Saturday, September 13, 2014

a nod to Alastair Robert's The Ad Man's Gospel, part 1--Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill and the idol of media

... If the theologian of the 16th century was a lawyer, the theologian of the 21st century is an ad man.

... The ad man doesn’t persuade his customer by making a carefully reasoned and developed argument, but by subtly deflecting objections, evoking feelings and impressions, and directing those feelings and harnessing those impressions in a way that serves his interests. Where the lawyer argues, the ad man massages.

As Don [Draper] says, ‘You are the product. You, feeling something.’

The ad man knows this secret, and so do many contemporary evangelicals. Much of the time Bell isn’t trying to communicate a particular abstract theology to people. Rather, he elicits desirable emotive states from his audience and connects those with a heavily chamfered theology while tying undesirable emotive states to opposing viewpoints. All of this can be done without actually presenting a carefully reasoned and developed argument for one’s own position, or engaging closely with opposing viewpoints.

Alastair Roberts was writing about Rob Bell but the observation could be applied as readily to the other guy with a church named Mars Hill, Mark Driscoll.  Mark Driscoll could take the book of Esther and anchor it to a particularly tendentious interpretation of Esther that is filtered through the prism not of his master's in exegetical theology but a little anecdote about a conversation with his teenage daughter.  Wenatchee wrote a five-part analysis of a Driscoll sermon to show how this was pulled off but you may want to just stick with part 5.  Driscoll has clearly trained and refined a public and media-saturated approach to public ministry.  He's reached the point where he's not even anything close to a pastor so much as a public figure and he's only a "pastor" to the vast majority of Mars Hill Church by way of a camera feed and a week delay.  But there are still people there, right?  What are they drawn to? 

Alastair Roberts' observations about Rob Bell may well provide a clue.

What Wenatchee observed year in and year out was something that took a long time to discover.  It takes you a while to figure out that you're guided by a story and what that story may tell.  The story many of us believed at Mars Hill was that Mark Driscoll preaches the Bible but every once in a while someone might point out that Mark Driscoll preaches his interpretation of a text as though it were the plain meaning of the text.  Wenatchee agreed with this observation!

But how does he do that? Unlocking this rhetorical approach is crucial for understanding both the appeal of Driscoll as a public speaker and for why people who could otherwise grasp the shortcomings in his exegetical and hermeneutical approach simply don't.

Driscoll's sermons are ostensibly all about Jesus but the framing story is Driscoll's story, the story of his family, and the story of that family as a microcosm meets macrocosm of Mars Hill as a social unit.  If you want to pierce the veil of how Driscoll interprets the Bible you really only have one of two ways to do it and in our day and age the odds of success are low.

Why?  Because Driscoll uses his own personal narrative and that of his family as a way to frame his entire approach to a biblical text and this generally forces anyone who disagrees with his approach to a text to do one of two things. 

The first would be to take issue with his exegetical and hermeneutical approach but in the internet age in which we've been steeped over the last 20 years this will generally fail.  TL, DR.  Nobody wants to be engaged at the level of a digression into what Hebrew words do or don't mean when Mark Driscoll has just thrown out the word "vagina", do they?  Even though scholars left, right and center of dismantled Driscoll on biblical interpretation and historical research the vast majority don't care because the vast majority of the people Driscoll has been making his appeal to are not those kinds of "culture-makers". 

On the other hand, another way of addressing Driscollian eisegesis could be done by way of pointing out how Mark Driscoll uses narratives about his family to hide a failure of exegetical and hermeneutical competence.  But taking this route is fraught with the real risk that questioning why on earth a pastor would even bring his teenage daughter into a discussion of an interpretation of Esther will be interpreted by people as just being a jerk.  To Wenatchee the jerk move is really the cowardly, intellectually dishonest and lazy stunt of invoking one's teenage daughter as a purely narrative/emotional defense of a tendentious reading of a biblical text ... but to at least a few Driscoll advocates that would seem pedantic and unfair. 

In other words, to be blunt, you could critique Driscoll's irresponsible handling of biblical texts but if you get into the mechanics of how he does that people tune out because they don't really care.   If you get into how he leverages personal narrative about himself and his family as a way to get past all rational considerations to promote an absurd interpretation and application of a biblical text then Driscoll fans will just decide you're a judgmental asshole. 

In that sense Mark Driscoll, no less than Rob Bell (as Alastair Roberts addressed Bell's approach) peddles an ad man's gospel.  You are the product, you, feeling something. These are people who selling not a set of propositional beliefs but a narrative and if we don't gain and use the tools to study that narrative, how it's constructed, what it is used to promote, and why people will sincerely buy it then just dismissing or accepting a single narrative is ultimately failure.

If even people in the professional press can't figure out what to make of the fact that we can see more and network more content across more platforms than before without having ironed out the ethical and social implications of that power, then how much less have these things been considered by a megachurch pastor (who once referred to himself as a gigachurch pastor) and a Christian subculture that is rightly joked as being about twenty years behind the times?

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