Saturday, September 20, 2014

Dan Savage sounds off on "What happens after the fall of Mars Hill", but it remains to be seen if Mars Hill Church, as a corporation is dead just yet

While The Stranger has been admirably thorough in documenting the history of Mars Hill Dan Savage's recent contribution at Slog is a reminder of why his sort of discourse is ultimately just punditry.  People have wanted Mark Driscoll to fail because of his views on gays and women for some time and that's not worth anything.  As has been noted here and elsewhere the real catalyst for change was confronting Mark Driscoll about plagiarism and confronting Mars Hill and the world at large with the facts about Result Source Inc and other problems in the fiscal history of Mars Hill.

Savage is, as ever both entitled to and irrepressible in the expression of his opinions but he's not ultimately that different from Mark Driscoll in the sense that he's a willfully incendiary gadfly who has made mass media a pulpit.

Driscoll and Savage may formally land in different realms on ethics and politics but these two are the sorts that can have a propensity to domineer in public discourse, which may be why it is fortunate in the long run their respective influences on the national and even regional scene may be seen as marginal.

Savage is absolutely right, of course, to point out that dozens of elders and deacons who led within Mars Hill Church made it possible for Mark Driscoll to become the kind of man he has become.  Yep.  The Stranger has played a better-than-average role in bringing that to light.

But if Savage wants to revisit the old progressive bromides against Driscoll he has worked to no useful end.  The First Amendment is still what it is, and the failure of the left (secular or religious) has been a moral one in the sense that it has fixated on thoughts as transgressions without considering the actions.  There has been a small parade of comments about how commenting on Driscoll's plagiarism wouldn't be a big issue so much as Mark's views on gays and women.  When Wenatchee The Hatchet first broached the likelihood of Driscollian plagiarism back on July 4, 2013 it was not very notable.  Same for actually demonstrating a case for use without citation back in September 2013.  What changed was someone with a media presence made accusations on the air and the accusations caught fire in the press.

The left can't congratulate itself now for what has happened.  It wasn't doing anything, by and large, excepting wanting Driscoll to hang out to dry for his views on womens and gays. 

And here's why that whole approach failed for the better part of 18 years.

Mark Driscoll has complained about "critics" and bad press but from the dawn of Mars Hill negative media attention, so long as it fixated on his personality, was central to the formation of the Mark Driscoll persona.

We'll revisit the earlier material as is:

Back in 1998 Mother Jones published a prescient article on Mars Hill that may be worth revisiting:

Of note was an organization that provided financial support to Mars Hill that would be easy to overlook. 

Postmoderns receive crucial support—financial and otherwise—from the megachurches. These postmodern ministries are loosely organized by the Leadership Network, a Dallas-based umbrella group for many of the nation's megachurches. It's the Leadership Network that keeps Driscoll's bohemian Mars Hill ministry in touch with the fast-growing, but more traditional, University Baptist Church in Waco by holding conferences and seminars. For the past three years the network has sponsored national conferences that bring together postmodern leaders. The first one attracted nearly 300, the second 500, and the next one, this fall in New Mexico, is expected to draw 1,000.

The Mother Jones piece highlights the early Mars Hill for its self-identified foundational appeal and even its methodologies in generating awareness.

How do the movement's young leaders intend to stem what they see as an increase in secularism? By preaching that God is relevant and church is cool. Postmodern leaders walk effortlessly between the secular and religious worlds, talking about the new Radiohead album in one breath, Jesus in the next. They are dynamic and approachable. And don't tell this new breed of preachers that they're marketing religion. They say market research is the domain of baby boomer megachurches, and point out that their churches don't advertise—the extraordinary growth has come strictly from word-of-mouth.

And yet subtly, brilliantly, it's all part of the sell. Postmoderns repeat the word "authentic" like a mantra. They seize on the tenets of Generation X—ennui, skepticism, cynicism—and use them as a way to attract members. Song lyrics portray a generation unanchored; politics go unmentioned; dysfunctional families are mourned. And almost all the churches are located near colleges, with a ready-made population that craves acceptance.

That was in 1998.  Since 2011 Justin Dean has the job of managing Mars Hill public relations and communications.  The time for strictly word-of-mouth is gone and now we've got ads for Driscoll books on public transit and radio ads on Christian radio. 

"For financial reasons or whatever, the parents of Gen Xers put their lives ahead of their children's," says Lief Moi, 35, a leader at Mars Hill and the co-host, with Driscoll, of "Street Talk," a nationally syndicated Christian radio show. By playing the "dysfunctional family" card, Moi, Driscoll, and others implicitly coax young people to turn to church as a place where they can experience the family and fellowship they missed out on as a kid. The church then becomes appealing to college students for the same reasons that fraternities and sororities are: instant community.

In order to get some grasp of Mars Hill culture it helps to observe this, that it began with a rhetorical observation that the parents of Generation X put their own lives ahead of the lives and welfare of their children.  If Mars Hill is a cult then we should observe that how a cult gains traction is by appealing to real and healthy needs with a culture that promises openness and kindness but reveals its toxic insularity only over time.  Moi's history of having never known his father in his youth and having been raised by his mother with her lesbian lover is easily known by anyone who was part of Mars Hill from 1998 to 2008. 

As a contemporary aside, gay authors have noted that people within the gay community can be the family you choose in contrast to the family you don't have any choice about.  Paradoxically yet perhaps inevitably, Mars Hill became that kind of surrogate family-of-choice for many who called the church home and the reasons may not have been entirely different in terms of social and emotional needs than for someone who came out of the closet and has lost a lot of emotional and social support from biological family.  Obviously the analogy is just an analogy but the 1998 Mother Jones article taps into the power of appealing to a narrative.

Back to earlier published material ...

Driscoll has been very tight-lipped about his own parents over the years.  He apparently would sooner talk about Grace's sexual abuse and related frigidity than to say much more than his dad was a union dry-waller.  But in 1998, with a chance to talk to Mother Jones, Driscoll said the following:

"Some of us haven't given ourselves over to the American Dream yet," Driscoll says into the microphone. "How do we make sure we don't become victims of what harmed us— parents who weren't around because they were too busy making money so we could go on vacations and look like a family?" The phones are dead.

When Driscoll asked rhetorically year after year "Where's dad?" in his sermons a person could wonder why the theme of the absentee father would be so important if all Driscoll ever said about his dad was that he was a union drywaller who swung a hammer for a living and broke his back supporting his family.  And yet year after year the most vivid anecdotes Driscoll had for his ancestors and siblings were not of his father or mother but his grandfather.  For the most part Mark Driscoll's father has been invoked simply as proof of bluecollar working-class credibility and his mother is essentially an icon of Catholic piety. 

The article gets to the earliest money quote before long:

By setting themselves up against their elders, postmoderns are ingeniously adding an anti-establishment spirit to their movement. "I really preach; it's not just three points to a better self-esteem," Driscoll says. "Megachurches have perfect services with perfect lighting. We're a friggin' mess." Driscoll delivers his sermons largely off-the- cuff, and refuses to follow a point-by-point outline like most pastors at megachurches do. "I'm very confrontational," he says, "not some pansy-ass therapist."

There it is, right there, "I'm very confrontational, not some pansy-ass therapist" Mark Driscoll said. 
There was also evidence of preaching Song of Songs as far back as 1998.  It's worth keeping in mind as Driscoll hangs out in his house in Snohomish county and being less than honest when KOMO rings the doorbell that throughout the history of Mars Hill Mark Driscoll has not only courted controversy through mass and social media but thrived on it. 

Back to newer stuff.

Savage is right, a whole posse of guys signed off on making Driscoll the man he has become and they bear responsibility.  It has seemed to people outside the corporate culture that nobody complained when a lot of people were being steamrolled until the people who were steamrolling were themselves subject to the machine.  When Wenatchee The Hatchet was inside the culture of Mars Hill this was one of a number of things that were occasionally troubling.  The sheer escalation of the behavior was harder to see until 2007 because so many people who were part of the problem themselves were not yet subjected to the treatment themselves.  Sometimes you have to be subjected to what you've done to others before you realize it's a problem--unless you're Eric Cartman and your friends have turned you into a ginger ... .

Part of the mess of all this history in Puget Sound is that people like Mark Driscoll and Dan Savage need each other to define their public personas.  The way they talk about others within mass media does not necessarily always indicate a difference in disposition even if there are plenty of differences on positions. 

It remains to be seen whether the corporation known as Mars Hill Church is really as dead as Dan Savage has surmised.  Then again, Mark Driscoll in 2006 described the death/blaming stage in a way that suggests that even Mark's own take might be that Mars Hill Church is in the death/blaming stage by now.  And the Mark Driscoll of 2006 might say that if it's in the death/blaming stage Mars Hill Church of 2012-2014 is getting what it deserves. 

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