How to Gain a TGC Audience and Lose Your Soul

How to Gain a TGC Audience and Lose Your Soul December 14, 2022

I have once again found myself in the embarrassing position of wasting time on an online controversy around the holidays. And, once again, I’ve decided that if I’m going to waste all this time, I might as well blog about it.

Here’s the short version: Patrick Miller is a pastor, cultural critic, author, and podcast host who regularly contributes to The Gospel Coalition. His podcast and co-authored book are both called Truth Over Tribe, which could fairly be described as his brand. Yesterday, he published this long piece for TGC, called “How to Gain an Audience and Lose Your Soul,” about the dangers of audience capture, and how even Christians can be tempted to chase an audience at the cost of their souls. He begins with a shockingly tragic case study from the world of secular YouTube influencers: a man with the nickname “Nikocado” who began as a vegan food-tester, then discovered he got more clicks if he ate more unhealthy food. Eventually, he became morbidly obese. Miller provides a chilling pair of before/after pics that show the slim, healthy-looking young man followed by what he turned into—literally falling over himself, artificial respiration in his nose, a McDonald’s feast spread before him. It’s a horrific image that certainly accomplishes exactly what Miller intended it to accomplish.

Here Miller begins a new section and solemnly informs us that “the Nikocados of Christian discourse are a bit more challenging to spot.” Lucky for us, then, that Patrick Miller is here to educate us all with a cautionary tale. Here it is in full as of December 13 at 10:45 PM. I’ll also throw in a Wayback crawl from December 12. I’m being all specific and timestampy like this because I predict the piece is either going to be pulled down or silently edited within a week. (We’ll get to why in a moment.)

A few years ago, a relatively unknown pastor began writing about cultural issues on Twitter. He was typically irenic, nonanxious, and nuanced, avoiding extreme rhetoric. But in April of last year, he wrote a long thread challenging the inclusion of radical gender ideology in public education. His follower count began to rapidly tick up.

His new followers didn’t share his peaceful posture. They were culture warriors who rewarded—with likes and retweets—only his most bombastic posts. So he began to give them more of what they wanted. Over the next three months, his follower count doubled, culminating in an invite to speak on trans education on a Christian TV network, where he stoked fear and cast aspersions on his enemies with muscular rhetoric.

In a period of months, his followers transformed him from winsome to one of the fastest-growing antiwinsome personalities on the social internet. The transformation was complete. The persona devoured the person.

If you asked him, “Why did you change so dramatically?” I doubt he would say, “I do anything it takes for more followers!” Instead, he’d probably say, “I’m just trying to help people.” He probably sees his transformation as an act of honesty, and authenticity, not a bald grab for attention. The truth, of course, is more complex: virtuous desires intermingle with less salubrious aims, and anyone growing an audience will keep virtue in their conscious foreground, relegating desires for celebrity to the subconscious. It’s the sort of thing that’s easy to see from the outside, but (apart from self-reflection and accountability) almost impossible to see from the inside.

“Gosh,” I thought to myself when I read this. “I mean, I’m pretty online. I’m way too online for my own health, as a matter of fact. And the pond of Christians on Twitter who would even know what the word ‘antiwinsome’ means, let alone be part of the ‘antiwinsome’ discourse, is, like, really small. How am I not immediately pulling up this guy in my mental Rolodex?”

So I tweeted some stuff about how weird it was that Miller would give this very specific-sounding example and then decline to name the guy he had in mind. Subsequently, Miller tweeted that many people had sent him guesses that were all wrong, and he hadn’t named the guy because “calling out” wasn’t “the main goal” of the piece, namely, “offering a concrete example of how audience capture works in online Christian discourse so we can all resist it.”

I wasn’t impressed. This “concrete example,” by Miller’s own admission, was a linchpin of his piece. If he was going to claim he could spot a Christian Nikocado for us, he needed to give us the goods. As my momma always taught me, “Be specific. Use examples.” But in that case, I thought Miller owed it to the audience to give them the primary source material and let them make up their own minds. After all, if it was that awful, everyone would immediately agree with him… right?

It took a reminder from someone else for me to suddenly put together who Miller was referring to—at least, mostly referring to. Josh Daws is a Christian Twitter user who made a thread on radical gender ideology that went viral at the end of March/beginning of April 2022. This April 1 article by the Daily Caller summarizes the thread and its response. His account subsequently gained momentum and attention, and he went from being a super-small account to having…well, a lot more followers than I do, needless to say! I had simply forgotten about this viral moment, but the minute I was reminded, it all came back, and it was obvious that this is who Miller had to mean. It was quite a good thread, too, perceptively unpacking the precise goals and means of activist teachers in public education. He wanted to go deeper than a “Don’t make me tap the sign” meme that was reducing everything to “They just want to diddle kids.” It’s actually not that simple, Josh was saying. They want to turn kids into little revolutionaries. Obviously true, and very well argued. At the time, I was happy for Josh’s thoughtful analysis to get the attention it deserved. His follow-up interview with Kirk Cameron on TBN is clearly the “Christian television” appearance to which Miller is referring. (Someone might pause here and say “Yes but Miller said ‘last year,’ and all this was happening in 2022. It’s still too hyper-explicit to be anyone else though, and it’s also reasonable to suppose Patrick was guessing his piece would be released next January.)

Unlike Miller, I’ll let everyone watch the clips and decide for themselves if Josh is needlessly “stoking fear.” I suppose you could say he is “casting aspersions” on activists and educators who deliberately set out to radicalize children. Is this…a bad thing? He even teases apart the complexities of how this can metastasize even with teachers who aren’t evil, just profoundly naive and believing that they’re doing what’s “safe” for children with an alternate “identity.” All seems fair to me. I’m also not sure how Miller defines “muscular rhetoric.” Josh comes across as clear but thoughtful, not particularly chest-thumpy or hyper-masculine. He even seems, dare I say, rather winsome?

However, there’s still one piece missing here, which is that Daws isn’t a pastor. In fact, he doesn’t even have a full-time job in Christian ministry or Christian ed. Which, if anything, makes it admirable that he was willing to speak up and stick his neck out on such a hot-button issue. Daws doesn’t have the security blanket of being in a Christian setting that allows him to speak his mind about these things without risk. Unlike, well, guys like Patrick Miller. Indeed, Miller should agree that this is admirable, having written a positive piece for TGC about the Tampa baseball players who refused to wear a rainbow patch.

Now, we could all be very charitable here and suppose Miller just didn’t do a basic fact check on Josh’s biography before submitting the piece, and neither did anybody at TGC. That was my first assumption. Not very plausible though, I think people would agree. So, let’s suppose that neither Miller nor the people at TGC are bumbling non-fact-checkers. Unfortunately, that leaves us with, to my mind, an even worse option: Miller lied outright with this composite illustration. He presented it as an analogue to a specific example of audience capture from secular media, introducing it by saying these things could be difficult to spot in the wild, building the story in layers, all very clearly signaling to the majority of ordinary readers that he is telling you a specific story about a specific pastor who matches this specific description. Instead of framing it with some wording like “I’ve changed some identity/biographical details in this story to anonymize it more, but it substantially resembles an actual example of this phenomenon that I observed,” he simply presented it as if it were straightforward reportage.

Even if, for a moment, we set aside the aspersions this passage casts by implication on Josh (golly, we were talking about casting aspersions?) this is just a failure of basic good writer’s praxis, of the sort you can find in any op-ed or book, Christian or mainstream. Had Miller done what I sketched above, or, even better, had the forthrightness to actually name Josh and provide his receipts, I would still have called him a character assassin whose judgment nobody should be taking seriously. But at least he would have cleared the low-low bar of Journalistic Ethics 101.

So why would he choose this approach? Why would he essentially cannibalize Josh’s highly specific profile, down to the details of what month he went Twitter-viral and within how many months his follower count subsequently doubled, and then superimpose a pastor’s head onto it? I think the answer is clear: The story gains much more punch if you wrap it all up as a pastor’s story. That’s going to get people’s attention. Otherwise it’s more difficult to make them care. Picture your typical not-very-online TGC reader. This is someone who’s not up on Discourses, doesn’t have a Twitter account, only vaguely knows what people are talking about when they talk about the “winsomeness” wars. Picture how they might have reacted if Miller had simply presented his spin on Josh’s story without saying it was a pastor. “So you’re telling me that…some guy on Twitter said some stuff and got lots of followers and apparently he’s really mean and stuff now? Okay, kind of interesting I guess, but I’m not really on Twitter so…*shrug*” But make it a pastor, and you have the average reader’s attention.

What makes this especially weird is that Miller didn’t even have to scrape Josh’s profile and then awkwardly tweak the last detail from “non-pastor” to “pastor” in order to find an illustrative example for his thesis. He could have gone out and looked for actual pastors who might actually demonstrate what he’s describing, in areas that would even directly pertain to things like race or white nationalism. For instance, a pastor named Andrew Isker has co-written a book with Gab CEO Andrew Torba. He also used his Twitter profile to incite and perpetuate a lot of the hostile rhetoric around the Thomas Achord blowup, which I wrote about in detail here, lest anyone take me for anyone’s hack. (Note that I’m willing to name Isker, even though we’ve had friendly exchanges in the past and he’s liked a number of my tweets, etc. I think there is still good in his heart, but I would tell him to his face that I see cause for concern and I think he has taken a dark path. There, see how I did that?)

But instead, for reasons known only to himself and the good Lord, Miller reached for Josh Daws. Josh can definitely be impish on Twitter, I grant. He’s definitely good at sussing out smarmy rhetoric. If you lack a sense of humor, or if you recognized yourself in the list, I suppose you might be offended by this running thread of stock passive-aggressive Christian media/social media “moves.” (A running thread he started before he went Twitter-viral and his account ballooned, by the way, if this is the sort of thing Miller had in mind, but who knows, really?) Daws also has opinions on critical race theory which might cause some people who think critical race theory is a serious academic discipline to get annoyed. But meanwhile, he thoroughly repudiates and condemns attempts to coopt Christian Nationalism for white nationalism, even calling out Andrew Torba by name. Here, let’s quote his exact words: “To be clear, I don’t think Christian Nationalism *has* to end up where Torba seems bound and determined to take it, but it’s going to if we don’t start repudiating that brand of CN. We can’t turn a blind eye to it just because they’re not the left.”

It is the height of irony that as primary inspiration for his archetypal “Pastor Nikocado,” Miller would pick a guy who is not a pastor but has publicly condemned Andrew Torba, while not even mentioning, oh, I don’t know, maybe the actual pastor who wrote a book with Andrew Torba. Like, yes, this whole thing is pernicious and deceptive, but also it is just so utterly, crashingly stupid. Oh yes, and in a further bit of irony, Josh is not even on Twitter to see all this, because he’s taking a break for December. Shoot Josh, I’d like some of that self-control!

It’s sad really, because Miller’s thesis isn’t even a bad thesis. There was actually an interesting essay that could have been written around it, one that didn’t involve willful deception or misrepresentation. If only Miller had written that essay.

As it is, Miller has shot himself in the foot, wasted his opportunity to contribute a truly thoughtful and interesting essay to the discourse, made enemies among people who are actually alert and alive to the sort of dangers he claims to care about (like white nationalism), and dragged The Gospel Coalition’s brand down to a new low. He has, in short, made himself the perfect example of what he warns against. I’m not sure what his next move will be at this point, but maybe he could start with his own closing paragraphs, which talk a lot of very pious talk about repentance:

In my own experience, I’m healthiest when I care far less about the opinions of online admirers than I care about the people who know my kids’ names, personalities, quirks, and problems. Those are the people who see me as I am, and by the grace of God shape me into a real person—not a persona. My local community is the best at telling me when I’m on the verge of becoming a rhetorically monstrous, mimetic caricature of my audience—so I can repent.

Indeed, repentance is the last and final key. All of us should make a practice of repenting any time our audience takes us captive. Repentance is the only medicine strong enough to reverse a digital transmutation. Though it may never give you the world, repentance does secure your soul—and protects you from becoming a Christian Nikocado.

Indeed, Patrick. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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