Saturday, May 14, 2016

Jared C Wilson on "Troubleshooting the Celebrity Pastor Problem"-- shares concerns that boomerang back on the Gospel Coalition's role in celebrity culture with help from ... sponsored content


Yet, we are identifying something else here, something that runs across evangelical tribes. It is the “celebrity pastor” problem, where we participate in the highest elevation of a pastor’s platform as we can manage and then load him up with all the expectation we can muster. The result, naturally, is that he is top-heavy and prone to toppling. There are dangers in temptations in pastoral smallness and obscurity too, but the most prominent dangerous temptations in pastoral bigness are these idolatries — worship of the celebrity pastor by his fans and himself.

Considering that as far back as about 2008 Jared Wilson was willing to post about his doubt that Driscoll was on the right track denouncing stay-at-home-dads and has in the last few years publicly shared how he's had a change of conviction about Driscoll more generally, I would propose that what Wilson's concerned about is a decent thing to be concerned about.  Granting that we differ on the degree to which blog posts "should" be written about some celebrity pastors, I think the most useful thing to keep saying here about celebrity Christians (not just famous pastors) is that Ellul's warning to the Church about embracing the methods and means of propaganda are worth heeding. 

Yes, there is the problem not merely of the producer of the constructed mediated persona of the celebrity Christian but it's not unfair for Wilson to be concerned about the consumer side of it.  The problem is that humans are by nature drinkers of Kool-aid.  It's not a matter of "if" you or I will, it's a matter of what cause or what person for whom we'll drink a few gallons. That's how people are.

I'm about to suggest that some of Wilson's suggestions could move in the direction of discussing whether or not contemporary evangelical/megachurch culture can't be discussed more directly as a culture in which the instruments of propaganda are the norm rather than the exception  Take this:

1. Transition your “video venue” satellite campuses to church plants or at the very least install live preaching.
I have quite a few friends whose churches employ this medium for weekend preaching in their satellite campuses, so I tread lightly here, as always, but I have yet to hear a very convincing argument for the wisdom of this approach to the worship gathering

If your pastoral presence is mediated by a screen or a week delay and/or the person who has been blessed by hearing your preaching isn't in the same state or city then the "pastor" in this case is a certain kind of reality TV star.  You can't shepherd the flock by video feed, can you?  For all of Mark Driscoll's eagerness to talk about being a father figure it's worth hammering this point, you can't parent a child by video feed the way you would in person.  If this is true for parents in flesh and blood how much more could it be true for those who call themselves pastors?  Paul sent epistles ... yes ... there's literally a biblical precedent for some long-distance pastoral care but when it becomes the "norm" you have to ask whether what you're promoting is genuinely pastoral concern or a brand.  While it's partly true that the idolatry of the consumer plays a role no one who becomes a branding propagandist is innocent here.  The idolatry is synergistic.  The pastor who WANTS to be that screen presence is part of the idolatry and anyone who seizes the media means to become such an idol is an inescapable part of the idolatrous equation. 

2. No more book deals for gifted preachers who are not gifted writers.

He pulled punches here, I think.  I would suggest that if you feel any need to get help from the Docent Group to put your research together for a sermon that you SHOULD NOT BE WRITING BOOKS in pastoral ministry.  Your job is to preach someone else's book, right?  So do it.  Do it well. Do it to the best of your ability and bear in mind that the Bible has been sufficient enough a book for us Christians for a long time now.  In the era in which we live it's kind of amazing to realize how few English language translations there are of works by Bullinger when we have the technical and cultural means to bring that about but apparently not the will.  If the neo-Calvinist movement dumped as much money into translating into English some more work from the Reformers it'd be easier to respect them (a little). 

I mean, let's think about all the plagiarism scandals that have swirled up around people who at one point or another have had their names attached to the Gospel Coalition.  Seriously, if the Gospel Coalition were full of guys who were, like I was suggesting earlier, providing English translations of Bullinger that weren't previously available it'd be easier to sympathize with them.  But instead we've gotten guys like Mark Driscoll and Doug Wilson getting embroiled in situations where it seems their intellectual punches are second or even third-hand.  The irony of A Justice Primer seeming to have been about the problems of blog justice being pulled after a blog highlighted plagiarism is an irony that's hard to overstate. 

Again, this could be pinned on the consumer side but the problems start with the production.  There's a risk in Wilson's critique of focusing so much on the demand that he forgets that in a mass media age a lot of people who think they're pastors are media personalities and that we've got a ... how do I put this ... a supply side economics of Christian content thing going on. There are a whole lot of people producing content who, just maybe, shouldn't be making that content to begin with.  Wilson's #2 seems to recognize this but here's hoping he considers that that, too, is a problem on the production side the same as his #1.  Just as you shouldn't set up a satellite campus if that's the primary draw, you should refrain from writing books or "writing books" if it's not a natural outgrowth of what you're already doing. 

3. Discerning the credibility of our experts.
I had a great conversation last week with a friend who called me specifically to talk about this problem. What do we make of publishers, editors, and other public parachurch platforms who provide outlet for ministers, for which their only qualification appears to be success or popularity? In other words, how do we know the guy publishing the book on marriage has a healthy marriage himself? Why are we assigning parenting books to people whose kids aren’t even teenagers yet? What if the guy we’re paying to write and speak on grace-centered leadership is a short-tempered, domineering jerk to his staff? How would we know?

This reminds me of something I told people ten years ago at the peak of the courtship craze inside Mars Hill--Mark Driscoll's kids weren't even old enough to date and he was sounding off on the greatness of courtship.  Mars Hill peeps were bragging about how many people were getting married.  My remark was to say I didn't care how many people were getting married NOW.  I wanted to find out how many of these people were STILL married ten years later. A lot of friends I've made at Mars Hill got married and are still married today and that's wonderful. Some of the friends I made were divorced even a decade ago.  Not everybody makes it.  Not everyone who got married, in retrospect, should have married.  But Wilson's point is well worth reflecting on--some of the people who have presented themselves as experts don't seem to be able to back up the talk. 

And it's worth thinking about especially in light of this--this concern of Wilson's tragicomically boomerangs back on The Gospel Coalition as a whole but on two guys in particular.  For those who don't remember this, here at Wenatchee The Hatchet we've got ourselves a promotional plan drafted by Driscolls that mentions candidates for galley proofs of Real Marriage.

Galley proofs - Desiring God with John Piper, Purpose Driven Network with Rick Warren, Life Church with Craig Groeschel, Perry Noble, James MacDonald who runs Walk in the Word Radio and Harvest Bible Chapel, Justin Taylor and Kevin Deyoung of the Gospel Coalition, Mark Dever of 9 Marks, CJ Mahaney and Joshua Harris of Sovereign Grace ...

As yet unanswered is whether Kevin DeYoung and Justin Taylor got galley proofs and what they made of those copies.  After all, the problems of citation in Real Marriage have been sufficiently documented by the likes of Warren Throckmorton, Wenatchee The Hatchet and Janet Mefferd by now.  And things got fixed, but that raises a question that goes straight to the heart of Jared Wilson's #3, discerning the credibility of our experts.  Take DeYoung's initially glowing review of a certain book:

Douglas Wilson and Randy Booth, A Justice Primer (Canon Press, 2015). I thought this was a book on social justice, economics, and big picture politics. It’s actually a book about how the Bible would have us judge each other (or not) in the mad, mad world of blog warriors and internet vigilantes. This book is full of refreshing wisdom. I hope it reaches a wide audience. And if you already know that Doug Wilson is a good-for-nothing scoundrel (and I don’t know him personally and do strongly disagree with him at times), then that’s an indication that you really need this book. [UPDATE: It seems that portions of the book were plagiarized, which, while not changing the nature of the content, cannot help but affect one’s opinion of the book. I hope Wilson and Booth will respond to the evidence presented in the link above. NEXT UPDATE: The book has been discontinued by Canon Press because of “negligence and gross incompetence” resulting in plagiarism and improper citation.]

Does the report that the book has been discontinued because of "negligence and gross incompetence" change the nature of the book?  And here I'd been thinking of getting that book because DeYoung had praised it as addressing the mad, mad world of blog warriors and internet vigilantes.  Given the formative influence of Doug Wilson on Mark Driscoll it'd have been fascinating to read what the case could have been for whether or not blogs ought to be used to address public issues, seeing as Wilson himself has so much experience as a blogger himself.  But, well, no ... it would seem maybe the book is hard to get ahold of. 

It's indelicate to put it this way but it seems TGC may need to have it said of them, these are guys who (excepting Wilson for the sake of friendly discourse) have been caught with their pants down in discerning how second-hand the content of some of their contributors has turned out to be. "If" DeYoung got a galley proof of Real Marriage it seems the plagiarism controversy around Mark Driscoll erupted anyway. It's totally fair and reasonable to ask whether the guys who are held up as experts really are.  One of the most unnerving things about Real Marriage was its summary narrative of how Mark and Grace Driscoll had what seemed to be a bitter and troubled marriage during a decade in which from the pulpit Mark kept saying things like "Grace and I are closer than we've ever been."   Okay, great, but the problem was that either the narrative of the 2012 book made the narrative of the previous decade of sermons into a kind of lie or the 2012 book's narrative itself was some kind of lie or Driscoll simply could not be trusted to give a coherent account of his own marriage (perhaps the most charitable approach of the three).

And The Gospel Coalition, it would seem, was one of the organizations to which the Driscolls wanted to send galley proofs.  Now maybe the galley proofs that Driscoll wanted sent to TGC never made it there or maybe they did.  Noble and MacDonald endorsed the book so SURELY that means they read it carefully, right?  Or ... well, heh, no, maybe that's not how book endorsements really work ...

The rise and fall of Mark Driscoll makes it all the more imperative (and mysterious) how we should regard The Gospel Coalition as a whole at competent to discern expertise.  There's a possible army of people who, had they read Real Marriage with more discernment and insight and background reading, could have flagged down all the citation errors that would eventually get addressed in the second printing.  Now while I think Wilson's question raises a general question about The Gospel Coalition in connection to Driscoll's scandals I don't necessarily blanket that.  Specifically, Carson and Anyabwile didn't "just" sit back and say nothing when they dissented from stuff like Elephant Room 2.  I'm the sort of dour Calvinist Presbyterian sort where, yes, I have a lot of doctrinal overlap with folks who are connected at TGC.  So I've read just enough stuff from them over the years that I'm not suggesting the failure of some at TGC to have spotted citation errors in Driscoll's work should be construed as claiming nothing positive's come out of that orbit.

But I am saying, obviously, that as sound as Wilson's concerns are they do still boomerang into questions about the production side of things, namely The Gospel Coalition, in letting stuff get cranked out maybe faster than it should have been.  The Driscoll plagiarism controversy from a few years ago could be an opportunity for TGC to reflect on whether it dropped the ball in a  way that made Driscoll's confrontation with Mefferd more unavoidable than it could have been in some alternate universe where guys who got galley proofs could have caught more uncredited materials and flagged them for better footnotes before the first printing.

4. Actual parity among elders.
I greatly appreciated this recent post by Tim Challies on Confronting the Current Church Leadership Crisis. Pastoral plurality in the local church is not just the biblical norm, it is a practical and spiritual necessity. But this plurality has to actually function as a plurality.

For those who don't just follow links ...

This sponsored post was prepared by the Biblical Eldership Resources team.

[UPDATE 11.38am: Sponsored content can also be known as ... an ad.  Not that you have to follow the link but I've been a fan of animation all my life and South Park had quite a run riffing on the distinctions between actual news and "sponsored content" this last season:

So in fielding the problems of the celebrity pastor problem Jared C. Wilson links to something at Tim Challies' blog that was a sponsored post that turns out to be an advertisement ... and the irony seems hard to sum up in mere words]

Okay ... gut reaction, linking to a sponsored post hurts the case.  It's really, really hard for me to be on board with any kind of critique of issues in the contemporary north American church when the linkage is sponsored content.  Call this a problem issue for Wenatchee The Hatchet but for years I've seen Christian celebrities talk about how bloggers just do all this nasty stuff to get ad revenue and clicks and stuff like that.  One of the complaints has been that bloggers just do stuff to get clicks so their revenue goes up.  I've never monetized this blog and I don't anticipate monetizing it in the future. When I blog about stuff I blog about stuff I've invested in.  Sometimes I spent my time and money on stuff I regretted spending time and/or money on (Legend of Korra for the loss).  There's somewhere we can go with this sponsored content stuff in a moment but for now let's just get back to the idea of actual parity among elders.

Parity among elders.  Amen.  This does sorta also get back to Joyful Exiles stuff, when a parity among elders was what was pretty explicitly removed. 

Wilson's concerns seem legitimate to me and I say this because I've been saying this a lot this year, let's distinguish between men who behave as pastors, who shepherd the flock, and men who are functionally what Jacques Ellul called propagandists, mass media aristocrats whose control and integration of mass and social media makes them stars rather than priests.

Unlike some other people on the internet who could adamantly feel otherwise, I think Jared C. Wilson is trying to articulate a principled concern with Christian celebrity and his public comments about Mark Driscoll as someone who went from a staunch supporter to not is sincere.  The ease with which Mark Driscoll was part of The Gospel Coalition over the years and the ease with which he extracted himself from it in the wake of Elephant Room II should give The Gospel Coalition some things to think about--if they're going to ask people to consider who makes people experts ... well ... in Christian mass media terms isn't it guys like .... them? Not Jared Wilson himself, but the organization. 

To go by some of the comments Jared Wilson's been making in the wake of his post I think he seems to get the basic idea that  the church taking a cue from the sorts of people Ellul called propagandists is a significant part of the problem. At the moment I'm inclined to agree with the impression that Wilson may be alert to the symptoms without necessarily catching the underlying nature of the problem.  The problem isn't necessarily "just" some universalized concern that people want to hang with Jesus until it leads to the cross (there's that, too).  It's that there's this weird habit of principles being just important enough to articulate once in a while until its conference time.

Take Acts 29 leadership saying Driscoll should step aside from ministry and booting Mars Hill from Acts 29.  That was a couple of years ago and yet you'd be hard pressed to find evidence of that at the Acts 29 website very quickly.

Then there's the puzzle that we looked at earlier this year of how Mark Driscoll and Acts 29 board member Eric Mason got scheduled to speak at a 2017 conference and how both guys seem, so far, to be totally cool with that. What good did it do for Acts 29 leadership (of which Mason is still a part) to publicly say anything about Driscoll in 2014 only to scrub it from the net and for Mason (one of the guys who signed the 2014 statement) to go speak at a conference where none other than Driscoll is also a featured speaker?  Sure, you get asked and you can go and all that; sure, we could say that whoever set up the conference maybe didn't know about Acts 29 kicking Driscoll to the curb ... but this highlights a problem that Jared Wilson's concerns don't get to, which is that there's a whole lot of his four points that highlights problems on the production side--it's really too easy to talk about the consumers buying stuff but if the media empires weren't cranking this stuff out within the context of an echo chamber group hug ... would it be so easy for the consumers to consume if the content wasn't being sold?

And so ... we get back to a word from the sponsors and sponsored content.

Let's go back to something Todd Pruitt mentioned earlier this year:

I know that sounds cynical. But I have been an observer of these things for too long to believe otherwise. The Reformed(ish) Industrial Complex is too insular and self-protective. It is too sensitive to anything that sounds like critique. It is too committed to its own promotion. Early on I suppose I was too sanguine about the rise of the YRR movement. I assumed that holding to reformed doctrine would guard us from unwise practice and the celebrity culture that was so much a feature of broader evangelicalism. I was wrong. [emphasis added]

Some of us who are Reformed think that the problem is on the production end as much (or more) than the consumption end.  There's a wealth of stuff that's gloriously public domain.  Why would I buy another John Piper book if the works of John Owen and Richard Sibbes are public domain? There's scholarship to be done on prophecy and divination as political speech in ancient near eastern empires and you pretty much have to pay for scholarship on that sort of thing, which is totally fair, but a lot of what gets sold by the Reformed(ish) Industrial Complex is in some sense simply repackaging stuff that is already free.

Wilson's points are worth discussing and it's cool that he brought them up.  That said, it seems necessary for people on The Gospel Coalition side of things to do a bit more digging because without understanding how the dynamics of the production side helped create the problem those who would turn everything back into the responsibility of the consumer (which is not necessarily where Jared Wilson went on this matter) will miss a forest for a few trees.


I mean, let the irony sink in here.  Jared C. Wilson discussed the problems of the celebrity pastor culture makes some points that a person could agree with and then in point 4 links to a blog post by Tim Challies that turned out to be ... sponsored content.  That might just sum up the problem right there.


Okay ... so having had some time to think about it there "is" a way to describe the irony of Wilson linking to a Challies blog post that turned out to be sponsored content.  It might be likened to this ...

The Mighty Monarch makes a fearsome appearance that would chill the heart of his nemesis ... if he could only have gotten to the right address. 


mirele said...

This is not quite on your subject, but do you know where Justin Anderson, formerly of Redemption SF and Redemption AZ is currently going to church? His Linked In shows that he's living and working in Tempe, AZ. I just find it interesting that he returned in the fall of 2015 and is mere miles from Driscoll's church plant. Maybe I should keep an eye out for him tomorrow when I picket.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

the name kind of doesn't ring any bells. Acts 29 person? Better informed and connected about Mars Hill stuff than A29 stuff.

chris e said...

"Considering that as far back as about 2008 Jared Wilson was willing to post about his doubt that Driscoll was on the right track"

Not trying to remove any credit for his doubts about Driscoll - but tends to be easier to identify the faults in a teaching when it doesn't jibe with one's own experience (JW was a stay at home dad at the time AIUI?)

I mean, the silence on Driscoll (and Doug Wilson) from the rest of TGC has been fairly telling.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

yes, the stay at home dad thing was one of the points where Jared Wilson differed from Driscoll and someone from within the complementarian team could say that was just the kind of disagreement that would be convenient for a stay-at-home-dad type. So even though I'd agree with his concerns from the time that 1) Mark was misapplying the epistle's content about "if a man ... " and that 2) Driscoll showed he wasn't ultimately concerned with living by his own interpretation of the text since he didn't quit being a pastor at MH while Grace out-earned him, he just waited to draw a better salary--Jared Wilson's own circumstances could have been said to inform his perspective. Had Driscoll taken his own interpretation and application of 1 Tim seriously he should have left ministry decades ago, but his interpretation is bunk and he obviously didn't follow it. Of course I've been skeptical about both complementarian and egalitarian views as seeming to be little more than American ideological talking points about who should have access to formal/institutional power in the American churches so maybe I'm not well-situated to have a friendly opinion about this lately. :)

And, yeah, the silence about Driscoll and Doug Wilson has been pretty deafening. DeYoung hasn't said much since the Justice Primer discontinuation. If he doesn't see how it discredits a book's point that it was chock full of plagiarism that was brought to light by a blogger then it's hard to see how he could have spotted any citation problems in Real Marriage if he did get a galley proof.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

something else that's come to mind ...

Jared C. Wilson is the Director of Content Strategy for Midwestern Seminary, managing editor of For The Church, and author of more than ten books, including Gospel Wakefulness, The Pastor’s Justification, and The Prodigal Church. You can follow him on Twitter.

So "Director of Content Strategy" having concerns about celebrity pastors ... that comes across like a model calling themselves a marketing representative while lamenting the vapid nature of the modeling business. Sure, Suzy Parker did something like that but ... the comparison seems pertinent. When you've got a job that entails getting the brand out there and your complaint is that people are consumeristic that comes off like a movie star complaining that the cameras are rolling for some reason.

chris e said...

On your first comment; it occurs to me that the close parallel would be Driscoll's interview with Premier Radio; and his write up afterwards had the takeaway around the fact that the interview had admitted to him that his wife was a pastor and therefore his opinions could be if not ignored, at least down played.

Without getting into the complementarian vs egalitarian issues, there were a number of conservatives who at the time were quite happy to defend Driscoll both on conduct as well as tactics. In retrospect they'd probably - if honest - admit to this being a mistake.