Saturday, September 10, 2016

Alastair Roberts at Mere Orthodoxy "Sometimes Narratives Betray the Cause", starting with the Elizabeth Holmes narrative and moving toward the observation that evangelicals can be even worse at buying into iconic narratives


https://mereorthodoxy.com/sometimes-narratives-betray-cause/


In the wake of Elizabeth Holmes' narrative of founding a pioneering tech start-up looking to be more thoroughly narrative than anything else, Alastair Roberts has written about the propensity for the charms of a narrative to bludgeon out processes of confirmation.  Whether Roberts might wish this or no this can be thought of as a kind of part 2 for "Rob Bell and Don Draper: The Ad Man's Gospel".

Nick Bilton’s Vanity Fair article is definitely worth a read. Perhaps the most striking dimension of it for me was his attention to the role played by ‘narrative’ in Holmes’ rise and in the credence that people gave to her. Perhaps more than anything else, Holmes’ success lay in a story, a story about a revolutionary new technology that would transform the way blood testing is conducted, and a story about a young woman excelling in the male world of innovation and technology.

Roberts mentioned that Holmes was defended for a time on a ground that feminists needed icons of pioneers in male-dominated industries and that the need for the icon blinkered the ability of people to see that there were unraveling threads in Holmes' narrative.  Roberts, however, went on to state that evangelicals and Christians are, if anything, even worse about depending on these sorts of narratives.

This is certainly not just a problem for other movements: Christians can be as bad at this as any others, and often are much worse. Many of the prominent stories of the ‘persecution’ of Christians in the West that are publicized in the Christian press, for instance, turn out to be distorted, stories of employees breaching company policies, harassing or mistreating others, or of professing Christians making an unpleasant nuisance of themselves. We believe the stories that we are told without closely examining them because we want to believe them. They so effectively symbolize our narrative that their truthiness suffices to demonstrate their veracity.

The same can be true of attractive testimonies and iconic figures who represent us. As a young teen, I remember my church using the story of Hansie Cronje, the captain of the South African cricket team, in some of its evangelistic literature. Not only was Cronje a dynamic and popular sports figure, he was also a clean cut, ‘born again’ Christian. Unfortunately, only a few years later Cronje was discovered to have been involved in match-fixing, in a scandal that threw the entire sport into crisis. Rumors of serial adultery also surfaced.

Here in Seattle almost two years after Mark Driscoll decided to resign, and in the year after he hit the conference circuit to share retroactively how God released him from a ministry he'd spent a decade saying he didn't plan to abandon, it seems unlikely that we who are Christians can remind ourselves too many times that buying into an iconic narrative has drawbacks.  Mark Driscoll certainly presented quite a narrative of the history of how he planted Mars Hill ten years ago in Confessions of a Reformission Rev.  Back around 2005 he mentioned on the Midrash he was planning to write a history of Mars Hill.  Eleven years away from that it seems ... embarrassing and bewildering to think that a church that was merely ten years old could possibly have been significant enough to merit a history about it written by one of its co-founding pastors.  Twenty years on there seems reason to write a history of Mars Hill but even ten years ago when I read the published book Mark Driscoll wrote I was disappointed to see that this was not really a history of Mars Hill so much as a "how I did it" book written by Mark Driscoll about what was ultimately his own narrative, not the story of the formation of a Christian community.  It was a decade ago then, that some seeds were planted in which I began to think that it would be a good idea to record the history of Mars Hill in some way that was not just promotional copy for one guy's branded narrative.

One of the most pervasive frustrations I have had over the last ten years is discovering that the Christian and the non-Christian, left and right, have a huge investment in committing to some stereotyped branded narrative.  Sometimes these tropes converge closely enough to things that happened and to the people involved that it can pass for what happened. 

What has also been difficult is that in Mark and Grace Driscoll we have a couple that could not have been more, by Mark Driscoll's own account, explicitly trained professionally to formulate and master narrative.  Driscoll trained in speech communication and his wife trained in public relations. 

https://web.archive.org/web/20120115012617/http://pastormark.tv/2012/01/12/a-blog-for-the-brits

...
I have a degree in communications from one of the top programs in the United States. So does my wife, Grace. We are used to reporters with agendas and selective editing of long interviews. Running into reporters with agendas and being selectively edited so that you are presented as someone that is perhaps not entirely accurate is the risk one takes when trying to get their message out through the media.

What made Mark Driscoll's case unusual within the history of American Christianity was not so much that there was what we could call a spin-doctored narrative of the sort that has unraveled lately for Elizabeth Holmes.  No, what made it unusual was that this managed to get formulated for the record by a man who pretty much told us along the way he got training to create this kind of narrative and that his wife worked in public relations.  To translate it at Driscollian levels of terms, this was a guy who told us his training and that of his wife's was for spin-doctoring. By the time Mark Driscoll was giving lectures on the methods and significance of engaging mass media platforms across media types this was a guy who was speaking as a vocational propagandist at every level except for calling himself a minister of propaganda.  Of course, in hindsight, this is obviously what he was and what he may yet hope to be again. 

In a culture that loves stars and icons, we can desire our own stars and icons like the nations, putting our trust in them. Christian culture so often recklessly invests its credibility, witness, and energy in fickle celebrities and prominent leaders, leaders that all too frequently are revealed to have feet of clay. As Christians we so often have narratives that we are invested in and attracted by, the sorts of narratives that disable the immune system of our critical faculties, just when we might most need them.

At such times, we can benefit both from the development of communities of internal critique and from receptivity to external critics, which may require overcoming our urge to circle the wagons. Scandals are hardly ever without advance warning signs, if we pay attention, and listen to those warnings. Those warnings will often come from people we instinctively dislike. The warnings will run directly against what we want to believe. They will offend our sense of truthiness. But they should be heeded nonetheless.

Developing communities of healthy internal critique is difficult too. How often do you see evangelical Christians prepared to break ranks and sharply challenge someone in their immediate circles? The lack of examples and exemplars of such behavior perpetuates and intensifies a culture where prevailing narratives and icons are upheld uncritically. We all like to criticize the other side, yet are reluctant to ask tough and searching questions of our own. We don’t like to challenge our friends and to risk the possibility that they react against or marginalize us. We feel uncomfortable and defensive in places where everyone is rendered vulnerable to challenge and criticism.

How often do we see evangelical Christians prepared to break ranks and sharply challenge someone?  Well, yes, the lack of examples of such behaviors is depressing but it's possible, at the risk of pointing this out, that the decline of Mark Driscoll may be one of the very few case studies of how criticism of Mark Driscoll from within the broadly Reformed Christian scene may be such an example. 

There may be an advantage in actually being on the margins of a community but well-connected enough within it to raise questions about the group narrative.  It can be perilously easy to present prophetic activity as this sort of activity and that would, as Roberts is more likely to be aware of than others, as a kind of Hollywood-style narrative in itself about prophets "speaking truth to power" from the margins of society.  Prophets were generally an accepted class within ancient societies and, along with or in competition against sages, would advise power. Prophets within the biblical canon have a well-attested history of engaging in polemic with other prophets as those who corruptly condone power.  Thanks to all of the polemics and tools of narrative refinement we have a whole host of elites within subcultures who can fashion themselves as mediators for the narratives of groups that internally see themselves as oppressed underdogs while being overlords and spin doctors from within the community. 

One of the difficulties of internal critique is that it seems all too often the people who most need to be subjected to scrutiny are immersed in what some call a victimhood culture.  College students who have the privilege of writing about privilege may not be able to grasp that in comparison to people who only graduated from high school or didn't even graduate from high school that their position of privilege is not even relative to those who have never received a college education; but it isn't that difficult to come across writers who have been to liberal arts colleges who have convinced themselves that they are ... well, actually, as Alastair Roberts put it in a recent podcast people now go to college so they can be in the middle class.  If undergraduate college education has become a prerequisite for being middle class does this mean that's become the entry requirement or the maintainance requirement or both?  For the moment, before getting back to my earlier point, I'll say that Christopher Hitchens' remark that the trouble with religious moderates is that they have too rarely stood up against the abuses of their demagogues within their traditions is something I have tried to take to heart.

Now back to the matter of what some call a victimhood culture, the trouble with it, which authors like Friedersdorf have addressed, is that the idiom of this culture appropriates for individuals narratives of group victimhood that can essentially be invoked by anyone.  I made a long-form case that Mark Driscoll has been able to appropriate the first-person industrial complex and the power of an emotionally charged narrative to make use of the victimhood culture. I also pointed out that one of Mark Driscoll's gambits in asserting and implicitly defending some of his most tendentious readings of biblical texts has been to wrap his interpretation so tightly inside stories about himself and his children that in order to contest his interpretation you have to drill down into the exegetical minutiae that bore non-scholars on the one hand or directly attack the mercenary deployment of his children in narrative in a way that is almost pre-built to make you seem like a jerk.

http://wenatcheethehatchet.blogspot.com/2012/10/esther-as-godless-woman-then-christ_4449.html

I don't think it's really possible to over-emphasize a need for an analytic approach that explores how these narratives are constructed and the ways in which they can be used in defensive and offensive ways in polemical contexts.  Mark Driscoll proved good at this for a time;  the controversies that he did and did not directly engage in 2012 could be particularly instructive here.  From what I've read about the Elizabeth Holmes story of rise and fall there may be a comparable eagerness for the star to rush to discuss any controversy that deals with the persona and its narrative and a reticence to discuss the brass tacks of the actual content under contention. 

Leonard Meyer's postlude to Music, The Arts and Ideas mentioned that the future is no longer a source of shared optimism but that we have access to the past; this past, however, would not be historical research but histories of ethno-mythic fabrication, that as groups consolidated their respective group identities they would formulate mythologies of heroes and villains by inventing selective histories not to discover history as such but to formulate histories with the aim of confirming existing prejudices and aims. 

This would not just be seen in American Christian fundamentalists fabricating a set of Founding Fathers who were all Trinitarian Protestant Christians, it could also be found in attempts to arrive at mythic American Indians who have multiple categories for sexuality and gender while ignoring altogether the practice of slavery and the caste systems in place.  These propagandistic histories are not necessarily pure fiction so much as they are polemics that take the useful "tithe" of historically verifiable elements and present them as though they were the sum of the history.  That the Founding Fathers were more Christian in some generic sense than a Richard Dawkins of today is not that hard to propose, just as more flexible categories about sexuality in Native American groups compared to Victorian white Christians isn't that hard to establish, either.  The problem is in how the left and right are more attentive to the propagandistic fabrications of "them" vs the swiftness of embracing it for "us" in making use of these kinds of ad hoc just so historical narratives.  The propensity for people left and right to take refuge in histories manufactured for the sake of promulgating contemporary political agendas is just the human condition, as Roberts so generally noted.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Mere Fidelity on Christian Intellectuals, part 2, the podcast following up on a Jake Meador essay--they're underselling the significance of the Cold War for the role of Christian evangelicals even while Alastair Roberts astutely notes that those Christian intellectuals of yore were actually mainliners

http://harpers.org/archive/2016/09/the-watchmen/
https://mereorthodoxy.com/francis-schaeffer-and-christian-intellectualism/

Well, a while back Mere Orthodoxy had a piece about Francis Schaeffer and Christian intellectuals.  They had a podcast revisiting that topic recently.

https://mereorthodoxy.com/mere-fidelity-christian-intellectuals/

To some degree I think the Jacobs piece may have been misread by people who thought Jacobs was potentially proposing there are no Christian intellectuals because Jacobs formulated a case that the Christian intellectual, as a subset of intellectuals as a demographic, are not a part of the public discourse.  Of the various ideas proposed I think that Alastair Roberts' comment about how evangelicals need to remember that the Christian intellectuals in the post-war/mid-war era were not evangelicals as would have been defined by evangelicals either then or now; rather, Roberts pointed out that these Christian intellectuals mentioned in the Alan Jacobs piece were mainliners. 

What I thought was largely skipped over entirely by the Mere Fidelity crew was (except for perhaps a short reference mentioned by Anderson) that these mainline Christian intellectuals wre addressing the state of the world in the Second World War but also, crucially, during formative decades in the Cold War.  The West was still sufficiently if nominally "Christian" enough that mainline church folk could say things that a nominally Christian West would be interested in.  While it's possible to propose that evangelicals withdrew or were sidelined in the later decades of the Cold War it might also be accurate to say that they were only ever marginal contributors at best to the Cold War era political and social concerns. 

The role of evangelical intellectual activity in relationship to the Cold War might be likened, perhaps, to the imagined golden age of the classical guitar, which Matanya Ophee said never existed in his lecture "Repertoire Issues" from decades ago--I would suggest that an addendum to Ophee's lecture, should he ever wish to present it again, is to note that when Richard Taruskin published his massive five-volume set of books, the Oxford History of Western Music, Taruskin described the guitar as essentially outside the Western literate musical tradition.   Whether it's evangelical scholars or classical guitarists looking back on a lost golden era of public influence and acclaim we might be pining for a golden age that, on more careful inspection, never actually occurred.

One of Taruskin's pet ideas for his Oxford series is to highlight the little that has been done in arts history to frame our understanding of later 20th century art and music history explicitly in terms of the Cold War and its political balkanization.  Going back to about 2011 or 2010 I've been playing with the idea that there is an explicable shift in the wake of the end of the Cold War in which the residual dread of the Red threat mutated into dread of our own governments in the West.  The X-Files was the kind of television program that probably could not be made and would not have been marketable in a Cold War context.  I've also proposed that in a parallel way that if in the Cold War Superman made sense as America's self-image via superheroes (or Wonder Woman, to a lesser degree), Batman became the superhero touchstone as the costumed crusader whose battle was not against enemies of America but corruption within an American society itself.  Of course Wonder Woman and Superman did that, too, but they're more flag-draped than Batman ... and that's a whole other set of topics.

To the extent that the Christian intellectuals who contributed ideas to public discussion about politics, liberty and traditional liberalism within a Cold War context, then to the extent that the Cold War ended and we got "the end of history" those useful contributions ran their course.  Perhaps much like the government of the United States started to see less reason to fund avant garde art in direct and indirect ways once it became clear to some people that we "won" the Cold War, a whole lot of people who were more nominally Christian than evangelical/ardently observant had the luxury of casting off what was, arguably, chiefly an alliance of convenience.  It's not like no one can look up the pragmatic view about whatever religion is suitable enough in a war against Communism from the Eisenhower years. 

So there's all that. 

As a side note, Anderson (I think) mentioned Roger Scruton as a conservative intellectual.  If Scruton's worth mentioning (and I would agree he is) what about ... say ... the Future Symphony Institute?  I think that FSI is leaning too hard on criticism of atonalist music at the moment even if I am 100% for preserving the Western literate musical tradition.  I'm even for Scruton's idea that we should find some way to repair or bridge the breach between academic and vernacular/popular musical idioms that has grown in the last century.  This would even coincide, roughly, with a trend in the musical heroes of pop music who have been lionized in death of late, namely Prince and David Bowie. 

In a century in which everyone attempting to earn their avant garde credentials tried to tear up the rule book, so to speak, nobody seems in a rush to consider that there really aren't any rules left to break.  It's gotten to a point where, if Kyle Gann is right, it's easier to do avant garde music than to master the frequently demanding idioms of vernacular/popular musical styles.  We may be in a cultural moment where breaking the rules is far easier than manipulating and refining the rules.  It may be easier to just declare sonata and fugue "obsolete" than spend a lifetime learning and manipulating the conceptual syntax of 18th century procedural development of musical ideas so that you could deploy them for a riff that might be in a James Brown or Hank Williams Sr. song than an old Austrian folk song.  For that matter, a lot of music students may not even want to master forms and procedures that by now are considered obsolete or have been ill-served by pedagogical idioms that have clung to 19th century German idealism.  Instead of dissecting the twelve-tone method we could go in any number of other directions--there's the just intonation/microtonal movement, for instance.  What if the problem with twelve-tone music lay not merely in its methodology for material development but in the shortcomings of equal-temperament itself?  Whole movements have built themselves up from that idea and if intellectuals who want to consider where music could go there's a way of saying "we chose the wrong future" than suggest that the reason German music became stale and repetitive was that half of all the thing worth doing in German music had been done by the time Haydn died.

Yeah, yeah, Scruton thinks more highly of German idealism than I happen to and an over-reliance on that kind of idealism and its attendant ideas about what qualifies as art or not within music may be one of the more obvious conundrums for Christians in the arts to consider.  That so many have tried and not always succeeded in arriving at a fusion of vernacular musical vocabulary and the formal procedural modes of thematic presentation and expansion refined in the 18th century doesn't mean it isn't worth doing.  It can be easy to forget that the history of those idioms entailed at least a century of steady experimentation across an entire continent.  The cliché has become how to emulate a Beethoven or a Mozart but the person they were trying to emulate and beat in their own era was Haydn--we have a culture in which breaking the rulebook is more sexy than doing what Haydn and J. S. Bach did, refining existing idioms and amalgamating a panoply of existing styles, forms and idioms.  If there is a realm where historically informed evangelicals could make substantial contributions to the arts you would think this would be one of those areas.

Which gets me to one of the ideas floated about Christian intellectuals and how those few who could qualify tend to be known strictly within their guild and not really outside of it.  That may simply be true of intellectuals as a category and it may be fair--you have to have solved some kind of problem your guild thinks is worth solving before you can move on to address anything else. 

But that's about all I have to blog about on that orbit of topics for the moment.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

for the 50th anniversary, bringing back an older post: the death of Spock as a pop mythological touchstone of friendship amidst films of eros

I originally posted this a bit more than a year ago in the wake of Leonard Nimoy's passing and while I consider myself more an ex-Trekker than a current Trekker or Trekkie ... it seems fitting to bring back this little reflection on how the Kirk and Spock friendship stands as a kind of pop culture touchstone for a depiction of friendship in an era in which it's literally sexier to focus on romantic dyads. 

https://wenatcheethehatchet.blogspot.com/2015/02/the-death-of-spock-as-pop-mythological.html

There's essentially no contest the death of Spock in Star Trek 2 has been considered the greatest and most touching moment in the entirety of the Star Trek narrative canon.  It has never been equaled before or since and will not be.  We've had so many decades to have found out otherwise the case is settled, Spock's death has been seared into pop culture, and rightly so.

Slash fic withstanding, what makes the death of Spock an interesting touchstone in American pop culture mythology is that it is a moment not of eros (per the subsequent decades of slash fic) but of friendship. 

I have been - and always shall be - your friend. Live long and prosper.

We live in a pop cultural age where eros so defines narrative it is transposed into and imposed upon depictions of friendship.  Yes, even Kirk and Spock, which in some sense robs the death of Spock of its singular power as a pop cultural touchstone, a profession of friendship that is clear.

It was, and is, also a profession of friend by someone who sacrificed his life to save his friend.  Although Star Trek's pedigree as a franchise promoting secular humanism is beyond dispute, it's fascinating that the most emotionally potent scene in the entire canon so directly evokes such an utterly religious concern as friendship.  After all, Jesus was credited with the words, "Greater love has no one than this, that he will lay his life down for his friends."  Spock's decision was a logical one, he was able to restore the warp drive at the cost of his own life so that the rest of the crew might live.  But trading Kirk's life to Khan for the sake of everyone else being spared could have also been a "logical" move, even though we know it would not have been the decision Spock would have made.

Choosing the path of self-sacrifice to the point of death to save your friends is certainly human.

I've been considering for years writing about how and why I consider Star Trek to have taken the form of American pop culture mythology in a way that Star Wars cannot, and this would be the moment.  Bruce Timm and Paul Dini, if memory serves, once quipped in a commentary on an episode of Batman: the animated series, that you never win the Emmy by going for the Emmy.

George Lucas may have overtly tipped his hand by invoking Campbell's monomyth, but Campbell's monomyth can't be a monomyth.  It fails to account for the regional variance in the Faustian legend for one, and for another Campbell's monomyth is not the heroe's journey so much as an American journey.  There's nothing about Campbell's monomyth that seems to fit well or explain anything about The Tale of the Princess Kaguya in any of its forms, is there?

Even if I were to set aside my skepticism about the monomyth at those levels, or even about the restrictively male-centered cast of the narrative, the problem of the monomyth is that it is, in a phrase, going for the Emmy.  Lucas couldn't keep the narrative about Luke Skywalker. The prequels became about Anakin and lame commentaries on political events without substantially engaging them.  And Jar Jar ...

We live in an era in which pop culture narratives become ends unto themselves to a point where we consider the money to be made by the franchises to a point where whatever foundational appeal they may have had becomes secondary.  We want our franchises badly enough that there are people who want more Whedon franchises whether or not we have any compelling reason to have more of Buffy or Firefly. We don't want things to reach an irreversible end. 

Paradoxically some of the great power of Spock's death would have come from what, at the time, was its ostensibly irreversible nature.  We did not yet live in the era of the pop culture retcon, at least not in the way we've seen in the last thirty years.  Sherlock Holmes was brought back from death by popular demand but it's been in the last forty years that Marvel comics fans could begin to joke that nobody stays dead, except for maybe Uncle Ben.  Spock's death came in an era in which the retcon of the major character death wasn't normative because it wasn't normal to kill off as prominent a character as a Spock.

It had some foreshadowing early on in the Kobayashi-Maru test. Spock calls back to it in his words to Kirk:

I never took the Kobayahsi-Maru test til now.  What do you think of my solution?

Wrath of Khan was a story about how Kirk's judgment turned out to be tragically, and even comedically wrong.  Way back in "Space Seed" Kirk made a decision that was questioned by both Spock and McCoy.  Kirk stood by his decision and decades later, Khan came back for revenge.  Popular though it may be for some to say Kirk learned anything at all in Star Trek 2, the power of the story is that Kirk only learned he was willing to cheat death and that he'd never encountered a moment where it was truly unescapable for him.  His confrontation with mortality was not even for himself, but through the death of his friend.  Spock was willing to pay the price for the failure of his friend Kirk's judgment, however much an accident of circumstance that failure of judgment may ultimately have been.  We can't gamble on what failing stars destroy which planets, after all. 

That's the thing about failure, it can crash in on you unannounced (or grandly announced by someone like Khan) and there's nothing you could have done to have averted it. 

But of course we know Kirk cheated on the Kobayashi-Maru test because he refused to believe in no-win scenarios.  What Kirk, perhaps like many an American (perhaps?), didn't count on was that while there may not be many truly no-win scenarios there are many things in life and death where every opportunity has an opportunity cost.  In choosing a path we choose to go through things attending that path.  Kirk chose to give Khan the chance to form a new civilization after his own ideals, without considering the possibility of what might happen if that civilization failed and Khan blamed Kirk for that failure.  Well, in Star Trek 2, we got to find out ...

Spock assessed the situation at the end of the film and saw that there was a way to save as many lives as possible so long as he was willing and able to sacrifice his own life toward that end.  The death of Spock became a touchstone in American pop cinema because we'd always been shown that Spock was half human and half Vulcan and his death saving the Enterprise from Khan was a decision and an act that showed the unity of both halves that we knew was always there.  Spock was willing to pay the price that he knew Jim couldn't and maybe even wouldn't be willing to pay to save everyone. After all, to borrow a phrase from someone else, even if the spirit were willing, the flesh can be very weak. Kirk went decades without realizing he had a son, after all, and it's not like he managed to be a great lover/husband/father along the way. Wrath of Khan is in some sense a story of middle age and how all the foolish and ill-advised decisions of youth, the decisions you seemed so sure about at the time, all come crashing back into your life in the most embarrassing and disastrous ways possible.  What's worse, all of this happened in ways that you couldn't have anticipated and couldn't control. And when they do, who is there to help you walk through it?  A friend, a friend who ends up bearing the costs of all the disastrous decisions that you made so that you can keep living.

How many moments in cinematic history get in the zone of Kirk and Spock's friendship, or should we say Spock's friendship to Kirk?  Growing up it was difficult to think of another example.  As a fan of animation the only possible next runner up to the friendship of Spock and Kirk, for me, would be Woody and Buzz Lightyear from the Toy Story franchise. American popular cinema tends to focus more on the attainment of and sustenance of eros than friendship, which may be why the friendships that capture the imagination capture the imagination so strongly.

Star Trek as both propaganda and art, a proposal for the fiftieth anniversary of the original series premiere

I wanted to call this Star Trek Serves Imperialism as a parody of Cornelius Cardew's Stockhausen Serves Imperialism.  But then it seemed like there's no point in using the title if I didn't maintain something like Cardew's sense of endless moralizing Marxist/Maoist outrage. 

Fifty years ago a show premiered that was a science fiction program that dared to imagine a better, nobler future than the nuclear annihilation.  Some people were optimistic enough, hopeful enough and brave enough to propose that not just the United States but the human race as a whole had a future better than the one suggested as possible by Doctor Strangelove.

Star Trek imagined better things were possible.  Even if the risk of nuclear war and the dread of eugenics as a variable in combat were around liberal style American democracy would prevail against the hordes of unreason, superstition and fear. 

So here we are, half a century later and there have been multiple shows and a bit more than a dozen movies.  When Terry Teachout made a case for why there basically can't be such a thing as classic television he wrote:

http://www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight/2006/09/tt-repent-at-leisure.html

It thus occurs to me that I really ought to say something in this space regarding the only piece reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader about which I’ve had second thoughts–of a sort. In 2001 I published an essay in the Sunday New York Times called “The Myth of Classic TV” (they called it something else, but I restored my original title when I put it in the Teachout Reader). In it I wrote:
 
As it happens, only thirteen episodes of The Sopranos are aired each season, and the series is expected to have a fairly limited run. More typical is St. Elsewhere, which ran for 137 consecutive episodes, each of which grew organically out of its predecessors. Such long-running series can only be experienced serially, which for all practical purposes means during their original runs; once they cease to air each week in regular time slots, they cease to be readily available as total artistic experiences, and thus can no longer acquire new viewers, or be re-experienced by old ones. This is why there is no such thing as a “classic” TV series: we never see any series enough times to know whether its overall quality justifies the multiple viewings which are the hallmark of classic status. (Needless to say, I’m not talking about those fanatical cultists who have seen each episode of Star Trek a hundred times and can recite the dialogue from memory. To them, my heartfelt advice is: get a life.)

Considering the degree to which Star Trek came to dominate television as an art form it could be proposed that the measure of classic television (which by now we have to concede probably does exist) is its cult-formation status, not just within the generation of "everybody is talking about this, which really means "all the journalists I know about who I bother to read and who also want to talk about television are talking about this", but for generations.

Let's just throw this idea out there that Star Trek was designed to play the role of sociological integration propaganda for the kind of chauvinistic, optimistic smug blue state Great Society era Americanism that may have been a necessary tonic to Cold War paranoia in the late 1960s in the wake of reactions to Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove, but that it might not hurt us to step back and consider that Star Trek is a series that is a blunt secularist parable for the superiority of the American way of the sort that is not necessarily any more sophisticated than the moralism you might expect from a VeggieTales episode.

Lately Richard Brody has remarked upon how television seems to be the talked about thing among the internet and he made a defense of film that could be read, perhaps too easily, as a defense of "art" against "politics".  Brody's been concerned that films have taken a cue from thinkpiece-agitating television programs and worried that liberal cinema has been declining into lazy propaganda.

But let's just declare that anxiety misplaced because Brody fails to concede that cinematic narrative, whether on the large or small screen, has always been able to play the role of propaganda.  Ellul enumerated film as one of the forms of sociological propaganda that did not so much advocate a formal, explicit political agenda as celebrate a way of life.  Brody would be right to propose that television is unsubtle and insists on starting "conversation" about political issues and to that extent it just means that here we are, half a century after Star Trek insisted on making political and social statements as entertaining propaganda of integration, and people still write television shows with the goal of integration propaganda in mind.  Ellul's description:

PROPAGANDA: THE FORMATION OF MEN'S ATTITUDES
JACQUES ELLUL
Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 1965 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
ISBN 0-394-71874-7


page 75
Integration propaganda aims at stabilizing the social body, at unifying it and reinforcing it. [emphasis added] It is thus the preferred instrument of government, though properly speaking it is not exclusively political propaganda.  ... this type of propaganda can also be made by a group of organizations other than those of government, going in the same direction, more or less spontaneously ...

page 75-76
...
The most important example of the use of such propaganda is the United States. Obviously, integration propaganda is much more subtle and complex than agitation propaganda. It seeks not a temporary excitement but a total molding of the person in depth. Here all psychological and opinion analyses must be utilized, as well as the mass media of communication. It is primarily this integration propaganda that we shall discuss in our stud, for it is the most important of our time despite the success and the spectacular character of subversive propaganda. [emphasis added]

Let us note right away a final aspect of integration propaganda: the more comfortable, cultivated, and informed the milieu to which it is addressed, the better it works. Intellectuals are more sensitive than peasants to integration propaganda. In fact they share the stereotypes of a society even when they are political opponents of the society.  Take a recent example: French intellectuals opposed to war in Algeria seemed hostile to integration propaganda. Nevertheless, they shared all the stereotypes and myths of French society--Technology, Nation, Progress; all their actions were based on those myths. They were thoroughly ripe for an integration propaganda, for they were already adapted to its demands. [emphases added] Their temporary opposition was not of the slightest importance; just changing the color of the flag was enough to find them again among the most conformist of groups.

So, sure, television like Star Trek easily fits the bill of integration propaganda.  What made it unique for its time was that its creators pretty much spelled out that was their aim.  Roddenberry and company wanted an optimistic secular humanist program out there to promote good liberal secularist American values.  Does that keep it from being classic television?  Not in the least. 

One of the great misconceptions that developed in properly-thinking liberal sets in the West is an idea that the aims of propaganda and art are somehow inimical to each other.  The music composers of the Baroque era wrote helped to celebrate the wealth and splendor of regional merchants and autocrats.  Does that make Handel's music less beautiful?  Not really? Thanks to an us vs. them mentality that accrued for generations throughout the Cold War some Americans have gotten this idea that if art is explicitly political it stops being art and bears the taint of propaganda.  Well, sometimes propaganda rises to the level of art and sometimes what is passed off as great art can be seen to have a propagandistic element.  It may well be that we need to grow past the idea of thinking the vocational artist can do anything other than serve a ruling class within the context of an empire.  All your art can be is, in some sense, propaganda. 

If the Richard Brodys of the United States want to cordon off politics and beauty this could be a reminder of something Richard Taruskin's been proposing for decades, that American liberal highbrows have had an incentive to embrace this kind of ideology about the arts as a way to avoid confronting the distasteful reality that many of the most pioneering and innovative artists from the first half of the twentieth century were willing to embrace fascism and other forms of totalitarianism of the sort that American liberals spent a better part of the Cold War opposed to.

And perhaps someone like Brody would not concede that Star Trek is art or that it rises above the sort of self-congratulatory liberal propaganda he's worried American cinema is falling into (and he's a self-described Bill Clinton fan, at that).  But if Star Trek isn't art, or isn't very good art, we still have this fifty year anniversary to consider.  If we consider something as art on the basis of asking 1) "what did the artist set out to accomplish?" and 2) "did the artist accomplish that?" then surely Star Trek was a success and a show that only ran for three seasons has managed to permeate an entire culture over half a century whether people wanted this to happen or not.

After fifty years we can consider whether the seed planted in space has grown into a healthy plant. 

Something that critics of the Abrams Trek franchise have complained about is that the new crew doesn't get the Federation.  That may be true, but it may be that the Federation is not that clearly defined and that its meaning has changed.  Consider that in "Space Seed", when Kirk holds a tribunal to deal with Khan and the mutiny abetted by McGivers, Kirk says that it would be a waste to send Khan to a reorientation center.  Kirk offers Khan to settle a wild, untamed planet and offers McGivers the chance to join Khan rather than face courtmartial.  The offer is accepted.  McCoy is, as usual, unhappy with this approach.  Spock muses that it would be interesting to see what grows from the seed Kirk has planted.  At the time Captain Kirk's decision seemed to provide the best possible option.  Khan wasn't sent to some Federation brainwashing camp to be taught how to be a good conformist Federation citizen, after all.

Or do we want to linger all that long on the implications of the option Kirk had to send Khan to a reorientation facility?  If Parker and Stone had addressed this option in one of their episodes of South Park they'd perhaps joke that Kirk would have had the option to send Khan to tolerance camp.

Perhaps it's not brainwashing if "we" do it?

And we all know the story, decades later the decision that seemed wise to Kirk at the time brings disaster.  Unbeknownst to the Enterprise crew Khan's planet is waylaid by the death of an adjacent world and he loses Marla McGivers and his mind.  Khan seizes the most improbable series of coincidences to begin exacting revenge on Kirk and we get that cult classic Wrath of Khan.  This isn't a pulp classic because Kirk learns anything.  He "learns" nothing at all.  What's fun about the film is that it stands alone.  You don't even need to have seen "Space Seed" to get the basics of the characters.  But the poignancy of the story is that as these men face down the inevitability of age and the irreversibility of the disasters caused by decisions they made decades ago that seemed like the best options at the time, we get to see these characters grapple with their own fallibility and mortality.  We learn that Kirk is the sort who's willing to cheat a little if it gets him out of a no-win scenario, because he doesn't believe in no-win scenarios.

Wrath of Khan became classic pop culture by giving us a story where, at least within the film itself and before the sequel undid all of those costs,  Spock's decision gave us a rebuke to the self-congratulatory cheating of James Kirk and the monomaniacal vengeance-seeking of Khan--even if you don't believe in a "no-win" scenario there's never a no-sacrifice solution.  As Kirk ruefully admits at the end of Star Trek 2, he'd cheated death and evaded death and laughed in self-congratulation for his wit and luck but he'd never really faced death, if by death we mean losing someone he actually cares about in contrast to a parade of interchangeable redshirts at least.  He faced death plenty of times in the series, even if losing his brother and sister-in-law in Operation: Annihilate was punctuated by a lot of over-the-top bad acting at the end of Star Trek, season 1.   Still, you know, for the sake of Star Trek 2 being released on a non-Star Trek world ... this wasn't a misrepresentation for the film-going America of the time.

So, let's play a little.  If Kirk had sent Khan to a reorientation center (i.e. brainwashing camp) would Wrath of Khan not have happened?  If the answer is "no", if the answer is that Khan would at some point come back to exact vengeance on Kirk then Kirk was in that situation he refused to believe in, a no-win scenario.  If Khan could have been effectively brainwashed into being a compliant participant of Federation life ... wait ... Kirk considered it "a waste" to send a man as ambitious and talented as Khan to such a facility.  But that such a center existed and that Federation protocols for judicial action would have prescribed Khan being sent to a reorientation center is in some sense presupposed by the fact that Kirk surprises McCoy and Spock by refusing to exercise that judicial option.  As Kirk explained to Spock earlier in "Space Seed" there will always be an element of barbarity in the human race.  We may be able to sublimate it and keep it at bay but it will always be there.

And perhaps that's what elevated the constantly corny and overly earnest original Star Trek series into being some kind of art in a way that subsequent iterations of the franchise arguably are not. The original Star Trek could imagine us (as in the United States first and the rest of humanity thereafter) transcending our barbaric tendencies by recognizing how inescapable they are.  Perhaps this could potentially explain why Christians who don't hold to the sort of liberal secularism Star Trek has espoused for half a century can find things to appreciate about it.  What Kirk called the always present if sometimes latent streak of barbarity in humanity Christians would call the capacity for sin. 

So, sure, maybe Star Trek has always been propaganda for an explicitly American secular liberal view but its longevity and cult status might give us an opportunity to interrogate some of the bromides that emerged within a Cold War context about the impossibility of art and propaganda coinciding.  I know there are folks who admire highbrow art who want to cordon off art as some sacred space distinct from entertainment but if you don't attain that lower level along the way does anyone stick around long enough to get the higher level?  Star Trek is cheesy, corny, self-serious and camp, and yet here we are half a century later.  There's no art that is beyond some capacity for criticism.  Berlioz thought Bach was dreadfully tedious, for instance.  Mike Nelson of MST3K said in the last millennium that Star Trek was fun space opera but not art, not Art with a capital A.  Are the Three Stooges art, then? 

But that's enough rambling about the franchise for a day.

Today we sit momentarily in our thinking chairs with notebook in hand ... and consider how Blue's Clues formulated the conceptual realm of television criticism that Richard Brody has lately weighed in on.

Come now, sit down in your thinking chair with your handy dandy notebook and pause to reflect upon a milestone.

Today marks an anniversary of a television show.  Yes, that television show, too, and we'll get to that one in another post.

For this post we're going to briefly look back at a television show that was a tour-de-force of the Socratic method and whose narrative premise was predicated on breaking the fourth wall so constantly it was as if there could never be a fourth wall to break. 

That show, of course, was Blue's Clues.

One of the things I've had fun doing as a writer and blogger over the years is to take childrens' entertainment seriously as an art forum because the critical mainstream by and large does not regard it as worth talking about to begin with.  The sorts of people who breathlessly keep up with whatever degradations Sansa Stark deals with on Game of Thrones (for folks who have never heard of these books or this show what Sansa Stark gets subjected to might be likened to a set of experiences only slightly more pleasant than those bestowed upon the Levite's concubine) probably don't have even two words to say about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic or Rugrats or Blue's Clues.  MLP might get a mention from someone at Slate as an opportunity to talk about the oppression of mainstream gender roles, maybe, or about how guys who are familiar with the show are probably lame.

There's basically zero chance you'll see someone at Salon or Slate riffing on how "Rarity Investigates" provides a light romp in which the glamorous pony investigates a mystery that is the archetypal parlor mystery but incongruously set in an arch film noir/hard boiled tone.  Rarity solving the mystery hinges on her attention to sartorial and procedural details that seem so dreadfully picayune to everyone else in the episode it's only when she reveals the strategic significance of all those details in forensic terms that the mystery is solved and its significance established. You might have a few authors at Slate going back and forth about episodes of Archer but that's obviously a "grown up" cartoon. 

If we live in some kind of golden age of television it's because there are the kinds of shows on television that grown up journalists feel excited to talk to each other about.  If for a time it could be proposed that feature cinema was the "grown up" art and television was the punk kid sibling that time may have passed.  Or not, or perhaps not everyone thinks it has.

We could have someone propose, or rather assert, that something matters because it matters to an individual and not because of "the conversation".

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/why-movies-still-matter

...  Raftery’s fixation on “the pop-cultural conversation” and the “zeitgeist” is one that’s shared by the era, by the critical community at large, and this fixation yields its own predestined results. Modern cultural criticism gives rise to its own cultural artifacts, and the two fit together like a lock and key. As a work of criticism, Raftery’s essay is exemplary of the very phenomenon that he’s documenting—and that circularity, that self-fulfilling critical criterion, is the defining trait of the time.

The rise of so-called quality television has coincided with the advent of widespread access to the Internet, which is closely correlated with consumers’ level of education. The serial nature of serial television lent itself to online discussion—blogs, comments, e-mails, and then, a few years later, social-media postings—in a way that the one-time-only and freestanding experience of going to a movie doesn’t, at the same time that it also locked specifically into the new habits of the educated in a way that moviegoing didn’t.

The principal quality of quality TV has proven to be its ability to generate discourse—not just on the part of critics and viewers but on the part of journalists. As particular series, and television over all, became the subjects of widespread public discussion—discussion in the literal sense, of writers and viewers responding to each other—that discussion became news. Suddenly, television was propelled from the arts page to the front page, and that trend was accelerated by the nature of the shows. Their emphasis on stories and characters involving iconic phenomena in cultural history and hot-button issues of contemporary sociology and politics grabbed—and still grabs—hold of journalists’ nose for stories. Many series seem to exist only to present topics in ready-to-debate form; they are built to give rise to “think pieces,” which have become the dominant, if easily parodied, critical mode.

...

But I doubt anyone sees much need to write about the significance of Steve constantly breaking the fourth wall in every single episode of Blue's Clues he was in because the didactic nature of the program is so obvious to anyone who has seen even a single episode it would seem scarcely worth commenting on.

But it is worth commenting on because there's a sense in which no matter how arcane or somber a discussion about what happened to Sansa Stark on such-and-such an episode of Game of Thrones was there is a sense in which we're talking about a distinction of degree rather than quality between Game of Thrones-inspired conversaion on the one hand, and Blue's Clues-inspired conversation on the other.

And if Richard Brody had at some point been a viewer of Blue's Clues he could have made precisely this point in his recent piece at The New Yorker, although the difference might be that it might not seem urbane enough, perhaps, for an author at that august magazine to even admit to knowing what Blue's Clues is.  There's something else Brody hastened to mention about what he considers the distinction between politics and art, between culture and art:
...
Ultimately, democratic politics are a numbers game. Politics are what concern everyone, which is why “everyone” (i.e., those who create the “online chatter” and the “countless essays and arguments” by which Raftery measures importance) talks about politics. Art, by contrast, is what concerns one person, intimately. Culture is a matter of power; art is a matter of beauty. It’s also a matter of freedom—of spiritual freedom, of free-spiritedness—and so it’s also political, though not in any immediately recognizable way and, above all, not in any way that lends itself to the think-piece brand of discourse. The power of beauty, the impact of beauty on a single person, eludes discussion and invites silence, even as it incites something radically different from analysis: ecstasy. That’s the force behind the side of criticism that, if it’s any good at all, converges with the work of art by being itself a literary, poetic, philosophical inspiration.

To this someone could, perhaps, propose that in the end all art is political and perhaps Richard Brody could reply that if that's true then all art must also be propaganda.  That might even be true.

But we don't want to believe that "our" art is propaganda, do we?  Or do we? 

Brody gets at this idea that television is a medium suited to editorializing and if he's familiar with Jacques Ellul he might be familiar with Ellul's proposal that television, as part of mass media, was one of the tools available for propaganda and that education itself was a necessary pre-propaganda component of preparing a population to receive the real deal.  Ellul described film and television alike as a type of sociological propaganda promulgating the myths and ideals of a society.  A Richard Brody could scoff at specific iterations of film or television or criticism that purport to have "conversation" about any number of subjects, but the actual ideological values of American liberalism are probably not going to get thrown under the bus along the way.  They will be reaffirmed and a Brody will be concerned less that there might not be a foundation for these ideals than to be concerned that the ways they are promoted falls short of "art".

So, if the individual who perceives beauty can be affected/effected by it and this is what art does then what happens when a grown-up watches a Blue's Clues episode with a three-year old and notices that every time Steve would talk about how if Blue skidoos we can, too ...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JL-tnMR97E

that that jingle is remarkably similar to Thelonious Monk's Rhythm-a-ning:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OV0DNn5_NIA

Now I happen to love Monk's music so, for me, that the kind of musical ideas that Monk composed could so permeate a culture that they can emerge within the context of a show like Blue's Clues (not that I can clearly establish an influence), interests me.  Art depends on the power of associative long-term memory that can cooperate with and be directed by an experience.

Blue's Clues was, obviously, an explicitly didactic program. If you want to be curtly dismissive about it as a show you could say that the whole point of the show would be to fit into that taxonomy of propaganda Ellul might graph out as sociological (a television show for children) with integrative purposes (instructing children on how to work out cause and effect, employ the Socratic method, and to inculcate them in the ideology that says "you can be anything that you wanna be!  Do anything that you wanna do!"  There is arguably no more fundamentally American sentiment than that.

That there will likely be no parade of film critics and television critics spilling thousands of words about the show on its twentieth anniversary (though I could easily be proven wrong) isn't necessarily the thought I have here.  Blue's Clues is just one case of a larger pattern, and that pattern seems to be that film critics and television critics and cultural pundits, should they have so little to say about the show, may do so because in some sense there is a "grown up" belief that the purpose of "art" is so that grown-ups can assure themselves they have been disabused of the lies they were told by the educational programs they were exposed to as children.  The stuff for kids was propagandistic pap and now we get to trade out Blue's Clues for Game of Thrones

But if Brody's remarks about television criticism are anywhere close to on the mark ... then a whole lot of people have simply changed which television show has become the basis for talking about "here's what I learned today watching this TV show."  In that sense Blue's Clues might have had the honesty to admit that's the whole point up front.  Or perhaps when Steve pulled out the notebook and sat in the thinking chair he did all that for us so there was basically no point in grown-ups doing that because, let's not forget the obvious point that this was a show that emerged before the internet was widespread and relatively easy to get to.  But when we talk about TV or film on the internet and have a conversation it's not like we aren't in some sense those little kids watching the TV screen, listening to Steve and watching him as he pulls out his handy notebook while sitting in his thinking chair and connecting all the clues together for the observable message for that week. 

So if you're a twenty-something television critic or film critic you live in a conceptual/critical world that Blue's Clues played a role in creating, a role you may never have stopped to consider.  While you graduated to writing and talking about the grown-up TV, you may not have stopped to consider that this was all presented in its prototype form by a television show you may no longer even be able to remember watching when you were little.

I mean, if we want to have a conversation about the significance of television why talk about Game of Thrones or whatever else is on these days?  If we want to talk about the long-term impact of cisgender heteronormative white male patriarchal privilege we could talk about what Steve has to answer for and his brother Joe after him, right?  Of course the original idea was to have a female host but a good deal of television critical discourse tends to focus on what was made as distinct from what people wanted to make.  Exceptions can apparently be made for some shows with loyal followings a la Firefly.   But it seems doubtful so many years after that show wrapped that it can reignite as a franchise the way another television concept did that premiered fifty years ago today.

Blue's Clues was not the last word in integrative sociological propaganda nor the first.  If a television show can be described as a classic and defined as a formative cultural influence by the rabidity of its cult following then Blue's Clues is a mere also-ran in comparison to that show that said it would boldly go where no man had gone before. Between the 20th anniversary of Blue's Clues and the 50th anniversary of Star Trek I wonder if the TV shows that really sink in and saturate culture aren't the ones that aspire to be taken seriously but the ones who have a floor-level directly propagandistic educational message and never veer from it.  I mean, both TV shows went on to have movies, even if Blue's Big Musical Movie was kinda more direct-to-video than Star Trek: The Motion Picture

We can close with one of Brody's thoughts:

The possibility of making films independently and on a low budget is greater than ever, at exactly the moment that studios, following the lead of television, have turned their movies mainly into political allegories and statements precisely calculated to leap to the front pages and the op-ed section.

At the same time, the democratization of criticism online has had a crucial and positive effect on cinematic events. Today, there’s both more and better film criticism than ever; as a result, it’s less likely than ever that an extraordinary movie will go utterly unnoticed or be dismissed. But the breadth of a film’s distribution and its box-office take are no more measures of its merit than is the quantity of online discussion that it inspires. ...

Where Brody didn't go because he was only discussing filmed narrative is to a place where we can ask about whether or not "all art is political" holds water.  If all art is political then there's no point in not being as directly propagandistic in your art as possible, is there?  But then there's this other thing ... take experiments at arriving at a fusion of jazz with classical musical forms and idioms.  When we see that this aspiration toward that fusion began on both sides of the Iron Curtain we should ask what people are getting at proposing that art is political or necessarily engages the political;  if we grant that then what is the political significance of attempts by American and Soviet composers to arrive at a fusion of jazz and classical music despite explicitly political/ideological differences?  Brody has a proposed answer, the quest for beauty.  Whether or not people buy that potential answer can, this being the internet, be subject for conversation and debate.

Still, musing upon Brody's musing upon film criticism has had me thinking--what if twenty years ago today Blue's Clues laid a foundation for people to talk about what the TV episode just showed them and today's twenty-something arts bloggers and writers and TV critics don't realize that the "conversation" they may be having about whatever they're talking about today was shaped by a back-and-forth they may not remember having had as tots with a guy named Steve decades ago every day for a week? 

Sunday, September 04, 2016

postscript on the blog post about Dale E. Soden's Outsiders in a Promised Land book, revisiting what Driscoll wrote about the Dead Men/boot camp era and his explicit dismissal of theonomistic/Christian reconstructionism in 2006

Having mentioned earlier this weekend that Soden's description of the history of Mars Hill in general and Mark Driscoll in particular was refracted to its detriment by focusing and fixating entirely on Mark Driscoll, without so much as a serious mention of other figures in Mars Hill history, it seems worth mentioning that one of the other problems in Soden's account of Mars Hill within a chapter called "The Christian Right Strikes Back" is that it failed to mention the numerous instances in which Driscoll lambasted people whom scholars and historians would, in too casual a reading, consider co-beligerants with a Mark Driscoll in a culture war for socially conservative values.

Mark Driscoll's most infamous fusillade, "Pussified Nation" mentioned Promise Keepers and James Dobson within the first sentence as example of homoerotic failures as men, for those who actually read the whole thing.  However, it's important to remind readers that Mark Driscoll went back and referred to this era of Mars Hill history as a touchstone in the formation of the collective character of the men.  I've blogged extensively about aspects of "Dead Men" in the history of Mars Hill; about how the "Pussified Nation" phase constituted the beginning of a shift on Mark Driscoll's part into what I now call "markulinity", through which Driscoll implicitly and explicitly set himself up as the model of manhood to which Mars Hill men ought to aspire; how the William Wallace II persona could be seamlessly shifted out of by Mark Driscoll into his Pastor Mark voice without any observable shift in tone; and, in a topic I believe has been under-discussed, how we can draw upon Jacques Ellul's taxonomy of agitation and integration propaganda techniques as a way to understand Mark Driscoll as a nascent propagandist whose objectives were to incite and thereby discover which young men were eager to invest in the mission of social formation at Mars Hill and willing to join into the integrative rites of passage Driscoll had in mind.  What makes this lacuna of scholarly discussion so ridiculous is that for anyone who read Confessions of a Reformission Rev when it came out a decade ago, Mark Driscoll was actually pretty clear in delineating the basic points about all of that.

But what may be easily overlooked is that, whether or not we now consider it an entirely accurate account, is that Mark Driscoll formulated his narrative of how the "Dead Men" phase was formed on two grounds.  The first ground was that he began to notice what he called hyper-Calvinistic young guys who were fans of theonomy wanting to, as Driscoll implicitly frames the narrative, hijack the mission of Mars Hill Church.  The second ground was that since Driscoll recounted that he couldn't possibly take them all on at once he formulated a rite/ritual process by which they could be ridiculed for not coming up with sufficiently carefully argued cases for their positions.

Confessions of a Reformission Rev
copyright (c) 2006 by Msark Driscoll
ISBN-13: 978-0-310-27016-4
ISBN-10: 0-310-27016-2

[bold emphases added]
page 130
Some of the fired-up young guys went too far and started acting like young bucks in rutting season, wanting to lock horns with me and the elders. Many went into extreme forms of Calvinism and wanted to debate things like theonomy and other dumb things that only white guys with high-speed Internet connections to bizzare websites could get into and were causing division. If you don't know what theonomy is, don't worry, because you aren't really missing anything. Basically, it is the belief that the church should rule the world, including the banking system, government and so on, and enforce Old Testament law like Israel did. The young rabid Calvinists who were pushing for this doctrine did not yet own homes, most did not even have wives, and some still lived with their mothers. I tried to set them straight by telling them to get dominion over their room before they took over the world, but like most fools, they were not deterred.


pages 130-131
There were too many guys to fight individually, and I needed a way to fight them all at once. So in  an effort to clean u pthe mess, I started a weekly men-only meeting, which I named "Dead Men" adn which ran for a few months. I paired guys up to debate an assigned theological issue, and other guys in the audience would chuck things at them and mock them if their study was not good or their argument was not cogent. At the end of the debate, we would vote, declare a winner, and give him a mock prize and crown him with a Viking helmet. The men liked the competition and got into studying and debating theology.


When the hyper-Calvinists realized we weren't going to baptize their babies or talk about stupid stuff that detracts from mission, many of them left, which was a good thing because they were getting to be deadweight. Over the years, I've just accepted that if I do not quickly open the back door when God is trying to run people out of our church, I am working against God by keeping sick people in my church so that they can infect others. Indeed, the church is a body, and one of the most important parts is the colon. Like the human body, any church body without a colon is destined for sickness that leads to death.
...
page 131-132
...
We also began "boot camps" for our young men, teaching them how to get a wife, have sex with that wife, get a job, budget money, buy a house, father a child, study the Bible, stop looking at porn, and brew decent beer.  The buzz hit just as we opened the 7:00 p.m. Paradox service and the 10:00 a.m. service at the small church building, in addition to the 5:00 p.m. downtown service. I chose to preach on the most controversial practical life issues, such as dating, gender, work, kids, sex, money, and the like, in a long topical series from the book of Proverbs to continue fanning the fire that was burning in our church among the young men who had caught the vision to become patriarchs.

In other words, when I have proposed that what Mark Driscoll did with "Pussified Nation" and the subsequent "Dead Men" sessions and boot camps was a one-two punch of agitation and then integration propaganda to assimilate willing participants and to deliberately alienate people whom Driscoll considered "off mission", this is not me speculatively pulling ideas out of thin air because I happened to read Ellul.  This is actually stuff Mark Driscoll pretty explicitly laid out for us in narrative form a decade ago that happens to be explicable in terms of the concepts regarding the nature and use of propagandistic techniques Ellul articulated half a century ago. 

And if Mark Driscoll repudiated theonomistic/postmillennialist ideas in the most dismissive possible way it would be difficult to make a compelling or competent case that Mark Driscoll in particular, let alone Mars Hill in general, is explicable in terms of more conventional concerns from some scholars or members of the press about what they call the Christian Right.  It's also impossible to take at face value any suggestion that Mark Driscoll could be understood in explicitly Christian reconstructionist terms because even if he explicitly said young men were interested in being patriarchs and even if he proposed what could be considered conservative or retrograde gender politics, Mark Driscoll's own views may be too idiosyncratic and personal to be explicable on the basis of other categories of thought like theonomy or Christian reconstructionism.  Driscoll's own self-understanding had his views as being more moderate because while he was opposed to women being pastors he was not opposed to women serving as deacons. 

For that matter, when Mark Driscoll recounted how he became resentful of Grace for neglecting him in his 2006 book it wasn't about the lack of sex he would recount in his 2012 book.

Instead, Confessions gave us the following:
page 101-102

During this season my wife, Grace, also started to experience a lot of serious medical problems. her job was very stressful, and between her long hours at the office and long hours at the church, her body started breaking down. I felt tremendously convicted that I had sinned against my wife and had violated the spirit of 1 Timothy 5:8, which says that if a man does not provide for his family he has denied his faith and has acted in a manner worse than an unbeliever. I repented to Grace for my sin of not making enough money and having her shoulder any of the financial burden for our family.  We did not yet have elders installed in the church but did have an advisory council in place, and I asked them for a small monthly stipend to help us make ends meet, and I supplemented our income with outside support and an occasional speaking engagement.

Shortly thereafter, Grace gave birth to our first child, my sweetie-pie Ashley. Up to this point Grace had continuously poured endless hours into the church. She taught a women's Bible study, mentored many young women, oversaw hospitality on Sundays, coordinated meals for new moms recovering from birth, and organized all of the bridal and baby showers. Grace's dad had planted a church before she was born and has remained there for more than forty years. Her heart for ministry and willingness to serve was amazing. But as our church grew, I felt I was losing my wife because we were both putting so many hours into the church that we were not connecting as a couple like we should have. I found myself getting bitter against her because she would spend her time caring for our child and caring for our church but was somewhat negligent of me. [emphases added]

So by Mark Driscoll's account, there was a period before and after Ashley Driscoll's birth during which he resented his wife Grace and being bitter against her because she was so busy being a mother and operating in service and hospitality to people in the church she was neglecting him.  If there was some ambiguity or vagueness about what kind of neglect this included back in 2006 all possible room for doubt got removed in the 2012 book Real Marriage, where Mark Driscoll explicitly said Grace was "not enough" for him sexually.

The other element that had to have been exasperating for Driscoll was that on top of all this, Grace Driscoll, with her background in public relations, was more the functional breadwinner of the Driscoll household than Mark himself was.  Driscoll repented of not making as much money as his wife by negotiating for more income, although if Driscoll took his own interpretive approach to the pastoral epistles seriously he should have considered himself disqualified from ever serving in ministry.  Had he actually lived consistently with his own stated convictions on those issues he would have resigned ministry at Mars Hill around 1999.  Obviously that's not what his practical definition of repentance looked like. Not all of us who consider ourselves moderately conservative Protestants even think his take on that passage in 1 Timothy is a competent or responsible reading of the text.

The other detail about the 1999-2002 period of Mars Hill history to keep in mind is that during the season in which Mark Driscoll was working to integrate the willing and alienate the contentious with his fusillades against unmanly men, he was also renting out space in his home to a few single guys.

http://wenatcheethehatchet.blogspot.com/2014/07/pussified-nation-in-context-of_29.html

The tension between the ideal striven towards and the reality literally on the ground is something that scholars and historians may never catch up to if they stick with the kinds of boiled down pre-built narratives Soden brought to the history of Mars Hill when Soden got around to mentioning it.


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