Friday, June 06, 2014

Sabrina Peters has a blog post on MH groupthink, a proposal about what the groupthink may really entail

One of the more pervasive ideas about groupthink in association with Mars Hill is about how it is in some way anchored to the leadership.  Wenatchee The Hatchet has, to be sure, had some fairly specific as well as wide-ranging critiques of the leadership culture at Mars Hill Church as it has changed over the years.  But groupthink was evident in the readers of AlterNet and Salon when Valerie Tarico published her early April 2014 article on Mark Driscoll.  "groupthink" is most pernicious when we presume it applies ever and only to the others and not ourselves.

Some of the people who have raised their voices in response to Mars Hill Church and Mark Driscoll were among its most ardent public and private defenders.  What can be easily forgotten by those who have never set foot in a service at Mars Hill or in some other voluntary organization is how readily and willing we all are to "drink the kool-aid".  For some it might seem to be Mars Hill, for others the Democratic party, for others the Republican party, for others it might be the music of the Beatles.

But the thing is in 2014 Mark Driscoll and plagiarism has not been the only controversy in the headlines.  Let's not forget Woody Allen or the older controversy about a coach at Penn State.  Terry Teachout's fine biography on Duke Ellington has sparked debate about whether Ellington was basically a plagiarist and quite a bit further afield of things we might consider high art, some photographer in the fashion industry has been accused of doing some pretty sick stuff to models.  If you don't already know who that is spare yourself.  An idea that's been incubating for this blog for a while is that when there are scandals about how monstrously men have behaved toward people in music, in film, in the church and in college athletics there's a much, much bigger question we're looking at across all these scandals and that question is the degree to which we will rationalize monstrosity for the sake of something we consider noble or beautiful.  There was an incredible and intractable animated film by a Japanese filmmaker on this very topic that got released in the US earlier this year.  The grim reality is that we will all find a way to justify the building of a particular pyramid and the question we need to ask ourselves is not "if" we will consent to it but which sacrifices we will consent to tolerate in the making of a particular pyramid.

So in a sense to discuss "groupthink" at Mars Hill we should ask what kind of pyramid is being built and who thinks they're building it.  The pyramid would appear to be designed by Mark Driscoll, of course, but one man cannot build such a pyramid.  Countless people have to be convinced the pyramid ought to be built by the person who's designing it.

One of the great pitfalls that many would-be critics of Driscoll fall into is mistakenly thinking that if they attack the formal ideas and theology he espouses from the pulpit they're accomplishing anything at all.  Attacking complementarian ideas is useless.  Attacking Calvinism accomplishes nothing.  What too many of Mark Driscoll's self-appointed observers have often failed to grasp is that taking a stand against the ideas that Mark Driscoll articulates is in some sense irrelevant.  Many people stayed at Mars Hill because writers at Salon or Slate or the New York Times took shots at the ideas espoused by Mark Driscoll from the pulpit.  Now, to be sure, some of those ideas are absurd and dangerous (or all of them, depending on your convictions) but that is in a sense, not the point.

Wenatchee The Hatchet has had a few constructive criticisms to make of Mars Hill pulpit teaching and nobody paid any attention, it seems, whether outside Mars Hill or especially inside Mars Hill.  It seems like nobody cared what Wenatchee The Hatchet had to say until the topics turned to the history of publicly documentable acquisitions of real estate and which leaders began to gain power and prestige in the wake of those acquisitions.  Nobody cared much about Wenatchee The Hatchet was bringing up for discussion until questions about the infringement of intellectual property began to come up.  And then all of a sudden some people wanted to talk to Wenatchee The Hatchet at the blog and in some other contexts. 

But an alert and long-time reader will already know Wenatchee The Hatchet left on wonderfully and mutually good terms with campus leadership years ago.  Wenatchee The Hatchet is not particularly against Mars Hill as an evangelical Protestant community (to the extent that it still is that, and it undoubtedly is in a lot of ways).  The tone of participating commenters in the last three years has shown what I hope is a shift toward people in Mars Hill appreciating that the public critique and scrutiny is in no way intended to be an attack regardless of how many times Wenatchee The Hatchet publicly expresses the opinion that the foundational competence of Mark Driscoll to handle a basic biblical text has now come into question. 

Now here's the part, dear reader, you may simply refuse to believe and that might be the most important reason to consider it--when you come across someone who is speaking up on behalf of Mars Hill Church they are not necessarily defending Mark Driscoll in the wake of the plagiarism scandal about seven of his books having "citation errors".  They aren't defending Mark Driscoll, really, in the wake of the revelation that Mars Hill's Sutton Turner signed a contract with ResultSource.  They aren't defending that, either. 

Let's say for sake of consideration that what people are really defending when they defend Mars Hill Church is their own emotional investment of their identities into the culture.  Sure, to the unobservant person they will just seem to be defending Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill leadershihp as "not perfect" but "spreading the Gospel".  Well, that's not necessarily it.  Imagine if you will that the halo effect brought them in and the sunk cost fallacy keeps them there.  They will generally be committed to evangelical Protestant beliefs, they will have both been persuaded by Mars Hill leadership and their own interpretations of their own experiences that there are no better or comparable options being an evangelical Protestant in the Puget Sound area, and, crucially, they will double down on what they have invested of themselves into that time, culture and experience.

It's not that none of them have concerns. Many a former member had private reservations about weird stuff like Mark Driscoll saying that if he went without sex for a period of about three days he'd get "wiggy".  But when sloppy reporting in a venue like Salon happens the people in Mars Hill will dig in their heels and stand their ground and talk about how they have been misunderstood and misrepresented. And in the case of coverage from venues like AlterNet and Salon this is actually absolutely true!

But you might be hard pressed to find an average Mars Hill attender who would actually say it's not a big deal if it turns out a pastor has plagiarized in seven of his books.  The average Mars Hill attender would probably not say it's an ethical thing to rig sales for a book to get it a place on the New York Times bestseller list.  On the other hand, the culture of Mars Hill is more than those things just as the culture of the United States is more than just the history of racial segregation between whites and blacks or the way American Indian tribes were decimated by colonial expansion. 

At one point, and for a long time, Wenatchee The Hatchet was part of Mars Hill Fellowship that has sort of mutated into Mars Hill Church.  I came to a point where I realized that the WHAT I believe was not necessarily tethered to the WHERE I believed it.  The positive things I can affirm as a Christian in no way depend on Mars Hill, let alone imagining that in some way Mars Hill is the only game in town as church goes.  Even the very idea promulgated by Driscoll over the years about how few evangelical churches there are in Puget Sound is a bit dubious.  And once a person is able to disentangle convictions from the necessity of those convictions being tethered to a specific setting, leaving Mars Hill becomes not exactly easy but easier and easier to do in a way that is not disrespectful of those with shared values and experiences at Mars Hill.

I didn't just leave Mars Hill because I saw it had a whole raft of problems, I left because I realized I had a lot of those problems myself and that I could change from that path if I was still there.  It's hard to repent of a bunch of stuff that so many others in the same church are also susceptible to.  It's not that I don't have a bunch of those flaws still, it's that I came to realize that blaming Mars Hill was not a particularly respectful or responsible thing to do.  There are failures you simply have to own as your own and if there is a bad habit I've seen Mars Hill departers sometimes have it's blaming the culture of Mars Hill for problems they often brought in with them.  I had a number of character flaws I brought into my time at Mars Hill and a couple of them were things I was confronted about by people within Mars Hill.  I could be a cold-blooded jerk to a lot of people.  I can still be pitiless and pedantic.  Well, hey, if you've read even this one blog post ... .

And I realize that even as I had reservations about a lot of things in my time at Mars Hill I just didn't want to tell myself that I was sinking all of my social and personal identity into this association.  And for young guys who have even a dim grasp of how disposable they are in contemporary post-industrial societies the promise that is implicit and explicit in a setting like Mars Hill Church is that young men matter.  Driscoll made a point of targeting young men with uncertain futures and a history of anxiety about purpose.  As he's said many times, if you get the young men you get everything, the women, the real estate, the culture, the money and if you don't get the young men you get nothing.  But what Driscoll has rarely said that may be the bitter caveat for many young guys who invest their identities in Mars Hill over the course of eight or more years is that Mark Driscoll doesn't necessarily want all those young men, just the ones who will go "upstream" and "influence culture".  Driscoll may have a great deal of use for mini-Marks but those men who turn to Mars Hill for community and a sense of social purpose and friendship might want to take the pulpit promises with a grain of salt.

I don't regret any of the friendships I have made through Mars Hill.  I love my friends whether they are at Mars Hill or not.  We might substantially differ on a few things but after a decade inside and years on the periphery of Mars Hill my hope is that I can express my differences in a way that is respectful, if at times a bit sarcastic and acid.

And one of the big wake-up moments for me was not the firings of Petry and Meyer in 2007, it was realizing how much money Mars Hill had sunk into a piece of real estate it probably should never have bought to begin with.  It began to seem to me that there was a lot of presuming upon the grace of God in making some stupid decisions purchasing real estate.  And everybody, including some of the men who were eventually fired, was apparently on board with some of those ill-advised property acquisitions. 

What came to bug me in the culture while I was there was what might be described as a mentality of assuming the book as a whole is just fine even if there are questions here and there about parts of the book and what is or isn't in the footnotes.  Long-time readers may have spotted what just happened there.  Well, let's remind ourselves that Jesus said that those who are faithful with little are faithful with much.  To be faithful in the writing of a whole book you have to care about all the footnotes, otherwise it's an open point for debate if you really care about the books at all.

I have come to care about the many people I met at Mars Hill and as individuals who I happened to meet at Mars Hill, not as some undifferentiated group of people who just "drank the kool-aid".  My path out of Mars Hill didn't come from people insisting that Mark Driscoll is a terrible man and anyone who keeps attending Mars Hill is approving of rather vaguely described moral evils.  I began to see that I had character flaws that Mars Hill couldn't help me find freedom from because we had these flaws in common.  I began to find that many times the loudest voices raised against Mars Hill could have the same damned character flaws.  I also began to realize that what I needed to discover was a way to separate what I believe as a Christian from necessarily being tethered to the cultural narrative of Mars Hill and that this cultural narrative is not merely a top-down decree from the upper leadership, it's also a bottom-up investment of the selves of many individuals who once they have sunk a great deal of their identity into this shared experience that is Mars Hill either don't want to or really feel that they can't extricate themselves from all of this stuff without paying a price that is higher than they are emotionally, socially or even economically willing to pay. 

Keep in mind, too, that membership was habitually likened to a marriage relationship and when you have that language in place and, ahem, marry it to the evangelical belief that divorce is nearly always wrong, it's not a surprise that at a ground level people will be loathe to leave Mars Hill even if they might feel like they're in a proverbially abusive marriage.  And to stretch that analogy well past its breaking point some people unsurprisingly conclude the real solution or alternative is, so to speak, celibacy. 

If you're a reader who chooses to be at Mars Hill, okay.  Wenatchee The Hatchet would urge you to reconsider your commitment in light of a book's worth of material here but the most that can be done here is give you enough information to make as educated a decision as possible.  But there's ultimately nothing in terms of historic Christian profession you'll find at Mars Hill that is anywhere near as unique, even within Puget Sound, as so many of us at Mars Hill convinced ourselves was the case.  You may want to be at Mars Hill for a lot of reasons that will make perfectly good sense but you don't really need to be at Mars Hill if you want to find a place where evangelical Christians gather.  When I was in my 20s and early 30s it was exciting to see Mars Hill as an interesting hybridization of Baptist approaches to sacramentology and a vaguely Presbyterian approach to ecclesiology.  But then I figured out I was basically Presbyterian and friends of mine who figured out they were Baptist went their way and I went mine and we kind of moved into a new direction.  A friend of mine once said that in a way Mars Hill Church is kind of like high school, it's not necessarily terrible to be in high school for a while (even if you find high school kind of terrible) but at some point you graduate.

But rather than lambast those who stay at Mars Hill Wenatchee The Hatchet would rather document the history of what leaders have said over the years about other leaders and to the flock.  What many have assumed, that is very wrong, is that the rank and file members always know what they're getting into.  Wenatchee The Hatchet was only made aware that an executive elder was willing to lie to a member about what was really going on in the 2007 firings in 2012, years after the events transpired.  If people consider Wenatchee The Hatchet any kind of informed authority on the history of Mars Hill let that be a warning to you, the reader.  If even Wenatchee The Hatchet could go for years not knowing some things or having heard narratives that have turned out to be false it means you're not immune either.  If there's anything about the headlines in the last seven months or so about Mars Hill Church and Mark Driscoll it's that there's a LOT most of us didn't know that was going on in the last four years.

If there's a potential "cure" for "groupthink" it isn't simply contesting this or that ideological or theological idea, it's in asking some pointed questions about the shared narrative.  I had to start asking myself a lot of questions about whether this shared narrative of what we called Mars Hill added up to what we said we stood for.  Over time I came to the conclusion that all too frequently it didn't but I made a point of not demonizing the Christian community there on my way out.  As has been said here a time or two, there's a difference between the people as a social group and the many individuals.  Or to get more old-school Pentecostal about it, there's a people and then there's a principality.  It's entirely possible to love one while offering a critique of the other.

If we do not understand how prone each of us are as individuals to groupthink and be watchful against it in our own hearts we'll be blindsided by it when it bursts forth in ourselves. 


Len said...

what's the name of that film?

Billy Goat said...

Yeah! I want to know what that film is, too.

PNWGuy said...

Given WtH's penchant for Miyazaki films, I'm inclined to say it's The Wind Rises. The plot outline seems to match up.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

belated clarification, what PNWGuy said, The Wind Rises.