A Brief Word to Book Reviewers

-Sneering dismissal of an author is acceptable to the degree that his book likewise is sneering and dismissive. What works marvelously well in a review of Richard Dawkins doesn’t in a review of Mitch Albom. You might have the same opinion of both writers, and that’s fine! But responding to Mitch Albom as if he’s Richard Dawkins is not only misleading and disingenuous, it’s obnoxious, like the preacher who screams from the pulpit “He leads me beside still waters.” If a meek and mild book is silly and false, then, as meekly and mildly as you can manage, call it silly and false. Don’t use a machine gun to rid the garden of squirrels.

-If you find yourself editing a citation from the book in a way that’s advantageous to your point but that wouldn’t be advantageous if you were to cite it more fully, you are in the process of misrepresenting the book. What you think the author really wants to say is not the same as what s/he said. Acknowledge the words that are really there and then make a case why your interpretation is valid. “Here’s what I think they mean” is perfectly defensible. “Look at what they said” is not.

-Write the review for the benefit of people who don’t necessarily have presuppositions about the author or the subject. Write something that would be helpful for the people who don’t subscribe to your Twitter feed or blog newsletter. If that’s difficult, declare what you’re writing a thinkpiece instead of a review. There’s no shame in it.

-If you can’t think of anything positive to say about the book, look at the cover. In my experience a suspiciously large percentage of the books that I couldn’t think of any redeeming qualities for had excellent outer designs. Work goes into that too, y’know.

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You Are What You Click

I commend to you this excellent essay by Gracy Olmstead on our current American news culture. The entire piece is well-worth your time and reflection, but I want to zero in on one particular point Gracy makes. Toward the end of the essay Gracy says that “the news you click on is the news you deserve.” In other words, those who complain about misleading, baiting, or frivolous content have to realize that there is no such thing as a “hate-click” in the modern writing economy. If you click it, you support it. And journalism culture right now, in all its manufactured outrage and Buzzfeedification, reflects what people support. Gracy:

It’s a sad truth, but many who complain about “clickbait” feed it via their daily habits. Whether you visit the Huffington Post or Salon, Drudge or The Blaze, many of today’s “news” websites have made their living curating headlines and stories according to the proclivities of the masses.

All news organizations—for better or worse—determine their most “successful” stories by the number of views they get on Chartbeat or Google Analytics. Stories that “break the site” or drive in monumental amounts of traffic become the standard-bearers for future reporting. But of course, it’s the most controversial, incendiary, and sensational stories that get the most clicks.

This isn’t some deep dark trade secret of journalists. It’s a basic lesson in economics. News organizations have to make money. The vast majority of them make money by selling advertisements that reimburse them based on clicks. Clicks=money, therefore, whatever leads to clicks is what news organizations will try to prioritize. The digital writing economy does not rely on your appreciation, your support, or even your agreeing. It depends on your click. 

This is precisely why the most irritating, most thoughtless opinion sites depend overwhelmingly on Facebook to get traffic. Facebook is a click machine. Most people scroll through Facebook not because they’re looking for something specific, but because they’re looking for anything. From experience, I know that many, many people who read news and opinion content via Facebook never get past the headline. That’s the point. Who needs to read a 700 word article when a headline will do your thinking for you–or better yet, tell your friends how you think and how they ought to think too?

For those of us who care about what we read and what we share, this ought to motivate us to “protect” our click. If a Facebook friend shares a conspiracy theory, I don’t click it, not even so I can disagree with it. I ignore it. Is such ignoring flouting my responsibility to engage with nonsense? No, I don’t think so, primarily because I don’t believe such responsibility actually exists. If I’m at dinner and a friend of mine sitting next to me tries to convince me that Bush did 9/11 or that George Soros hires police to kill black Americans, I will respond (as calmly as I can). But if he offers to sell me a book that explains both of those things, I’m not going to buy it or read it. That’s the thing about the online writing economy: your time and attention has an economic impact on whatever you give time and attention to. And it should be remembered that one of the most effective traffic drivers of online content are angry social media exchanges about it. Who can resist clicking when they see friends getting hot about an article?

Most of us don’t intuitively think of our online habits this way. The content is free. The article is short. The Facebook friend is earnest. So what if the words published are silly, irresponsible, or even a little dishonest? What’s the big deal? But Gracy reminds us that not only do we have a moral obligation to think truthfully and honestly, but our entertaining of deception and clickbait rewards those who design it. In the online age, it doesn’t matter whether you click to learn or to debate. It only matters that you click. When it comes to changing the toxic problems in our public square, we’d do well to remember: We aren’t what we think, but we are what we click.

Writing Ourselves Off

Freddie deBoer explains why he’s planning to drop out of the freelance business:

I just find, at this point, that the process of pitching, composing, shepherding through edits, promoting, and trying to get paid sucks the life out of me. The commercial interests of publications require editors to ask for things that are tied to the news cycle in the most facile way imaginable. I get it, and I don’t blame them personally. But I’m opting out. And it’s increasingly hard for me to explain to editors what I want a piece to do and say without writing the piece. I’m just really not interested in the “beats” of a piece of nonfiction anymore; the argument, in the sense that people traditionally mean, is just about the least interesting aspect of nonfiction writing…

Meanwhile, the money generally sucks. I am very grateful for the LAT [Los Angeles Times] publishing me in their print edition, for example, and I knew what the rate was going in. But writing and editing a thousand-plus word piece for one of the biggest newspapers in the country got me $200. So many younger writers I know think that the higher profile, more established places are where the money is, but often that’s not true. Not anymore. And if I don’t enjoy it and the money’s not good, what’s the point?

It’s depressing, mostly because it’s true. Freddie has published in some of the country’s most important media outlets, like the New York Times, The Atlantic, etc, and still he finds himself mounting a herculean effort to think and plan and write and edit quality content, for roughly the cost of a pair of Beats headphones. And that transaction is considered “success” in the freelance industry, which traffics overwhelmingly in unpaid content.

Alan Jacobs puts it even more directly:

Here’s the way the game works: You should write newspaper pieces for peanuts because that will bring you to the attention of the monthlies, where you should write for peanuts because that will bring you to the attention of the trade publishing houses, who will give you a contract that over the course of your book’s life will pay you, if you calculate the hours you spend writing, well short of minimum wage — but that’s okay, because your book will bring you to the attention of the newspapers.

I don’t think many young writers, particularly Christian ones, are hoping to get rich off their words; it would take a pretty oblivious person to earnestly hope that. But the dynamic that Jacobs describes is what many of us get sucked into. Print is the promised land, but as you soon find out, it’s often reserved for writers who already have history there. “Exposure” turns out to be something of a con; being published at many non-paying outlets only really helps you get “in” to other non-paying outlets. Making the transition from “exposure” to “fee” is far more a matter of developing the right relationships–something you’re likely not doing very much of if you’re too busy cranking out free weekly content in the desperate hope of being picked up (which, if we’re being honest, doesn’t happen anymore).

I was talking about this stuff with a friend the other day. We both observed that the one apparent equalizer in the new writing economy was social media “platform.” It’s sad to say, but if you have 10,000 Twitter followers or Facebook “Likes,” you probably don’t need to be as good a writer or even as well-connected. Publications want clicks, and if a writer’s social media following alone guarantees a few hundred of those, that’s the game. This has the dual effect of training young writers to focus more on platform than on their work, and also shaping the culture of writing and journalism in the image of marketing and PR, rather than ideas. Thoughtful writers find themselves pressured to use manipulation and/or dishonesty in titles and opening paragraphs, for example, or issue half-brained reactions to the day’s Trending Topics–since they are, in a very real sense, “selling” their writing to readers instead of to publications. It’s Don Draper all the way down.

If you try to figure out how this dynamic can be fixed, you’ll end up confronting the inconvenient truth: Click-based advertising, the agriculture of the internet, is the crucial factor, and it’s probably not going anywhere anytime soon. The best thing a young writer can do for their passion is to get a regular full time job, support themselves sufficiently with that, and then write in the margins of their week. No one can thrive in a vocation if they have to constantly make a choice between paying their bills and doing honest, excellent work, which is precisely the dilemma facing young writers who want to go full-time. Nor is it healthy, I think, to invest hours and hours and hours every week into growing a social media platform, a lifestyle that by necessity requires you think small thoughts about small things. Is mastering the meme culture of Facebook or the insta-snark of Twitter really worth the sacrifice of being unable to finish books or focus on a train of thought for more than a couple minutes? What will it profit a young writer to gain a platform and lose her mind?

To end on a personal note, I’ll confess that I don’t have a good social media platform. Very, very few people know my writing, and only the tiniest fraction of that group would pay to read it. That’s ok, because I’ve been blessed with a wonderful day job that I enjoy very much. That’s a privilege I don’t take for granted. And yet, I still write, because I still love to write and still need to write. I love the writing life and (almost) everything it entails. I want to write for bigger and more respectable publications because I take ideas seriously, and sharing my ideas with wise editors and large readerships is part of the satisfaction of the writing life.

Over the past year I’ve felt a powerful urge to step away from social media and the pursuit of its platform. I deleted my personal Twitter account last week, after a several months-long period of trying different methods to control my use and put boundaries around my experience. The straightforward use of Twitter was swallowing my time and emotions to a degree that, honestly, no hobby of mine ever has before. It’s embarrassing to admit that you stay on a page clicking refresh, or search 20 times per day for anyone linking to your blog, but that’s where I was. Worst of all, I was becoming easily angered over stuff that had no legitimate impact on me, and I was feeling what was obviously the psychological effect of byte-sized information intake. My book-reading pace has become much slower than it was in college. I struggle to finish even a couple pages at a time without checking my phone. Philip Yancey’s “Reading Wars” blog hit me like a revival sermon. I knew the disease he described was mine.

After talking to a couple friends who had also deleted Twitter, I followed suit, knowing full well that my Twitter readership was meaningful and that not publishing my writing there would be eliminate a good portion of my “platform.” I did it not because I’m an incredibly self-disciplined person but because I am the opposite of that, and because I knew that it wasn’t going to get easier, and because an addiction to anything but grace is a snare.

And so now I write practically without a social media platform. Instead, I have invited readers to participate more directly in what I do, through my Patreon. At the risk of “selling” to you, let me just once again express my appreciation for those who have supported me through Patreon, and my gratitude for anyone who would consider giving me money to help me write the best I can write. I’m willing to bet a lot that friends are better than followers and patrons are better than ads. I can only hope that the future of evangelical writing agrees with me.

 

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Wrong is Wrong, and Hypocrisy Doesn’t Change That

Recounting the events of today:

An American comedian posted to social media a picture that included a likeness of the President in an extremely vulgar, grotesque, and at least plausibly threatening context.

There was widespread outrage and condemnation of the image. Virtually no one of consequence defended the comedian or her content.

Nonetheless, that didn’t stop people from political tribe A from demanding where all the outrage from political tribe B was. A common refrain by tribe A said, “If political tribe B’s president were treated like this, the media would all have a meltdown!”

This true but ultimately meaningless point provoked the ire of political tribe B, who responded that actually, tribe B’s president was depicted in an outrageous, offensive, and violent context. More to the point, where was tribe A’s outrage during all that? If tribe A cares so much about offensive depictions of the President of the United States, why didn’t they mind it when it happened to tribe B’s president?

While tribe A had the opportunity to unequivocally condemn any offensive treatment of tribe B’s president, they unfortunately opted to make it a point of order. “Where did your president ever get depicted like that,” demanded tribe A.

Tribe B responded by producing evidence of the charge. A fair rebuttal, but then tribe B sadly decided to interpret the evidence: “See? You didn’t say ANYTHING when this was going on. Fair is fair. If it’s OK for it to happen to our guy, it’s fair for it to happen to yours!”

If there’s anything in the above that makes you feel good about where American politics are in 2017, bless you, because I can’t find anything. Identity politics, tribal loyalties, and bad faith are completely dominating not only public discourse, but how we even respond to things that are clearly wrong. When presented with an objectively objectionable thing, Americans don’t even have time to articulate the moral principle behind its objectionableness. They don’t ask “what.” They ask “who.”

Who made this? Which group created it? Who is endorsing it? Who is talking about it like it’s a good thing? It’s like the world’s worst game of Clue. The point of Clue isn’t that murdering someone with a lead pipe is bad. The point of Clue is that somebody did it, and we need to know who it was. That’s where the American politics of outrage are at the moment. Nothing is good or bad in the abstract anymore. The only question that matters is, “Is this from our team, or from the bad guys?”

Wrong is wrong, and hypocrisy from the other tribe doesn’t change it. If you think the biased news media isn’t as worked up about this comedian’s garbage as they should be, fine. But that doesn’t prove that that other garbage that was made about the guy you didn’t vote for is now magically better. If being a moral person means anything at all, it means telling the truth, no matter how many people whose politics you despise will gain satisfaction from it. It is absolutely insane that what should be a clear cut case of the degenerating quality of our public square is somehow turned into a contest of, “Who was outraged first.”

If you’re wondering why politics is in the mess it’s in right now, look no further.

The Ignore Button

So let’s recap:

Milo Yiannopolous’s career thus far consists entirely of a rhetorical con. He insists that he is a champion of free speech and that people only shut him down because they are scared by the correctness of his ideas. Meanwhile, he is silly, flamboyantly offensive, needlessly cruel, hopelessly recalcitrant, and endlessly self-absorbed. But that’s the trick, you see. He has already stacked the deck. If you turn off his mic, he becomes right! If you leave his mic on to debate him, you probably can’t, because out-trolling a troll is difficult and usually ends up making the original troll look reasonable by comparison (this is what happened on Bill Maher’s show to Larry Wilmore, when he couldn’t control his temper and ended up cursing Milo out like an insecure middle schooler).

Because our culture has somehow imbibed the idea that ignoring ridiculous, powerless people is out of the question, and that we must respond to trolls rather than simply mute them or leave them alone, Milo’s platform has flourished. And in almost every instance, Milo’s con–that the people who control society are too frightened by him to let him speak–has appeared, in some way, vindicated. Now let’s be clear: People who destroy property and inflict violence on others because of words should be condemned. Free speech means nothing if it doesn’t include speech you dislike, and part of growing up is learning not to follow your anger to its physical consummation. All that is true. But it’s equally true that Milo’s con is guaranteed to work, because trolls are good at exactly one thing: Getting people to react to them. And reacting to a troll whose entire troll is that if you don’t engage him you concede that he’s right is nothing more than a “heads I win, tails you lose” gimmick. If you agree to play, you will lose.

So now, because we can’t help but play, Milo has received a book contract–and lost it. He’s also received an invitation to speak at CPAC–and lost it. Imagine for one moment you’re not a Milo fan, but you are sympathetic to his free speech mantras. What does this look like to you? Why, it looks like Milo is exactly right! The cultural gatekeepers can’t handle him. They have opted to suppress his free speech because they can’t debate him. Doesn’t this look like someone who understands his opponents so well, he must be on to something?

And so, irony of ironies: In trying to make it clear that  Milo isn’t right about his free speech’s being suppressed, CPAC and Simon & Schuster invited him to build a bigger boat. Well, oops: It turns out Milo says some really nasty things, things that would outrage normal, morally sane readers and listeners. So no book, and no conference. And now what? What started as an effort to say, “Look! We can engage him, we aren’t deserving of his scorn,” now results in Milo looking prophetic. Man.

Why do we engage trolls? Because clicks. There is so such thing has a “hate click” in the online economy. A click is cash. Trolls get clicks. Trolls get cash. You can’t monetize the Ignore Button. Heads they win, tails you lose. The only way to not lose is to not play.

Abortion Over The Atlantic

The first thing readers should know about Moira Weigel’s essay in The Atlantic is its original title. When the piece went live early Tuesday morning, that title was “How the Ultrasound Pushed the Idea That a Fetus Is a Person.” But by 1PM on the east coast, the article bore a new moniker: “How the Ultrasound Became Political.” The change wasn’t particularly poetic, but it was necessary; in the hours between the piece’s birth and rechristening, numerous readers and bloggers had pointed out that crucial claims in Weigel’s piece—including the idea that a six week-old fetus did not have an actual heart—was factually incorrect. Weigel’s original title had triumphantly presumed the crumbling of fetal personhood. The new title reflects the crumbling of her logic.

Of course, there’s a spot of irony in the essay’s new name. What Weigel wants the reader to believe is that pro-lifers have manipulated an inconclusive and imprecise technology to humanize the inhuman, and thus subjected the factual and scientific to the political. But isn’t that precisely what Weigel has done?

This irony exemplifies the relationship between the progressive left and science. In many ways liberals have styled themselves the party of scientific literacy ever since the Scopes trial. Whether the cause celebre was removing creationist literature from public schools, lending platforms to overpopulation worries, or climate change, progressives have, for what feels like the last half-century, presented themselves as the political ideology that welcomes scientific consensus and expertise.

Except, that is, when it comes to abortion. Despite manifold increases in medical technology and knowledge of prenatal development, pro-choice has hardly budged an inch from the judgment of fetal impersonality rendered by Roe v Wade. In some ways, this is simply by default; mainstream abortion rights activism is overwhelmingly centered on female autonomy rather than the question of the personhood of the unborn. #MyBodyMyChoice has always been surer footing for pro-choice than arguments over when a person really becomes a person. But the pro-choice uneasiness during discussions of fetal “viability” or ultrasound technology is unmistakable, and Ms. Weigel in particular offered an illustrative example.

Why didn’t the fact checkers at The Atlantic preemptively correct Weigel’s capricious and unsound argument?  It seems unlikely that a team of researchers would simply forget to verify whether a six week old fetus has begun to develop a heart—especially if such a question lay at the center of an argument, as it did for Weigel’s piece. The specific failures of an editorial process are difficult to identify, but it’s worth noting that this too reflects a greater categorical tension—namely, between the media and abortion.

One doesn’t need to look much further than the maddening summer of 2015, when major media outlets seemed to ignore, then downplay, then rally in response to a video sting of Planned Parenthood. Abortion workers’ declaring “It’s a boy” as they sift through severed anatomy in a petri dish certainly seems to have relevance for the conversation about fetal personhood. Why didn’t major journalism institutions think so? Could it be that abortion is sacrosanct even among those in our culture who are tasked with investigating its moral implications? Recall that editors for Vox once commissioned a piece from a professor as part of a rhetorical exercise called “the repugnant conclusion.” When the professor turned in an essay arguing (purely hypothetically) against abortion, Vox killed the piece, and explained to its frustrated author that the website didn’t even want to risk the appearance of criticizing abortion rights.

The embarrassments of Vox cannot, of course, be laid at the foot of The Atlantic. But that Moira Weigel’s deeply flawed, seriously ignorant essay could navigate the editorial machine of one of the country’s most influential publications is troubling. It raises again familiar issues of how the American abortion rights lobby relies not on facts and arguments, but on slogans, propaganda, and false dilemmas.

Media criticism is often too easy for conservatives, but I cannot help but now imagine an unexpectedly pregnant couple that perhaps read Weigel’s essay and believed it—because, of course, it is important that we believe reputable reporting. Perhaps these people had never considered themselves “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” If they came away from reading Moira Weigel at 10:30AM Tuesday morning, they came away believing that this new life inside its mother had been misrepresented to them, that it was, contrary to all their instincts and all their technology, a lifeless, purposeless mass of tissue. Imagine their driving to the abortion clinic that morning, and coming back to find out that the essay which dawned new light on them now contained an update from its editors:

This article originally stated that there is “no heart to speak of” in a six-week-old fetus. By that point in a pregnancy, a heart has already begun to form. We regret the error.”

God help us.

Who Framed Christopher Hitchens?

One of my favorite books from 2016 was Larry Taunton’s The Faith of Christopher Hitchens, which I reviewed for Mere-O. I found it to be a gripping spiritual biography of an atheist. No, the words “spiritual biography of an atheist” are not self-contradictory. Atheists have spiritual lives, whether they cop to the fact or not. That’s a big part of what made Taunton’s book meaningful for me; it depicted the spiritual life of a brilliant man who, to all available evidence, died rejecting God, but who did so in a complex and conflicted way. It’s an enthralling and deeply compassionate book.

Unfortunately, many reviewers and pundits seem completely incapable of grasping the concept of an atheist with questions. Taunton’s book was repeatedly and egregiously misrepresented in the press, with critics–the vast majority of whom are atheists–blasting Taunton for claiming a “deathbed conversion” for Hitch. Taunton did nothing of the sort, but such factual trivia seemed not to matter to many who dismissed and ridiculed him.

Taunton tells his side of the story in an essay for the new issue of First Things. Access to the piece requires a subscription, which you really should do anyway. But I want to highlight one specific passage because it exemplifies the common and seriously troubling divide between media elites and the people they cover, or don’t cover.

Here’s Taunton:

After the publication of the book, Religion News Service tweeted this misleading headline: “A controversial new book claims a dying Christopher Hitchens accepted God.” RNS subsequently retracted the headline, but it was too late. Christopher Hitchens’s agent, Steve Wasserman, vociferously denounced the book. “But I really think it is a shabby business,” he said of the book that he acknowledged he had not read. Predictably, the atheist mafia crashed the book’s Amazon page—one commenter called the book “morally reprehensible”; another review bore the heading “I am ashamed to have given my money to this obvious money-grab”—and began venting their hatred there and on social media for its author and for any who had endorsed The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.

The angry response that Taunton documents–including Michael Shermer’s cowardly rescinding of his endorsement–was not directed at what Taunton had actually written. It could not have been, because Taunton never claimed what the social media team at Religion News Service said he claimed. The Faith of Christopher Hitchens is explicit in disowning any idea that Hitchens converted to theism or Christianity. But that didn’t matter, because RNS, a journalism outlet, reported falsely to thousands of followers. The fact that the misleading tweet was deleted is almost irrelevant; the real question is, how could a journalism outlet manage to report that a book claims the exact opposite of what it actually says? And if this error was unintentional, that raises another question: Did the people behind the tweet and the reporting actually read the book or Taunton’s comments about it? If not, isn’t this a serious journalistic failure?

In the essay, Taunton argues that the main culprit behind this misrepresentation of his work is a  widespread presumption of atheistic immutability. I think there’s some truth to that. But I also think there’s an important story here about the (quite common) collision between media culture and the truth, between the all-powerful, all-justifying “Narrative” and the complicated details of reality, especially the reality of religion and religious people. The Narrative says that atheists are who they are because they are committed to the truth, and that religious folks are who they are because they need comfort, validation, or promise of cosmic comeuppance. The Narrative says that the road from faith to skepticism is one way, and that education and “real world” experience tend toward secularism, while ignorance and tribalism incubate faith.

For those who deny that such a Narrative drives media coverage, Taunton’s experience with his book is difficult to explain. After all, it is not a work of punditry or philosophizing. It is a memoir, written in first person, documenting not arguments and reasons but conversations and letters. In an age in which the only propositional truth statements that can’t be ignored are the ones beginning with “I feel,” the hostile and dogmatic response to Taunton’s portrait of his friend is notable.

There has been much talk lately about bridging the gap between the “two Americas,” bursting our ideological and existential bubbles, and straining toward genuine empathy. This is a worthwhile goal. But if it’s going to happen, then those who make a living telling others the news have to reckon with the mistrust they face from many people, and acknowledge that at least some of it is deserved. Until such a time as journalists and their employers feel genuine embarrassment at misleading millions of readers when it comes to people of faith, that mistrust isn’t going anywhere, and I’m not sure it should.

It’s the Great Pariah, Charlie Brown!

Scene 1:

An online “journalism” site pretends to be utterly shocked to find that two evangelical Christians, hosts of a feverishly popular home renovation show, actually attend an evangelical church, pastored by an evangelical theologian. The site earnestly contends (with no witnesses) that the orthodox sexual ethics of the church’s pastor are “controversial,” and insists that they instantly create a PR crisis for the couple who have publicly endorsed evangelized discriminated said nothing.

Scene 2: 

The president elect’s nominee for Secretary of Education is a professing Christian, and believes that education is important to the life and culture of her faith. According to major journalism site, however, this necessarily indicates a frightening tendency toward theocracy. The website “exposes” decade-old quotes by the nominee using traditional language completely understood by everyone in her faith community, but apparently coded for nefarious purposes according to a journalist, who implicitly frames her as a threat to the separation between church and state.

Scene 3: 

A presidential nominee for a major American political party goes about the campaign without offering a single interview or outreach to an evangelical media outlet. The lack of any attempt to court evangelical voters is so glaring, in fact, that advisers of the party’s previous (victorious!) nominee voice near-disbelief at the campaign’s apathy. In a historically unprecedented move, the candidate’s campaign simply acted as if evangelical voters didn’t exist.

***

Now, I think it’s fair to ask a simple question here: What relationship does scene 3 have with scenes 1 and 2? What exactly can we glean from the fascinating intersection of journalistic hostility with political apathy? Is it possible that what we see happening in scenes 1 and 2 has more than a coincidental relationship with the very significant events of scene 3?

In other words, could it be that irresponsible journalism on religion and religious people actually has real sociopolitical consequences? I wonder. Speaking personally: If my conception of a group of Americans was formed significantly by the kind of coverage we see above, I honestly don’t know if I would see them as, well, real Americans, much less desire their vote. Evangelicals and those who know evangelicals won’t be suckered by the Buzzfeeds of the world, of course. But as religious affiliation ebbs and religious literacy withers, how many people in the next 30 years will know their evangelical neighbors enough to know that the Gaines family isn’t a subversive, anti-American cult? And how much, in the end, will this be attributable to journalists who create controversy and outrage out of thin air?

Unless there is a resurgence of religious literate journalism, it feels like progressive media will be out in the pumpkin patch with Linus, waiting for the Great Pariah to swoop down and expose itself. That’s a not a pleasant thought.