The Present and Future of Christian Blogging

Interacting with Tim Challies on the future of Christian blogging

A few days ago Tim Challies published a helpful article that described three different kinds of blogging. The upshot of his piece was that Christian blogging, especially the evangelical kind, has to a great extent been reduced to one variety: The large, multi-authored “ministry blog.” Tim’s observation is that, whereas a decade ago there were lots of individual bloggers publishing regularly on their own platforms, today most of those bloggers have given up writing in their own space and are instead pitching and being published by the large ministry blogs. Interestingly, Tim then makes a case that this trend actually constitutes a decline of blogging and the ascent of something (resembling a traditional journalism industry) to replace it:

What is essential to those ministry sites (the ability to solicit, accept, reject, and edit articles) contradicts an essential element of a blog (the ability to write without editorial control). Where blogging is a medium by and for amateurs, ministry blogs have a paradigm that is far more professional. Again, they have their place but, while they may displace blogs, they don’t quite replace them.

Tim’s concern is that the decline of personal blogging signals the loss of what blogging empowers among writers: The ability to freely and quickly exchange ideas without editors or publications’s “filtering” the work. So then, the displacement of personal blogging spaces by large ministry blogs brings us full circle back to the days of traditional periodicals, where editors and Boards of Directors and a handful of professional people dictate the writing agenda, select and edit pieces, and condemn most voices to obscurity.

Let me submit a qualified agreement with Tim’s concern. I think Tim’s right to believe that what made blogging useful in its heyday is precisely what’s being undermined by the proliferation of larger, edited blogs. If we think of the Christian blogosphere like an industry, with individual, personal blogs as small businesses, then the ministry blogs are the Wal-Marts and Speedways and shopping malls; they exist, in a sense, to get as big as possible and (in the process) put the other guys out of business.

Further, in the ascendancy of Wal-Marts and shopping malls individuals lose something more than a feeling of smallish intimacy and familiarity—we lose a significant amount of control over the industry itself. Thus, ten years ago, if you wanted to get people in your slice of conservative evangelicalism to talk about something, you could write a blog about it. Nowadays, the best way to get someone to talk about it is to convince an editor at TGC or Desiring God or Christianity Today to publish your 1,000 word article—something that most Christians (even articulate ones) won’t do and many can’t do. Tim’s point, if I’m reading him correctly, is that having a small number of paid editors basically regulate what the online evangelical world is saying is both an intellectual and literary downgrade from the days when blogs were a rule unto themselves.

Interestingly, this argument is not unlike what Alan Jacobs has written in defense of personal websites over and against social media accounts. Jacobs has privacy and ownership in mind moreso than the free flow of discourse, but it’s not difficult to see how his and Tim’s points might converge. In both cases, the impulse is against what we might call digital landlords and for a kind of cultivation of online space in ways that are personal and, thus, more responsible.

I said above I was going to offer a “qualified” agreement with Tim. In short, I agree with him that the decline of personal blogging is a net loss for Christian writers, and that there are problems to inherit with the rise and growth of larger ministry sites. Here’s my qualification: I think the proliferation of large, professionally edited sites, while a net loss for bloggers, is probably a net gain for readers.

As I see it, Tim is right in articulating the problems that come when evangelical online writing is heavily filtered toward these large sites. But I think we could add  that there are problems to deal with when it is not filtered, and that these problems are, for most Christian readers (not writers), trickier to deal with than the other kind. I’ll mention 3 of them:

i) The problem of theological authority. Tish Harrison Warren got right to the heart of the matter a while back ago when she asked, “Who’s in charge of the Christian blogosphere?” As personal online platforms grow and grow, and as those platforms become a de facto source of authority in other people’s lives (most of these platforms call it being an “influencer” rather than an authority, but it’s really the same), a serious question emerges: How do we navigate the competing claims of dozens of bloggers whose voices are both equally present and equally ephemeral through the internet?

The proliferation of large ministry blogs is, I think, a partial answer to that question. You might think TGC publishes the wrong perspective on a given topic, but the point is that TGC publishes such a perspective only after a leadership group that coheres theologically (to a great extent) decides to publish it. This is part of what gives TGC’s platform a kind of spiritual authority to many people. It’s certainly an imperfect spiritual authority, as any earthly spiritual authority will be and any online spiritual authority will doubly be. But readers can locate these imperfections much more specifically and cogently because of TGC’s centralization than they could in the wild west of individual blogs.

ii) The problem of social media and online “presence.” I think it’s Tim himself who has pointed out that in the evangelical blogosphere’s golden days, the blog served the same role as Twitter now does.  Today, the only way to thrive as a blogger is to maintain an online presence through social media. For better or worse, social media is to blogging what a WiFi connection is to browsing the web: You don’t strictly have to have it, but you’re not going anywhere fast without it. Social media is by far the #1 driver of traffic to individual blogs.

Now of course, the same is probably true for the large ministry sites. But the consolidation of the evangelical blogosphere into professionally edited publications ameliorates this dynamic, especially for readers who want to become writers. One of the biggest reasons I don’t encourage more people to blog is that I know that doing so is encouraging them to cultivate a heavier presence on social media—which, I’m convinced, is something we all should be doing less of. Large ministry sites that review unsolicited pitches are a bulwark against this. You don’t have to have a bazillion Instagram followers and a gnawing sense of FOMO and despair in order to be taken seriously in your pitch.

iii) The problem of literary excellence. Near the end of his article, Tim writes that “we will develop better writing and writers when we can write substantially and freely.” I wonder if he has perhaps confused writing with blogging. While I absolutely agree that the best way to cultivate a healthy evangelical writing world is to encourage more of it, I think Tim’s formulation leaves out the integral role that editing plays in the development of literary excellence.

Blogging has always had a catch-22: It promotes writing growth through constant access to the craft, but such access is purchased by eliminating some of the things that most help develop writers. Editing, both at the conceptual and copy level, grows writers. To the degree that bloggers learn how to write underneath the process and principles of editing, you will almost certainly see writing habits that express emotivism and logical fallacies. I would argue that in the some of the darker corners of both the conservative and progressive Christian blogosphere, you can see stark examples of bloggers who have rarely, if ever, surrendered their work to someone who could evaluate their approach. I think professional editors are a welcome antidote to this. Their growing presence in the evangelical writing world has borne good fruit.

As I said above, I think these three problems with an expansive Christian blogosphere are different problems for writers than they are for readers. Writers will always want more space to write. Writers can devote chunks of time to thinking through issues and shaping their ideas. Most readers, though, are at the mercy of social media and the level of theological confidence that online writers can project onto their own personal platforms. To the degree that large “ministry blogs” have pushed Christian bloggers to the margins, we should lament. But to the degree that they have reached more Christian readers with trustworthy content that takes form and message equally seriously, we ought to celebrate.

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The Sea in Which You’re Drowning Is Not All That’s Real

On (not) writing about sin.

Recently I’ve had multiple offers, all from friends representing publications and ministries I greatly respect, to write articles about pornography. I’ve declined all of them. After I wrote a piece on this for Desiring God in July, I made a resolution with myself that I wouldn’t write about pornography for the foreseeable future. For the past several years I have written thousands of words about it, encompassing everything from my personal testimony to American culture. It’s time for me to leave that topic alone for a while.

Because I’ve said all there is to be said on it? No, of course not. There is much more to be said. Because my views are changing? Definitely not.  Because it’s not as important as some people think? Hardly. If anything, it’s more important than most people think. Why then am I putting myself on a moratorium on this issue?

Because the sea in which you’re drowning is not all that’s real, and realizing this is crucial for those struggling in the fight against lust.

When you’re in the throes of addiction, nothing seems real except your addiction. Incremental victories over your addiction don’t necessarily change this. In fact, such victories can actually make this perception worse. Every heartfelt prayer becomes a prayer for God to deliver you. Every sermon is “really” about your struggle. You see all of life through the lens of this one sin that you are, by grace, making war against. It becomes the main metaphor of your life, the fact that stands like a ghost between you and every relationship, between you and every ministry opportunity.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Christian culture, at least evangelical culture, offers much to fight against this. There’s a profound streak in evangelical discipleship of reducing the Christian life to the number of days you can go without sinning. This kind of mentality inflames the sense that beating porn is all that matters. The tragedy is that this mentality blocks many of the very strongest graces that Christ offers in the war against lust, graces like fellowship with other believers (not just “accountability”!), the beauty of nature, losing oneself in an honest pleasure, etc. These are graces that are hard to see for the person who feels like their entire Christian existence is about defeating pornography. A one-note emphasis mutes the other sounds of the symphony of redemption.

The reality is that one of the most effective things a person who is struggling with pornography can do is get their mind out of the perspective of them and their computer (or phone). Look at the broader picture. Look out the window, up into the clouds. Realize how much God has created and how much God is doing in this massive, amazing universe.

So I don’t feel pressed to talk more about the sin of pornography right now. Rather, I’m pressed to take a larger view and infatuate my heart with Christ and all that he is and does for me.

I am convinced that the only people who see lasting, significant healing from the bondage of pornography are people who feel in their bones the grandness and the glory of God, a feeling that transcends (but does not exclude) the tug-of-war. The tug-of-war is important, and failing to tug has eternal consequences. But the water in which you’re drowning is not all there is, and the first thing you must do to stop drowning is to swim upward, towards the air, towards the light, where you know there’s a shore.

Why Blogging Still Matters

Why dedicated online writing spaces might be the cure for our social media ills.

Blogging is dead, right? At least among the folks in a position to say so, this seems to be the consensus. Many of blogging’s most important early practitioners have either abandoned it (Andrew Sullivan) or else transformed their writing spaces into storefronts that offer “promoted” content in exchange for patronage. The thinking goes like this: Before Mark Zuckerberg and Tweet threads, blogging was a viable way of sharing ideas online. Now, though, social media has streamlined and mobilized both content and community. Reading a blog when you could be reading what your friends are Tweeting about is like attending a lecture completely alone. It’s boring and lonely for you, and a waste of time for the lecturer.

For pay-per-click advertising models, this logic has worked well. For everybody else, though, the diminishing of the blog and the ascendance of social media has hardly been a blessing.

For one thing, traditional journalism has suffered, and not just in trivial ways. As Franklin Foer writes in his recent book World Without Mind, the power of social media to control people’s access to news and information—and to leverage this control into more profit for the platforms themselves—has radically reshaped how the journalism industry values certain kinds of news. While sensationalist journalism has always been a problem, clickbait is uniquely powerful in an age where the vast majority of visitors to a news or opinion site arrive at the page through social media, which, in turn, employs algorithms to target readers with content that the system knows the reader is likely to click. Thus, Facebook rigs the relationship between reader and content in such a way so that the reader’s habits become more self-repeating, more predictable, more dependent on Facebook, and thus, more profitable to the people who pay money for Facebook’s user data.

The internet has introduced an entirely new concept into the world of ideas: Content. Content is a shadowy netherworld between the written word and television, between intellectualism and entertainment, between thinking and watching. By being consumed by social media, the digital writing economy has been transformed into the digital content economy. Videos that aren’t quite television or film, written pieces that aren’t quite essays or reporting—this is the lifeblood of the internet in the age of social media.

Social media’s conquering of the online writing economy has forced writers to rethink not just their how, but their why. If your goal with your online writing is to build as big a daily readership as possible, you are much better off spending 40 hours a week mastering the ins-and-outs of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram than actually writing. In the content race, the quality of your writing has almost no connection to the health of your digital publishing business. In fact, when considering the role that social media visibility plays, it’s often the case that the relationship between good business and quality of writing is inverse: The better the writing, the fewer clicks. Digital content creators have to constantly ask themselves why they’re doing what they’re doing. Is it to share an idea, or to sell a product? Both?

Contrasting against all of this is the pure experience of blogging. Blogging—regularly writing on the internet in a self-contained space—is an act of relocation. As Alan Jacobs has written, one of the most pressing reasons that digital writers should rethink their dependence on social media is that each of these platforms are corporations that own everybody’s content in a legal sense. Because they own the content, Facebook and Twitter also own the experience of that content, which means, as Jacobs argues, that social media companies represent a real threat to an intellectually free internet:

…users [of social media] should realize that everything they find desirable and beneficial about those sites could disappear tomorrow and leave them with absolutely no recourse, no one to whom to protest, no claim that they could make to anyone. When George Orwell was a scholarship boy at an English prep school, his headmaster, when angry, would tell him, “You are living on my bounty.” If you’re on Facebook, you are living on Mark Zuckerberg’s bounty.

This is of course a choice you are free to make. The problem comes when, by living in conditions of such dependence, you forget that there’s any other way to live—and therefore cannot teach another way to those who come after you. Your present-day social-media ecology eclipses the future social-media ecology of others. What if they don’t want their social lives to be bought and sold? What if they don’t want to live on the bounty of the factory owners of Silicon Valley?

The answer, Jacobs concludes, is to teach young students the fundamentals of internet work: Basic coding, domains, photography, etc. By equipping young people with these tools, the felt dependence on the mediation of social media corporations can be broken, and individuals can be empowered to really “own” their digital spaces, away from the financial interests and epistemological problems of Big Tech.

I would submit that blogging is part of the solution here. I’m old enough to remember a time when blogging was considered a regrettable phenomenon, one that invited non-credentialed nobodies to pretentiously pontificate about any issue under the sun. Of course, that’s still a problem, but in the Facebook era, it’s almost a quaint problem compared to the issue of politicians and corporations purchasing the power to shove their ideas in the faces of millions of souls who are dependent on the seller of that power for their information. The answer to what Tom Nichols refers to as the death of expertise is to make the experience of the internet more centered around localized creative control and the free exchange of ideas that such localization fosters.

Not only that, but blogging matters because it is an intellectual exercise in a passive, “content”-absorbed internet culture. On social media, even writing itself tends to be transformed into an unthinking spectacle rather than a careful expression of ideas. Twitter is notorious for this. The  most effective Tweeters—and by effective I mean the people who seem most able to take advantage of Twitter’s algorithms to get their tweets in front of people who do not ask for them and would not know they exist any other way—are people who are good at snark, GIFs, and gainsaying. Even worse, the unmitigated immediacy of Twitter’s ecosystem encourages a hive mentality. I’ve watched as people I respect have shifted in their beliefs for no better reason than the punishing experiences they’ve had after saying something that offended the wrong people online. Trolling has authentic power, and Twitter makes it a point of business to put trolls and their targets as closely together as possible.

Blogging, on the other hand, allows writers to think. Good bloggers use their spaces to both publish and practice. Thinking and writing are not purely sequential events. Writing is thinking, and thinking shapes itself through writing. Blogging is still, by far, the best option for non-professional writers to expand their gifts and sharpen their habits. Blogging is also a slice of personalism in a fragmented online age. Because social media and the online content industry demand maximum mobility and applicability over as many platforms as possible,  much of what you see is thoroughly generic (and most of the generic-ness is either generically progressive and identity-obsessed or generically conservative and angrily conspiratorial). Blogging brings out a more holistic vision from the author for both form and function.

This is not even to mention the benefits of moving our information economy away from the emotionally toxic effects of social media. There is good reason to believe that apps like Facebook and Instagram make people feel lonelier and less satisfied with their life. An information economy that requires aspiring writers to heavily invest in technologies that promote FOMO and cultivate tribal resentments is probably not an information economy that is making a lot of honest writers. By slowing down the pace of online life, blogging enables a more genuine interaction between people. Good social media managers need to win the rat race; good bloggers want to connect with readers in a meaningful way beyond analytics.

Blogging still matters, because it’s still the medium that most ably combines the best aspects of online writing. If we want to escape the echo chambers that dominate our online lives; if we want something other than the hottest takes and the pithiest putdowns; if we have any aspiration for exchange and debate that goes beyond outrage or mindlessness, we should reinvest our time, resources, and attention in the humble blog.

The Glory of Permanent Words

Why I love the Bible

Picture everyday life, but without anything permanent.

You wake up in a different bed on Thursday than you did on Tuesday. Your house, in one zip code last weekend, is a few miles elsewhere today. Your morning commute changes every other workday: interstates some days, unfamiliar back roads other days. The people at your job constantly shuffle in and out of your life. One week your cubicle mate is somebody, then the next week it changes. Relationships in general shift around you. Things may stabilize for a little bit but they are sure to change soon. Life has no discernible rhythm, just endless novelty and transition.

Most people would not be able to live like this. There are lots of films and books about the anxieties of boring life, but this is true only because human nature by default looks for repetition and permanence. Nobody wants all new friends every two weeks. Nobody could function if their daily experiences of life were always shifting. There’s something life-giving about the same bed each morning, the same faces to wake up to in the same house. Permanence is an anchor, and while anchors are heavy and can be hard to get away from, they keep us from being lost at sea forever. Life without permanence is hardly life.

This is true for daily life, and it’s true for intellectual life.

My days are filled with words. Between my job in publishing, my writing, my editing, and my intake of newspapers, blogs, magazines, and social media feeds, I face an onslaught of words every day. These words change every day. Particularly online, there’s something new to think/worry/get angry about every hour. New voices every week, new issues every day, and new phrases every minute. This world of words is endlessly transient.

We are still learning how this kind of intellectual ecosystem affects our minds. The best indications so far are that the consequences aren’t good. Attention is not a limitless resource, and thoughtfulness is subject to a law of diminishing return. The internet’s tyranny of the Now can hijack our emotional and spiritual life and overload us with information. Even worse, this overloading can become addictive, and we can develop an impulsive need for more and newer words to keep up the neurological rewards we get for discovering new stuff. In this phenomenon, meaning is destroyed. What matters is keeping up the frantic but satisfying pace of new things to know.

But what I crave, at least when the chemical highs of internet life abate for a minute, are permanent words. Just like I want a permanent bed to come home to after a day of new people or new challenges, and just like I need the same rhythms of morning and evening to cope with life that shifts all around me, I need words that don’t change. I need to hear phrases and sentences that aren’t whimsical or subject to the tyranny of Now. I need permanent words that stand on the page and on my heart like the walls of our home. Permanent words are words that don’t get rebooted like a comic book franchise. They don’t get subjected to the whirlwind of public debate like a Twitter thread. Permanent words aren’t the outrage of the day or the fad of the week. Permanent words are here when everything else is scattered; they’re stone pillars in intellectual sand dunes.

This is why I love the Bible. In Scripture I find words with real permanence. They’re corporeal and fixed, not ephemeral and guesswork. I’m not pretending that the Bible needs no interpretation, or that one can never grow or shift in understanding of Scripture. My point is that there’s a restful eternality in the words of Scripture that heal the relentlessly temporal state of my mind.

I read many good things online, but even the best of them tend to be weightless. Timeless books are better than articles and blogs. But even then, many of the books disagree, or age poorly, or are simply wrong. I try to read widely and, as Alan Jacobs advises, at whim. This is rewarding and enlightening for me, and there’s delight in it. But the billions of pages I could live in for a few moments do not add up to even a fraction of the sheer cosmic density of the words of Scripture. The Bible does not blend into the crowd, and that’s what makes it permanent. That’s what makes it strong. And that’s what makes me strong.

Temporal words can color life, but permanent words are the beams of light behind the color. Life is diverse and seasonal, but that diversity and seasonality is only welcome if there’s somewhere to lay our head down at the end of the day. My mind and heart need permanent words. Thank God they have them.

Why Letter & Liturgy?

Truth and beauty belong together. That’s what this place is about.

“Letter and Liturgy” is a phrase that has captivated me for a long while now. The more I thought about it, the more its meaning became apparent to me. The beautiful, literary expression of ideas, practices, and beliefs of the Christian faith—this is, I think, the essence of what the name means.

Truth and beauty are easy to separate. In fact, most of us do separate them. Whether we’re talking about Christian art that is biblical but kitschy and cheap, or whether we’re encountering gorgeously articulated ideas that splash like acid on the gospel, we know from experience how often man can separate what God has joined together. Cold fundamentalism on one hand, exuberant self-authentication on the other. This seems to describe the majority of our experience as believers in Christ. Is there any hope of undoing this?

That’s why I’m writing here. The world doesn’t need another Christian website, blog, or publication. Of course it doesn’t. Letter & Liturgy is not necessary whatsoever. But that’s not why I’m writing. I’m not writing because God needs me to write. I’m writing because God has made it so that I need to write. I need to preach to myself. I need to keep truth and beauty together in my own heart. I need Letter & Liturgy far more than anyone else needs it.

My hope, and my expectation, is that the feelings and desires I’ve described here apply to other people. In fact, I know they do. I’ve had the conversations, I’ve read the reflections, and I’ve heard the prayers. This space is a humble effort to respond to the tragic divorce of truth from beauty, of goodliness from godliness, of the right words from the eternal Word. If that effort resonates with you, I hope you will find here a balm for your mind and your soul.

Psalm 33:3 says, “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.” That’s what I want to do: Sing skillfully, to Him.

Is There a Place in Evangelicalism For Non-Ministers?

A few months before I started there, I took part in a preview weekend for the Bible college that I eventually attended. At one point I had the opportunity to ask the then-dean of the college what the vision of the school was for people (like me) who did not intend to go into vocational ministry. His answer was one I quickly became accustomed to hearing: Every Christian is a “minister” in the realest sense of the word, no matter his or her vocation. Therefore, there would always be a reason for Christians to get a theological education. Wherever we are—the church, business, or the arts—we are ministers.

I think this is true. But I also think it didn’t really answer my question. It seems to me that the question this dean actually answered was, “Why should I give a Bible college money if I don’t have intentions of pastoral ministry?” But that’s a different question. What I wanted to know that evening was whether there was a space to belong for people like me at an institution that is explicitly commissioned to train pastors. I wanted to know whether this college had a category for me (and whether I could have a category for it). To this day, I’m not sure  I completely understand the relationship between evangelicalism’s most important institutions and her non-pastor members. I don’t think I’m alone.

Asking whether there is space for non-ministers in evangelicalism can feel a bit like asking whether there is space for non-members in the local church. On one hand, of course there is! The church is always open like that. After all, if only existing members ever darkened the doors, the church would die. But to say there is space for non-members in this sense is not to say that the church commits to, listens to, or cedes any kind of authority to those attenders. A healthy congregational polity, after all, doesn’t let its non-member attenders cast crucial votes or wield spiritual authority. I often wonder if this is the kind of posture evangelicalism is liable to assume toward its non-ministerial members.

Conservative evangelicalism’s most important, most formative institutions are its churches and its seminaries. One might assume the seminaries exist to serve the churches, but the reality is far more complicated than that. Add in the parachurch ministries and affinity networks to the mix, and you start to get a sense how overlapping the leadership cultures of evangelical institutions really are. The overwhelming majority of influence and institutional capital in my quadrant of evangelicalism is owned by pastors and seminarians. “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!” The question for me is not whether this is a good or bad thing. Rather, the question for me, as a non-pastor, non-seminarian evangelical who is nonetheless invested in the life and doctrine of evangelicalism: How then shall I live?

Here’s an example of the issues this dynamic can create. Jen Michel is right, I think, to ask whether there is a “gender gap” when it comes to Christian nonfiction. Rather than framing the issue as a case of men refusing to read women, though, I believe I would frame it as a problem of institutional identities. When Jen says “men” here, she of course means Reformed, complementarian men. Who dictates what Reformed, complementarian men read? Well, to a certain extent, Christian publishing does. But what dictates Christian publishing? Aye, there’s the rub. The most doctrinally sound, most ecclesiologically minded publishing houses in evangelicalism tend to invest a large amount of their attention and resources toward pastors and seminaries. Why? Because that’s where the heartbeat of our particular theological culture lies. Again, this isn’t a bad thing. There is something healthy about not totally divorcing the teaching authority of the church and the teaching authority of trade nonfiction (though I think they’re not the same). But it does create, as Jen points out, practical consequences for those of us who don’t live at that heartbeat.

What do Christian writers and speakers do when they’re not ministers? How should they think about their calling? In case you think these are relatively insignificant questions, perhaps put the question a little more bluntly. “Who’s in charge” of, say, the evangelicals who think and writer and speak, but not from the seminarian nexus of evangelical authority? It’s tempting here to appeal to people like C.S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Elisabeth Eliot, and Nancy Pearcey: all of them hugely influential evangelicals and none of them pastors, seminary presidents, or church network founders. But these are exceptional examples, both in talents and context. The question is not whether we have any more Lewises or Schaeffers or Eliots or Pearceys among us. The question is whether there is a visible path, in the era of Patheos Progressive and narrative-as-authority sub-evangelicalism, for lay writers to become genuine leaders.

Part of the challenge is, I suspect, that for much of conservative evangelicalism, a truly trustworthy leader is one who prioritizes evangelism over intellectualism. That’s at least one reason why the death of someone like Billy Graham looms so large over the evangelical movement, and inspires a meaningful introspection into our identity and future. Make no mistake; Graham is, humanly speaking, the most important American evangelical in history. But such a judgment also implies that evangelicals think of preaching in a way they don’t necessarily think of other things. To borrow some philosophical terms, we might say that in the worldview of evangelicalism, intellectualism and cultural engagement are accidental, but preaching is essence.

It bears saying an umpteenth time: This isn’t bad! It does, however, necessitate evangelical conscientiousness about our movement and its culture. It might also invite some uncomfortable questions about whether pastoral ministry has been inappropriately incentivized, pitched as the only serious vocational option people who want to make a difference for the kingdom. And, as Jen Michel and others have pointed out, it creates a need to articulate more about gender and evangelical authority.

I love both the pastorate and the seminary, but I know (at least as well as one can know these things) they are not in God’s sovereign design for my life. And yet I also know that I want to talk to Christians, have skin in the game, and use whatever resources and time I am given to help both believers and unbelievers see and feel glory. Whether there’s room for me to do this seriously without being a minister, I’m not sure yet. I hope so. Not just for my sake, I hope so.

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.

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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Some Advice for Writers

Recently a few friends of mine have asked me about writing, and for some perspective and/or advice on how to get started doing it seriously. I’ve given the same advice enough times that I figured it might be helpful to put what I most frequently say here as a kind of reference.

As always, none of this advice is gospel, and don’t be surprised if some of it doesn’t end up working like I say. In a real sense, the best “advice” I can give anyone who wants to write is to immediately stop looking for writing advice, and just write. If you’re an aspiring writer, and you’ve read more books in the last month on how to be a writer than other kinds of books, you’re doing it wrong, and you may be in a lamentable state of mind where what you really want to do is be known as a writer–instead of, you know, actually writing.

Nonetheless, there are some helpful things you can do. Here they are:

-Read, read, read.

This is always my #1 piece of advice. There’s no such thing as a writer who doesn’t read. If you don’t particularly care for reading, the actual craft and discipline of writing will elude you. If you enjoy reading but you don’t read widely–say, if you read a handful of books every year, mostly all in the same genre/author/length/etc–your writing will reflect this.

Read widely, and read, as Alan Jacobs says, “at whim.” Reading and relishing 1 good book by a talented author will probably do more for your own writing than reading 3 books on how to write. It’s been said that “leaders are readers.” It’s even more true that writers are readers.

-Write, write, write

It’s exactly like it sounds. Try to write every day. Register a free blog. Or just open Word on your computer and start writing. Glean writing ideas from your own reading (don’t put too much stock in artificial “prompts,” like the ones you find inside journals; they can be useful, but focus more on prompting yourself through interacting with what you’re reading).

-Figure out what you’re most interested in, and write more about that.

One of the mistakes people make when they try to start writing regularly is that they think being a good writer means being able to write about anything and everything. Not so. Most of the best writers are not really “generalists” that can churn out solid essays on everything from politics, to movies, to literature, to fashion. There’s nothing wrong with having thoughts about a lot of topics, but don’t fear the beat. Embrace the fact that you don’t have unlimited time or (most importantly) unlimited thoughtfulness. Find the one thing you want to talk about more than others, and sharpen it.

-Pitch your ideas to editors, not robots

In general, don’t bother wasting your time with “Submissions” portals. Find editors who work for places you admire and introduce yourself. Do as much “networking” as you can think to do (but don’t network at the expense of your actual craft). This will do 2 things for you: It will greatly raise your chances of having a pitch accepted, and it will put you in contact with people who can improve your writing.

-Go analog

The demise of paper and pen has been highly exaggerated. Invest in some analog writing tools and use them to capture ideas. Physical writing tools come with much fewer distractions, which is nice, but even better, they reduce the process to the essentials of the craft. The literary life is beset with temptations to vanity. Even writing itself can become more about announcing to the world that I’m a Writer than about the word. Analog processes can help you do some self-accountability. If you’re not willing to write unless you can tweet out your stuff within seconds, you may not be in it for the right reasons.

-Embrace failure and inferiority

Your pitches will be rejected. Your blog won’t be Retweeted. Your writing won’t catch the eye you hoped. You will feel like an impostor, like a joke, like a horribly misled little soul that has deluded itself. You will wonder with disgust and anxiety why you can’t write like your favorite authors.

Embrace it. Live with it. You’re not the world’s greatest writer. You probably won’t write a bestseller. That’s OK, because words are valuable and beautiful and worth it even if they don’t fly off a shelf or garner a big advance. You’ll keep coming back despite all the frustration, not because you love attention, but because you love to write. You need to write. Those words have to get out.

If that’s you, then congrats: You’re in the right line of work.