Nurturing Craft in an Age of Content: An Interview with Richard Clark
This is the ninth in our series of interviews with creatives who inspire us by staying craft-focused in a era of easy-to-consume, shareable internet content. Our aim is to explore the tension of art versus entertainment, empowering readers to find, nurture, and stay true to the stories inside of them. Enjoy!
This week's interview is with editor, writer, and internet prophet Richard Clark of Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture fame--one of our favorite cartoon avatars (code word for serious journalist) in the Twittersphere. His honest but gracious approach to critiquing culture is right up our proverbial alley, and we gotta say: we love his jokes. Do yourself a favor and hit that "follow" button--you'll be sucked into a spiral of retweets before you know it.
Upwrite: You recently tweeted that in this (increasingly dismal) cultural landscape, hope is a discipline, not a gift. What does it look like to steward hope as a responsibility?
Richard Clark: Like many of my tweets, that one was as much for me as anyone else. I’ve noticed a tendency in myself and those around me to devote most of my attention to the disastrous, the absurd, the extremely discouraging, often at the expense of the hopeful and more normative aspects of culture and community.
This isn’t really news. We’ve always been more fascinated when things are breaking down than when they’re going smoothly. It’s the difference between newsworthy and normative. But I do think Christians have a responsibility to think on what is true, noble, worthy of honor.
There are a million little choices we can make to project a more hopeful stance to ourselves and the world. Do we share something on Facebook just because it’s outrageous or frustrating? Do we consider the needs of those who make up our “platform” before we barrage them with arguments for or against something? When we do criticize, are we being constructive, providing ideas for a better way to do something?
It’s a balance. Apathy is the other extreme. And sometimes, those in a place of privilege can fall into the trap of minimizing the concerns of others when they really should be most concerned about those kinds of things. You really have to internalize the bigger, broader problems, and then choose to work within whatever context you are in to make them better. After that, all the problems that flow from that bigger, broader problem are just confirmation of what you already knew. More reason to get to work, really.
Upwrite: One thing we love about CT are its brave, prophetic editorials (shoutout to Andy Crouch for this piece). How do we balance being a prophetic but hospitable voice on the internet, addressing difficult topics without being alienating?
RC: It’s funny to hear you say that, because I know there’s a group of people who know CT for its more measured, “on the one hand, on the other,” stuff and our “everybody calm down” approach, editorially. I’ve explained some of the philosophy for that above, but it’s true that a lot of what CT has done of late has been relatively prophetic.
After all, outlets are constantly expressing outrage, especially Christian ones, because there’s a moral element there. It’s just really easy to say “Something must be done,” or to condemn an act over and over again. CT isn’t really about doing that. We assume a lot about our readers are smart, thoughtful, and in tune with certain needs. Of course, there’s a danger in the other direction too, and if we err anywhere, it’s probably in not saying some things outright enough. Ultimately, it’s an editorial judgment call, and the subject of a lot of ongoing conversation.
One of the things we say in the hallway and to writers over and over is that “CT isn’t finger-waggy,” which is to say there’s not a lot of “Why Christians Should...” or “Now is the Time To...” type stuff at our site. This philosophy is more about persuading the reader than anything. These days, if you don’t want to read an article, you just click away. We’re not convincing anyone if we lose them with an inflammatory title or opening paragraph.
Most importantly, if we present an argument against someone, the people we’re arguing against need to be able to read that and say, “Yeah, that’s pretty much where I stand.” It’s a pretty simple principle, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to slip into unfair representation of an argument you disagree with.
Upwrite: CT also impresses us because it manages to stay timely without succumbing to the "clickbait" mentality, seemingly unwilling to compromise reporting quality for traffic opportunities. Can you give us a little "behind the scenes" insight into your quality control process at the magazine?
RC: We’re really intentional about this. Restraint is a value of ours. We don’t want to put something out there just because we know it will draw an audience.
Our news department has a whole rubric and thought process that I won’t be able to do justice, but one thing they’re intentional about is not just throwing headlines up without providing context. When you start to see headline after headline, you start to just say “bad stuff is always happening,” and that leads to a really nihilistic viewpoint of culture. And when you’re reporting about the church, that’s especially dangerous. News does a great job of putting that in the context of a larger narrative, and making sure the readers understand why something is happening in addition to the what.
One question we often ask about articles or pitches is, “What’s the ‘so what’ here?” In other words, “Okay, so there’s a nice idea here, and if you’re in to theology or culture or whatever, that’s interesting, but what’s the reader supposed to take away from it?”
Upwrite: Writing for the internet can feel like an exercise in futility, and writing in the "criticism" vein can compound that fatigue. How do you keep your writing clear, honest, and upbeat? Are there resources you find yourself returning to that consistently encourage and inform your writing?
RC: I have this idea embedded in my head that putting words on the internet is this activity that people don’t take seriously enough. It’s not just saying something at a party, or to a friend. It’s putting something out there that has the potential to “go viral” and affect the thoughts and lives of millions of people. So really, there’s not a lot of room to be thoughtless or careless.
And sometimes, impulsivity results in some careless things on the internet. If you are upset about something, if you have experienced something terrible, if you’re excited about something, those emotions can carry you away sometimes. That’s why editors are so important. It’s not so much that they reign in those very real, human, and often good emotions. Editors can help writers work through them, concretize them, and make sense of them so they apply to and affect others.
As far as resources that inform my writing, I listen to podcasts a lot. The Longform podcast was life-changing for me. I try to read (though I could be doing better), because they tell me it’s important (it is, kids!).
Most helpful for me, personally, though, is conversation with people. That’s just the best way for me to think through ideas.
Whenever we hit publish on something, I feel like I have whole contingents in my head, either critiquing the piece or praising it. I don’t even need Twitter to feel bad about a bad piece. I can see the eye-rolling in my head before the first critique comes in.
This is a strength and a weakness, I guess, but knowing your audience and doing your best to inspire or persuade them is the name of the game, so as an editor, it’s kind of my thorn in my side.
Upwrite: You've been observing, critiquing, and analyzing American culture through the lens of popular media since you founded the website Christ and Pop Culture more than eight years ago (and you were probably doing it before that). It feels like Autumn of 2016 is a particularly anxiety-ridden, hope-barren "cultural moment" -- an apex of sorts. How does the national mood right now compare to the last presidential election? Now that we seem to have reached the foregone conclusion of this particular cultural direction, where do you hope we might go from here?
RC: How does it compare to the last election? Ugh, where do we start?
I feel like most people know this, but: it’s okay to be undecided now. Christians get now that they’re on their own in the political sphere. Some Christians get that that’s probably a better thing.
The church is falling prey to another cultural trend that snuck up on us, though. There’s a distrust in authority, a feeling the system is “rigged,” against everyday average Joes. It’s the reason “evangelicals” are largely voting for Trump but not evangelical leaders. It’s why less and less believe in the validity of church discipline. It’s why half of your Christian friends don’t really worry about going to church all that regularly.
In my estimation, that’s a crisis. Those in power will need to work on being as transparent as possible, and yes, they need to start making sure those power structures are as diverse as possible. After all, most people frustrated about “the system” are frustrated because they don’t see themselves represented within it.
So churches and organizations will have to focus even more on serving their people, on leveling with them, and explaining with clarity why things are happening. “Because I said so,” only applies when God says it. The rest of us have a little more explaining to do.