Saturday, September 13, 2014

a nod to Alastair Robert's The Ad Man's Gospel, part 2--how the left and the right find Driscoll a convenient scapegoat without addressing other concerns, Driscoll as a microcosm of a star-making machine

At this point to make the controversies associated with Mars Hill about Mark Driscoll and not Mars Hill Church as a corporation with a corporate culture that is vastly influenced and shaped by but not, in the end, entirely summed in Mark Driscoll, then there won't be any "lessons" to be learned that will have any lasting value.  Why?  Because the left and right have already made of Mark Driscoll what they want him to be in a way that does not require them to see any of themselves in him or in the history of Mars Hill Church.  A jocular post by Frank Schaeffer that they need Driscoll around for clickbait gets toward the edge of a possibility ... but since Schaeffer's the kind of person willing to leverage the death of Nelson Mandela to shill his own novels Schaeffer is arguably just for the left what he once was for the right and what Driscoll might have aspired to be, or been aspired to be, for some kind of right.

What is more astonishing is how swiftly and how mercenary some of those who have called for sympathy to Driscoll can turn around and make him a punching bag all over again anyway.

Stop the witch hunt.  Then make fun of him. Then remember to mention your book.  Swell.  If Piatt had a coherent and consistent take on Driscoll that would be one thing but he's devolved, so far as Wenatchee can tell, into some flavor of the hour pundit on Driscoll by now.

Now while the Team Pyro folks have surely been consistent in their public critique of Driscoll, and they have gotten some credit for having said "We told you so" about Driscoll in the last decade, no, they didn't.  Let's put it this way, were they on Driscoll's case over the last ten years about how carefully he gave credit where credit was due?  Nope.  They didn't say jack about plagiarism or the consolidation of power in the executive wing behind the scenes because it wasn't about those things for that crew, it was about Mark cussing and about Mark being too charismatic. 

That Mefferd made a point of publicly accusing Driscoll of plagiarism was what actually changed things and while that may have been a score for a team that happened to also be cessationist it's no more plausible as history or social media presence than it is for a feminist blogger to dredge up material published more than a month ago as some kind of story that Driscoll has gotten in hot water for calling women "penis homes".  Neither narrative is a particularly honest or accurate presentation of what has happened.  Has Driscoll said some crazy stuff regarding charismatic-style divine super powers?  Yeah, but lots of people say stuff like that and people make books and movies out of those things.  Once again, what separated Driscoll in this case was arguably the sheer tonnage of his contribution to and his presence in mass and social media.

It's not that the left or right as such really did anything special, it's that the sheer volume of Mark Driscoll that Mark Driscoll put out was liable to not quite withstand detailed scrutiny over the course of eighteen years because he's just a significantly fallible guy. 

When the Andrew Lamb scenario flared up Wenatchee The Hatchet proposed that one of the idols at Mars Hill is social media.  An idol promises something quickly in exchange for what at the time seems like a modest sacrifice.  As many an unfortunate celebrity will have learned those who live by the cloud get de-privatized by the cloud.  It's unfortunate that hackers hack, to be sure, and yet we are witnessing a vast and less easily discussed set of ethical questions about what is appropriate to share on the internet via networked devices at the outset.

Just as many a celebrity now wishes they hadn't done nude selfies there's a megachurch pastor in his house in some other county who really, really wishes he hadn't invented a pen name and written a whole ton of stuff that's resurfaced in the last few months.  It looks different to the inattentive but it's the same core set of challenges that we, as a culture, have not found answers for. 

Some of Driscoll's defenders at this point might point out that a lot of people have said terrible stuff about Driscoll.  That's true and lots of that stuff didn't need to be said and shouldn't have been said.  The trouble is that a substantive critique gets lumped in with just being a "hater" for the fans.  For the detractors pointing out that problems in credibility and platform actually do matter for those who would critique Driscoll will get summarily dismissed with "Puh-leeze! Shoot the messenger why don't you?"  Well, yeah, because the credibility of the person and their critique matters.  What has transpired in the last year or so wasn't some case of a feminist/progressive having some gotcha moment with Driscoll.  If that would have worked it would have worked twenty years ago and obviously it didn't because it would never work.  And we're not at this moment in public discourse about Driscoll because Slice of Laodicea had anything particularly compelling to contribute by way of complaining about Mark Driscoll endorsing some contemplative writers. 

To varying degrees neither Mark Driscoll's defenders nor his detractors have seen what an earlier Mark Driscoll might have called the Big E on the eye chart (or one of them).

The scandals that have involved Mark Driscoll that do not involve his approach to governance and leadership culture (still an under-discussed set of issues) have all centered around what?

His use of media.

Social media, broadcast media, mass media, most of the controversies surrounding Driscoll that have gained traction have involved media use.  Plagiarism?  Tweets?  PHP discussion forum pen names and inflammatory statements?  All media.  Mars Hill in general but Mark Driscoll in particular can be seen as a case history of a person and a community who went full throttle into the media world and seized at every tool available in media options over the course of nearly twenty years to discover that there are unanticipated side effects. 

The problem with mass media engagement is that if enough people read your books and begin to figure out which authors whose work you've made use of weren't adequately credited is that the internet doesn't seem to forget. 

The problem with saying incendiary things from the pulpit is that those things can be brought back and quoted seven and ten years later when you turn out to have done 180 turns on issues you made very public statements about for millions of people to download. 

The problem with announcing over and over this or that plan to start a school or start a music label is that when a year or two later all those projects withered on the vine or fizzled out or just plain failed the internet makes it easier to bring those failures to mind. 

But this is not exactly strictly a problem of mere access but of content generation.  It's also a problem that American society at large has not necessarily come to grips with.  More people seem to be leaping head first into the sea of social and broadcast media engagement without so much as having spent fifteen seconds imagining that there might be theories of the press and theories about how communication systems may work or how people process and convey information.  The internet may have changed the way we read and the way we read and the way we think and the way we think we read. 

When Driscoll was writing away as William Wallace II and then shifting seamlessly out of "character" and back into "Pastor Mark" (though Pastor Mark may also be a character depending on how you interpret his media presence) he was enjoying the process and was able to joke even in a frustrated moment that some people took themselves seriously and didn't realize there was this character-play-acting thing going on to provoke discussion.

The problem was that the character seemed so closely tied to actual ideas espoused by Mark Driscoll in more serious moments that this might have been a moment for a guy to remember a proverb that says as it is with someone throwing around firebrands and death is the man who deceives his neighbor and then says, "Was I not joking?" The problem with saying that William Wallace II was in any sense a put-on to spark discussion was that an awful lot of the ideas espoused by Driscoll as William Wallace II seemed to overlap with ideas that Driscoll would later promote under his real name.

Here's the thing, whether or not Mark and Grace Driscoll ever work up the moxie to publicly broach how much material in the first edition of Real Marriage was inadequately cited from the works of others (particularly Allender's work in the case of chapter 7 by Grace), what nobody has bothered to seriously discuss is where the editors at Thomas Nelson were in all this.

Let's suppose for sake of discussion that when Driscoll said "Maybe I made a mistake" he really, totally, actually somehow failed to remember all the citations that should have made it into half a dozen books, including 2012's Real Marriage.  Why did not a single one of Mark Driscoll's editors spot any of these citational problems or, if they found them, say not a single thing about them before the books were already in print?

There have been a handful of people who have visited Wenatchee The Hatchet over the years and remarked about how negative Wenatchee The Hatchet is about Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll.  Well, actually, Wenatchee commended Mars Hill for giving to the Salvation Army Port Angeles food pantry several years ago.  Wenatchee has also had very nice things to say about a number of the pastors who have been associated with Mars Hill over the years.  Wenatchee has long made a distinction between the people in general at Mars Hill and the leadership culture that has developed at Mars Hill.  If anything in the last few months it has been transpiring that even leaked memoes from and to executive leadership at Mars Hill has conceded points Wenatchee The Hatchet was privately making back around 2008, that the fiscal approach Mars Hill was taking was going to be a trainwreck. 

But largely what Wenatchee The Hatchet has labored to do is just quote people as accurately as possible, as in context as possible, and to observe how ideas expressed by leaders within and about Mars Hill Church has at various times shifted or changed or how interpretations of biblical texts and of doctrinal concepts don't square with other ways of interpreting the text or with some traditional understandings.  If quoting Driscoll accurately and in context to show how many times he's done a 180 on any number of things constitutes being a "critic" then, well, that's too bad, because as Wenatchee sees it, compensating for the shortcomings of mainstream secular and Christian journalistic coverage of Mars Hill is not the same thing as being a "critic".  And furthermore criticism is a venerable literary art form ... but never mind.

The point is that if Driscoll hadn't flooded mass and social media with so much content over the last sixteen some years Wenatchee The Hatchet wouldn't have had so much material to work with and from in mounting a case that the Mark Driscoll of the last few years seems to have betrayed everything he ever said about the core approach of a minister from ten years ago.  That Mars Hill has purged mountains of audio and written content has gone all but unremarked upon by any media outlets.  They don't even know that's a story there and yet a journalism professor once advised Wenatchee that very frequently the biggest story that's not getting enough attention isn't the one everyone is already talking about (cue the month-late penis stuff that Wenatchee the Hatchet published back in July) but the stuff NOBODY IS TALKING ABOUT. 

Why haven't more people discussed the publishing complex that helped make Mark Driscoll the star he pretty obviously wanted to become?  It's easier for progressives and conservatives to lambast individuals because that lets them spare themselves the harder task of confronting a potentially mercenary and possibly even dishonest media empire from which they themselves might one day wish to profit.  It's easy to rip on the other author who's conveniently on the other side of some ideological divide and harder to bite the hand that feeds you.  It was unfortunately telling to Wenatchee The Hatchet that Mark Driscoll and Rachel Held Evans both had their respective stunt books published by Thomas Nelson in 2012.  What if the problem with American Christianity is that the publishers and marketers let this stuff go on?  After all, if Driscoll has plagiarized in half a dozen books that's the kind of thing that an industry could have either spotted and crushed him for or have observed and quietly let continue, assuming that the question of whether or not the plagiarism happened has been settled. 

Let's go back to Driscoll's interviews over the last few years and his reactions to some of them.  He's been willing to tout his background having done professional journalism but to date has he ever produced a single non-editorial published work as evidence of his background as professional journalist?  Not saying he couldn't ever do it but that he's found it easier to name-drop his media credentials than to brandish the media that can prove the credential beyond all doubt on a few points. 

Years ago Wenatchee wrote that there's a distinction to be made between Mark Driscoll the actual person and Mark Driscoll the persona and that if Driscoll wasn't careful the persona could seriously mess things up for Mark Driscoll the real person.  But it is an open question whether such a distinction could ever be made for anyone who wasn't part of the place.

When Wenatchee The Hatchet started publishing "Pussified Nation" on July 27, 2014 and started getting into the historical and social setting for it
was to show that in spite of the recent assurance that Mark Driscoll has changed that the ways in which he has trolled on social media have not really changed either in the substance of his concerns or even necessarily in the overall thrust of how he sets about provoking controversy.

1. Incite controversy then
2. step back and rhetorically ask why everyone's gotta freak out when someone has a meltdown.
3. Express a modicum of regret some people got angry, promise to do better
4. Don't forget to tease the arrival of another product and
5. wait until another suitable time to repeat the process emerges

Step 3 is actually optional ...

The monkey wrench applied to his own decade of narrative turned out, paradoxically and ironically, to be Real Marriage.  It wasn't just that the Driscolls shared that for most of their marriage there was little sex and a lot of frustration and resentment, it's that it becomes impossible for someone who was at Mars HIll in the early years and read the 2012 book to not have a chance to remember  "Using Your Penis".  It's that the gap between what Driscoll said from the pulpit or "in character" as William Wallace II circa 2001 and what the Driscolls said was really going on at the time in their 2012 book introduces a rupture between ideal and reality that is not something that can be bridged. 

And it matters why the Mark Driscoll who was laying into single guys for their failures was the Mark Driscoll who lived in a house that was leased-to-own for him because of his credit history being poor, and the Mark Driscoll who had single guys covering some of his mortgage for him was the one who took up the pen name William Wallace II.

Take that history together and a person can reasonably ask how on earth and why on earth Mark Driscoll, who was bitter about the lack of sex in his marriage and also in a financial situation weak enough that he had to have single guys renting spare rooms to help him make his mortgage, was really in any position to vent under a pseudonym about how so many guys were failing to measure up to an ideal he was so far short of in his own life.  The problem for Wenatchee The Hatchet, who was at Mars Hill at the time, is that looking back on all this it's hard to shake the sense that when it came to what he demanded of other guys and what he was able to get to happen in his own life that in some sense Driscoll was a hypocrite from the start and the narrative in Real Marriage was the narrative that retroactively blew apart the narrative that Driscoll had been building up for himself about himself and Mars Hill in the previous twelve years.

In the visual arts one of the axioms given to art students is that you need to stop drawing what you THINK YOU SEE and draw what you're actually seeing.  Observation and perception are not necessarily the same thing.  Too many people on the left and right of the controversies about Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill are not so much looking at Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill as they are looking at pre-packaged narratives developed by the various strands of left and right ABOUT these subjects.  If Driscoll hadn't dumped so much content into social and mass media it wouldn't have been possible for anyone to analyze it critically enough to figure out there were citation errors or that there were some emerging questions about the continuity of the public narrative verses glimpses of a private reality. 

And the reason, arguably, it has taken so long for this process to even start is because the media saturation of the Christian right as well as the secular and religious left have been content to rehearse the same old bromides of ideological jousting topics rather than step back and look at the things that have been there.  This hasn't been the case all across the board, obviously, and some salutary reporting has emerged ... but what keeps happening is that people may see that Driscoll and his use of media has gotten him hoist on his own petard but they don't see this as a potential gateway into discussing how Christians in the United States have contributed to this thing.  Let's suggest there's a principality at work when Thomas Nelson can publish lazy stunt books by Driscoll and Evans and the respective fan clubs for both teams circle the wagons and don't stop to ask why these two authors got published under the same publisher if they're really so very, very different?

If what you think you see is a case of Driscoll and Evans at odds and representing two different approaches to a Christian faith step back and look at the publishing empire that sold both their books inside the same calendar year.  Try setting aside the narrative prisms of left and right and take another look because if all we "learn" from the Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll controversies is something that confirms our respective suspicions about teams and not about cultures and industries that make people like Driscoll and Evans into stars then we may be missing the real idol factories because we're too committed to ours against theirs to see how we may all be getting played.


Dan said...

Excellent - thank you.

Andrew Jones said...

Good piece. Also a parallel in Zondervan publishing both Brian McLaren and Don Carson at the same time, even though both were at the opposite sides of the argument. But controversy sells, so you might as well make money from both streams, ay?

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

ooh, good comment there, Andrew. Been so busy tracking the local/real estate/history of MH side that the McLaren/Carson stuff via Zondervan was off the radar completely. Thanks for mentioning that.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Thomas Nelson, does anyone remember Jefferson Bethke? When his debut spoken word video, which merely rehashed well-known Reformation truths (while equivocating horribly on the definition of "religion"), went viral… well, the publisher couldn't offer him a book deal fast enough.

That is simply to say: I agree with Wenatchee's commentary and think examples of ostensibly Christian publishers cashing in on glam and controversy (possibly at the expense of the readers and Christian culture at large) could be multiplied.

(Aside: Nothing against Bethke - I'm sure he's a great guy. The circumstances of his book deal are just indicative to me of an interesting trend.)