to the elderly, help in the altar, sing in the choir, and help with the Sunday school. 


That is, in the parish the youth can be trained to become servants, people who will gird themselves with a towel and wash the feet of others as our Lord did (see John 13).  Such humble service to others cannot be offered from behind a computer screen; one needs to rejoin the real world if one is to engage in such acts of service. 


And these acts do not only benefit the ones receiving them.  Perhaps more importantly they help transform the ones who perform them, taking their attention off themselves and placing it on the needs of others.  It is easy to live inside one’s head when debating the theoretical heresies of people one has never met.  It is harder to live in that cramped space when visiting the lonely grandmother and listening to her stories about her arthritis or her reminiscences about when she was a young girl.  One leaves the grandmother at the end of the visit a healthier person inside.  And one recalls that the Lord said that it is by such acts of service and love that He would differentiate the sheep from the goats (see Matthew 25). 


Finally, making the parish the primary locus of one’s spiritual life means making growth in prayer and love the ultimate aim.  The struggle to overcome the passions is a life-long battle for everyone, but it can be especially difficult for young men.  Victory in this does not come through listening to long podcasts, but through prolonged prayer.  Our real enemies are not those of the “other” tribe who can be shot down online; our real enemy is within. 


That is, our true struggle is not against other people, against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual armies of darkness (Ephesians 6:12), and this enemy seeks to find a lodging place in our heart.  He can only be driven out from there by prayer and fasting, and by seeking help from God in true humility of heart.  It is folly to strike a blow for truth online while remaining enslaved to our own sins and passions.  We must first remove the log from our own eye before seeking to remove the mote from the eyes of others online.


We live in an age of celebrity, an age bedazzled by the loud, the colourful, the charismatic.  That is why style almost always triumphs over substance, and why the Kardashians are still with us.  Most celebrities are known for their flare, their pizzazz—that is, by their externals.  We Orthodox must  not take celebrities for guides, for we have no ability to pierce their externals and discover if what lies within will truly help us.  Better to turn off the computer and to return to the real world, to leave off sitting in front of the screen, and to stand before our icons.  Our icon-corner and our local parish is where we can truly find maturity in Christ.


About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.




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