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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

The PR Style in Christian Media

March 13th, 2023 | 11 min read

By Jake Meador

By now the discourse surrounding Joshua Ryan Butler’s book excerpt published at the Gospel Coalition has in some ways exhausted itself. To be sure, Butler’s intentions for the text — to highlight and commend the beauty of the Christian sex ethic — is fairly clear, as is his indebtedness to a certain mystical stream in Christian theology. They are, indeed, sufficiently clear to make the accusation that his is an abuse apologia absurd.

Yet there is enough off with the presentation of this tradition in Butler’s hands to explain the criticisms raised by a variety of parties — the language of hospitality and generosity is an especially bad misstep, I think, because of what that could imply to readers in a society as sex addled as our own. The language also veers in a direction more graphic than I think is required and which, in fact, is counter-productive toward his intended end. My friend Onsi Kamel summarized that problem well in private correspondence, saying:

Part of what I think is lost on those many contemporary readers of Song of Songs who want to foreground its eros is that the translation of erotic-poetic speech into a literal, prose idiom transforms the character of the discourse and, in so doing, the implicit *claims* being made about the nature of sex. To say “he went into her chambers” and to make graphic reference to ejaculation do not actually communicate the same things about the sexual act. The former, in hiding the act itself, elevates the act and clothes it with dignity; the latter strips it naked and exposes it. In so doing, it is actually dishonest about the character of the act, because its speech does not correspond to the nature of the act, which demands that it be hidden, elevated, and shielded from prying eyes.

So while Butler’s goals are relatively clear, the execution was poor at a number of points. As it happens, the media world has ways of handling badly developed arguments. If you work in the world of book publishing, magazines, and think tanks, you learn that editorial failures and missteps are a part of the job just as much as, say, buggy software is part of the job if you work in the martech world, as I did before moving into full-time work at Mere O. Obviously you don’t want it to be a regular occurrence. But humans being fallible and finite, it is inevitable that our work will have many imperfections. So we have plenty of resources, practices, and norms to call upon when we do fail on the editorial level.

Simply as a matter of courtesy, it’s wise to begin and end your decision making on these matters by communicating with the author in question, so that the author does not feel abandoned or thrown under the bus. That isn’t to say you give the author authority over the final decision, but you do keep them in the communication loop. You also can avail yourself of editorial notes either at the top or bottom of a piece, making note of any necessary changes or providing context for the piece.

Finally, we can and should adopt the arch-liberal idea that the best remedy to bad speech is more speech. Butler’s piece actually provided us with a fantastic opportunity for better conversation. Indeed, some of the conversations I’ve had via private backchannels over the past week concerning mystical language, how to read the Song of Songs, how to translate that tradition for a pornographic society, how to read the key Pauline texts, and so on have been wonderfully illuminating and helpful.

To whatever degree a publisher can, it is good to try and bring those productive, helpful conversations into the public square, both for the edification of the original author and the encouragement of readers to continue to pursue truth. This can be done most easily by inviting a small sample of responses to the piece and inviting the original author to also write a reply, not as a public grovel, but rather as a reflection on the conversation his work has provoked, defending his original argument where appropriate and refining or correcting it as needed. All of this is a longer process, of course, but if our work is to speak what is true, then is there any other process for us?

That, of course, is the thing we are after in publishing: We want to speak what is true about God and his works. So when we find ourselves mired in controversy over an editorial failure, that core purpose should guide our response. We respond to controversy over our editorial failures by continuing our quest toward truth. We deal with editorial failures by trying to press through them to deeper insights into the mysteries of God and his creation.

However, the internet dramatically complicates this work in many ways, two of which merit further development.

First, speech on the internet and on social media in particular is somewhat odd in that it isn’t really communication, properly understood. Communication, at least as I’m defining it here, happens when two or more people attempt together to speak the truth to one another. When we speak to one another for any other reason, we are engaging in something else—nearly always we are reducing one another to objects, rather than subjects, and we are engaging in some form of manipulation to secure unspoken goals through our speech.

Josef Pieper writes of the older conception of “flattery” in connection to this point:

What does that flattery mean? We no longer use this term in such a context; it has lost its bite, yet the subject matter itself is as relevant as ever. What, then, is flattery?

Flattery here does not mean saying what the other likes to hear, telling him something nice, something to tickle his vanity. And what is thus said is not necessarily a lie, either.

For example, I might meet a colleague and say to him, “I have read your recent article, and I am fascinated!” It could well be that I have not read the article at all and am therefore anything but fascinated. This does not yet amount to flattery! Or else I might indeed have read the article, and I am really fascinated, and what I said was flattery nevertheless.

In what lies the distinction? What makes the difference? The decisive element is this: having an ulterior motive. I address the other not simply to please him or to tell him something that is true. Rather, what I say to him is designed to get something from him! This underlying design makes the message a flattery, even in the popular meaning of the word.

The other, whom I try to influence with what he likes to hear, ceases to be my partner; he is no longer a fellow subject. Rather, he has become for me an object to be manipulated, possibly to be dominated, to be handled and controlled. Thus the situation is just about the opposite of what it appears to be. It appears, especially to the one so flattered, as if a special respect would be paid, while in fact this is precisely not the case. His dignity is ignored; I concentrate on his weaknesses and on those areas that may appeal to him—all in order to manipulate him, to use him for my purposes.

And insofar as words are employed, they cease to communicate anything. Basically, what happens here is speech without a partner (since there is no true other); such speech, in contradiction to the nature of language, intends not to communicate but to manipulate. The word is perverted and debased to become a catalyst, a drug, as it were, and is as such administered.

It seems to me that speech on social media by its very nature cannot be actual communication. Why not? Because all speech on social media is conducted before an unseen and unknown audience and it is done for the purposes of broadcasting a person’s beliefs to that audience.

In particular, social media speech often functions as a form of self curation, an act of defining one’s (digital) self through acts of amplifying certain forms of content, associating oneself with certain figures, or signaling one’s tastes or loyalties through public approval or disapproval of a certain person or piece of content.

Moreover, because of how easy it is to self curate through social media, social media is prone to mob formation because the thousands or millions of users on a social network are all after the same goods and will, at times, engage in a kind of collective identity signaling through their condemnation or shaming of a person, community, or piece of content.

Because this is how online speech works, media endeavors are at a disadvantage in how to respond. They can naively treat the reaction on social media, up to and including the formation of social media swarms, as a kind of digital age version of the older tradition of writing a letter to the editor. But whereas a letter to the editor was privately addressed to the editor and only published if approved by the editor (and if the newspaper could confirm the identity of the author), social media mobs materialize out of the ether, as it were, all uniting together so that each member of the mob can refine their own privatized sense of self through participation in mass shaming behaviors. If media entities do not understand this point, they run the risk of ascribing far greater significance to mob behavior than is appropriate and allowing that mob behavior to influence their decision making.

Second, when you have an institution with low institutional memory or relational history amongst its members that is operating with a high degree of online visibility, that institution will be uniquely vulnerable to internet swarms. Why is that? For two reasons: First, internet swarms by their very nature unleash an enormous amount of anger, accusation, and vitriol onto a small number of people. They are overwhelming and can drive people toward desperate actions simply to escape the ridicule and scorn of the mob. Second, standing up to mobs of this sort is quite difficult and requires an individual strength of will and, when targeted at communities or institutions, an exceedingly high degree of collective trust between members.

If that trust does not exist, the temptation for media endeavors is to abandon their identity as a media producer because they lack the resources required to maintain that identity in any kind of real and responsible way. Instead, they opt to treat the problem not as something to be solved through editorial means—more speech about the issue!—but as something to be solved via public relations techniques.

Once you shift to PR, you are no longer thinking about how to pursue truth; you are, rather, thinking about how to minimize damage to your entity’s reputation through acts of contrition and appeasement. Significantly, whereas editorial operations are inherently conversational in nature and involve deliberation, adjudication, and contemplation between people, PR operations typically follow a relatively hard set of rules that can almost be adopted as reflexes.

In our current moment within American Protestantism, there are two such reflexes that are most common. First, right-wing Christians tend to respond to mass shaming campaigns through a reflex built on these two principles:

  • We have no enemies to our right.
  • Any accusations of wrongdoing in which the offense in question is somehow progressive coded is inherently illegitimate.

With these reflexes, right-wing Christian groups beat off mob attacks and any other form of criticism by simply refusing to engage and using scorn to discredit their opponents. This signals strength to their right-wing conservative audience and builds up their brand in the eyes of their readers. This is an obvious institutional win, but it comes at the cost of the institution’s integrity because the institution has opted to behave like a business with a PR question, not an editorial project with responsibilities to what is true.

However, what recent weeks have demonstrated, yet again, is that for a certain sort of evangelical (mostly 3s, if you use the taxonomy from Graham and Flowers), there is a different sort of reflex in play, which might be stated this way:

  • When a progressive takes offense at something we did, that is evidence of an evangelistic failure of some sort.

Whereas conservatives achieve a PR win through signaling strength to their conservative, red state audiences, 3s achieve a PR win through signaling contrition to their progressive, blue state audiences. Yet the underlying problem here remains strikingly similar to the issue with the conservative response: The pursuit of truth is abandoned and replaced with an attempt to simply shore up one’s reputation with one’s desired audience through the use of audience-appropriate PR methodology. It is, indeed, a strange mirroring of the mob tactics, abandoning the exchange of ideas between subjects possessing a certain ontological status and shifting it toward a subject-object relationship in which the subject—the PR firm—is trying to obtain something from the object—the braying mob. Thus Christian media producers of the latter sort shift from having editorial responsibilities to the truth and move toward being a kind of PR firm for Jesus intended to rehabilitate his image in progressive communities.

So how can we in media consistently pursue the appropriate editorial response to failure rather than adopting the PR style? Three particular points come immediately to mind.

First, we need to be candid in our posture, not apologetic. The right has its own problems, but that is not what concerns me here. There is a cloying accomodationalism amongst 3s that serves them quite poorly across a variety of issues. It is apologetic in the bad sense of that term, a posture marked by guilt and a lack of confidence, all of which leads to a felt need to apologize for the teachings of Scripture.

Candor is a better posture. Candor is not angry, belligerent, or seeking after controversy. It is, instead, an internal clarity about one’s calling and work that allows one to remain committed to that even when opposition arises, even when that opposition is a braying flock of hellbird site avatars. Berry writes beautifully of this quality when he says,

There is no power against them.
It is only candor that is aloof from them,
only an inward clarity, unashamed,
that they cannot reach. Be ready.

Second, our institutions need to be built on strong bonds of trust and friendship forged over conversation and reflection. Before we work together in institutions we need to recognize one another as partners in the pursuit of truth, people with whom we come to know the good, the true, and the beautiful. To come to such recognition, however, requires time.

So there is a related calling to patience inherent in the calling to friendships and conversation. It is only bonds of this sort, I think, that will allow institutions to survive the enormous pressure that can be applied by online swarms. This likely also means that our institutions will need to be smaller, as forging this sort of trust requires time, as we already said, and it is genuinely difficult to have the time needed to develop such trust with a larger group of people.

Third, we cannot under any circumstances adopt reflexive responses to online mobs. In this sense, it does not matter if the reflex is a right-wing reflex or a 3 reflex. In both cases, the calling of rendering judgment informed by careful investigation and consideration is abandoned in favor of reputation management. For Christians called to love God with all our minds, the adoption of reflexive responses must be unthinkable. When we adopt reflexive responses to swarms, we abandon our core purpose as Christian neighbors living in God’s world and engage in an act of objectifying first ourselves and later our neighbors.

The right-wing version abdicates from the responsibility to exercise real moral judgment, which is perhaps why their movement is attracting increasingly open and virulent anti-black racists as well as people who are anti-Semitic or misogynistic. The 3 version, meanwhile, abdicates the calling to have dominion, choosing instead to render itself a supplicant to progressive concerns, ostensibly in the name of the Gospel and evangelism.

Indeed, the very act of making oneself suppliant in that way actually makes it practically impossible for progressives to genuinely hear the Gospel from us. At best, what they will take is that we believe that the best version of progressive blue state values is simply to be Christian, because Christianity helps us to be maximally inclusive, mentally healthy, and committed to social justice. While there is a version of that statement that is true, the practical upshot of this in 99% of cases will be that our progressive audiences learn of a Christianity that does not require them to give up any of their idols.

I have used a photo of Francis Schaeffer surveying a city as a header image for this essay. I have done that because Schaeffer, particularly in his L’Abri years, is a model of what I am calling for. Schaeffer wept over the lostness of the world, he responded with nuance and compassion to the suffering of his neighbors, and he did all of this while remaining robustly committed to the truths of the historic Christian faith and the practices of ordinary Christian discipleship.

It is this combination of practices and postures that is so desperately needed in our day. Ironically, it is precisely because we need models of this that we need institutions like the Keller Center. And yet if these aspiring successors to the tradition of Schaeffer (and Bavinck and Stott and Keller) are to be fruitful in their work, they must learn to resist the pressures of online mobs and instead walk a slower, longer, harder road that will, in the end, lead to life eternal for themselves and for the world.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).