Young Greek atheist in a trench coat: The matrix of symbols on display at Santa Fe High

No doubt about it. It's hard to get more Greek than the name "Dimitrios Pagourtzis." 

So, yes, I was not surprised to receive emails asking me the significance of the Greek Orthodox heritage (and ethnic dancing skills) of America's latest young student with guns and a mission.

Once again, we face questions about the contents of a gunman's head and heart, as journalists (and law officials) try to answer the always painful "Why?" question in the mantra, "Who, What, Where, When, Why and How."

The Orthodox connection is mentioned in most background stories about Pagourtzis. Here is a TMZ reference with a link to video. You will not, when viewing it, be tempted to shout, "Opa!"

The student arrested for gunning down 10 people at his high school appeared to be nothing more than a church-going dancer mere days before the shooting.
TMZ has obtained video of 17-year-old Dimitrios Pagourtzis participating in a choreographed dance for his Greek Orthodox church the weekend before he allegedly shot and killed 8 of his peers and 2 teachers.
Sources connected to the event tell us the dance was part of a larger Greek festival in a town about 30 minutes away from Santa Fe, TX where he went to school. 

In traditional, even elite, media this Greek Orthodox information is more likely to look like this -- care of The New York Times.

Investigators, meanwhile, are scouring his journal, a computer and a cellphone that Mr. Abbott said showed the suspect had been planning the attack, and his own death. ... 
In many ways, Mr. Pagourtzis was a part of the Santa Fe community. He made the honor roll. He played defensive tackle on a school football team that was the pride of the town. His family was involved in the Greek Orthodox Church.

As always, in this digital-screens world of ours, what a person does with his or her time in analog life (like dancing in an ethnic dance team) may not be as important as what the person expresses in social media.

It's interesting to note that the Times team did not include the following piece of social-media information about Pagourtzis -- which did make it into print at The Washington Post.

In the Facebook account, he described himself as an atheist and said, “I hate politics.”

So which bite of information is more important, in the context of yet another school massacre? Oh, this was also an event in which the shooter -- according to survivors -- chanted "Another one bites the dust" after each kill shot? That's a phrase with multiple pop-culture connections.

 

When trying to answer the "Why?" question, is it more relevant that Pagourtzis had some kind of connection to Greek Orthodoxy or that he made a public profession that he had chosen to identify as an atheist?

Let me stress that I am not saying that anyone is calling this young man a "Greek Orthodox" gunman. I am also not saying that the roots of his violence can be found in his decision to flee the faith -- if that's what happened -- and profess that he is an atheist.

As an aside: I will note, as more than one Greek Orthodox priest has told me over the years, that many Greeks are tempted to assume that ethnic pride is the same thing as Christianity. To be blunt: Greek dancing is not a profession of faith.

No, it would appear that there are multiple levels of symbolism at play, when probing the identity of young Pagourtzis.

Let's go back to that Post story and put the atheist reference in context. I thought that this was a chilling and effective passage, one packed with the kinds of contradictions that are -- alas -- common in our modern world of virtue, and vice, signaling.

In the weeks before the shooting at Santa Fe High School outside Houston, [Pagourtzis] posted a picture of a black T-shirt on his Facebook page emblazoned in white with a simple message: “BORN TO KILL.”
The signs were so subtle that Pagourtzis’s alleged attack Friday came as a complete shock.
“There were not those types of warning signs,” said Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R). “Here the red-flag warnings were either nonexistent or imperceptible. . . . As far as arrests, criminal history, he has none. His slate is pretty clean.”
On the same day he posted the T-shirt photo, Pagourtzis uploaded a picture of a jacket adorned with several pinned symbols. In captions, he explained the significance of each: the Communist Party’s hammer and sickle representing rebellion, Nazi Germany’s Iron Cross representing bravery, the Japanese rising sun for the tactics of kamikaze pilots, the Knights Templar’s Baphomet for evil and the Cthulhu from science fiction for power.

Wait, there's more:

Pagourtzis listed as an interest the U.S. Marine Corps, “starting in 2019.” Maj. Brian Block, a Marine Corps spokesman, said the service has no record of anyone with the name Dimitrios Pagourtzis appearing as a Marine, a recruit or a prospective recruit.
In the Facebook account, he described himself as an atheist and said, “I hate politics.”
Mateo Twilley-Santiago, a 15-year-old sophomore, said Pagourtzis was in his advisory class -- a period devoted to making up homework. Mateo said Pagourtzis wore his trench coat almost every day, but he never saw Pagourtzis wearing the symbols he posted on Facebook. 

That trademark trench coat?

The odds are high that there was more to this fashion statement than a desire to hide weapons. It was almost certainly a nod to the chosen attire of the two young gunmen at Columbine High School (the "Trench Coat Mafia"). That fashion statement may or may not be linked to this iconic pop-culture reference.

I don't know, do teen-aged males still watch "The Matrix," or is that too old school?

The Times piece mentioned earlier also contained another layer of content about entertainment and digital art.

“Born to Kill” appeared on a T-shirt he posted on his Facebook page, along with images of the trench coat and an explanation of its decorations.
“Hammer and Sickle=Rebellion,” he wrote. “Rising Sun=Kamikaze Tactics. Iron Cross=Bravery. Baphomet=Evil.”
Above all this, Mr. Pagourtzis posted artwork seemingly inspired by the electronic musician James Kent, professionally known as Perturbator. Mr. Kent’s music -- largely instrumental -- has been adopted by affiliates of neo-Nazi groups and the alt-right.
On social media Mr. Kent’s fans condemned reports linking his work to the alt-right, and Mr. Kent himself responded on Saturday.
“What happened in Santa Fe is atrocious and all my thoughts are with the victims and families,” he said in a Facebook post. “I feel it is unnecessary to further explain my position regarding this tragedy as I do not want medias to make any more assumptions about me or twist my words to fit their sensationalist agenda.”

So what are we to make of all of this?

We will see, since Pagourtzis is alive and may choose to explain some of his thoughts and motives in future testimony. 

Let me conclude with this thought. Long ago, when I was teaching media studies and apologetics at Denver Seminary, I asked future ministers to ask three questions when trying to understand the lives of their church members and the people they were trying to reach outside the pews. The questions were

* How do you spend your time?
* How do you spend your money?
* How do you make your decisions?

Based on his own digital images and words, how might Pagourtzis answer?

About that time, in a journal piece for a GLOBAL network of youth ministers, I applied those questions to the lives of young people.

This was in 1992, so an 18-year-old at that time would be, well, quite old today, maybe with teens of their own. However, I still think these media-based questions are relevant.

(10) What are the dreams of your young people?
* As a rule, are young people in your church hopeful, or fatalistic, about their futures? What about the unchurched?
* Do the media in your community include many reports about despair and hopelessness among young people?
* Do your young people talk about being lonely? How do they want to relate to other young people?
* What do they want to do with their lives, in terms of work?
* Within the reality of your culture and economy, what can young people expect to be able to do during their lives?
* How do your young people want other people to think about them? How do they want to relate to other people?
* In your culture, are there changing patterns of marriage and family that will affect your young people?

Journalists could ask secular variations on many of these questions. Yes?

IMAGE: Screen shot from TMZ video cited in post.  

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