Let’s Talk About Substack

Atelier Ventures' Portfolio

About a year ago, a friend asked me what I thought of Substack. For those who don’t already know, Substack is a Silicon Valley start-up providing software for people to publish their own newsletters and charge for subscriptions. It’s all the rage today with promises of monetizing the work of individual journalists. The site has even been promoted as the future of digital media, a way to cut out the middleman in the process of monetizing the content of mostly opinion writers. The company considers itself a pioneer in the new media struggle to pay journalists in the wake of disruptions to their formerly well-paying employers.

I’d never heard of it, which bothered me, because, despite retirement, I still think of myself as pretty informed about new media. I watched as others wrote about its great value and speculating it would provide financial relief for the Fourth Estate. More people asked my thoughts, so I put my new media guy hat back on, and this essay is the result of my analysis. I’ve been following the goings on enough that I’ve developed my own opinion, and I’m confident this falderal is mostly a pile of steaming bullshit. Here we go.

It’s an attempt to provide an OnlyFans model for content other than the salacious.

Substack, it turns out, is an investment child of venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and a host of other investors all in the business of disrupting media. So much money is being thrown at Substack that the newest round of investing has set the company’s value at $650 million. Is it worth that? Not even close, but that won’t stop the money tree. Disrupting media is big business these days with roots in many places, so building a successful business here may not be the point.

Substack is unnatural as a new media player in 2021. It’s old media pretending to be a breakthrough. It’s a high-priced, glossy, and expensive magazine. It’s what we used to call an aggregator. The value proposition flows from the oldest mass media play in the books, bringing an “audience” to a “show.” In this case the show is the many newsletters brought together in one place for subscribers to read and enjoy.

The idea that its uniqueness is built around the term “newsletter” is actually pretty hilarious. The first journalists were paid to travel to foreign countries that were in competition with their benefactors back home. They wrote “letters” back to those business moguls who were eager to know how their competitors were doing. These were called “newsletters,” so the word actually represents the oldest form of journalism, not some bright and shining new object. Fun software notwithstanding, the content sure resembles blog posts, and there ain’t nothing groundbreaking about that! The rush of big-name journalists to the platform has gotten a lot of attention, but this really has nothing to do with excitement over this “new” model. They’re being given enormous revenue “advances” ranging up to $350 thousand dollars in order to marry their brands to Substack. If a guy knocked on your door and handed you an envelope with that much cash, I suspect you’d quite quickly join your personal brand to his. Here’s a paragraph from a Substack blog post last month:

Six months ago, as a demonstration of our confidence in the model, we started a financial program to help writers launch their own businesses on Substack – and it’s working so well that we are going to expand it rapidly. In fact, the viability of the Substack model has become so clear that Facebook and Twitter are now chasing us.

The truth is closer to the reality that you can do things with somebody else’s money that you could never justify in a more realistic business plan. It’s like a giant thumb on the scales, and therefore, the fruit of this “financial program” can’t be used to judge the value proposition presented by Substack. Anybody who thinks they will make up for all of this with future revenues likely also has a prescription for medical marijuana. It’s all bright and shiny right now, but that simply can’t last.

Today, the press is just beginning to discover things my tribe used to write about 15–20 years ago and longer. It was all there for anybody to seize, but newspapers thought they knew better than the geeks who were actually building the technology of the web, so they simply copied their print model and moved it online. This is why media companies use words like pages, display ads, and below the fold. We can now look and see our prophecies coming to pass, even though we all went to great lengths to reveal the coming disruptions before they occurred.

The point is there is nothing new or different from Substack. I don’t think there’s a viable subscriber fee big enough to support this kind of journalism model for the writers absent the investment money tossed at them ahead of time. A newspaper was itself a form of aggregator, but its offer was many for one relatively small fee. If that’s Substack’s ultimate business plan, well, that’s already failed. If anything, it’s a model for the rich, because only one percenters could afford more than a handful of these newsletter subscriptions. This, of course, makes great sense, because there are right-wing forces present in our world that would love to own the narrative that everybody else has to follow. Trump taught us that, if nothing else.

But, there’s another huge problem with this, and that is the tangible way it supports the idea of celebrity journalism. I wrote of this in 2010.

The press changed forever during and in the wake of Watergate. Never before had the press “brought down” a sitting President of the United States. The Washington Post did this through an FBI source that we now know had an agenda. It was the pinnacle of professional journalism and spawned a whole new genre known as the “investigative reporter,” a redundant term if there ever was one. It also spawned the age of the celebrity journalist, because Woodward and Bernstein are enshrined forever as sterling examples of what to emulate in the world of professional journalism.

For celebrity journalists, attention must be given to brand identity and marketing, which is usually done on somebody else’s dime. Unwanted thoughts enter in, like “I can’t say that” because I’ll have to defend it later,” or “I have to get my hair done and don’t have time for that.” It can so burdensome to be a star, right?

Of course, with celebrity comes status and with status comes compensation for such. Who knew that journalism was such a big money business? Murrow was not on the same social rung as the people he covered, but such is not the case today. Celebrity is a trap of the God/mammon variety, and the pursuit of such status cannot help but produce shaky ethical behaviors. Not always, but often enough to take a step back and ask ourselves what we’re doing.

I’ve worked big egos all my life and especially in the business of TV News. There’s something about the people who are willing to risk complete embarrassment and even shame in front of a camera that lends itself to an emotional fragility that would probably surprise those who only see them on TV. Now that new media is producing a whole slew of reporter/anchor type personalities, this thing about ego is going to continue for the industry. Substack plays to that ego by making them feel good about themselves as celebrity journalists. “Come join us” is their cry, but the bag of cash in their back pocket reveals something untoward to me.

Journalism in 2021 is a living organism consisting of millions of cells working together in real time to keep us all informed. That’s it. Twitter and Facebook are much closer to a contemporary, participatory, 21st Century news organism than anything that came before. There’s no role in that for thousands of thousands of subscription newsletters, so I can say with confidence that Substack is not only doomed but likely not what it appears to be. In the modern news rivers (h/t Dave Winer) of today, it’s pretty stupid anyway to link to pieces that require a subscription in order to read.

Moreover, news is no longer a story with a beginning, middle, and end. That was the finished product model of the deadline-based news of the past (see: News is a Process, Not a Finished Product). This means that the Substack model is bucking the movement of the news model by dangling big cash in front of writers with the fallacious belief that the OnlyFans model will work for content other than the girl next door taking her clothes off for a few dimes.

Call me a nut, but I think we’ve just about reached the end of milking the mass media model. The web is a 3‑way communications medium, the first of its kind. Yes, you can do a form of one-to-many media, but that’s a terribly juvenile approach to such a powerful technology. Fatted calves are being whacked with regularity by the evolution of those who use the technology. I’m sorry, but that’s exactly what Substack’s investors are seeking.

Substack may surprise me yet, but I doubt it. Instead of jumping head first over a big (BIG) check in their hands, perhaps these journalists who are transferring their work to Substack should instead try playing out the tape that leads to tomorrow.

Finally, this is a classic case of plausible hyperbole, which is what big investment money can provide.

My conclusion? Proceed with great caution.

The Re-Rise of the Newsletter

The professional news industry is being forced to return to its roots by a world it doesn’t — and probably never will — fully understand. It began with the industry’s initial response to the digital disruption, which was to reproduce its entire finished product for the web. The web, however, wasn’t built by newspapers; it was built by highly creative and rebellious geeks who changed the world without the status quo telling them it needed changing.

The web was a brand new communications invention, not a new distribution channel for old ways of doing things, and in missing this truth, the industry was completely lost. The newspaper people wanted to present their finished product online, but the geeks knew from the start that this was inefficient and a cheap substitute for what was possible.

Blog software, with its reverse chronological flow, came first, quickly followed by ways to distribute content apart from its host. Social media is, at core, the news “audience” talking amongst themselves, which was contrary to the top-down relationship that the press had with its readers. The shift to mobile brought new challenges, the biggest being a playing field built around scrolling and video in portrait mode. News drifted away from the finished product variety and into the world of continuous news.

Of course, the biggest disruptor by far was how advertising was changing to adapt to the new, and a realization that smart marketers could provide ads at the browser level and based on the behaviors of that browser. This offered a much greater likelihood of advertiser return-on-investment. History books will cite this as causing the death of newspapers, but it’s really more a case of ignorance, for newspapers still lack the technology and the networks to provide this to local advertisers. The industry has ceded defeat to Google without even firing a shot.

And, now comes the newest era of the email newsletter, a technology that’s been around since the dawn of email but generally only used to provide links to the industry’s “real” content online. The shift today, however, includes those who give the energy it takes to produce actual content for newsletters, and it’s a godsend to overwhelmed news consumers. This trend is going to continue until a company’s online newsletter will become the primary method that news organizations use to disseminate news and information.

People can pass them around, which often results in new subscribers.

The first trader newsletters during the Middle Ages — actual letters from observers in far away places — were the precursor to the newspaper industry. Wikipedia notes that “Trader’s newsletters covered various topics such as the availability and pricing of goods, political news, and other events that would influence trade.” This is the essence of today’s developing process, and it suits not only the web’s unique abilities but also that most precious of earthly commodities: time.

I’ll be 74 this summer, and I spend most of my days online in an endless search for knowledge. Even with all that time, I still feel uninformed, because studying modern times is like trying to take a sip from a firehose. It’s the primary reason I’ve turned to newsletters. They’re out there; you just have to find them. Here are five newsletters that hit my inbox overnight or every morning:

The New York Times: While this is primarily a tool to “drive traffic” back to its newspaper site, the content is growing to include small story summaries throughout. It’s a way to follow the Times without subscribing to its main product.

Mondoweiss: I have family of Palestinians that lived in Amman, Jordan for a great many years, so my window on the Middle East is a little different than most. I don’t trust the Israeli’s, and I need an outlet that understands this. Mondoweiss is a terrific example of a point-of-view news organization that represents an extreme minority in the West. I need that to stay informed.

Dave Winer: Dave is one of the real gems in providing important technology news in a highly conversational format. I also really like Dave as a person, and his takes on life in general also give me food for thought. Dave’s is a constant voice on Twitter, and he uses his newsletter to summarize those thoughts. Moreover, and this is important, Dave is always a yard ahead of everybody else, and if he’s taking the trouble to produce a newsletter, it’s something that requires my attention.

Mathew Ingram: Mathew provides summaries and links to the stories he finds important. I trust Mathew and lean on his understanding to help my own.

Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy: CNN’s Reliable Sources is (by a mile) the most useful contemporary newsletter in the market today. It is the model for others to copy, for it’s loaded with content written for readers of the newsletter. What a concept! Oh, it contains marketing and links, but it is written to be read, and the summaries are specifically aimed at people such as myself and all of those who just don’t have the time to invest in reading complete stories.

There are many others out there, and I’ll probably be extending my subscription list as I find those suited to my tastes. The point is that I get to decide what I wish to influence my thinking, not the forced and irritating offerings of the artificial and manipulative hegemony known as objectivity. That old standard disappeared with the advent of continuous streams of news. Journalism has always spoken with the authority of overseers, which is the luxury afforded to those who could afford a printing press. Today, every single person on the net is a media company and able to distribute their content just like the big boys.

To those who would drag out the ol’ echo chamber meme to accuse me of circular logic, let me state once again that my experience in helping to create right wing news means that I know that it’s just political propaganda disguised as news. Give me a little credit for that tidbit, because I’ve already turned the page on it.

If you don’t subscribe to newsletters, my advice is to begin today. Click on the links I’ve provided, if you’re interested in those. If you find yourself being fed content that you find bitter or tasteless, unsubscribing is just a click away.

To those in the news industry, if you don’t produce a newsletter, what are you waiting for? The only rules are that it can’t be a vehicle that merely “drives traffic” back to its point of origin, and ads should be presented as content, perhaps even written by the newsletter’s author(s).

Can we blame sin as our culture’s underlying problem?

The assertion by the white evangelical crowd that the culture has been lost to sin is worth examining as we attempt to process the disaster that has been Donald Trump. Moreover, if the culture is lost to sin, has it always been that way, or is this merely a contemporary phenomenon? And, if it’s only a modern-day problem, does the slogan “Make America Great Again” reference a period of time in which the culture wasn’t awash in sin? If so, when exactly was that?

In the world of televangelism, few things are as important (and telling) as fundraising telethons. For all the hollering about faith and how God will sustain them, these telethons are methodical, systematic, manipulative, and self-serving. Nothing is left to chance. Hot buttons are pushed relentlessly. Anything goes when it comes to raising money for rich Christian ministries, something I participated in as show producer, senior producer, and then executive producer of Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club during the 1980s. I was there during the height of the televangelists, before scandals ripped the genre apart, and I was there when Pat ran for President in 1988.

The theme of our telethons was always a variation of how the world was going to hell, because we had lost our Biblical guidance. Therefore, the solution was for viewers to give us the money to combat this through “outreach,” ministry, education, and action. I need to state clearly that this strategy was extremely effective, in part, because the culture wasn’t hearing this kind of message from its leadership. Although very old, the message seemed new, because it was on TV in easily-digestible form. The television rule for audio-video linkage was manipulated, so as to match our words about sin to pictures of calamity big and small. Consequently and for a season, we sat in the position of prophets calling down hellfire and damnation on the culture for its dreadful sins, and it’s a short path from there to blaming the sinners, a.k.a. those demon liberals.

We attributed this conflict to cause and effect without proof whatsoever. That gave us license to say anything we wanted about the culture and attribute it to the loss of Biblical “authority” in our society. In so doing, we completely dissed the blood that was shed on behalf of our rights to self-determination, and, frighteningly, rejected all of those battles as being of the devil.

Who knew that one day we would actually be taken seriously?

This is the underlying pretext for everything from the Christian Right, and it’s why people who have no business being yoked to the extremely wealthy find themselves supporting everything the group tells them to support. The most obvious is in the appointing of judges who pass the litmus test of supporting business owners in all matters regarding business. Moreover, when we hear the phrase “religious liberty,” we must translate that as white evangelical Christian liberty.

If we’re ever to truly understand what’s happened to us over the past four years, we MUST not be afraid to examine these kinds of questions in the light of day. This was modern journalism’s great failure in the run-up to the 2016 election, for reporters simply didn’t see it coming. It’s a cornerstone of the Trump phenomenon, so we’re simply unable to get to the truth absent the deconstruction of this critical influence. Is sin the culprit for which we all must repent, or is something else going on? We must examine it historically, but we must also consider basic Christianity.

Basic Christianity
There is no Biblical entry whatsoever — not even one — that suggests it is the mission of believers to force a non-believing culture to repent. The most oft-quoted Bible story concerning this comes at the end of Solomon’s rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, when God spoke to Solomon thusly:

“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land…” 2 Chronicles 7:13–14 (NIV)

In this statement, we learn a great many things. One, that God is the one who’s responsible for those cultural/natural events that believers find so discomforting. Two, the responsibility for these “punishments” is with the believers, not the unbelievers. Three, the land can’t be healed from these pestilences absent the repentance of those He holds responsible, namely those same believers.

Therefore, it’s beyond misleading to claim that God wants to heal the land from sin, so that the righteous can live in peace. Seriously, who do we think we are? Watching people of faith yell and scream about abortion, prayer in schools, and Christian liberty, all the while aligning themselves with the vast wealth of the few is a bastardization of everything that’s truly holy. Period.

This command to repent was directed towards God’s people, not the culture at large. It came at the end of a great accomplishment, which is when humans are most vulnerable to deception. Rather than pat them on the back for such a feat, Solomon called for the Jews to repent, which I’m sure shocked many. The only lesson here for today is that God’s people — if in fact they have won a battle against cultural sin — ought to be on their knees begging forgiveness rather than prayers of thanksgiving and celebration in the White House. The fact that they aren’t is a dead giveaway to the unrighteousness of their behavior.

These are modern-day Pharisees, for God’s book isn’t a message to the culture; it’s a message to individual hearts.

The entire story of redemption is corrupted by the actions of this religious group, for Jesus Himself refused to call for back-up when He was taken to the cross. Spiritual warfare takes place outside the confines of our senses “under the sun,” but these self-centered warriors view the battles as among each other, right here within the whole of creation.

Why is the press unable to argue this? Rationalizations include it’s too complicated, it’s hard to be neutral, and there’s no consensus to fall back on. This is a blight on the practice of journalism, one that has been used to manipulate people and the press itself. There’s no fence to ride here.

Setting Aside History
In their zeal to advance THEIR religion, white evangelical Christians have disregarded the history behind that which we as a nation hold dear. In many of these events and instances, blood was shed — sometimes a lot of it — and lives were sacrificed in order to make these rights worth keeping. However, these elitist representatives of God that we have today think THEIR way is the true path to righteousness and that nothing else matters. It is with haughty, self-centered goals that these people piss all over the sacrifices of history as if they never mattered in the first place.

We fought a civil war over racism, unity, and the extent to which states within the union can try to distance themselves from the rest. The French gave us the Statue of Liberty, and immigration became the bedrock of our fledgling economy. We fought the First World War to spread our thoughts and ideals of freedom to the rest of the world and to protect our rights at home. We went through a Great Depression and came out on the other side determined to protect the poor and the afflicted from ever suffering again due to the lack of basic necessities. We determined that the market for liquor was so strong that we ended prohibition, because that market led to violence and death in the government’s efforts to press an alcohol-free society. We fought the Second World War to again preserve our freedoms in the face of fascism and its intolerance for personal rights. We helped dismantle Communism. Add to these the efforts to secure women’s rights, labor rights, civil rights, gay rights, and even the “rights” of our planet itself. It’s easy to understand why opponents of the current administration are not only opposed to shoving all of this aside but appalled and infuriated at the mere suggestion. Who knew we’d have to fight all of these battles again?

Governmental regulations of businesses, such as environmental mandates, didn’t just suddenly appear in a vacuum. These were hard-fought victories for all of us, as we tried our best to advance not only our culture but the human race in total. Did this burden the business interests of the country? Of course, but it had long ago been determined that they helped foster environmental concerns and human rights violations in the first place. There is nothing inherently righteous or evil about Capitalism. It’s an institution of humankind, and profit can be a highly selfish motive for cultural behavior.

This is now all being set aside by the good intentions of the few, and that is the real tragedy of our current dilemma. Add to this the idea that foreign leaders are willing participants through subversion, and we have very real dangers to consider. It is a real slight-of-hand to incite disputes among us when the truth is that we are not our real enemies. There are others who want what we have and will do anything to disrupt the unity that we struggled so dearly to gain and protect.

Adverbs like forward and backward are used to describe culture but only by those making self-serving judgments as to its governance. Both are pejorative and ineffective descriptors, because cultures don’t actually do any moving. There is only the present. Sure, there’s history and there’s the future, but we can’t do anything about either. We only have the present, and that’s where our efforts are best presented. We must always guard against those who will direct us to the future, for such is a license to deceive.

So, let’s go back and repeat our central question: Is America so corrupted by sin — especially the sins of those atheistic liberals who want to destroy the church — that only a revival of religion (specifically, white evangelical Christianity) will solve what ails us? I’d argue strongly that the answer is no, but even if there’s a grain of truth to it, the correct spiritual response is prayer, not political action.

Today, there are those who think the world is going to hell due to Trump and his cronies pressing absurd demands based on their beliefs in absolute certainties. Those who pointed to corruption of the culture have now themselves become the real corruptors, and it’s going to take more than our votes to sort it all out.

Honestly, we’re going to need the chaos of Life to fix this terrible mess, and that’s exactly what I choose to see happening today. To paraphrase George Carlin, if we’re going to have a disaster, make it so big that we destroy everything and have to start over.

Even so, let it be.

Donald Trump’s Spiritual Problem

Donald Trump in prayer with his Christian advisors

The press is struggling with covering the split among white evangelical Christians over the editorial in Christianity Today (and a similar commentary in The Christian Post) calling for the removal from office of President Donald Trump. The struggle is not new, and those without knowledge can’t possibly understand what’s really going on here.

Disclaimer: This is not an Academic theological paper. Many books have been written about the subject, none from my pen. The views expressed here come entirely from my own research and experiences primarily as former Executive Producer of The 700 Club, Author of “The Gospel of Self: How Pat Robertson Stole the Soul of the GOP”, author of the 1988 television news series on religion in the Tennessee Valley (“I Believe”). and subsequent studies and writings on the subject.

In response to these messages from evangelicalism’s main editorial voices, Trump has scheduled a January 3rd rally (of course) called “Evangelicals for Trump” at a venue that’s a giveaway for anybody with an understanding of the split. The rally will be in Miami at the West Kendall Church, an “Apostolic” megachurch run by Pastor Guillermo Maldonado, a man calling himself an apostle. This church practices “the gifts of the Spirit” which includes speaking in tongues, interpretation of those tongues, dancing in the Spirit, prophecies, laying on of hands for healing, and words of knowledge and wisdom straight from the Holy Ghost. This is from Paul’s writings to the Church at Corinth during the First Century:

“There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are differences of ministries, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of activities, but it is the same God who works all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to each one for the profit of all: for to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, to another the word of knowledge through the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healings by the same Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another discerning of spirits, to another different kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.” 1 Corinthians 12:4–10.

These practices were limited primarily to primitive, smaller rural Pentecostal churches until the Charismatic Movement of the 60s counterculture spread “the gifts” to more mainline churches. Pentecost, the event found in the second chapter of Acts, is cited as the first example and forms the basis for such beliefs. Early Charismatic prayer meetings in the 60s and 70s would find folks from Catholic and mainline protestant denominations gathering together to worship God in such a manner, and the foundation created through these meetings led ultimately to the televangelists who practiced these “gifts” during times of prayer on television. Pat Robertson, Jim Bakker, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, and many others bound themselves to this burgeoning growth. It seemed so new and fresh that people were drawn to the practice and demonstration of faith they viewed on television. The scandals that hit in the mid-80s were tied to these ministers. At the time, the most prominent, non-tongue-talking televangelists were Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham.

When Pat Robertson decided to run for President, I had to make choices for who would play Pat’s role of news commentator on the show while he was off on his campaign, and I chose Chuck Colson, a brilliant and wonderful man who didn’t practice the gifts of the spirit. I loved Chuck Colson and felt a kinship with him that was rare. I was at core still a journalist with a modicum of skepticism about generally everything, including all that we practiced theologically via The 700 Club. In discussing this with Chuck one day, he told me a story from his experience with Robert Tilton, an extreme practitioner of speaking in tongues and words of knowledge while praying on his program. Tilton was later found by the press in Dallas to have questionable practices and financial dealings. Chuck Colson told me that Tilton had told him that Chuck needed to get into the same sorts of things, “because that’s where the money is.” Colson knew then and there that he wanted nothing to do with what Tilton was practicing. This observation explains much in today’s contemporary arguments about what does or doesn’t represent the faith. When all else is stripped away, the bottom line is often cash in the form of contributions to continue such ministering.

At The 700 Club, we practiced these gifts during prayer time, which was often at or near the end of the program’s first hour. I recall one focus group discussion about the program in which one man described it as “progressively subjective”. He didn’t care for the prayer segment. The program was shown to people with like/dislike hand-held meters that they could turn in one direction or the other, depending on what was being shown. By the time we got to the prayer segment, these meters registered at polar opposites, suggesting that the viewers either really liked or really disliked the segment with nothing in-between.

Here’s more from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Do all have gifts of healings? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?” 1 Corinthians 12:28–30.

When Christians unfamiliar with these writings were first exposed to them, there was a boom in the growth and development of these practices, which is where we find ourselves today. This is how the pastor in Miami can identify himself as an apostle, while others just look the other way.

These “gifts” are offered to the public via the euphemism “full gospel”, and followers are drawn to the expression of emotions, including those which “prove” to practitioners a level of internal reality that is passionate and highly addictive. They feel special in the eyes of God and cling to what they view as Biblical validation via Paul’s and Mark’s canonized offerings. Here’s Mark testifying to what Jesus told the apostles after His resurrection, that they should make disciples of the whole world:

“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” Mark 16:17–18

Of course, most Christians don’t handle snakes to demonstrate signs and wonders, but some do. In the series “I Believe,” we attended services of a snake-handling church in North Georgia, and one statement by the pastor was most memorable: ““If you reach your hand into that box (of rattlesnakes), you’d better have faith.” In other words, these Christians practice an extreme — perhaps the most extreme — version of Christianity in the world today. And they are completely supported by scripture in so doing. Most people, however, feel that this is “testing God” and reject it as dangerous and unhealthy.

The point is where do you draw the line? Moreover, those already predisposed to “the full gospel” are more willing and capable of believing the more extreme examples of faith spoken of in the New Testament, and this is where Donald Trump finds his most ardent support. Hence, the meeting in Miami.

To be sure, not all of Trump’s support comes from full gospel practitioners, and many of his advisors are more conservative, like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Junior, whose support is more political than spiritual, but these differences in theology still are significant. Pastor Maldonado’s church is Hispanic, which also played a role in its selection by Trump, but the message of this church is no where near embraced by Christianity as a whole. That’s important.

In another place in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he writes “We are fools for Christ” (I Corinthians 4:10). These same ministers use this as a hammer to tap the minds of followers who would find discomfort with emotional displays of worship. If you’re not willing to be a fool for Christ, the thinking goes, then you lack the wisdom needed to be a “real” follower, and this is a divisive preaching that they believe separates them from others who proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

In my view, the discussion about this in public is long overdue. History will record this time as one in which we dealt with expressions of faith as a people. It will be one significant aspect of Trump’s legacy, because he uses his affiliation with such to separate himself from others who occupied the White House.

There is, of course, much more to this story. The press, however, doesn’t have a clue, so for now, it’s a subject discussed mostly in secret.

That needs to change.

The Bible made me do it

The Cape Henry Landing by English artist Stephen Reid

One of the great political mysteries of the 21st Century is how and why certain members of the have-nots will support the haves regardless of the evidence that they and their families would be better off in opposition. Opposing the greed of the rich seems a no-brainer. The two groups have virtually nothing in common, so either the haves have done a sensational job of manipulating the working poor, or there is something taking place that observers seem unable to observe.

Firstly, there’s the belief among this group of mostly Christian have-nots that their hope is in God, but Biblical reasoning posits a political system that believes the poor should pick themselves up by their bootstraps and get over it. This is accompanied by the idea that if you give a poor man a fish, you’ve fed him for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, you’ll feed him for a lifetime. The fallacy of this concept, of course, is in its practical execution, for it assumes an unlimited supply of fish and resources required to make this a reality. Ours is a world of limited resources, and when I take extra fish for myself and my family, I’m acting out of greed, not love for my fellow humans.

Secondly, this is supported by the writings of Paul to the communities of the burgeoning local church in the First Century, including especially one verse from his first letter to Timothy. Chapter 5, verse 8:

“Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (NIV)

A good preacher can heap coals of fire on the heads of parishioners by taking this out of context and presenting it as a stand-alone command of God. It seems a logical idea until the words of Jesus are applied, “The poor will always be with you.” One must assume, then, that Biblical followers are doing a lousy job of teaching people to fish. Harping on the poor to take care of their own is hypocrisy gone-to-seed, no matter how justifiable it may seem.

Therefore, in a world of limited resources, hoarding such for one’s own gain is reprehensible in the big cultural picture. Despite this, these Christians cling to conservatism, mostly because it fits this particular Bible verse. Mix in a little abortion, gender, sex, and religious freedom, and it doesn’t matter if their party exists solely to support the wealthy.

This verse, however, is part of a bigger matter that Paul was discussing with Timothy, who raised the issue of care for widows in the church. Apparently (we don’t know, because we don’t have Timothy’s original letter to Paul), the church was having difficulty separating widows who were deserving of care from those who weren’t. Think of it as a matter of welfare for the poor, and here we have the contemporary division between liberal and conservative thinking expressed 2,000 years ago. If we take the time to actually read and study this, we come to a place where Paul actually separates church governance from the basic tenets of Christianity. He judges some widows as undeserving and presents others as “the real widows.” In verse 16, he writes what could be a plank for the GOP:

“If any woman who is a believer has widows in her care, she should continue to help them and not let the church be burdened with them, so that the church can help those widows who are really in need.”

The remarkable admission that the church is fiscally burdened by this puts the statement into the uncomfortable category of the practical versus the faith, for God is certainly not burdened by some widows seeking care. I don’t know enough to make the claim that this is idolatry, but as long as this portion of Paul’s letter is used to justify disrespect for the poor today, it flies in the face of the actual red words in the New Testament. Such followers need to be called on it.

What’s even worse is that these believers use this statement in their response to governmental aid for the poor today. Paul’s writings are addressed to the church, not the government. Moreover, when this fundamental belief is mixed with abortion, genderism, transphobia, homosexuality, and religious freedom, it’s easy to miss that the wealthy really only want for themselves.

Two other thoughts. One, if people really thought about Donald Trump’s election phrase — “Make America Great Again” — they’d realize that the good things of the melting pot days included strong labor unions and their core support for working men and women. Two, this leads inevitably to the conclusion that license on behalf of the business community is not what ever made America great. This worship of the businessman or woman is the core of Trumpism and a blight on those who labor on their behalf. Brett Kavanaugh wasn’t appointed to the Supreme Court, because he was pro-life; he was given the job because he passed the right wing litmus test of being 100% pro-business, a.k.a. the wealthy.

Finally, the press today is going to have to find a way to feel comfortable and confident arguing religion during the 2020 campaign. I support the Christian Democrats of America, because theirs is an ignored voice in the public square, and that cannot continue.

May you be so moved, too.

Trump’s “Fake News” Insult is a Steaming Pile of Bullshit

President Trump and New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger butted heads over the weekend on the matter of “fake news” and public references by the President calling journalists “the enemy of the people.” Sulzberger made his points via a statement after Trump broke the off-the-record agreement he had made with Sulzberger following a July 20 private meeting on the issue. Using his Twitter account, Trump spoke of the meeting while again attacking the press. This prompted a reply from Sulzberger:

“I told him that although the phrase ‘fake news’ is untrue and harmful, I am far more concerned about his labeling journalists ‘the enemy of the people,’ ” Sulzberger said. “I warned that this inflammatory language is contributing to a rise in threats against journalists and will lead to violence.”

This apparently angered Trump who went on to assail journalists and — as NPR put it — “dismissing them as unpatriotic and irresponsible.”

Needless to say, this has become a very ugly, nasty, and highly dangerous dispute, if for no other reason than it shifts press focus away from the bigger issues impacting everyone one in America under the anti-leadership of this slick and manipulative salesman that we put in office. But, perhaps that’s his purpose in this whole charade anyway.

So, let’s try this again. There is not now, nor has there ever been a liberal political bias as part of the mainstream news media. I’ve had people actually laugh in my face when making this claim, but my evidence is conclusive. It’s just that some people shut down when they hear it, because they are so absolutely convinced of the opposite. And this belief is nothing new. Remember that Nixon’s Vice President Spiro Agnew said the exact things we’re hearing today coming from the right, yet people examining media history today would hardly view Walter Cronkite as a flaming liberal. The problem Agnew had was that he had no media outlet to back him up, except perhaps William F. Buckley’s National Review.

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. Joseph Goebbels, Nazi propagandist.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s make a distinction between the words “news” and “politics.” While it’s true that the discussion of political matters may be a necessary part of the news, it does not follow that the news business IS a political instrument. This is the fallacy that has clouded our judgment in the arguments over what is and is not “fake news.” When our President uses the term to tag the mainstream press, he is bearing a false witness and demeaning an institution that needs, instead, our protection. This is the nut of it.

I’m one of the people who helped originate the concept of non-liberal-biased TV news by calling it conservative and including conservative political arguments. But this strategy is based on the assumption that the mainstream is, in fact, political, and that is simply not true. Hence, the best we could rightly claim is that we were feeding viewers the kinds of propaganda that we claimed that liberals were doing with the mainstream press. Do you see the inherent conflict in the argument? From the manual on manipulation, The Thinker’s Guide To Fallacies: The Art of Mental Trickery and Manipulation, this tactic is Dirty Trick number one: Accuse Your Opponent of Doing What He is Accusing You of (or worse).

And yet, those convinced of this fallacy LAUGH at me. I spoke to a group of such people in Colorado last year, and when I started talking about this, they ended the meeting through their astonishment, mockery, and disdain, choosing instead to bring their Christianity into the discussion. I suppose I deserved this by presuming the right to challenge their beliefs directly, but the current political situation in our country demands honesty and open-mindedness in our thoughts and speech, regardless of what anybody thinks.

One must be a fringe conspiracy theorist to actually believe that “the Democrats” are somehow behind the actions of the press. This is absurd on its face, and to argue it is a waste of everybody’s time. It gets traction, however, because it’s said so often, and it fits so well with the grand narrative of the political right. The suggestion likewise that the press might instead be behind the Democrats’ thinking is even more absurd, and yet this is the position into which we are forced by those who have a beef with the progressive culture.

The press does not speak on behalf of the culture; it speaks to the culture. It speaks about what is NEW. That’s why it’s called “the news!” If the culture is moving in a progressive manner, of course we’ll hear about it from the press (and we do), but that doesn’t mean there’s anything of a political (read: manipulative) nature behind it. The press isn’t dictating to the culture how it believes the culture should behave. Of course, the press does provide the editorial page as a separate entity and includes letters to the editor, but this isn’t what Trump is talking about.

The culture doesn’t decide anything based on the news that the press provides. If anything, in providing its observations, the press gives the culture information upon which it can make its own political decisions. If one doesn’t like the current culture, they have every right to resist and object, but it accomplishes exactly nothing to shout “liberal conspiracy” at the messengers. Except, that is, to demonize the press as a political opponent. It is not.

Dog bites man, it’s not news. Man bites dog, it is news. To accuse the messenger of bias in this account is like saying, “Why is the press reporting on these idiots who bite dogs?” or “Oh, Lord, let us please go back to the time when men didn’t bite dogs.” In this sense, so-called “conservative” news isn’t really news; it’s “olds.” I say so-called, because news that is birthed of a political purpose (that’s what we have when we say that this news or that news is “conservative”) is actually propaganda, the kind of which is calculating and deliberate.

And there is nothing righteous about a society that’s built around a backbone of propaganda.