Our republic is currently embarked on an audacious experiment: We have, through a series of economic and cultural choices, destroyed many of the intermediate social structures that people rely on to shape their lives and give them a sense of purpose and significance. We have redefined the family. We have built a system that emphasizes freedom from restraint for individuals combined with an expansive state to serve as a sort of artificial glue to hold the entire corrupt system together. And we have completely obliterated social trust and the virtues of neighborliness while still at least attempting to use a system of government that depends upon those very things for its coherence.
It is not surprising, in other words, that The Year of Trump followed the Year of Obergefell. The latter highlighted the disdain that many Americans have for traditional social structures like marriage and was realized through the govern-by-judicial-fiat strategy that has shaped both the American right and left in recent years. If you will brush aside intermediate, non-government social structures with a shrug and expect nine people in black robes to rule the country you should not be surprised when someone like Trump ascends to that nation’s highest office. You should, rather, be surprised it took so long for such a thing to happen.1
It isn’t surprising that this general social upheaval would also prompt a time of deeper reflection amongst conservative Christians in the United States. Though it manifests itself in different ways, we are a deeply anxious group at the moment. We are keen to hold onto the faith handed down to us and yet we are increasingly convinced that the strategies of previous generations are not viable in such a tumultuous cultural context. Thus we are now in the midst of an attempt to reframe our public image.
By and large, these attempts have focused on two aspects:
- The arguments and ideas that we prioritize
- The tone with which they are advanced
Q Ideas, for example, seems primarily interested in the tone that conservative Christians project and has subsequently taken a broad, amorphous stance toward key matters. Christianity Today‘s “beautiful orthodoxy” seems to hit a similar note, as does much of the work done at Christ and Pop Culture, a publication which has very close ties to CT. Though these publications have staked out harder stances on occasion, the goal of presenting a new friendlier face for Evangelical America is never in doubt. Indeed, one could rightly argue that the greatest example of these institutions taking an aggressive stance, Andy Crouch’s outstanding editorial about Donald Trump, is itself a return to older, more aggressive evangelical rhetorical styles used in service of the re-branding of evangelicalism.
At the same time, a massive community of younger writers has emerged that is often more liberally minded, wary of traditional orthodoxy, and apparently disdainful of complete paragraphs. Led by writers like Jonathan Merritt and Rachel Held Evans they tend to be more focused on the aesthetics of their prose while subordinating the arguments at work. Their approach is a weird fusion of sentimentalized understandings of love and an antipathy toward their conservative upbringings.
What is curious about the above survey of evangelical publishing is that, in the midst of these many venues online, there remains a notable gap: Sites bearing the name of the main writer tend inevitably to get pulled toward the writer-as-brand model that is so popular in today’s writing economy. Meanwhile, sites like The Gospel Coalition and CaPC speak of their work most often in terms of being a ministry to the church, which is a wonderful thing but also not quite how we see our own work within the evangelical blogosphere.
What is missing is an evangelical publication that does for evangelicalism what publications like First Things and Commonweal do for Catholic (or primarily Catholic) Christians: Serve as a hub for smart, incisive Christian reflection on a variety of topics while participating in the debates and discussions that are central to American public life. Mere Orthodoxy is decidedly not a ministry; we are a magazine. And we believe that this means there is great opportunity for us to do good work in the days to come.
What is the work that needs to be done?
On a basic level, we must recognize that both the evangelical church and the republic have wandered far from their roots. Many younger evangelicals are depressingly ignorant of the faith, having never been properly catechized in it by the seeker-sensitive churches and youth groups in which they grew up. It is perhaps telling to consider how many of the post-evangelical writers that currently plague evangelical publishing are themselves children of evangelicalism who, more often than not, attended evangelical colleges.
But the problem is not simply the attractional churches we grew up in. It is also that many of evangelicalism’s younger churches are so mired in a therapeutic gospel that they have forgotten the most basic call of the Gospel: Come and die. Indeed, these churches have embraced their own version of cheap grace. Our parents version of it ran on suburban affluence and white middle-class comfort. Our version runs on a far cheaper fuel: the paralyzing fear of a progressive arching their eyebrow at something we say. Both, ultimately, trade in generational forms of a bourgeois lusting after respectability that is equally idolatrous regardless of how it manifests itself in a given cultural context.
The state of our republic is no better. A regard for the founding principles of our nation has been lost, as seen not only in the increasing opposition to religious liberty but even more so in the growing disregard for free speech as seen on university campuses and even in some American cities. John Adams was right: Ours is a republic that relies upon a certain sort of citizen. Once we stopped producing such citizens en masse, the slow decline into functional totalitarianism became inevitable.
The difficulty here is that phrase “functional totalitarianism.” We are likely not in danger of a slide into Orwellian dystopia in which Big Brother rules over a brainwashed citizenry with an iron fist. If Donald Trump’s base of support was 60% of the population rather than 25-35% then things might be different. But the fact remains that while 1/3 of our population is prepared to support an aspiring totalitarian demagogue like the corpulent much-married ginger tyrant currently occupying the Oval Office, 2/3 of the population will provide varying levels of resistance.
Our chief danger, then, is not political, although that does not mean our political dangers are trivial. Our chief danger is something much closer to a blending of Huxley’s Brave New World and P. D. James’s Children of Men—that we would be both mired down in hopelessness because we do not see a cultural future for ourselves or our children and that we would find this hopelessness comfortable because the red glow of Netflix makes it easy to forget such things.
Rebuilding the ruins, then, will involve political work but will not be chiefly defined by involvement in partisan politics. Rather, it means first cultivating communities of life and growth where the decadence and hopelessness of our cultural moment not only doesn’t paralyze us but where it does not even appear to be coherent. This is the underlying strength of arguments like those made by Brett and Kate McKay in “A New Strenuous Age” and by Ben Sasse in The Vanishing American Adult.
Before we can talk about much else, we need to recover the idea that work is a good thing not because it makes us comfortable or wealthy, but because work is the means by which we image God, acting as his sub-creators in the world he has made. Such an understanding of work should not only make absurd the soul deadening apathy of decadence, it should also give us a lively, thrilling vision for what our lives, our families, our homes, our churches, and our cities might become given sustained faithful, loving work intended to promote their flourishing.
Of course, recovering a proper understanding of work implies that we are being taught about the true nature of work, which implies, as you might have guessed, catechesis. And catechesis implies many, many other things: Churches that value theology, pastors with a passion to clearly teach the faith, including its more difficult bits, to their people, families dedicated to a regular ritual of family prayer, and smaller non-ecclesial communities working to create contexts in which this catechesis can happen and can be sensible to the catechumens.
The work of Mere Orthodoxy, then, is varied:
- On a base level, the writers and editors of the site need to work toward the recovery of wisdom and truth on an intellectual level so that we will hold the principles of reality in our own minds.
- We must also work to provide resources to help catechize our readers in a Christian way of seeing all of creation—which means we will talk about politics and art and sexuality and beauty and technology and popular culture and sports and a host of other things. One of the core convictions which must animate our work is a steadfast belief that the world is worth living in and worth loving because it is God’s world. So there is no area of life that is definitionally off-limits for us.
- Third, we must do the work to see the chiefly intellectual work done in publishing translated into local action. We should work in our local places to promote family worship, support churches in catechesis, and establish smaller groups for reading, discussion, and fellowship.
These three works—attending to our own spiritual formation as followers of Christ, publishing work that is elegant, creative, and faithful to orthodoxy, and participating in local institutions that realize these things more concretely—will be the preoccupations of everyone associated with Mere Orthodoxy. That is the work that needs to be done. But, of course, it begs an important question: How will we pay for it?
2017 and the Future of Publishing
2017 has been a bleak year for people who love the written word. Of course, 2016 wasn’t much better as it saw the shuttering of Books & Culture, amongst other things. But 2017 has been rough, even by the standards of recent publishing industry news. The “pivot to video” move is by now so established that it is almost comical when yet another media company announces their plans to do it. Vocativ, Vice, Fox Sports, and MTV have all laid off gifted writers to finance a dubious move that will probably not even do the things the publisher wants it to do—create a new more reliable stream of revenue and draw in a broader audience.
That said, pivoting to video is in keeping with the broader spirit in publishing right now: ESPN will fire Jayson Stark and pay millions to keep Steven A. Smith. Fox will lay off their entire digital soccer division while dropping millions on Skip Bayless and Colin Cowherd. MTV will lay off Brian Phillips but keep doing reality TV crap. The game is, sadly, all too familiar.
There is a method to the madness, of course: The dominant models for financing media right now are, as they have been for some time, ad driven. In other words, they are driven by a need to amass a huge audience which can then be sold to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, the internet has broken that business model for reasons that Ben Thompson has already explained. For a variety of reasons, advertising pays far less now and so the only way to make an ad-based business work is to run more ads (which creates a bad reading experience because of how it slows down a web browser), run more #content, or generate higher viewer numbers through the laziest strategy possible: Making people mad.
The more ad strategy works to a point, but what we are beginning to see are signs of a major online ad bubble that could have calamitous affects on some major companies. Likewise, more articles and posts can work but it requires either a larger staff with more resources or a lazy, unprincipled staff that will run anything. Outrage, of course, also has its limits, as simply antagonizing millions of people in order to generate clicks which then generate revenue is the classic example of a short-term solution that creates even larger long-term problems.
The key, then, is to develop a strategy for funding publishing work that won’t collapse into these kinds of problems. If Thompson is right and “your business model is your destiny,” then the key is to find a strategy that actually incentivizes good work rather than incentivizing more clicks or higher quantities of content, independent of quality.
How to Support the Work of Mere Orthodoxy
Mere O readers can participate in this work in three ways. The first is prayer. If we are undergoing a crisis of public and communal life in America then prayer is desperately needed on multiple fronts.
Second, we need money. Mere O was founded in 2005 as a group blog written by a few college friends hoping to continue the conversations they had while studying in a Great Books program. Since that time, of course, we have grown and the internet has changed. But the underlying model for financing the site hasn’t. Put another way: We basically don’t have a business model. (Cue up the Arrested Development jokes.)
We have a tip jar widget at the end of blog posts which allows us to bring in a small amount of money. We brought in around $1000 last year, though probably half of that came from fewer than 10 donors. We’re on pace to just about equal that this year, but with a far larger donor base. Last year our largest donations were three figures. This year our largest donations have been mid two figures. So the base of donating readers has grown enough to cancel out the losses due to a significant drop in average donation size.
That being said, the tip jar isn’t a reliable revenue stream because it is a one-time donation. This makes it hard for me to plan future projects for which I would pay writers since I never actually know if I’ll have money or how much I will have. We have commissioned a few pieces to date and have been able to pay some of our regular writers, but I have generally been very conservative with the money because I never want to get in a position where I cannot pay a person who has done a ton of work for the site because I have already spent all the money on commissioned pieces.
In order to correct this, we are launching a Patreon campaign today.
The goal of this campaign will be to generate consistent, reliable revenue to the site so that it is easier for me to plan future pieces and to be able to offer consistent payment to our writers. I also hope to be able to pay myself something from this money as compensation for the large amount of time I put into maintaining this site.
You may notice that the perks offered are minimal. That is by design. The purpose of Mere Orthodoxy is to produce good words on a variety of topics. The purpose of the Patreon is to provide funds to support us in that work. When you give money to Mere Orthodoxy, you are ensuring that we can commission long essays and spend an extra hour editing the essays we have. You’re protecting the quality of words in a world where they are intrinsically cheap. You’re helping us fulfill a vocation of trying to say true things about the world in ways that are lively, and sometimes puckish, and occasionally even fun.
Finally, there must be a local manifestation to this work. Toward that end, we are launching Mere O Readers Groups. In order to avoid cannabalization, we are not going to create these groups in places where existing options already exist. If you are in New York City and are a Mere O subscriber, we will refer you to the excellent City and Kingdom network of which we are one of several proud sponsors. If you are in Washington DC, the Great Plains, or the Pacific Northwest, we will refer you to the regional chapters of the Davenant Institute, another partner organization of ours which I also serve as Vice President.
That said, if you are in a location where one of our partners do not already have an active reading group or regional chapter operating, we will work to connect readers for evenings of discussion, conversation, and reflection. This is the one task I am adding to my routine as a result of the Patreon campaign.
I will be in touch with all Mere O subscribers (should the number grow too large to manage, I will need to bring on others to help) and will maintain a list of all our subscribers sorted by city. Once a geographic area hits a critical mass (and with the consent of those in the area), I will make introductions and encourage the subscribers in the area to find a time to meet. Discussion topics could include Mere Orthodoxy essays, blogs, or one of the many articles we share via our Mere O Notes feature, which is still active in the right-side toolbar when you are reading one of our articles.
We believe there is great opportunity here for Mere Orthodoxy to continue to grow. At present there is not really an active publication online that fills the niche we aspire to fill, something like an evangelical First Things, Jacobin, or The American Conservative. The need for such a publication is there, particularly after the shuttering of Books & Culture. But so far that need has not been filled. We hope to change that. We would love to have your support as we pursue that goal.