Saturday, January 03, 2015

looking back on a few years worth of blogging--Mark Driscoll and the allure of legacy

Wenatchee The Hatchet may have written five to ten books worth of the history of Mars Hill and the life and times of its leadership.  It will be nice to set that aside for a while and get the blog back to the stuff it was originally intended to be about.  Now that the corporation is moving toward dissolution that may get to happen.  It will be kind of a relief that traffic to the blog will go down.

There have been and will be many attempts to figure out what we can all learn from this stuff with Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill.  But what lessons we learn may depend entirely on what we were or weren't looking for to begin with.  For conservatives and liberals alike there might be a question of how a church like Mars Hill emerged within a somewhat liberal and secular city like Seattle.  That was, in its way, not all that difficult to imagine.  Seattle is a hub of tech and university and aviation development.  Wenatchee The Hatchet ended up in Seattle for college and had heard about Mars Hill being a place where someone who was theologically conservative but culturally broad-minded could go and probably feel at home.  So if you weren't a dispensationalist and held to scripture being inspired but also actually liked movies by Satoshi Kon and dug avant garde classical music then Mars Hill was a place you could go. Or at least that's how it started for some blogger. 


It would be necessary to stress at this point that in the early days of Mars Hill a good deal of its appeal didn't lay in Driscoll himself but in the way Driscoll was complemented by Mike Gunn and Lief Moi.  Driscoll came across like a self-aggrandizing frat boy loudmouth whose idea of a "counterculture" was a standard-issue middle class whitebread American dream.  It's not that that's necessarily even a terrible thing, really, so much as that Driscoll was grating in the way he presented that lifestyle as countercultural just because Mars Hill was set in Seattle.

On the other hand, Gunn and Moi had observable roles in the Seattle scene.  Gunn was with Athletes in Action and interacting with the college scene and Moi, with his construction businesses and radio presence, had something of the street scene covered.  While Driscoll would go on about Braveheart you could talk to Mike Gunn about Spike Lee films.  Moi bought and renovated the Paradox to bring back an all-ages scene. One of the great mistakes of coverage over the last eighteen years was to fixate on Driscoll as the central appeal.  He was the focal point and he made sure of that, but to understand the appeal of Mars Hill in the earlier years it's necessary for someone to articulate that Driscoll's presence and style was what slowed some of us down from committing.  It wasn't Mark I was particularly struck by early on so much as Gunn and Moi.  If they were willing to work with this other guy ... maybe this other guy could grow up ... eventually.


But if one were to try to distill the length and breadth of Driscoll's appeal for those to whom he made the appeal then that appeal would be "legacy".  Mark Driscoll wants a legacy, he wants people to want to leave a legacy.  He wasn't going to settle for being just some local church pastor even before he founded Mars Hill.  Even before its launch he was sharing a vision of a movement that started a Bible college or a seminary, that started a music label, that started a publishing company, that hosted conferences and planted churches.  Driscoll could not honestly tell anyone in early 2014 that any of what had transpired in the prior 18 years was "not even close" to what he had initially envisioned when preparing to launch Mars Hill Fellowship..  In fact nothing could be further from the truth for Driscoll to have said "not even close" because it was only in the last two years that Mars Hill was finally appearing to get within spitting distance of all the things Mark had been vision-casting for the church to accomplish since its birth. 

The allure of a legacy hardly needs an explanation does it?  But in Driscoll's case it might because while it's tempting for people to say Driscoll focused on young men at the expense women (very true) it can be easy to miss what may have been the potency of the appeal.  It can be easy to forget what the appeal for all those young guys might have been, legacy.  Driscoll never successfully bridged the gap between the ideal of manliness he espoused and his actual life in the long run and that was probably going to hurt him but it was only going to hurt him because we live in an era in which one's mystique can be dismantled so quickly, especially if one were to pile up so much broadcast and social media content that the mystique collapses under the weight of a person's actual life and conduct. 

Many people have described many tipping points.  Some have cited the 2007 by-laws being changed.  That was a significant political change but it can be easy for insiders to fixate on that at the cost of understanding that there was something crucial that was not compromised by any of that, and that would be the public narrative.  Let's think of that narrative as the public legacy. 

Either the decade-long narrative Mark Driscoll sold from the pulpit about life with his wife was a fantasy that didn't match reality ... or the narrative in Real Marriage didn't correspond to what really happened ... but it wasn't practically possible for both sweeping narratives to be equally true.  One had to be more true than the other and the poison in the 2012 narrative was that it stopped discussing the legacy of Mars Hill as the legacy of a people working together on a mission (Confessions of a Reformission Rev) and instead recast the entire narrative of the people of Mars Hill into the story of Mark and Grace Driscoll fixing their marriage and anything and everything that was done in or to Mars Hill as a community that furthered that end was justifiable. 

So, yeah, from the standpoint of insiders who saw how power was wielded 2007 was a watershed, but then so was 2001-2002 when Driscoll decided to blow everything up and introduce strategic chaos to see who with the leadership mojo would rise to the top.  But since within this period Driscoll controlled the narrative, too, neither of these may have been big shifts.

On the other hand, there is a sense in which those who say the arrival of Sutton Turner in 2011 was a game-changer were right.  Sutton Turner was even newer to the Christian faith and by various admittedly anecdotal accounts even less competent in biblical literature than Munson could sometimes be.  Munson may not have ever been deemed preacher enough to even preach sermons but at least he was homegrown and one of the earliest disciples who converted under Driscoll's preaching.  That so many men who plugged into leadership were Christian (or Christian again) because of Mark Driscoll's preaching should have been a red flag.  It wasn't, not for the majority of us.  But that gets us back to Sutton, because Sutton was probably the next logical step in a Driscollian ethos, the go-getter entrepreneurial sort for whom Jamie Munson's "you can't teach hustle" axiom may have been even more true. Rumors spread that either Munson ticked off Turner or that Munson had quit over the stress of managing Mars Hill.  In either event what seems beyond dispute is that Munson did not have hustle enough to keep being in leadership at Mars Hill but then again Munson's avoided ever explaining on record why he quit and whether or not it was a voluntary decision.

But as macabre quips about Sutton Turnover or the Hatchet Man began to slowly circulate, and Sutton Turner explained to journalists his job was basically to do for Mark Driscoll all the things Mark Driscoll didn't want to be bothered with there was only so much momentum that could be sustained.  If that was Sutton Turner's on the record way of describing himself then whatever he did that may have been perceived as punitive or arbitrary or alienating within the leadership culture of Mars Hill could still be traced in some way back to Driscoll. 

So people who locate the shift in 2011 have this going for them, they can point us to a narrative that has emerged from piles of documents leaked to bloggers and to the press, with Sutton Turner came a new era in executive leadership at Mars Hill.  This was not the era of early 2008 when Mark Driscoll could declare that doubt about the love of the executive elders for the rank and file was "a demonic lie" to a closed-door leaders-only session and have it be received.  This was a new era in which Driscoll was more remote not only from the regular attenders by way of more video screens and a week-delay sermon; this was also a Driscoll who moved to Woodway and yet kept going on about urban ministry and loving the city with the implication that he was still even living in Seattle. 

As the Driscolls prepared to promote their marriage book another shift happened.  The pulpit was now revolving around not a book of the Bible but Mark and Grace Driscoll's book.  A detail that no outsider would be expected to know, and a detail that even many insiders might not have spotted was that Real Marriage was basically the third or fourth time Mark was recycling his Song of Songs spiel from the pulpit.  As people came and went through Mars Hill who would have heard the 1998 Sacred Romance series?  The 2001 Proverbs series with its salacious "Lovemaking" sermon?  Or even heard of the 2007 Scotland sermon?  Peasant Princess from 2008?  ... Maybe ... but by 2012 a person could still reach the conclusion that Mark was starting recycle and rebrand his greatest hits in the way that preachers do, the preachers who Driscoll warned against, the types who ran out of anything new or cogent or helpful to say who leaned on the old standbys.  For Driscoll it was sex and marriage, which was part of the legacy concern.

And in that way it became more awkwardly apparent to people who stayed at Mars Hill for ten or more years that this legacy stuff was starting to sound less like something we were all working toward and coming to understand together and a whole lot more like a legacy whose definitions and measurements were increasingly and more vehemently defined by the legacy-seller himself. 

But for those of us who signed on, we thought we were participating in what we were told would be a positive legacy of influencing the region for Jesus.  This was a legacy in which and for which generations could interact.  It was exciting when people with actual gray hair were involved with Mars Hill because then it wasn't just 20-something types in the Clinton era during a dot-com boom trying to see if they could find some different way of doing or being church from whatever backgrounds we did or didn't have.  We didn't know enough church history or theology to realize we were just reinventing a whole series of wheels but maybe for someone like Mark Driscoll reinventing the wheel wasn't even a problem so long as you didn't tell him that's all he was doing.  Maybe he was able to persuade himself and the rest of us along the way that even if we were reinventing the wheel THIS WAS SEATTLE where the wheel had never really been introduced before.  Maybe ... .

And let's get back to those young men, many of whom are not so young twenty years on.  Social psychologist Roy Baumeister proposed that what makes men valuable to society is their paradoxical disposability.  You could kill have the men in a generation and there'd be enough penises to sire a new generation.  If half the women in a generation died for any reason at all, the culture is as good as dead.  But modern American society can be considered in some sense not just post-modern but post-industrial.  We're reaching a stage in Seattle where unemployment gets highest for the 16-20 bracket and boys may have it worse than girls.  Driscoll used to appeal to guys who could be yelled at to tune in, check in, and step up in contrast to the older hippy mottos of the past. 

That Driscoll's appeal depended in part on a generational animosity that simultaneously leveraged father figures in the form of older men who were willing to back him was a paradoxical heart to his appeal.  Driscoll spent hours explaining how our fathers had failed us and how that generation had selfishly placed personal gratification over other goods and he didn't exactly have father figures flanking him at the start of Mars Hill but Mike and Lief could be seen as fathers because they were fathers, and in that sense Driscoll kind of set up the example he was inviting young men to shoot for. 

But the early Driscoll years were during the Clinton years, when the dot-com bubble had not yet burst, when sub-prime lending and variable interest rates had not quite emerged or brought forth the bubble that burst in 2008.  Driscoll and Mars Hill 1.0 men could benefit greatly from a series of unusual economic and social circumstances that don't exist any longer and the pull yourself up by your bootstraps by help of the Gospel approach that Driscoll refined was in some sense a mere accident of macroeconomics in the United States at the turn of the century.  There might have been a lot of talk about "living in community" and single guys renting every spare room in the Driscoll house but it turns out that in the long run the ideal was Driscolls alone living in a house nobody could find without prior permission and for which the house was paid for by the patriarch.  For those of us who were already used to extended family situations or a few housemates of simple economic necessity the "community" part seemed like a more serious commitment than it turned out to actually be.  We may have just convinced ourselves there was a principle to this life in community thing when for someone like Driscoll, in the long run, it may have been pragmatism.

Wenatchee The Hatchet wonders now whether the way to frame the social crisis is to say that we've been forced to ask which of two options makes the most sense:  Did Mark Driscoll sincerely believe in the ideals of truth, beauty, meaning and community he used to extol and then just forget about them along the way amidst refining his brand?  Or did Mark Driscoll never quite convince himself of any of these things?  Did he just find them useful as buzzwords that would appeal to ambitious 20-somethings kind of like himself?  It made sense to reach out to the musicians and the artists because Mark Driscoll would go on to talk about reaching all the culture-makers.  Reach all the people who would go "upstream" and define the culture of the future and you'd basically won the war. 

Yep, war.  Progressives and secularists managed to see through this part more clearly than evangelicals did but it may be asserted that Mark Driscoll was always ultimately going to drift toward some culture war polemic.  Tilting more overtly toward a formal battle them was what seemed to happen with A Call to Resurgence and showing up on Glenn Beck.  What was supposed to be resurging again?  What was his thing?  Get the young guys to man up and be responsible.  Because if you get the young men you get everything, the women, the real estate, the kids, the culture.  You don't get the young men you get nothing. 

How do you get the young men?  Promise them a legacy.  Promise them a legacy in a cultural setting where thanks to education and information access any one average teenage boy can get the distinct impression he's making no impact on a society and that boy will commit and if he won't you don't want to waste your time on him anyway.  Dead Men, William Wallace II.  You had to figure out which of these guys would be inspired by the verbal beating to try harder and you'd keep those guys.  You'd keep the guys who knew they may be disposable anywhere else and then invite them to join the mission.  Tell them that you can't do this without them and tell them that this is their legacy.  Tell them this is the legacy they'll be able to share with their kids and grandkids that made the city a better place. 

The neo-Reformed bromides about the crisis in masculinity over the last decade were just more grist for the mill.  There might eventually be a housing bubble and there might eventually be a decline in the median age of first marriage to a point resembling late marriage rates from the Great Depression but if you were doing this Driscoll style you put everything on the individual man.  Don't grant any concession to shifts in the labor or tech markets. 

Let's play with the four concepts that were popular early on.  truth. beauty, meaning, community.  Let's take them in reverse order.

Community.  For a bunch of youngsters with little earning power and an interest in a legacy of Christian community this was simple.  If Driscoll shared how the Baby Boomer generation had selfishly gratified itself at the expense of subsequent generations then one of the paradoxical ways to affirm a different ethos would be expanding the working definition of family.  Those who praised the Driscolls in the earlier years were impressed by the broad sense of community fostered by the example of the Driscolls.  Since Mark's always said he was an introver who couldn't handle heavy social interaction it would seem that it would have been Grace rather than Mark Driscoll who was capable of sustaining a host and hospitality approach that would have fostered community.  In fact in the 2005 book Confessions Driscoll admitted that at times he resented his wife's engagement as hostess and party-host and having the Driscoll house be the social hub of the church because it gave him less time with her where she could just be his wife. Yet years later in story after story the hospitality of the Driscolls was considered a focal point for Mars Hill as a nascent community.

Meaning.  Meaning seems simple enough in Christian theological terms but "meaning" could piggy back on the "what" and the "how" of community.  One of the things that emerged from Mars Hill (though in some sense less from Driscoll than from others) was a more narrative approach to identity.  Perhaps the most articulate and thorough exponent of the idea that our lives can be understood as part of a massive narrative was former Mars Hill pastor James Harleman.  Our lives gain meaning through our individual experiences, perhaps, but chiefly through our identity in Christ which anchors all our being in a meganarrative that moves beyond metanarrative and defines the cosmos itself.  Haven't unpacked that very well or very much but a review of Cinemagogue is probably two years overdue here.  Since in Christian terms this would hinge on truth we may just set it off and get to

Beauty.  It might be hard to overstate the significance of artists and musicians and writers finding the early Mars Hill appealing.  If in an earlier paragraph I mentioned that for a Mark Driscoll it might be crucial to get all the culture-shapers of tomorrow on your team, for someone interested in participating in the arts being at a church that was broadly evangelical but in which there were virtually no preconceptions about what a Christian "ought" to be doing in the arts, things could be fun. Maybe for Mark Driscoll the dream of starting a music label was a prestige thing, a status thing.  For actual musicians and artists and writers within Mars Hill it was some other thing.  Yeah, there was the possibility of being in a band and writing lyrics or liturgies or what have you, but there was something else.  Let Wenatchee try to explain it ... .

With the core values of Christian profession being the foundation there was simply no preconceived approach.  Even if you were to suppose the regulative principle as a limit and a few other things, on historical grounds there was still no real basis for claiming that a handful of Presbyterians in Idaho had locked down what kind of music was "robustly Trinitarian."  It wasn't even a given that tonal music was even to be bothered with ... unless it made it easier for people to sing along with, maybe.  In other words, there was room for every possible type and level of debate among Christians interested in the arts and back when Mars Hill was fairly small the artists and musicians could reliably build up enough ideas and interest to run the gamut from screamo punk to rockabilly to neo-Baroque choral music to U2 knock-offs.  The message and teaching of Christ was the unifying element.

Wenatchee The Hatchet had already arrived a generally catholic approach to music.  If in Christ there was no Jew or Greek, slave or free, or male or female then there was surely no high or low, indie or pop, or necessarily even East or West.  Hadn't the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu optimistically mentioned that eventually East-West fusions in music were likely?  Yeah, though Wenatchee will understand if you don't look that up. 

Having sloughed off the late 20th century American premillennial dispensationalist Rapture panic button theology by the late 1990s, what we had an opportunity to explore here was a way for Christians to explore beauty in the arts without any fixed cultural notion of what that "ought" to mean.  We were also in a major port city that featured anime and birthed that big river company that made its mark by being able to deliver startling varieties of books and music to whomever placed orders.  If Driscoll saw this as a region ripe for courting the cultural producers for artists this was still late grunge era and there were art forms exploding with possibilities that the earlier generation hadn't really taken seriously ... but the whole discourse on cartoons should come later.

I might not always get everything Strike Force was doing or where it was coming from but I could lend Jeff Bettger a recording of "Pendulum Music" by Steve Reich and we could compare notes on Arvo Part  I could explain to James Harleman how that Blockbuster-ized edition of Perfect Blue sliced out one of the two murder sequences that were vital to understanding the thematic concerns of Satoshi Kon's film.  The Harlemans could introduce me to Justice League.  I could end up in a debate about aesthetic paradigms and musical form with J.S. and we might disagree but the bit about the community and the meaning and the truth was that we could disagree about the specific interpretations of "beauty" but still have an understanding of where we'd come back to, a shared Christian profession.  I suppose in some sense what Driscoll may have set up with a legacy in mind was, for a while, almost a kind of a weird evangelical Christian art commune in Puget Sound.  Over time it began to seem like the mission was not going to stay the course of "truth, beauty, meaning, community" for very long.  The mission became expansion and then the mission kinda became furthering the mission.  It was as though like banking or real estate bubbles the goal was to simply keep the endless growth going as though there was never going to be any snap, any pop, any swing-change in the pendulum.

Over time it began to seem like the legacy we had been invited to was one we could all explore and discover together but the legacy we were being told to commit to and "re-up" membership to was a legacy more and more defined by the narrative of Mark Driscoll.  Whose lasting legacy were we working toward in the end?  A legacy of Christian service to the Puget Sound area that we hope would make it a better place?  In the last year or so people could be forgiven for beginning to wonder if the lasting legacy their effort and sacrifice had gone into was going to look less like that and maybe a bit more like this. What is this?  Some side company that manages book royalties ... because Driscoll once said he didn't have that kind of side company.

But if Driscoll had had nothing positive to sell no one would have bought in.  No one.  The question is not whether or not something like Mars Hill will happen again.  It inevitable will and it must.  A question that should be asked is how and why anyone thought Mark Driscoll was ever fit for ministry to begin with ... or even ever would be?  A potential answer for that question may come in the form of "legacy".  A whole lot of us were willing to gamble on the idea that Mark Driscoll would eventually become someone competent enough and careful enough and considerate enough to eventually fit into that legacy stuff he was telling us all to work toward. 

Unfortunately ... Driscoll never turned into that guy.  The books and the output overall became so much it seemed too good to be true and it turned out it was.  Driscoll at length turned out to be someone who told guys to not take short cuts and to not cut corners but who turned out to have done all that stuff anyway.

After having preached to others ... it looks like between Result Source Inc and the citation errors ... he didn't really preach to himself.  A shame.  Assuming Driscoll didn't set out to be a charlatan, the man deluded himself into thinking he held on to the principles he espoused from the pulpit.  He was thrust into a celebrity for which he was potentially never quite ready by a publishing industry that found him useful.  Even if we grant "maybe I made a mistake" for so many books Driscoll's legacy necessarily contains the plagiarism scandal and the RSI scandal.  His scandals came to define his ministry and his legacy.

It remains to be seen whether the lately rebranded campuses from Mars Hill will survive and be around in two or three years' time.  With so many questions about the fiscal competence and responsibility of Mars Hill's leadership open-ended there is a sense in which Mark Driscoll's "legacy" is in a no-win scenario.  If the churches survive and get any traction then if it's all about Jesus nothing Mark Driscoll did would warrant any credit.  In fact Mark Driscoll could be stricken from the whole history of all the recently re:branded and re:launched churches as though he never planted any of them ... which is technically true.  Yet if the churches founder and close it might suggest that all that kept them going was the power of Mark Driscoll's brand.  That could make it seem as though things were built not on a foundation of Christ but ultimately on a cult of personality.

And from a formal standpoint, Lasting Legacy LLC has already outlasted the church that was planted that was supposed to change the city for Jesus.  That's a weird and paradoxical legacy.

Well, that post is probably the way to wrap up a blogging year.  Starting tomorrow it's officially 2015 for Wenatchee The Hatchet, finally.


Or ... not ... since Lasting Legacy LLC expires in April but the corporation known as Mars Hill doesn't hit its expiration date until December 31, 2015.
UBI Number 601677819
Filing Date 12/22/1995
Expiration Date 12/31/2015
A lesson to be learned here is a literary sense of irony should not be preferred over government registered dates!


Sassy Sioux said...

Is this entry on Wikipedia accurate as you would understand things to have been? What would you add, that readers interested in the implosion of Mars Hill/Mark Driscoll need to understand, for a truthful and clear understanding.

Do you have links to the home of Driscoll in Woodway?

Legally, by dissolving the corporation, is Driscoll now 'immune' from lawsuits? How much money did he run off with, how about other pastors in the network? Do you know?

Sassy Sioux said...

Tim Worley said...

What a strange misadventure the MHC leadership piece has been. I was really inspired by the music and some of MD's sermons. I cut down on the latter in the interest of time. But I was also befuddled by MD's derision of the "Emo" music in MHC when it was supposed to be one of the great attractions. Perhaps he was speaking more of the early days when things were a bit more edgy and unrefined. The musical "legacy" is certainly one thing that will be lost with the closing up of MHC. People can still listen to Citizens and Dustin Kensrue but the other bands that cycled in and out of MHC left their own mark. Who knows what could have been with up and coming bands. They didn't do anything brand new with re-arranged hymns, but may have popularized the practice in the midst of thin CCM offerings in the Evangelical culture at large.