Saturday, August 08, 2015

Alastair Roberts on sacralizing personal narratives, WtH has a suggestion for why a Rachel Held Evans was never going to match Mark Driscoll for bluntly manipulative personal narratives as argument

The fact that scriptural narrative, in contrast to much preaching upon it, is not typically focused upon the subjective states, inner lives, and autonomous identities of its protagonists is seldom properly recognized. While Scripture speaks of many particular persons, it does not share the type of emphasis that our culture places upon individuality and personal narratives. Where we have elevated ‘personality’, often to the neglect of ‘character’, Scripture presents us with limited clues to the ‘personalities’ of its characters and seems to have little interest in the matter. In God’s eternal wisdom, he did not choose to reveal Jesus’ MBTI personality type.

In Scripture, individuals find much of their significance within the larger stories to which they contribute and in terms of the typological roles that they perform. Biblical characters are pretty ‘flat’, rather than possessing the ‘rich internal life’ that the self-reflection encouraged by such things as widespread diary-writing and the modern novel has accustomed us to. First person autobiographical narratives are not the norm. Rather, biblical narrative situates people within a story that is not their own and speaks of them from a third person perspective that clearly relativizes their self-accounts.


Personal stories can have the most profoundly distorting effect upon our moral judgment. By playing up the ‘luxurious’ details of personality and the ‘depth’ of individual character, we can blind ourselves to the true ethical nature of actions. Žižek’s phraseology is important—‘the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing’—and captures a number of important matters. First, ‘our story’ is not some eternal truth, but an account told by interested and unreliable narrators—ourselves—and should be handled very carefully as a result. Second, not only are we the narrators of our own stories but we are also the primary hearers—it is a story we ‘tell ourselves about ourselves.’ We are the ones most easily and typically deceived (usually willingly) by our own unreliable narration. Third, it is a story told ‘in order to account for what we are doing.’ As such it is a story typically designed to help us live with ourselves and our actions. It is usually a rationalization, an attempt to make sense of our actions retrospectively, in a manner that acts as a defence against the harshness of the ethical or rational judgment that they might otherwise provoke.

short, we need to be a lot more critical of our own stories and a lot more cautious when it comes to those of others. We have been practicing our wilfully distorting and self-exculpating narrations on ourselves for our entire lives and are past masters at it. [emphasis added]


Recognizing the way that the personal narrative can function, we should appreciate the pernicious way in which it can often be used as a trump card, to close down debate. The personal story, especially if it is a painful one, is immune to challenge and is thus a convenient way to advance positions in a manner that prevents others from calling them into question, for to do so would be cruel and insensitive (I have addressed some of the dynamics of this

While this piece was not necessarily an explicit sequel to "The Ad Man's Gospel", nor was it addressing the situation in Seattle, Roberts' observation opens up the reason why someone like Rachel Held Evans was incapable, at the most basic level, of meaningfully addressing a Mark Driscoll.

By way of a comment:'
The Man Who Was . . . says:

I have noted before how a lot of progressive Christians relies heavily on the form of the memoir: Nadia Bolz-Weber, Rachel Held Evans, and Sarah Bessey are all primarily memoirists, and pretty good at it. But their writing tends to fall off a cliff when it comes to explicit theological argument

In other words, Rachel Held Evans and Mark Driscoll can both be said to leverage personal narrative as something sacred, inviolable.  You can't be allowed to question the narrative because it makes the personal political, even if the rhetorical flourish would have it the other way. People who have attempted to leverage the personal narrative as a counter to anything Mark Driscoll has said or done have failed to account for the fact that if Mark Driscoll has mastered anything at all it's leveraging personal narrative as the way to frame any and all potential discussion of what he says and does.  An Evans will never present a personal narrative that can provide a plausible counter-argument to a Driscoll.  Driscoll's clearly been better at leveraging the personal narrative to a base than Evans, even if Evans' star-power in leveraging the personal narrative may be on the rise.

Driscoll's reputation did not crumble because of questions about personal narrative, although that came up, too. To the extent that the abrupt shift from the pre-Real Marriage narrative and the post-Real Marriage narrative suggested the pre-2012 public narrative was some kind of spin, it depended on documenting what the narrative was and to what end it was used.  Because Driscoll uses personal narrative as a framing device for propositional declarations about applied ethics, the shift in the narrative frame all but destroyed the credibility of practical application.  If Mark Driscoll's defenders had up until 2012 or 2013 conceded that Mark Driscoll was what's colloquially known as an asshole, the defense was he was an authentic asshole, he was not putting on a show.

But the narrative shift from pre-2012 to post-2012 invited questions as to whether this was the case.  Ironically Driscoll's predilection to frame his polemical and practical proclamations on ethics depended so much on the personal narrative frame that the 2012 shift did two things.  The first and most crucial thing the narrative shift did was ultimately raise doubts about the veracity and legitimacy of the emotionally charged personal narrative as a public propaganda campaign. If it turned out the Driscoll marriage was kinda miserable for a decade that made the thing seem like a sham.  Not that it was a sham, really, because plenty of Christians can have mediocre or even awkward and unpleasant marriages and get them to work.  Contrary to the ideals of American popular imagination people don't have to be happily married to be ethically married.  Mark Driscoll had spent so much of his public ministry conflating being happily married with being ethically married in his public personal narrative the fracture introduced to that public narrative by Real Marriage was substantial. For longtime attenders or members of Mars Hill it made the whole personal narrative begin to smell like a long con.

But the second was equally important and it was the plagiarism controversy that erupted with Janet Mefferd's 2013 interview that brought this second element to light--if the personal narrative Driscoll was literally selling raised questions about the continuity of the personal narrative, what about the content for which that personal narrative was invoked?  The personal story was the "how" of the sales pitch, and previously a reliable one, but what about the "what" of what he was selling, the program of ideas and ideals he was saying we should live by? 

The plagiarism controversy opened up the question of what Mark Driscoll was selling.  To the extent that the ideas seemed good it began to seem suspiciously like those good ideas were gained second-hand. To the extent that ideas formulated by Mark Driscoll were bad, those seemed like the original ideas.  Paradoxically and tragically for the sake of what Mark Driscoll was selling, he never needed a personal narrative to sell marriage advice.  You can go through sermon after sermon by a John Donne or a Martyn Lloyd-Jones and never find personal narratives.  In Mark Driscoll's sell, the personal was part of an image, an authentication process--the authenticity of the bad boy image needed to be retained, it seemed.  When Driscoll temporarily tried to shift to the father-figure-Doug-Wilson-knock-off image it came across as fake because it has never been who Mark Driscoll is, for one, and for two the image management was too abrupt and too obvious.  The facial hair and suits, really?  It would have made more sense if Driscoll had abruptly and suddenly announced he likes the show Archer. No, don't look it up, but if Hollywood wanted to do a movie about the life and times of Mark Driscoll H. Jon Benjamin would be someone to cast as Mark Driscoll.

Anyway ...

it seems Mark Driscoll's going the charismatic/word-faith/prosperity route.  He's courting the influence and aid of the kinds of people he was denouncing as heretical wingnuts seven years ago. That gets into the other risk of counting on the personal narrative, it means you can and will be measured by the continuity of that narrative.  I.e. watch your life and doctrine closely, because in the case of a Mark Driscoll the galactic contrast between the kind of submitted and loyal church membership he's enjoined "you" to live by for nearly two decades and the kind of "God says I can quit" narrative he's only trotted out in 2015 when talking to more charismatic-than-Reformed conference scenes is too big to ignore. 

Mark Driscoll can't escape the legacy he's been building for himself over the last 18 years in the public sphere.  Like it or not, his daughter Ashley Driscoll lives in a world where with a few clicks of a mouse she could end up reading Mark Driscoll's old "Using Your Penis" ramble.  There can be questions about the 2015 stories Mark Driscoll's been sharing on the road at Thrive or with Brian Houston.  If Mark Driscoll heard a voice saying a trap had been set on a Monday night, wrote a resignation letter Tuesday (his account to Houston) then why was it (in the Thrive conference) did the Driscoll kids not learn the news until Wednesday via social media?

The thing about legacies is that if we even have a legacy it is not necessarily ever under our control.  A good name is worth more than riches, though. It is better to be a poor person who walks in integrity than to be wealthy and crooked.

Mark Driscoll can keep leveraging personal narrative as he moves forward, but he must do so in a setting where he warned for the record to be careful of men who recycle their old sermons, just as he's begun to recycle his decades old approach to Ecclesiastes as if he were doing something in any way new. Driscoll has to live with the reality that once you've published it in mass media you have to consider it may never go away.  His kids will, probably mostly for worse, live in a world that can remember the bit about "penis homes". 

And for those like Rachel Held Evans who thought they could "stand up" to Mark Driscoll, you can't stand up to Mark Driscoll by weaponizing personal narrative in lieu of a consistently worked out theological position if you want to debate matters of Christian teaching and applied ethics.  The problem with sacralizing the personal narrative is that anybody can do it, whether a Rachel Held Evans or a Mark Driscoll.  One of the reasons Christians have a canonical text is because it lets us debate the meaning of the stories we agree are literally sacred scripture while people ranging from Driscoll to Evans want us to treat their personal narratives like sacred scripture.  Thankfully we're under no obligation to comply for either of them.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

One of the reasons Christians have a canonical text is because it lets us debate the meaning of the stories we agree are literally sacred scripture while people ranging from Driscoll to Evans want us to treat their personal narratives like sacred scripture. Thankfully we're under no obligation to comply for either of them.