The Hazards of Online Faith-Writing

He was so hell-bent on edification that truth had no claims on him anymore.
—Wilfrid Sheed, The Hack

The preacher, the teacher, the writer, the edifying spiritual influencer—do you see them?

Behind the pulpit or roaming the stage, clad in chasuble or bouncing on fashionable sneakers, perhaps standing against a wall, basked in gentle light, surrounded by a gaggle of kids, gauzy and gleeful, curated vulnerability filtered through to our social media feeds, fingers poised above the keyboard, thumbs expertly tapping the screen. Something wise and insightful must be announced, written, posted. Posted right now! Listeners, seekers, readers, potentially sticky eyeballs waiting, expectant.

Preach, teach, share, inspire. Go ahead. It’s your gift, and therefore your responsibility, too. Don’t bury those talents, don’t hide that light. And what a time we live in! Not only can you share the gift with thousands or even millions with a tap of the screen, you might even be able to make a living with it—your ministry, your apostolate, your gigs, your side-hustle. Nothing wrong with that. What does Paul tell Timothy? “A worker deserves his wages (1 Tim 5:18).” Right?

The tech and the reach may be new, but the character staking out a claim in the marketplace for God’s sake has been around. In the early 1960’s novelist Wilfrid Sheed, scion of a family in the business of evangelization—Catholic apologists and publishers Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward—put the mid-century American version under the microscope in The Hack. Almost sixty years ago, yes, but aside from the technology and the language of the Mass, the same questions nudge. What happens to faith when you package and market it? What happens to you?

Our protagonist, Bertram Flax is in his early 30’s, making a living penning pious twaddle for Catholic periodicals. He fell into it honestly, after making a bit of splash writing some heartfelt poetry as a teen, encouraged by priests and nuns to go ahead and run with his obviously God-given talent.

It had started way back in high school (poets mature early) when religiosity came as easily as breathing. They told you to think of Our Lady whenever you had an impure thought, and this led him into some rather tense poetry. Sister Melody, the visiting Laureate from Iowa, got excited and said that he had a genuine lyric gift . . . He had struck just the right note for the magazines when he was sixteen, and the magazines were not about to change as he got older . . . He was just getting out of college by then, with a lot of very vague plans, none of which included the role of spiritual hack. Little did he know.

And so here he is, years later, married with five children, living in New Jersey, eking out a living writing little inspirational stories and poems. Bert’s wife, Betty, is not Catholic, and while Bert does not aggressively work at conversion, he certainly would like his wife to become Catholic, not only out of a professional duty. As for Betty, she is on the edges, having been raised by a sharply, hilariously drawn liberal Protestant civic-minded mother to be suspicious of most organized religion, especially immigrant-laden priestcraft. Nonetheless, there is something about the whole business that keeps drawing her close, as she lurks in the local Catholic church, ostensibly to escape the cold or the rain, but always observing and thinking things over—not that she’s able to talk to her husband about it at all.

When we meet, it is early November, and the Christmas pieces are pressing on Flax: “It was the season to rub his hands and be genial for the Passenger; moisten his eyeballs and be tender for the Catholic Woman; roll up his trousers and be childish for the Tiny Messenger.” But he is coming up dry. Very dry. He cannot enter into the spirit, cannot hold on to anything solid to believe in—it just seems to him to all be so many words, the same words, over and over—and he basically wants a break from it. He is burned out. But how can you take a break when your work is about faith, that stuff which is supposed to be the core and basis of not only your life, but also simply reality?

Betty senses something is wrong: “She had a hunch he wanted to change his style, develop a little more depth; but with the cost of living and all, he kept putting it off from issue to issue. She was naturally optimistic and sure he would work it out; meanwhile, he was doing so much good.” That is a phrase that recurs again and again. His hack writing is of the lowest common denominator, and everyone around him knows it . . . but he was doing so much good. He believes that he is something of a fraud, but he was doing so much good. His writing might even be doing him spiritual harm, but he was doing so much good. He is trapped.

He wonders what to do about it. He thinks confronting skepticism in the person of an old high school friend might light the fire again, so he goes looking for fights in that regard. He remembers the nuns’ admonitions about purity and grace, so he keeps trying to go to confession, and either does not go, or makes a garbled, confusing confession to a puzzled priest.

He remembers that it used to flow, and it seemed natural. What he wrote early on expressed something real, but . . .

If only he hadn’t dragged it around for so long, like a dead cat . . .

. . . One thing was sure, if he didn’t get the feeling back soon, he was out of work.

The truth was, he needed that feeling. Funny, if you wanted a funny side, that the good feeling he had known that day should have become his bread and butter. It would never have occurred to him at the time. The pleasant ease of the church, the seat turning cool on his face—that that in turn should become a kind of agony, was funny. God, to feel the ease again. And to be able to pay his bills with it.

Whose fault is it though? How did Bert get to this point of burnout?

His wife and a priest-editor have it out on this score. Father Chubb has been sending back Bert’s work for the first time ever, which is not helping the current crisis. Out of Bert’s hearing, Betty and Father Chubb argue:

“For heavensake, Father, don’t you understand anything? Who can Bert write for now? Who is going to buy his late Victorian junk now? You people bring a boy up on James Whitcomb Riley and Joyce Kilmer—”

“I doubt it anyone did that.”

“And then you praise him by your own nutty standards until he doesn’t know good from bad, up from down. And then, and then¸ you have to go an change your magazine, so that he hasn’t got any place to write for. How dare you change your magazine like that? . . . ”

. . . [Father Chubb says] “But then I don’t think that Bert ever had the faintest idea what the Church was really about, do you?”

“How would I know?” She said sharply. “He was the only Catholic I ever had to go on.”

“True—but even you must have felt that the things that exercised him were pretty trivial for a grown man. Seat money and dirty movies, you say, and where angels go in the winter, such childish concerns—he seemed to have had no sense of the sacramental, of sacred places and things, of liturgy and initiation into mystery.”

“I never saw anything like that in the Passenger, either,” was what Betty felt like saying to this . . . The things he had described as trivial sounded like the table of contents of his magazine.

As Eve Tushnet said about this novel, it is not just about religion-writing, or being paid for church work. It is about any lost passion, any aspect of life that you plunged into thinking: I love this, I’m good at it (and hey, they are paying me! So great!)—and here you are ten, twenty years later, trapped, burned out, or worse.

You got into this with the best of intentions, but what has happened is that you and The Thing are no longer aligned—one or both of you have moved on, out or just beyond. The parts do not fit, and the worst of it, so ironic, is that your service to The Thing has shaped you in a way that renders this part of you useless away from it. It is a sketch of people moving in and out of relationships with emotional truth, not really understanding or expressing what is deepest within, all out of fear.

But it is not simply any random area of life we are talking about here—it is faith, it is religion, it is spirituality, it is the meaning of life, it is eternity. The market for comforting words of assurance is vast. You got an answer? Share it, certainly. It is your duty. Share the faith, use your gifts. People respond, people like it, people pay currency (their time, attention, and actual money) to hear your answers? Why not?

At Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, Betty is shocked to watch her professionally devout Catholic husband remain in the pew at Communion time. Reflecting on this moment and what might have been going on inside Bert’s soul, she thinks:

Playing with sacred things, was what Chubb called it and—leaving aside Chubb’s list – you might say your emotions were sacred things, your tears and rages were sacred, he suddenly realized that you didn’t turn them on for kicks, or for money; your talent was a sacred thing; and your faith in God was sacred you didn’t pretend it was a whit stronger than it was, even for the sake of example; and oh, there were miles and miles of sacred things, and Bert knew he had certainly blasphemed every last one of them . . .

Anyway, indications were that he was back at peace: no more responsibility, no more appearances to keep up. Not being able to “feel” appropriately wouldn’t be held against him now . . .

. . . . The funny things was, she supposed that none of this would have been necessary if he had just been a plain uncomplicated windbag like the other inspirationists: he could have gone to his grave with his round tones, his relaxed manner and the untroubled face of a child.

But Bert wasn’t an uncomplicated windbag. He wasn’t even a natural hack. He was conned into it by public request. He wanted to do first-rate work, but he had trouble with it, and he did so much good the other way . . . The worst of it was you couldn’t even blame the Church. The Church hadn’t asked him to write anything, wouldn’t care if he stopped. Every institution kept up a froth of chatter these days; it didn’t much matter who did the actual frothing. A million tons of stupid words had to be manufactured by somebody; but getting mad at those was like getting mad at New Jersey, as Bert used to say.

It is uncanny, isn’t it? . . . A million tons of stupid words had to be manufactured by somebody.

Only now it is not so much print of course. I am sure almost every Catholic print publication could disappear tomorrow and hardly anyone would care, but what counts is what we are all spewing out online all the time.

The Hack is perceptive, very funny, a little overly discursive and perhaps disjointed, but still deeply recognizable. It is also a caution to all of us engaged in spiritual communication for any kind of pay including simply exposure, and a caution to all of those who pay to engage with spiritual communicators, even if the payment you are offering is simply your time and attention.

The caution offered by The Hack is this: that kind of communication and the demands of its audience do not just reflect faith, instead they have the power to shape it, and perhaps not always in a positive way. Bert and his audience are caught in a vicious circle of generating and being comforted by pious platitudes. Bert’s loss of faith is not due to him grappling with and then being bested by existential questions and profound theological mysteries. It is due to him avoiding them, allowing the platitudes and sentiment to dominate his spirit because that is where his energy has gone. Then when that dissipates and disappears, he has nothing left.

Bert thinks he could write deeper things, but can he? Have his writing reflexes been so bent that this sentiment is all he can produce now? What about the audience? It seems to be moving on, but you know, you are always going to have that cohort—the kind that, in the novel, invites Bert to come speak and nods chummily at his words about Communism—that will rise up if anything different is offered them. Betty goes through Bert’s mail and tells him he has an invitation to speak to the Catholic women of Paramus. It makes him shudder.

“I have nothing to say to the women of Paramus.”

“They want you to talk about vibrant living. That isn’t one of your subjects is it?....They’ll come and pick you up.”

A horrible thought in itself. He shut his eyes. And then, there was the pile of half-witted mail in front of his wife. You could tell it was half-witted by the way they put on the stamps.

Perhaps all the (a few years ago) bloggers and (now) Instagram spiritual writers and ministry hordes are not quite there in Bert’s spot yet. Perhaps they are still feeling what they communicate: the dependable curated authenticity of microblogs, Facebook posts and, for the lucky ones, books which these days follow a particular pattern:

  1. Description of some family or personal situation 
  2. Lightbulb moment
  3. Resolution centering around acceptance of the messiness of life and myself as I am – as you can see in my bemused, filtered head shot.

About a year ago, I had the odd experience of speaking to two Catholic writers within a period of a few weeks, and both said exactly the same thing to me: “If I could write what I really want to write it would be . . . ,” and both filled in the blank with a project completely different from what they were currently known for.

And what held them back? Some financial pressures, as with Bert, and some hesitancy about reader reaction. No one was wishing they could write a Catholic Portnoy’s Complaint, but they were wondering what their audience would think, and in the case of one, anticipating slightly different objections—the type of resentful, misunderstanding reactions that seemed to emerge whenever she wrote on this topic, near and dear to her. Was it worth the potential hassle? Could she shape what she wanted to say in a way that was authentic but averted the objections, as much as possible, of the nagging, easily offended readers and the contemporary version of all those letters with the half-witted stamp placement?

What we produce, what we write and speak, can shape us in a myriad of ways. Bert’s faith was diluted and shrunk, because his writing demanded that he see it, interpret it, and communicate it in a shallow sentimental framework. But spiritual writing (and ministry, period) can impact the shape of our faith in other ways, too.

One of the greatest pitfalls these days involves the construction and maintenance of a persona. This might be built on personality, it might be built on specialization. Some examples are: the Fun Priests doing car karaoke, the Quirky Catholic, the Funky Homeschooler, the Charmingly Frazzled Mom, and the tattooed Latin-Mass-goer.

Persona, platform, what have you. What happens is that the platform becomes a pedestal and the persona becomes a prison. The cute kids grow older and really, really do not want to be in the center of your online hustle any more. Apologetics goes out of fashion. Your marriage starts to suck a little, and you are not sure if you should feature it any longer. The answers that once seemed so clear now strike you as simplistic. You, yourself, like Bert, just get burned out:

He was so tired of all that, didn’t want to argue. If you could just give it up for a year, you might get excited again. But you weren’t allowed to give it up for so much as a week. It got in your teeth and hair. And meanwhile, the whole thing was getting to be more and more like New Jersey.

And then there is pride, always, pride. As a person evolves into some kind of spiritual guru, or good example—this is not Bert’s problem, because he does not put himself in the center of his writing—but the refrain “he’s doing so much good” still echoes, functioning, as a barrier to the truth. “He was so hell-bent on edification that truth had no claims on him anymore.”

But it can do that, any kind of ministry, including spiritual writing. Constantly focusing on the self, on packaging one’s life as a spiritual model, even if you continually brush that off and say all for Jesus or something; putting yourself out there, making your carefully composed faux-messiness a daily destination for those seeking insight and comfort; making yourself a thought-leader whose opinions on everything must be posted as quickly as possible; producing a social media feed you say is about evangelization but is, somehow, not much more than a wall of photos of your face—it all has the power to form one’s own faith in ways that are subtly prideful and do indeed, put the focus on us. Nothing new here: “When the crowds saw what Paul had done, they cried out in Lycaonian, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form’” (Acts 14:11).

It happens all the time. It is a constant temptation.  In the late 1950’s and early 60’s, faith was diluted in the marketplace most often by sentimentality and idealistic, black-and-white caricatures of virtue. In the present moment—which, given the pace of change, might last until next week—the market demands a kind of performative authenticity played out by personalities, inviting you to faith, not so much because it is objectively real and true, but because, well, I’m a part of it and I’m pretty cool, so you’ll probably want to join up, too.

The format has changed, pamphlets replaced by Instagram posts and sentimental tales supplanted by first-person accounts of self-acceptance, but the dynamic is the same: the risk and fact of the content being shaped by the format, the message by the needs of the messenger and demands of the audience. So evangelization in the age of Instagram becomes just what Instagram and the rest of social media is: an aspirational marketplace trading in curated imperfection and performative authenticity.

Filtered images and tapped out tales of imperfection and self-acceptance, millions and millions of them, a digital flood of faith, but faith in what? . . .

Religion must sometimes mean just keeping quiet, not trying to coin phrases, or drum up “thoughts.” Bert once wrote a thing about keeping quiet, about the silence of Christ, and it chimed with something she felt herself. She had said, “yes, yes, that’s it. He understands.” But even that was just talk. He had no intention of imitating Christ’s silence himself. All he had left was the words, and he was calling on them now for a final assault on the Christmas bills.

The wheels keep spinning in place, round and round, not finding any traction. 

Author

Amy Welborn

Amy Welborn is the author of over two dozen books on Catholic spirituality and history for adults, youth, and children. Her website can be found here.

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