Monday, February 02, 2015

a statement from James Harleman at Repentant Pastor--some observations about how the water boiled and why 2007 was in one sense symbolic rather than substantial

The above went up Saturday morning and Wenatchee The Hatchet has waited a bit to discuss the content. 

It took a few years longer than hoped for, but it is nice to see the statement.

Regular readers of Wenatchee The Hatchet should already know that one of the long-term contentions here has been that identity politics as usual made it impossible for the theological "left" and "right" to get an accurate or even honest understanding of what was at play in the history of Mars Hill and in the public/private ministry of Mark Driscoll.  While for a time Driscoll and his advocates had mastery over the public narrative both for and against him, the level of control possible over that narrative eroded over time.  This doesn't mean that there aren't people who have jumped up to talk about the "lessons" we can or should all learn from the demise of Mars Hill; there have been plenty of those and the problem has been that most of those people have thrown lessons our way that seem like exercises in self-justification.  As Wenatchee has written more and less obliquely in the last year, if the "lessons" you have to share with the world about Mars Hill are lessons that exonerate you then, well, you probably learned nothing.

Which is why Harleman's statement was encouraging to read.  For those unfamiliar with his work or his writing "I was Jar Jar Binks" is a pretty concise and hefty admission of guilt. 

You can go read the statement if you haven't already.  This post will be ruminating about a few things touched on in James' statement that bear further thought.

It has been necessary for someone who was in the leadership culture of Mars Hill to observe, no, let's say it is helpful that someone has observed that what happened in 2007 was surely important but that it was, in many ways, symbolically important.  How Mark and other leaders spoke to and treated people before and after was not necessarily any better.  Some might say that up until 2007 there was at least the formal possibility of Driscoll being held accountable.  That's ultimately nonsense since 1) we know the elders did not hold Driscoll accountable and 2) that would be, as James put it in his statement, belittling to those who were mistreated before 2007.  James would know where some of the proverbial bodies got buried.  We hail from early enough in the history of Mars Hill we can remember a few things that went down that people who showed up even as early as 2002 or 2003 couldn't have known about. 

There was a lot that happened that happened in plain sight.  Those who remember Driscoll saying to a guy "Shut your wife up or I'll do it for you" may not remember it was in the context of a discussion about the film Lost in Translation. They may remember the topic in discussion was whether men and women could have close friends of the opposite gender.  There were people who would go on to be Driscoll critics who at the time concluded that the woman Driscoll put in the place he thought she needed to be just had issues with spiritual authority.  Because Real Marriage had not been published and the Driscolls had not revealed how rickety their marriage truly was a lot of people could just trust that even if Driscoll was too harsh it was still for a good reason. 

James' statement gets at some of the general process of how rationalizing that the positive fruit outweighed the negative fruit looked in a slice of the church history.

It is true that 2007 was a landmark year in the history of the church but Wenatchee The Hatchet is going to propose that it was not because the change of the by-laws necessarily became a point of no return.  That Driscoll was left in ministry in the wake of 2000's "Pussified Nation" would seem to have settled further back that leaving Driscoll in ministry might have been a bad move.  But by the time many former pillars in the community showed up circa 2000-2002 "Pussified Nation" had been thoroughly scrubbed.  There were men who served as pastors who never even heard of the thread, let alone saw it.  In the years before 2007 there had been things that could have been scandalous but things were able to be suppressed quickly enough that things died down.  That Driscoll could be verbally abusive and bullying wasn't news by 2007.  As Dan Savage so bluntly put it, there were a lot of guys in leadership at the formal and informal level in Mars Hill who only concluded Mark Driscoll was a nasty piece of work when they were directly harmed by Driscoll's action.  For Savage that made each and every one such man a complicit asshole. 

Which is why reading James articulate that the strictly binary script the for and against crews have brought to bear on the history of Mars Hill is encouraging to see.  When Wenatchee The Hatchet felt obliged to leave Mars Hill a parting concern was to observe that I can't diagnose a spiritual ailment in the community of Mars Hill without acknowledging that I am also a symptom.  Those who diagnose a disease without seeing themselves as a symptom may not yet understand their contribution to the spiritual and social malaise. 

That said, to get back to the earlier observation about 2007, what made things different was that by 2007 the php discussion boards made cross-campus communication and enquiry so swift and so simple that the kind of information suppressing damage control that might have worked wonderfully in the past was no longer possible.  The by-laws changes and the firings did not happen in a vacuum, either.  Questions had emerged about the $1.5 million boondoggle that was supposed to be Ballard campus II.  It would be a huge mistake to fixate on the bylaws as indicative of a serious change for the worse within the leadership of Mars Hill because there was a unified vote for that 2005 boondoggle.  Frankly the fiscal foolishness of that 2005 decision, when the details finally started to belatedly get conceded, was more infuriating than the secrecy surrounding the 2007 firings.  Why?  Because even the fired pastors voted for that real estate purchase. 

What James Harleman's statement touches upon is that the water was coming to a boil for years before 2007.  Anyone who was at Mars Hill circa 2002-2007 may recall the courtship fad and it was one of the more idiotic fads in the history of the church.  Wenatchee The Hatchet's disdain for the fad would be easily known to those who know who Wenatchee The Hatchet is.  It's one thing to urge people to respectfully pursue marriage in a way that respects the concerns of all concerned parties, and another to present courtship as the "Christian" alternative to modern dating practices.  There's no methodology that is fire insurance against the temptation to evil in your own heart.  And yet there was a weird lockstep enforcement of the story of how great courtship was.  What did it matter that one of the textbook/poster couple courtships didn't exactly fit the mold?  The mold was more important than the reality. 

In terms of cultural enforcement there was a sense in which a culture that would enforce the silly legalisms of the courtship fad could be relied upon to enforce draconian expectations when actually important things, like governance and finances came up.  Harleman's statement touches on these things but they seem worth mentioning explicitly.  There were a whole lot of people who went on to be Driscoll critics who played roles in enforcing the expectations and rules formal and informal in the culture.  The point here, muddled though it is, is that 2007 was symbolically important and meant a big change in formal governance but the crisis only emerged when people who were in some sense expected to keep operating by the informal script broke from their script.

What was different in 2007 was that by 2007 Mars Hill had cultivated information distribution, social media and mass media tools of the sort that made fully suppressing scandals nearly impossible.  It wasn't possible, any longer, to just scrub a "Pussified Nation" away and hope nobody noticed.  Ironically and yet inevitably the strengths of Mars Hill became weaknesses, the information distribution culture that had been cultivated within Mars Hill became a means of articulating the beginnings of some dissent.  The php forums were swiftly scrapped and replaced with The City.  As Wenatchee The Hatchet has demonstrated vividly in more than a dozen posts, even The City eventually became a point from which members expressing dissent began to leak content.  Or as an old-time Mars Hill song could have put it "Strength is my weakness."  When it became impossible to suppress the rumbling of discord the leadership culture had to seize control of the narrative in a forceful way, which is pretty much what happened.  What James Harleman has opened up is a glimpse into how even the process of the leadership selling itself on the plausibility of what was done planted the seeds of what grew into a crisis. 

The majority of readers last year probably wouldn't know Wenatchee The Hatchet has known James for at least fifteen years now.  Our friendship was probably not something anyone with ten years inside MH wouldn't already know about.  There's a whole lot of blogging about cartoons that wouldn't have happened the way it did without the two of us sharing many a thought about animation and about superheroes.  A write-up about his book is still pending.

But in a way what James has shared about reconsidering the narrative of his life and his time at Mars Hill is an example of what he's done for years.  He spent many a Friday evening over the years discussing narrative in film and ways we can analyze narrative and character arcs to discover what is or isn't true about the human condition and connect it to what he's called the meganarrative.  So in many ways what James published this last weekend fits into all of that.

Others have pointed out that what happened in the last few years was that Mark Driscoll and his advocates lost control of the public narrative. That would be accurate.  It might be even more accurate to add to that observation that what transpired was the narrative that had always been public was finally able to get examined with enough primary source citation and, not to put this pejoratively, critical apparatus to reveal that the public narrative had changed in ways that were drastic enough to cast  legitimate doubt on its overall veracity.  Driscoll was starting to contradict his own public narrative at too many points about too many big events in the story for the public narrative to remain coherent.  The tipping point there was, in many ways, Real Marriage.  What James Harleman's latest statement gives us at least a glimpse of is that there were people within the leadership of Mars Hill who had moments of doubt about what was going on and how they persuaded themselves things were okay, at least for a while.

This rationalization process would be  easy to condemn if it weren't seeming so awkwardly evident lately that it doesn't matter what team you're on, this process of overlooking the bad because you think it's outweighed by the good can happen anywhere.  It remains to be seen how things will play out regarding Tony Jones and Julie McMahon but we don't even need to look at the realm of religion.  What about Penn State and Joe Paterno?  Even without religious ideas at stake if there's enough money and power in play overlooking or dismissing allegations of severe wrong-doing can still happen. 

Wenatchee The Hatchet admits to being a bit gloomy about the human condition.  One of the laziest canards from people who seem to imagine themselves above this sort of thing would be the "lol don't drink the kool-aid" sentiment, as if humans had a capacity to inherently resist drinking kool-aid.  What if drinking the kool-aid is actually inherent in what humans do?  Think about it this way, what are the great works of art and philosophy if not, at the end of things, definitions and defenses of what would be worth "drinking the kool-aid" for?  Take Driscoll's one-time favorite film Braveheart.  What's worth killing and dying for?  Freedom ... theoretically. But having never much cared for Braveheart compared to Toy Story Wenatchee The Hatchet will borrow some phrases from the buddies at Mockingbird and say that the problem with the Gibson film is that in the end it was not really a rumination on freedom as much as a rumination on the glory of fighting for freedom. Call it a theology of glory rather than theology of freedom if we're even going to "go there" in discussing the film as any theology of any kind.  Certainly in the hands of a Mark Driscoll, with his career-long drive toward "legacy", it would be almost impossible not to think of that push for legacy as tinged, at least, with a theology of glory.

And this gets roundaboutly to something else Harleman touches on, that there were men in leadership who could not raise doubts about Mark Driscoll without ultimately raising doubts about their own fitness for ministry.  There were men who only ended up in ministry at Mars Hill because Mark Driscoll recruited them.  It could have been guys like Petry and Meyer, in fact, recruited into ministry, who ended up fired when they didn't go on script about governance.  Take a group of men who ended up in ministry because they were recruited by Mark or men who came to or back to the Christian faith on account of Mars Hill and questioning Mark became too self-indicting to be emotionally sustainable.

This gets to a point that Wenatchee The Hatchet has presented before, that it's important to understand that many people over the years who have defended the situation at Mars Hill were ultimately not defending Mark Driscoll, necessarily, as they were defending themselves.  People were defending their own emotional investment of their selves into what became Mars Hill.  Wenatchee The Hatchet used to make defenses of how Mars Hill did things but not generally of Mark Driscoll the person, who often enough said stuff so stupid there was no point in defending that stuff.  Over time Wenatchee began to realize that a defense of a conventionally evangelical Protestant, let alone Reformed, Christian confession was not only not going to benefit from any defense of Driscoll but that Mark Driscoll began to seem more and more like a RINO, Reformed-in-name-only.  At length he tipped his Amyraldian hand.  But by the time he did there was this problem, so many journalists and writers, even those who supposedly knew what they were talking about, had already labeled Mark Driscoll as Reformed.  Even among Mark Driscoll's critics, the price of backpedaling on the narrative was too high.  And it turned out to be the same for many of Mark Driscoll's supporters.

The term repentance can be easily wielded by Christians.  In a setting like Mars Hill it tended to refer to either behaviors or doctrines. What beliefs needed to change?  What behaviors needed to change?  But there's something in addition to that that defines what repentance is in Christian terms, it's recalibrating and redefining the story we live by.  When we find our story meets the story of who Christ is and what he said and did our story changes ... and it has begun to seem more and more over the years that at Mars Hill we were told "It's all about Jesus" and it began to seem as though, as more than just a few people tried to point out, that Jesus seemed to be someone remade more and more into Mark's ideal of who Jesus ought to be than the one presented in the scriptures.

Understanding that following Christ hardly entailed remaining at Mars Hill and that Mars Hill was hardly the only place (if that) in which to follow Jesus was a years-long process for Wenatchee The Hatchet.  Repenting from being the kind of Christian I was while I was there isn't even a finished process and to the extent that this blog has preserved the story of Mars Hill it could be read as a form of repentance.  I've never told anyone they "have" to leave Mars Hill but I've invited them to reconsider the narrative.  That's a path that people may not choose to take but for those who do, it's probably a never-ending path.  If anything the most dangerous thing for us would be to think we've "arrived" because, after all, wasn't that how we felt when we landed at Mars Hill? 

To piggyback a bit on what James published this weekend, a more thoroughly Christian understanding of the world we live in should neither make us a hero or even a villain in the story of our lives.  One of the most pernicious temptations for those who would either defend or attack what has happened within what was once known as Mars Hill is to make ourselves the hero in the narrative.  If we did that while we were there let's all the more resist the temptation to do that when we are away.

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