Twenty-First Century Lonelyhearts: Writing in and On a Spiritual Crisis

I. The Content Producer

Nathanael West’s 1933 novel Miss Lonelyhearts opens fifteen minutes before a print deadline. The eponymous hero answers (and more often ignores) heart-rending letters three times per week in a New York City daily. His editor, pressing him for the day’s column, serenades him with a travesty of the Anima Christi:

Soul of Ms. L, glorify me

Body of Ms. L, nourish me

Blood of Ms. L, intoxicate me

Tears of Ms. L, wash me…

Help me, Ms. L, help me, help me

In saecula saeculorum. Amen.

The God-haunted advice columnist, never named, is established at once and with an ongoing lack of subtlety as a peculiar kind of Christ figure, at least for his readers. They are living in poverty, or suffer from life-altering disabilities, or endure violence. They look to him, the sympathetic echoing ear of a daily paper, to acknowledge and give solace for their circumstances with the help of poetry, philosophy, art, religion–anything at all. They even track him down in person. The novel begins with his inability to bear the misery of his lost, guileless, and sometimes self-pitying correspondents (he turns out to have written his last column) and ends with his death at the hands of the jealous husband of a fan.

Miss Lonelyhearts depicts, among other things, the migration of religious interpretation and sentiment in America from local and in-person religious communities to the forms of media then emerging as dominant: newspapers, radio, cinema. In the decades after the book’s publication, newspapers and television consolidated into local and sometimes national oligopolies fueled by advertising revenue rather than sales, the business model of “objectivity” and “balance” allowed a bounded diversity of quasi-authoritative voices to emerge and speak to and for large swathes of the American public. The postwar heyday of American mass media coincided with, and in no small measure caused, the heyday of the public religious intellectual. What Father Coughlan, the Fascist radio priest, built in the 1930s was superseded by the more genteel (and televised) Fulton Sheen. Billy Graham put revivals on television while Reinhold Niebuhr graced the pages of Time. The mediators of religion in cinema and other narrative arts could be even more idealized–Father Barry in On the Waterfront could bear the burdens of his oppressed proletarian parishioners while punching out Marlon Brando if it came to it.

In the United States, journalism has always been more or less continuous and interdependent with other forms of media. The age of an academically trained and professionally credentialed category of “journalist” began in the early 20th century and may be nearing its end. The audience is heavily fragmented, and advertising has drained away from news platforms to tech-firm intermediaries. The institutions still exist in diminished form, along with the fraying canons of professional distance and rhetoric. They are at once besieged by and enmeshed with the demands of algorithmic optimization, “audience engagement,” fast and inexpensive content, returns for private equity, and the logic that has diminished an audience of citizens or local residents to “users.” News organizations, film studios, broadcasters, and streaming services are all doing variations on the same thing, even as their audiences increasingly escape to narrowly-targeted alternative venues or native social media content. 

Americans have, by these roads, somewhat returned to the world of West’s novel. The need for meaning, for some kind of answer to the median content-user’s experience of alienation and grievance, appears as pronouncedly as ever. And thus religion–religious content as well as content about religion–has become both recessive and omnipresent. There are no more Reinhold Niebuhrs or Fulton Sheens, in and yet not of the material basis of their prominence. Instead there is a content-producing nation of Miss Lonelyhearts. Whether sifting through document dumps, hurling ironic or aggrieved commentary about the latest developments in Rome into Twitter’s ether, or scripting a prestige drama adapted from a beloved novel, we are all bearing and borne by the needs of audiences large and small, real and imagined. 

Since my work as a freelance writer began, around the time of the 2008 financial collapse, this is the world I have been trying to navigate and understand. In those years I’ve written for major daily newspapers, public policy outlets, denominational and independent Christian magazines, ideological organs, broad journals of philosophy and humanism, a new newspaper lavishly funded by the United Arab Emirates, and a short-lived News Corp-funded startup–for pretty much any editor who would pay me and some who wouldn’t. I’ve observed and participated in the trends that are shaping the relationship between religion on one hand and news media, broadly defined, on the other. What follows is a brief sketch of these trends and a few conclusions and exhortations concerning the future of this work. 

II. The Changing Intersection of Religion and Media

i. A greater diversity of commentary and narrative has begun to emerge. Opinion pieces, as any freelance writer can attest, are cheap content. The weakening of political and cultural consensus after the War on Terror, the Great Recession, and the rise of “populist” nationalism has combined with the crushing editorial need for new and clickable content to enable a broadening of perspectives, even in major outlets, that would have been shocking not long ago. It is not hard to find Jacobite Catholic monarchism, Christian socialism, “ex-vangelicalism” and many flavors of feminist, postliberal, or nationalist dissent from standard religious categories in mainstream publications. This flourishing of religious commentary also represents, in Charles Taylor’s usage, a secularization: virtually any viewpoint can be entertained if its implications are contained within the so-called immanent frame. A “multiracial, multilingual Catholic aristocracy ruling from Quebec to Chile” may be posited as a good alternative to the psychic woes of meritocracy,  while the social ethic of the Gospels and the churches provides a stable underpinning for socialist politics. The two authors cited here, Ross Douthat and Elizabeth Bruenig, came from the world of blogs and ideologically-driven outlets into major centrist media and are now colleagues at the New York Times. Their position in the most prominent national newspaper is both effect and cause of shifting boundaries of acceptability in major American media.

Similarly, the proliferation first of prestige cable and then streaming television has opened the door to stories with religious elements that would have been quite rare in the recent past. To take only one example, HBO’s The Young Pope (and its sequel, The New Pope) provided a surprisingly empathetic depiction of a very pre-modern, un-democratic religious ethos. More content is needed, there are fewer ideological constraints, and thus we see a new breadth of perspective. There is, of course, a shadow side to this diversity, as “edgier” (i.e., more explicitly violent or racist) interpretations of religion flourish in spaces outside the ideological enforcement that still exists in platforms like The New York Times or HBO. Cross-pollination between these spaces appears to be increasing. The anonymous racist-paganism Twitter personality known as “Bronze Age Pervert” had to self-publish his hit book but, having built an audience, found his way into respectable right-wing outlets, first as a topic and then as a bylined author.

ii. Declining religious literacy. One straightforward consequence of job losses in American media and the outsourcing of reporting and commentary to freelancers, part-time workers, and even public relations shops is a decline in the religious literacy of major media. Even highly prestigious and professional outlets routinely mishandle stories that hinge on doctrines once widely known by educated people but now increasingly consigned to arcana. Outside of fairly specialized beats and reporters, understanding of Islam, whether on historical, theological, or practical levels, is limited. And when a story involves “ethnic tensions” between groups, especially non-Western ones–for instance a Buddhist majority abusing Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar–it is not easy to find treatments of religion or religiosity as such from the American organizations that can fund real reporting. Major media at every level appears to draw from relatively non-religious cohorts, whose lack of background knowledge or awareness of any religious phenomena is amplified by the loss of positions, resources, and career tracks in which that knowledge is worth cultivating. 

These two trends have, in my experience, interacted in unexpected ways. I have not encountered any particular stigma from “secular” outlets when I want to work in a religious argument or topic. There may even be a certain eagerness for the color such arguments bring. But they often need more explanation. I’ve become accustomed to leaving out once-standard allusions and pausing to unpack once-understood concepts, without necessarily being asked to back away from religious content as such. 

iii. New stories are being told and others left untold. At the same time, there is a minor flourishing of journalism on what might be called micro-trends or microcosms in religion. One significant topic of discussion in mainstream American media has been the so-called “Benedict Option,” first an inchoate idea and then a somewhat less inchoate book by the journalist Rod Dreher, who offered a “strategy” for socially and theologically conservative Christian communities to survive the anticipated end of their mass political and cultural influence. In-depth, sympathetic reporting has been done on traditionalist religious communities that have chosen in some way to “opt out” of mainstream American culture. There is serious reporting and commentary on the rise, recovery, and clustering of novel, old (or fake-old), or exotic religious practices, from ayahuasca ceremonies to workplace mindfulness, from astrology to fads for the occult. Invariably these phenomena, which are more comfortably categorized as “lifestyle” or “culture” stories than religious ones, reflect in some way on the experiences of alienation, anxiety, and loss of meaning among their practitioners.

Beyond the religion beat, such as it is, we have seen the widespread “confessionalization” of writing that is putatively secular in both form and content. The boom in “personal essays,” which required little background knowledge from the reader and no onerous travel and research budgets for the writer (or more than nominal compensation, when even that was available) has receded while leaving an imprint in works of reporting and criticism. Topic matter is often and easily routed through the witness and testimony of the writer, whose experience tests and validates their interpretation much as a conversion story or visionary account once did for religious truths. Here the end of the journalistic-objectivity business model puts the writer in an ambivalent position, both pledging and hedging conclusions on the basis of individual experience of limited representative and interpretive value. 

While the confessional/testimonial mode has allowed new kinds of stories to be told, especially stories touching on the experiences of people who have not had access to prominent platforms in their religious communities or in the wider media landscape, and while charismatic micro-level trends have gained respectful attention and analysis, there are stories of larger scale that are not being told. The evolving religious habits, beliefs, and identifies of the American public are periodically summarized and analyzed through Pew Research reports. Trends are isolated, argued over, and explained. But beyond aggregates, projections, and proposed mechanisms, very little is being learned or said about the institutions and practices that are changing or taking shape underneath them. In a U.S. context, debates over the boundaries of religious categories or the positions their formal or informal leaders take on political issues are never-ending. At the same time, comparatively little attention has been paid to religious organizations, their evolution, or their material basis. For example: in December it was reported that the LDS (Mormon) Church had an undisclosed investment fund of $100 billion (over twice the value of the endowment of Harvard University) apparently used contrary to both federal law and church policy. How money is raised and from whom, and how it is invested and disbursed, are questions of enormous significance that are generally overlooked. Similarly, the lawsuits resulting from the Catholic sexual abuse crisis have forced institutional and corporate reorganizations within American dioceses whose practical and theological implications are not yet understood. 

Identity and affiliation, especially as expressed in political terms, can be captured in survey data but the consolidation of institutional power requires different research. The same questions that are asked about communities undergoing economic changes can be asked about changes in religious practice and affect: how does decline or change in religious practice shape public space, private life, or collective identity? How has the experience of war, climate disruption or state failure changed the theology and practice of Muslim or Christian migrants? Major-media accounts of practicing American Christians or Muslims refugees to Europe tend to flatten their religion into a homogenous identity rather than a variously embodied collection of practices and beliefs. How are they changing? What are the implications of those changes? 

The eloquent exception or emerging trend appears to be an easier sell to editors and audiences than the familiar (if evolving!) norm and long-established pattern. That’s not surprising. But the preference for smaller stories over larger ones may come at a cost. Climate migration, economic upheaval, and the constitutional transformation of the United States are religion stories, and they are very likely only in their early stages. The causes and effects of nationalism, monopolistic capitalism, multiculturalism and socialism are religion stories, too. A lack of narrative or reportorial ambition in those areas suggests that American policy and cultural leaders will not understand them as well as they could and should. 

iv. The tenuous future of independent religious media. One of the flagship magazines of American Christianity, Christianity Today, briefly made news in December when it called for the conviction and removal of President Trump. This was notable because the magazine was founded by Billy Graham and other prominent conservative evangelicals in opposition to the older, liberal, “mainline” journal The Christian Century (for which I frequently write) and because conservative white evangelicals overwhelmingly and passionately support Trump. It was hailed as a brave stand–a dissent from, among other things, the amoral ethos of team-playing that has come to define conservative institutions in recent years. Some people, distant from the world of Christian media, even imagined that it would be influential. But the magazine probably took its stand because it had already lost most of its influence. The cutting edge of politically-charged evangelical thought resides in loss-leading online publications funded by ideological philanthropists or Youtube channels devoted to edgier or more narrowly targeted material.  

The erstwhile rivals for Protestant America have found themselves in the same boat. Both magazines mediated between the academic institutions and church bodies affiliated with their movements and the broader non-specialist audience who made up their readership. Both held an unofficial voice and authority in their respective ecclesial worlds. In the American Catholic world, Commonweal and the Jesuit-published America have provided a venerable analogue on the left and First Things a relatively young analogue on the right. 

But as those audiences, academies, and church bodies have changed, the journals are facing a precarious but also, perhaps paradoxically, liberated future. In nearly ten years of writing for the Century, I have never had a topic, story, or argument rejected as outside of the magazine’s purview (even if a few of them should have been). A mission-driven, reader-supported publishing non-profit, whatever its limitations, is free to take different kinds of risks than an unofficial flagship magazine of important American institutions. 

Only a few years ago, the media ecosystem looked impressively rich and diverse, even–perhaps especially–where religion was concerned. While retrenching major publications had less time for religion news, there were a host of small sites that covered religion in more specialized ways. Essays and explorations could be found at Killing the Buddha (for whom I once wrote) and The Other Journal. Academic essays on rarified scholarship were (and sometimes still are) published by The Immanent Frame; more accessible work on current events informed by academic disciplines was put out by Religion Dispatches (for whom I wrote), Sightings, The Revealer, among others. A few of these outlets are or were connected to universities or other educational institutions. They interpret scholarship for less specialized readers very well, but this mediating function has not for the most part helped them to reach or shape the coverage of religious topics in mass media. 

At the same time, venture capital flooded into media start-ups that brought different perspectives on various stories and helped establish new voices (including alumni of evangelical Christian media). Older organizations ventured into online-only content, podcasts, video, and narrowly-targeted verticals. Today much of this ecosystem is gone. The next recession, whenever that comes, will hit legacy media and the venture-capital-backed start-ups hard. The crash in college admissions scheduled to hit U.S. colleges starting in 2026 could have a similar effect on publications that rely on higher-education affiliations. Massive consolidation in both content and delivery will further damage the health of the wider media ecosystem. 

It’s possible that the more venerable Christian media outlets will have something of a future in this difficult environment. They can still rely on a pipeline of writers and scholarship from academic institutions, helpfully motivated by intangible goals and rooted in real (if often distressed) communities of belief and practice. This, as I will suggest below, may have lessons for the wider news media industry.

v. Burnout. Every story about religion, journalism, or both is also a story about labor. In my experience a certain grim humor is common to both clergy and editors in the first half of their careers. What will we do when the economic model for our work is not just retracting but really gone? A Catholic writer friend and I used to joke about branching out into crisis communications, specializing in truly abject politician and entertainer apologies (Maxima Culpa: For When You Done Really F***ed Up). This turned out to be barely a joke, as many prominent Christian clergy and media personalities have abandoned the church “space” and built businesses as consultants, public relations specialists, or marketing hucksters

For those still committed to working in these fields, it’s become a hard and precarious way to make a living. Piecing together a stable livelihood, let alone a viable career path, from freelance, part-time, and contract work is an exhausting challenge. Even relatively well-compensated freelance work (which is, anecdotally, considerably less well-compensated today than it once was) leaves one exactly where one was before, albeit with a paycheck. It is easy to feel a gnawing sensation of nearing the end of an old professional model while a new one is not yet imaginable. (I am obliged to note here that journalism, criticism, analysis, and commentary have never served as my primary source of household income. That my work seems to be read and compensated in a totally random way with no career trajectory is a spiritual but not an economic problem for me.)

There are intangible benefits to fulfilling earnest motives in this work. But even those benefits must contend with the gathering obscurity of professional, vetted, checked and edited content in a media environment flooded with cheap commentary, bad-faith appropriations of legitimate journalistic work, and outright propaganda and disinformation. Facebook, a platform and media company so omnipresent that none but the most devoted niche publishers can avoid it, lured legitimate news organizations into favorable relationships and then drowned their content with worthless or deceitful competition anyway. Facebook’s response to criticism from media outlets and politicians appears to be driven by a desire to cultivate the lawmakers and audiences who can help them retain favorable regulatory and antitrust treatment from the current administration–namely, working hard to avoid any accusation of “liberal bias” by their algorithms or ludicrous “fact-checking” functions. 

Taken together, these are ingredients for “burnout” among content producers. In a pointed and widely-read essay for Commonweal, theology scholar Jon Malesic defined burnout as “a response to the chronic stress of work, manifested in exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of inefficacy.” He takes as his theme–apart from his own experience in the narrowing world of academia–St. Thomas Aquinas, who ceased dictating the Summa and became listless three months before his death (in a later essay, Malesic connects burnout with the monastic experience of acedia.) While Malesic’s direct experience is with the academy, the emotional costs he describes can be found without much looking in religious leadership and media. I am struck by this depiction of the Angelic Doctor’s last days:

 While the monks of Fossanova ministered to the dying theologian, they also asked him for a commentary on the “Song of Songs.” Aquinas complied. Given the scope of his scholarly output, it seems that Aquinas was one of those workers who struggled to say no. 

Miss Lonelyhearts, it turns out, was repeating an ancient and sanctified pattern. He wrote endlessly on demand to the needs of a desperate, ravenous, but fickle audience, then fell suddenly silent, and died. The audience always wins. Caveat scriptor.

III. What’s Next?

It is easy enough for Americans to feel nostalgia for the media environment of the postwar years. The iron triangle of oligopoly publishers, advertisers, and mass audiences imposed narrow constraints, but at least, one might say, the force imposing the constraint was obvious. The formats of daily papers and thirty-minute news broadcasts were severely limiting, but within the four sides of the screen or the fixed pages of the daily there was a measure of reliability, accountability, and product differentiation.

Today the media environment is like Pascal’s God: its center is everywhere and its circumference nowhere. Many of us writers are producers of commodity content, our goods purchased by mysterious customers for uses that are less than clear, let alone satisfying. I have been paid by subscribers, advertisers, dead people, foundation grants, Rupert Murdoch, and whoever funds The American Conservative, among others. Micro-patronage from readers, non-profit incorporation, and altruistic angel investors have been variously proposed and to some extent adopted as solutions to the death of the old economic model. But I find it difficult to imagine scenarios so optimistic that these funding sources not only keep the work alive but overcome the algorithmic and platform-specific hurdles to its mainstream impact.

All the same, there are a few conclusions I urge for writers on religion, as well as on religious writers, in an intractably hostile environment. I owe them to the idealism, lack of career prospects, and the topical and ideological breadth of the small Christian publications for which I’ve done much of my work–institutions so ingenuous and behind the times that they perhaps offer a rare road to the future.

i. Embrace fragmentation and diversity within categories. The internal diversity of religions, long taken for granted within fields of anthropology and sociology of religion, is still only fitfully grasped by major secular media. To take a fairly obvious example, there is in the U.S. not a single Catholic population but several distinct and sometimes contradictory Catholic identities. As Green’s story on the traditionalist enclave in Kansas suggests, even within reactionary or conservative strains of American Christianity there is a great deal of diversity. That diversity is most easily seen at the intersections of religious categories with historical phenomena, ethnic identities, and economic facts. Much of what is happening or will happen in religion as a public phenomenon traces back to those distinct intersections. If the only story we have the resources to tell is a partial one, we can make it a poignant and revealing part. 

ii. Embrace the implicit politics of the form and subject. To devote the effort and resources to a lengthy, detailed, earnestly researched and edited exploration of the religious dimension of a current event or broad cultural development is to make a substantive claim about the significance of the story and the capacity of an audience to learn and grow from encountering it. Similarly, a treatment of religion as a dimension of relative openness and under-determined action and belief (even in destructive ways) implies an underlying humanism that is lost when religious categories are reified into immutable causes or deterministic effects. This need not take the most pernicious form of characterizing religious groups as uniform, monolithic, and intrinsically hostile to the values and identity of the implied reader. It can take subtler forms of reductionism or shorthand (“81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump”).

Journalism, and any adjacent media, will over time tend to serve the art and education of a democratic populace or the entertainment, distraction, and control of an authoritarian one. The convergence of social media platforms with their own monopolistic interests and ambitions and mysteriously funded (or grassroots!) quasi-journalistic infotainment are creating powerful pressure in the latter direction. 

Humanistic and democratic endeavors will need to become conscious of their implied politics to survive, let alone shape the future. It is not enough to practice and restate journalistic customs of objectivity, neutrality, and balance. They need to be understood as choices with consequences for, among many other things, the reality of the populace they imagine or propose. They need to be more than defended, but actively deployed in opposition to the tendencies that prosper by undermining them. The best and most independent-minded journalism and the most ambitious and penetrating film and television productions constantly risk being nothing more than quiescent entertainment for a useless liberal intelligentsia.

iii. Be earnest. There are few media spectacles more embarrassing than the display of political worldliness in the news pages of an outlet like the New York Times (please don’t tell them I said this). Words and actions with meaningful consequences for a broadly democratic and liberal order–of which news media are an integral part–are routinely dissected as if they are the clever or clumsy maneuvers of a baseball manager. This is not to say that it would be better to engage in pure advocacy or propaganda. But writers, like scholars and religious leaders, should honor the ethical impulses and substantive commitments that brought them into their work in the first place. The confessional turn in modern journalism need not linger only as self-exposure or as a validation of a thesis; it can be the acknowledgment of the writer as a free moral actor who takes their own commitments seriously enough to expose them to debate and ridicule. The financial and reputational benefits to hedging, hiding, and dissembling are starting to dry up anyway. 

The rule of three for trend pieces requires one more doomed writer before I conclude, and as it happens I recently came across a valedictory personal history from New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl. At the age of 77 he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and, with only months to live, recounts his career in the New York literary and art worlds. It is a glimpse of a vanished era, notably one in which it was possible to attain a lengthy career and homes downtown and in the Catskills in the field of art criticism. Schjeldahl is something like an epitome of a certain journalistic type in a venerable outlet, who scrupulously kept himself out of his work for decades. Yet he concludes with a passage that suggests the common source of the impulse toward religion and the impulse toward writing itself:

God creeps in. Human minds are the universe’s only instruments for reflecting on itself. The fact of our existence suggests a cosmic approval of it. (Do we behave badly? We are gifted with the capacity to think so.) We may be accidents of matter and energy, but we can’t help circling back to the sense of a meaning that is unaccountable by the application of what we know. If God is a human invention, good for us! We had to come up with something.

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