Tuesday, July 08, 2014

David Fitch: On Posting Dirty Laundry about Mark Driscoll and other sundry megachurch pastors


David Fitch (who shouldn't be an unknown name for longtime readers of WtH) has written in response to Mike Anderson's post from last week with a few thoughts about if, when and how to broach certain controversies involving church leaders in an online format.

Fitch mentioned that as a rule he tends to not link to material coming from people who are outside the conflict in question.  Per the stated precept, linking to Mike Anderson's recent confession is linking to someone who had a significant role in contributing to, shaping, and marketing the Mars Hill brand.  Just as Dalton Roraback's testimony as a former community group leader/coach has borne witness to changes in Mars Hill since its inception, Anderson's story shows that former members and staff have been willing to share that the Mars Hill you are most likely to have read about is least likely to resemble what those of us who joined circa 1996-2002 might even recognize any longer.

Anderson's recent testimony is the sort Wenatchee The Hatchet hopes to see more of.  As I noted last week, we won't get anywhere demanding that people confess and repent and share in public what they have seen and heard but we can invite them to do these things.  The Mark Driscoll of 2000-2002 might have said "You don't HAVE to do these things you GET to."  But that was before Driscoll visited Crystal Cathedral or shook hands with T.D. Jakes or ... even had a book published.  And if Mark Driscoll had contented himself with doing evangelistic/missional stuff without also having to be a cultural pundit the history of Mars Hill might look slightly (if only slightly) different.

As noted here repeatedly, I privately shared concerns with leadership back in 2008 about problematic directions Mars Hill seemed to be taking.  Those privately shared concerns went unheeded (a disappointing but not entirely surprising turn of events).

But what makes the Mars Hill situation somewhat unique is the sheer scale of its social and broadcast media presence.  Driscoll had visions of a music label and a Bible college from the beginning, claims that he never imagined MHC would get this big now withstanding.  In fact the number of times Driscoll circa 2011-2014 has flip-flopped on basic points of Mars Hill history, philosophy of ministry and practical ecclesiology have been so severe a Republican circa 2004 might wonder if Driscoll was a John Kerry. 

What has made Mars Hill efforts to limit public discussion and to insist on "private" reconciliation processes has been that until they began to implement a sweeping retroactive media purge in the last four months a staggering amount of material was available for people to download and read or listen to. Wenatchee The Hatchet most noticed that Grace Driscoll looked like she made use of a lot of Dan Allender ideas without so much as a footnote of attribution or thanks.  Warren Throckmorton would go on in the last year to document citation problems in no less than seven Driscoll books.  R. Scott Clark and others have long since noted basic problems in doctrine and historical facts in Driscoll/Breshears books, and at this point the question of whether Driscoll is even a competent exegete of New Testament texts (a point about which Wenatchee The Hatchet was personally completely convinced ten years ago) is open for discussion.

What has made Mars Hill unique as a focal point for public controversy is how astonishingly public so much content has been.  Being able to assemble a case for the identities of key parties in the Andrew Lamb disciplinary situation of 2011-2012 based on social media and broadcast media alone is not a small feat.  Being able to discover that a Mars Hill pastor who was newly into his second marriage and had a history of felonies who happened to be one of a couple of votes necessary in an Acts 29 church plant setting to get real estate to Mars Hill that Mark Driscoll had been wanting for the church for an entire decade took some time, but it wasn't a matter of anything being hidden.  It was all bubbling to the surface in newspaper articles, Driscoll sermons and so on.  And then in the last four months Mars Hill has implemented a sweeping retroactive media purge.  It's almost as though content has gotten purged if Wenatchee The Hatchet, Joyful Exiles, or Warren Throckmorton linked to it ... which can't possibly be the case.  Still ... an awful lot of content has been purged, such as the Spiritual Warfare series from 2008, that Matthew Paul Turner was enjoined to listen to back in 2012. 

Regular readers will know that Wenatchee The Hatchet privately shared a few concerns about a few problems.  Those problems never really got addressed and four years later those problems all blew up in one way or another.  Mars Hill might wish for controversy and public discussion to go away but purging Driscoll's sermons won't change things.  Driscoll's publishers can go fix all the plagiarism in the seven books but the genie is out of the bottle.  By now no less than the BOAA itself has admitted there have been gag orders; admitted that more than a hundred staff transitioned out in one way or another since roughly the start of Sutton Turner's joining the executive leadership scene at Mars Hill and has admitted to the existence of Result Source arrangements. Yet after admitting to all but the plagiarism documented by Throckmorton and others the BOAA has opted to stand by the executive elders.  It was outside counsel for Result Source? Fine.  Who?  If there was nothing illegal about the idea then just say who came up with it.  We can pretend for the moment that even saying "outside counsel" couldn't possibly constitute blame-shifting. 

But it's worth reminding everyone by now that a great deal of controversy surrounding Mars Hill has been involving intellectual property for years now.  It's not just a matter of plagiarism in seven books, it's also in how back in 2011 Mars Hill let a cease and desist letter be sent on behalf of itself by lawyers to a church down south and this was done in the same late 2011 period in which Sutton Turner signed that contract with Result Source; when Driscoll was lamenting how stingy MH members were in a fundraising film; when Driscoll was preparing for a big push to promote Real Marriage which was possibly the first time Mark Driscoll was making an entire sermon series not around a book of the Bible or a set of topical sermons as he'd done before but around one of his own books.  For those who have read the book and know not just what works were plagiarized but how much self-recycling Driscoll did in that book, the not-really-a-NYT-bestseller book was another nail in the coffin of what Mars Hill was to anyone who joined circa 1996-2002. 

At this point whether Mars Hill leadership is capable of realizing this or not, a church that has hitched its wagon to the star of social and broadcast media has to realize that there aren't really take-backs on the internet and that if you purge about two thirds of your star preacher's material and introduce robots.txt to all the church associated websites that all this effort to prevent Mark Driscoll from even being quoted accurately and in context should raise some questions about what on earth people think there is to hide?  It's not like there's really anything that scary in just going through every Mark Driscoll reference to recently acquired real estate in the history of Mars Hill and looking at which leaders go which plum jobs in the aftermath ... is there?  If Munson was always above reproach why has Mars Hill gone to such pains in the last three months to virtually scrub away any trace he was ever there?  And this after Driscoll said that if there were a book written about Mars Hill a chapter would need to be written about Munson?

The controversies surrounding Real Marriage in the last year are arguably a microcosm of the macrocosm that is the history of Mars Hill itself, a story that is not just about a church with a man who seems eager to change the world, but about a Christian media empire that has seemed eager to make him a star and what scores of people could have seen and prevented and, for whatever reasons, chose not to. 

While David Fitch's restraint in directly addressing things about Driscoll and Mars Hill is admirable there's a larger story here that Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll controversy points to--a whole lot of editors, fact-checkers and publishers had to have either not spotted all the citation errors in the last six years and a whole lot of people seem like they had to be committed to hitching their wagon to a star pastor to just look the other way if they truly didn't spot all of the problems in Driscoll's books.  The story of these controversies may prove to be a story of problems in an entire set of industries and not just in a megachurch and its pastor. There were a whole lot of people determined to make Mark Driscoll a star (and that had to include Mark Driscoll himself) who may or may not have thought through the consequences of everything that was literally and figuratively being signed off on.

The 2012 Driscoll book had mainly as its selling point that it was the Driscoll narrative about the Driscoll marriage and about Mars Hill, and this was the framing narrative that became the basis for marketing everything else about the book.  The reason controversy and enquiry about Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll can't go away altogether in the wake of the plagiarism and Result Source controversies is because while Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill "could" have made that marriage book about marriage in general some people insisted on making it about Mark and Grace Driscoll's marriage in particular and that marriage as a measure of the history of the community that has been known as Mars Hill.  It's only natural that controversies about Real Marriage became controversies about not just the Driscolls but about Mars Hill as a community and a brand because, simply put, Mark Driscoll and a team of people made a point of not making (or was it permitting) any distinction to be made between Mark Driscoll and the brand/church/community/corporation that is known as Mars Hill. 

Ever since the late 1990s when Mars Hill was getting coverage and contrary to the occasional lament about "critics" Mark Driscoll was finding ways to parlay even hostile coverage into a potent branding narrative. "I'm very confrontational," he says, "not some pansy-ass therapist."  Assimilating negative press and publicity into the brand that is Mark Driscoll has arguably been an essential component of Mark Driscoll the persona and public figure since the birth of Mars Hill.  That worked fine, perhaps, for as long as Mark Driscoll could have the focus of controversy about what he said and how he said it.  Once controversy shifted to things he's done and how he's treated people and how the corporation he's president of has treated people it's begun to look as though Mars Hill wants to put the genie back in the bottle. 

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