Back in my marketing agency days, we’d sometimes talk about the concept of “barnacle SEO.” What that meant is that you basically had to find ways to attach your client or brand to some larger entity and profit off of their platform. You can get a fuller picture of the idea from SEMRush if that’s of interest to you.
What concerns me at the moment is that I think a great deal of Christian media basically grows via a similar strategy. I don’t want to draw negative attention to any single person or institution, but if you think about it for long you’ll probably figure out who I have in mind. It’s what happens when your biggest splash pieces or your main revenue drivers are basically profiting off of some other already-established persona or platform.
David French and Tim Keller have been huge boons for dissident right wing types, for instance, because it’s easier to criticize them than it is to positively state your other, better, actually plausible strategy. But you can also point at how more centrist outlets profiteer off Mark Driscoll, Donald Trump, the generalized failings of evangelicalism, or even something like the enneagram. Other topics, like critical race theory, Christian nationalism, or the trans revolution can host both right- and left-wing varieties of barnacles.
Affirming or criticizing any of these things can occupy an outlet (and much of that outlet’s resources) for weeks or even months, thereby allowing the outlet to claim some role in defining the conversation around x even as that outlet hasn’t actually done anything creative or original on the topic because it is simply playing pundit to the agenda set by some other party.
To some degree this is hard to avoid because Christian media projects exist (in part) to comment on current events and provide their readers with a reliably Christian perspective on those events. So the point here is not that we should never comment on those things. That isn’t my concern.
My concern is that much Christian media seems to be out of ideas and now mostly gets by through attaching itself to other conversations, movements, and people. This has the effect of making our institutions unavoidably and inherently reactive as we take our cues either via a parasitic relationship to our “enemies” or through a sort of automated, reflexive affirmation of our “friends.”
I worry, in short, that we are becoming the old French revolutionary who is supposed to have said, “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.” And, yes, I’m well aware of the danger this poses to Mere O itself. We are not altogether innocent of the charge I am making here. The reason the problem is so widespread right now, I think, is because doing something other than barnacle editorializing is extremely hard.
That said, to end on a more hopeful note: There are examples of better approaches out there in Christian media and Christian institutions: Mark Sayers, John Mark Comer, Peter Leithart, Leah Sargeant, Joy Clarkson, Tara Ann Thieke, Andrew Wilson, Charlie Dates, LM Sacasas, Jon Askonas, Kirsten Sanders… if you know where to look, you’ll find them. (And it probably isn’t a coincidence that many of the names I just gave are operating in post-Christian or even post-post-Christian settings.) The more that Christian media conversations are shaped and defined by people who are playing a fundamentally different game than what is normal in our current media environment, the better it will be for all of us.
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).