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The Skip Bayless Theory of Spiritual Transformation
We must love something more than being seen.
This clip went viral yesterday. That is the most fundamental thing you need to know about it. Going viral is what this segment was intended to do; it’s the motivation behind everything Skip Bayless says, does, or Tweets. Bayless is one of sports media’s most successful performance artists because he leans into it. I sincerely doubt Bayless has watched 3 hours of football combined this entire NFL season. This would be a colossal waste of time, given that his job is not to talk about football. His job is to go viral, and you don’t have to watch, know, or even believe anything in order to go viral. You just have to do what he does in the clip above: know what your audience will click, and become that just long enough for them to almost believe it.
A lot of people have expressed sympathy with Shannon Sharpe and disbelief that he would put up with Bayless’s disrespect here. Unless I’m very wrong, Sharpe is on it. His job is to make the clip go viral, and the best way to do that is to provide Skip Bayless with just enough of a foil that audiences will watch, believing that Sharpe might actually lose it. He never does and he never will, because losing it would be bad for ratings and analytics. And (again, unless I’m very wrong) Sharpe knows that Bayless is not disrespecting him. He’s disrespecting the viewer. As long as Skip and Shannon hit their marks, whatever comes out of their mouths is not directed toward each other. Every word is a sales pitch, and every second the audience spends watching is a success for that sales pitch.
A few years ago, the right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones—like Skip Bayless, a hugely successful media personality, but in a much different field—was embroiled in a custody battle with his ex-wife. The ex-wife used quotes that Jones had spoken on his show as evidence that he was a bad human being and that she should be awarded sole custody. Jones’s attorneys were unable to deny that he had said some truly awful things. But their defense was simple: Jones was a “performance artist” who was “playing a character.” He didn’t mean what he said. He didn’t believe what he said he believed. It was all a bit (the custody battle, meanwhile, is ongoing).
You might think such an admission would have ruined Jones’s platform. It has not. Jones’s recent bankruptcy declaration did not happen because people stopped listening to him. It happened because people still are. A jury found Jones liable for damages for his vicious and insane theories about the Sandy Hook murders. But Jones’s website and his digital persona are still very much thriving. Why? How could someone whose whole career is about “truth-telling” describe themselves as a performance artist and still have a following?
There seems to be a strange dynamic in the mass media age, and the digital age in particular, whereby particularly talented performance artists achieve a kind of permanent triumph over cognitive dissonance. Their audience knows objectively that what they’re doing is ridiculous, an act, a bit. But the peformance is so good that there’s a willing suspension of belief just long enough to let the act achieve some kind of emotional climax. People who were earnestly accusing Skip Bayless of being a horrible racist and people who were demanding evidence that what he said was wrong are both particpating in the same fantasy, because the fantasy does something for them. People like Bayless and Jones recognize that the key to this kind of success is to convince people that you yourself are worth getting into an argument over. Your value to the audience is how efficiently you unlock the intensity of their opinions, their resentments, their fights. If you do this well, you will not only reap the praise who of those who like you. You will reap the attention of those who hate you. Few things are more intoxicating.
And I thought about all of this while reading this excellent piece by Patrick Miller. The digital age has transformed so much of our lives into public theater, and every theater calls out to be filled with viewers. What Patrick calls “audience capture” is nothing less than an existential crisis.
Social media is best understood as a massive mimetic machine. It shapes our desires by showing us the desires of others in the form of likes, shares, and comments. Every engagement is a mimetic dopamine hit. YouTube was the mimetic cocoon in which Nicholas Perry became Nikocado. He turned his heart’s mirror toward his audience, transforming into a living parody of their desires. When we turn our hearts’ mirrors toward the Twitter mobs, TikTok junkies, and Instagram superfans, we suffer the same metamorphic fate.
Bhogal writes, “This is the ultimate trapdoor in the hall of fame; to become a prisoner of one’s own persona. The desire for recognition in an increasingly atomized world lures us to be who strangers wish us to be. And with personal development so arduous and lonely, there is ease and comfort in crowdsourcing your identity.”
What Patrick really nails here is the idea that all of us who have some kind of Internet self are constantly going in and out of the mimetic machine. The awful story of Nicholas Perry shocks us in its extremity, but its logic is not shocking at all. It is simply a striking case of a person’s spiritual transformation becoming evident through their physical transformation. Perry’s body is suffering horribly as a result of his thirst for fame. But his soul suffered first and has suffered worse.
Not just his soul, either. My soul, your soul, the soul of evangelical Christianity especially in America. Whether the desire to be digitally seen manifests in a loud culture warrior persona on Twitter or a quiet insecurity and envy on Instagram, the transformation is the same. It’s the same when a breaking news story about a church elicits strong reactions and assertions, even lines in the sand (“I believe you!”), though virtually no one knows the people involved. This impulse inside us to leverage everything into some kind of public affirmation, to make sure the digital village knows we are worthy of their attention and their admiration and their love, represents a profoundly violent invasion of mass media into our hearts. And like the performance artists onscreen, we may realize (at least in our quietest moments) that this is a bit. We are auditioning for an unknown role. But if the reviews come in, the show must go on.
Christians need to realize that this is their mission field every bit as much as the LGBT revolution or “wokeness.” The Skip Bayless/Alex Jones theory of spiritual transformation is the de facto logic of our culture. It is absolutely everywhere: not just on the fringes, but on primetime and among the mega influencers. Clickbait is our culture’s daily bread. And this has a training effect on all our souls. Just as Neil Postman observed that the television “re-staged the world,” so too has the Internet, and with it this hollowing out of the self for performance.
The church in this generation faces the task of proclaiming a gospel that can only be believed, not leveraged. The dominant instinct of our age, living life for the approving watch of others, is an instinct deeply at odds with following Jesus. “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44) Even among Christians, there is often a low-level discontent with our lives and ministries if we are not reaping digital rewards. I very much believe this frustration with the mundane and this horror of the “same old thing” is at the heart of why some pastors and church leaders seem to don a mask and become something very different online. The ether seems to offer escape.
This is a daily war against a daily temptation. Frankly, I don’t have an impressive list of practices to wield. I suspect, however, that one massive change we can all make is to watch very carefully over the kinds of media personalities that we allow to impress us. Who are we letting talk to us? Who are letting set our agenda? Let us take seriously the command of Psalm 37:
Fret not yourself because of evildoers;
be not envious of wrongdoers!
For they will soon fade like the grass
and wither like the green herb.
We must love something more than being seen.