A few months ago, I tweeted this: “Reason #437 I love being an Episcopalian: No one knows who Mark Driscoll is, much less why he’s apologizing.”
Driscoll is a popular Seattle-based evangelical pastor, known in part for his complementarian opinions on sex and marriage (i.e., the view that God calls men and women to complementary but distinct roles in marriage, family, and public life). Driscoll likes his men macho, his women submissive, and his books on the best-seller list. His apology came after revelations that the marketing firm hired to promote Driscoll’s book Real Marriage employed unethical tactics to maneuver the book to the top of the New York Times Best Sellers list.
Who Mark Driscoll is and what he’s done is less relevant to this post than that he is a provocative figure in evangelicalism, and as such, a near-guaranteed driver of online traffic. Writing about Driscoll, or any of the perennial controversies for American evangelicals (abortion, gay marriage, gender roles, contraception, sex, political affiliation) will almost certainly drive online traffic your way. The traffic might not always be welcome, as controversial posts are bound to attract unpleasant Internet trolls along with thinking folk. But as a freelance writer, I understand that my name recognition and paychecks (spare as they are) depend less on the quality of page views than on the quantity.
Given this dynamic and the cultural sway held by evangelicalism (we mainline Christians are continually frustrated when the news media equate the “Christian” perspective with the evangelical perspective), writers have a strong incentive to claim evangelical identity, even if such an identity is not quite accurate.
Writing about . . . the perennial controversies for American evangelicals (abortion, gay marriage, gender roles, contraception, sex, political affiliation) will almost certainly drive online traffic your way.
I spent my college years in an evangelical fellowship, and the following nine years in an ecumenical Washington, D.C. church that attracted people disaffected by both evangelical and mainline Christianity. Although I’ve now returned to the Episcopal Church where I grew up, and my views have always been firmly mainline (theologically traditional, socially moderate, politically liberal), I know enough about the evangelical world to follow evangelical writers and occasionally write for an evangelical audience. I understand that writing in support of “egalitarian” marriage (the counterpoint to “complementarian” marriage) for a mainline website would just engender a few head scratches (“Egalitarian marriage? Is there any other kind?”). Write about the same topic for evangelical bastions such as Christianity Today or The Gospel Coalition, however, and the post will be linked to by friend and foe alike.
I’m not alone in using this dynamic to my advantage. Some of the most popular and provocative Christian writers would feel right at home in a mainline environment — and might even worship at a mainline church — but publicly identify as evangelical. In fact, when I first started writing about religion, I was surprised to discover how many editors for evangelical publications are Episcopalians.
When we position ourselves as upstarts within a tradition whose practices and assumptions we question, we court controversy and rack up page views. We might, very occasionally, change someone’s mind. And we feed the divisiveness that drives online traffic even as it erodes our ability to speak generously to and about one another.
Recognizing this dynamic, I am more reticent than I used to be to publicly weigh in on the controversy du jour. At the same time, I resist the continual pressure from readers to be “nice,” which is frequently presented as the primary Christian value (it’s not) and a reason to avoid writing criticisms of Christian institutions, practices, or sociopolitical positions. Incensed readers hold up critique (miscast as un-Biblical judgment of fellow believers) as an affront to Christian unity.
[W]hen we direct our brave manifestoes primarily at readers who already agree with us, we’re building an echo chamber of mutual affirmation that doesn’t change anything.
Our deep cultural divisions, and an online milieu in which harsh name-calling and withering dismissal are the norm, do indeed challenge the unity to which Jesus called his followers. But unity achieved via tacit acceptance of other Christians’ opinions and practices, because to question them wouldn’t be “nice,” is not a valuable unity. Such superficial unity doesn’t require anything more than silence and good manners. True unity costs something; it happens in the midst of, not in the absence of, passionate disagreement and debate.
I didn’t really understand the value of Christian unity taking root alongside a diversity of opinion until I faced a career crisis several years ago.
For a year and a half, I was a regular paid contributor to a well-known evangelical magazine’s blog. I understood that the magazine and its readers were more conservative than I am on sociopolitical issues, particularly around sexuality and reproduction — topics in which I have some expertise. I was careful to write about reproductive ethics in a way that respected the editors’ and readership’s pro-life ethic. I never wrote a post even tangentially arguing for my own pro-choice perspective. However, when the magazine’s editors discovered that I wrote about my left-leaning politics on my personal blog (in posts accessible to anyone doing a Google search of my name), they told me I could no longer work for them as a bylined opinion writer.
Losing that job was deeply painful for many reasons, including that writing for an audience whose assumptions I did not share made me a better writer. It made me a better Christian. I could not dismiss other believers’ positions with clever snark; I had to take my audience and their opinions seriously, or they would not take me seriously.
I had reason to think that reading my posts also made some of my more conservative audience better readers and better-informed Christians. I gently engaged assumptions about women, marriage, children, families, and sex that frequently accompany a pro-life ethic. Many readers responded with insight, wisdom, and excellent questions (not all, of course — this is the Internet we’re talking about).
Writing for and within religious communities where we don’t quite fit can be a mercenary tactic to stimulate controversy and online traffic. But as I found with this particular job, it can also foster online discourse enriched by mutual curiosity and respect. Conversely, when we direct our brave manifestoes primarily at readers who already agree with us, we’re building an echo chamber of mutual affirmation that doesn’t change anything, either about the topics we’re discussing or our ingrained culture wars.
Sometimes, the price of maintaining my integrity as a writer and fostering fruitful dialogue is to stay silent — even when I’m desperate to use the snarky one-liner I came up with in the shower this morning, even when I know that a nice juicy controversy could push my blog stats over the minimum page views required for me to get paid this month. And sometimes being a writer of integrity means writing the best post I can on a topic I care about — even when it will attract commenters eager to tell me not merely that I’m wrong but that I’m a disappointment to God, even when it means disagreeing publicly with a colleague whom I consider a friend.
It’s not that hard to manipulate the rampant divisions within American Christianity to benefit a writing career. It’s much harder to foster the thoughtful conversations that must happen for our faith to remain relevant and vibrant, because doing so costs something — a sharp retort held back because its target is someone I know, an opposing idea treated with respect instead of ridicule, my opinion offered to a diverse community of readers, knowing that some will reject me with the harshest language possible, in the hope that at least a few will engage with insight and kindness.
About a year ago, I started writing one blog post a week for my local Episcopal church’s website. By necessity (I am a New Englander as well as an Episcopalian, one of the extra frozen chosen), these posts are short, straightforward, and ignorant about the latest scandal in the evangelical blogosphere. They address basic concerns, such as why we pray or how joining the choir convinced my kids to stop hating church. I usually re-post a version of these short essays on my more widely read blog on Patheos. One of the sweetest surprises of my writing career is how these posts, free of controversy and full of mundane questions about faith, family, church, and community have, over weeks and months, become some of my most-read, quoted, and shared posts.
Controversy may drive traffic, but more perennial and necessary topics drive conversation. It is conversation, not squabble-generated quips, that inspires thought and sustains faith, even on an average day free of news hooks and provocative tweets.
Image courtesy of Mor.