I know there's no getting around the fact that this blog, to the extent that it's known about at all, is usually for one general topic, the life and times of Mars Hill but particularly its leadership culture. People who've already read this blog over the last ten years probably know the drill but I was at Mars Hill early enough in its history to have met not just Mark Driscoll but also Mike Gunn and Lief Moi. I also got to know a variety of people from that church community over the last ... wow ... it's actually approaching twenty years now ...
that can make a person feel old.
We're nearing the 20th anniversary of that Mars Hill feature in Mother Jones magazine where Mark said he was a very confrontational guy, not some pansy-ass therapist. A lot has changed and these days he's more about "father wound" and more or less lightly treading the subject of the only church prior to The Trinity Church that anyone would have any reason to know him for.
He said it was all about Jesus and for a time many of us thought that's what he meant, and maybe he even meant it for a time. Over time, particularly over the course of two decades, it may be proposed that what Mark Driscoll is about is legacy. For those who would call the church a cult from start to finish I'm not interested in contesting that, I'm more interested in posing a question that former members may have already settled for themselves but that those attempting to wrestle with the sea of information connected to the former church may benefit from reading about--if Mars Hill was a cult it couldn't sell a person what they weren't willing to buy, so what did they think they were investing into when they joined?
If you can't honestly answer for yourself what you were looking for when you signed on you won't honestly be able to tell yourself what a better alternative to that may be. To put things another way, if you were part of a cult and came to realize you were part of a cult that's just a point of arrival. What that point of arrival won't accomplish for you is making you less susceptible to operant conditioning. To put it still another way, just because you think you've stopped drinking the proverbial kool-aid doesn't mean you won't start drinking even more kool-aid based entirely on a different food coloring for the beverage that doesn't change the nature of what it is you've committed to as defined by how you commit to it.
As I see things, the alternative to a Mark Driscoll message can't be a Dan Savage message because in the end those two guys are the same kind of person. If you were a Twitter warrior for Mars Hill four or five years ago becoming a Twitter warrior on behalf of whatever cause you think is "opposite" Mark Driscoll is a mistake. I probably don't need to highlight too much just how much blogging I did inspired by Jacques Ellul's Propaganda over the last couple of years in connection to Mars Hill beyond a tag label. Not merely in passing, Ellul's book primarily addressed the topic of propaganda in political and educational contexts, yet his proposals about the nature and effectiveness of propagandistic techniques are so relevant to contemporary megachurch cultural dynamics I would propose that every Christian who is or has been part of a megachurch culture should consider reading Ellul's book.
I don't think it can be emphasized enough that what many Americans consider to be the activity of a megachurch pastor, or the activity of a social media savvy Christian in general, needs to be understood as a form of propagandistic activity. Most of the analyses I've seen attempted at highlighting the problems in the outrage cycle and how Christians in particular use social media and online networks to stump for these or those social or political causes fixate on the psychological dynamics they are afraid are being cultivated; some of those analyses even fret about the nature of the media usage but I don't think I've seen Christian bloggers say that the danger of using a blog or a Twitter handle or a Facebook platform to stump for this or that cause is that, if you're not explicitly marketing something, you're very likely participating in social media as a propagandist.
I've had more than a few criticisms of Mark Driscoll's approach to interpreting the Bible, and all sorts of other things but when I say I think that Mark Driscoll should be thought of not as a pastor but as a propagandist I grant that he's refined a formidable set of skills in the service of being a propagandist who is disguised as a pastor. He's been so upfront through his internal talks with Mars Hill leadership as documented here and elsewhere about the nature of his media use and philosophy of media use that what separates him from other megachurch pastors and celebrity Christians is that he has, whether you love him or not, made the nature of the media use so transparent he lampshades it. Driscoll is not so much unusual as a propagandist figure for simply being one but by highlighting this in his career at so many levels that if he were a television character he's broken the fourth wall about how he does what he's done.
And, frankly, for that I'm sincerely grateful. Read through the tagged posts on Ellul and Mars Hill, read those statements Driscoll made about social media channel usage and compare that to Ellul's definition of a propagandist and I'd say that I didn't even really have to make a case that Driscoll was a propagandist rather than a pastor because Driscoll described his media usage in essentially propagandistic terms.
One of the upshots of Ellul's book was to warn that in technological societies such as ours propaganda was not even optional and that if the Church embraced it then it would stop being the Church and serve whatever ideologies were dominant in the propagandistic era.
Another way to unpack that proposal is to say that Ellul was in some sense warning us about the emergence of what some in the Christian blogging and media sphere call the Christian industrial complex. In this complex, however, opposites are not necessarily based on a Matthew Paul Turner vs a Mark Driscoll or a Rachel Held Evans vs a Mark Driscoll or John Piper. No, these oppositions that appear to hold on paper are more apparent than actual in terms of what role these people play in the Christian media establishment.
Look, I'll put it this way, when Rachel Held Evans had her "Mark Driscoll is a bully, stand up to him" I was cynical about the sincerity of the ploy not because I don't believe she considers Driscoll to be a bully. No, my cynicism was about how it seemed that Evans only made a public relations point of standing in opposition to Driscoll when it was time for one of her books to hit the market. The substance of her engagement with Mark Driscoll's ideas was ... well ... kind of insubstantial. It was not Rachel Held Evans but Janet Mefferd who confronted Mark Driscoll on air with allegations of plagiarism.
And for those who remember the 2011 online "incident" that catalyzed Rachel Held Evans' outcry, something to do with fishing for anecdotes about the most effeminate anatomically male worship leaders in church services, Driscoll revealed he was trying to "start a conversation" and that somehow he didn't have the platform he needed to do that in spite of being a megachurch pastor with a blog and podcasts and things like that. So ... he was going to address the big issues at Pastor Mark TV and in a forthcoming book about marriage called .... Real Marriage.
Here in 2017 I look back on 2011 and it seems like Mark Driscoll and Rachel Held Evans found it convenient to use their outrage cycles to promote their books. Something that Christian pundits who decry the outrage cycle keep skating over when they condemn the lack of charity is a seeming refusal to admit that these kind of stoking the fires for the willing market is the whole damned point in media production and promotional terms. Take Mark and Grace Driscoll's book on Real Marriage, there's a river of marriage books out there already. If by the grace of God you somehow benefited from reading that book I don't want to take that way from you and, obviously, I can't. But if the Gospel Coalition crew really cared about promoting the writings of the Reformers wouldn't they spend that money on, I dunno, translating and distributing the works of Bullinger and some of the continental Reformers whose works are not yet translated into English? As the Driscoll plagiarism controversy unfurled for us who were ... well ... involved in documenting that, a lot of what passed for insight in Driscoll's books was recycling and re-presenting ideas from other, better books spanning the last ten to twenty odd years. If what passes for popular level Christian book writing and selling in Anglo American contexts turned out to be cannibalizing old stuff in the hopes that people won't notice or that people will buy the old stuff can't any new Calvinist just go to monergism.org or even archive.org and just download a bunch of Richard Sibbes? The Bruised Reed really is great.
I got the feeling in the last few years in the post Mars Hill meltdown that the Christian media industry peanut gallery pretended that the problem was unaccountable bloggers and pundits when I don't think that's ultimately a particularly important issue compared to the conduct of the Christian publishing industry and associated systems. The outrage cycle is business as usual. Seeing how Driscoll and Evans played each other as catalysts for mobilizing their own respective fan bases by way of a lather, rinse and repeat cycle of online outrage was illuminating to consider over the last six years, but illuminating in mostly a bad way.
I'm not talking about scholars arguing in a scholarly way, that's been going on for as long as there have been scholars. I get that, I really do.
I'm talking about something else. If you're a Christian complaining about the liberal or conservative media while hashtagging on Twitter you might want to ask yourself why you're complaining about the paid professionals who are doing professionally what you're voluntarily doing at your own expense. The irony of a celebrity Christian blogger like Mark Driscoll venting frustration at Christian bloggers being uncharitable was an irony so rich that if it were a cake you'd have to have a one eighth inch slice so as to not overwhelm your taste buds. Almost no church in the last twenty years was more famous than Mars Hill was for social media savvy and yet Driscoll would inveigh against bloggers. Justin Dean's book features some frustration with bloggers yet he, too, has done blogging and podcasting. Apparently all this stuff is just fine as long as it's being done by guys (preferably guys) and gals who are already working in the Christian media and publishing industries. It's maybe just tolerable for Joe or Jane Christian if you know where they live, in church terms, but that's less than ideal.
At this point I would mention that I've been part of a PCA church for the last six years or so, so if at any point Mars Hill leadership tried to indicate that I wasn't in submission to spiritual authority or wasn't a member of a church it wouldn't be hard to invite friends to visit me at the church I attend to catch up on stuff. The laundry list of reasons a celebrity Christian blogger of a neo-Calvinist stripe would say you shouldn't trust this blog didn't apply. The MH leaders couldn't say I wasn't Reformed enough or didn't have solid enough theology (I was recruited to the Theology Response Team to answer questions on behalf of the MH elders by a deacon and an elder more than a decade ago). They also couldn't say I wasn't part of a local church. They couldn't say I was bitter because I was denied this or that leadership role in the church because I've never wanted to actually be in formal ministry at any level. This conventional list of complaints about Christian bloggers that neo-Calvinists tend to trot out on the internet wasn't applicable to me and the hundreds if not thousands of people from Mars Hill who had any idea who I was could work this out for themselves, I didn't even need to tell them.
I've got maybe not even a tenth of the blog traffic this year that I had back in 2014 and that's great. I love that the blog isn't mainly about the Mars Hill scene. Of course I plan to leave everything I've ever blogged about Mars Hill over the last decade up for consultation. I've been happy to get back to blogging about the stuff I wanted to blog about before I felt obliged to chronicle things about Mars Hill. Nobody could make a compelling case that "all" this blog has ever been about was attacking Mars Hill or Mark Driscoll. The paradox is that in many cases the Christian bloggers who lament the kinds of glib analyses they see being promulgated online, who are worried about the "hot take" culture, are often ... heh ...
Blogger activists and anti-blogger blogging activists are using the same range of tools to make their respective points but in many a case these Christian bloggers and anti-bloggers don't realize how similar their spiritual fruit and range of polemical styles overlap. The most tedious bromide from conservative Christian bloggers and pundits I've heard and seen over the last fifteen years is that immersion in this or that pop culture product or social media system keeps people from being grown up.
For those who were part of Mars Hill and have left it the last thing you might want to be doing is taking up a cause to fight for on the internet if, a mere three to five years ago the cause you were constantly advocating for was Mars Hill and your investment of yourself in it. What happens in a society like ours is that when people stop drinking one kind of kool-aid they don't really stop drinking kool-aid, they just change the color of the kool-aid to some other cause. As Ellul put it, when people change teams they don't stop absorbing propaganda, they simply start absorbing propaganda for a different cause. So a person who was a complementarian at Mars Hill might become a feminist, the problem is that if you reduce Mars Hill to an ideological checklist and that's that you have completely failed to understand how profoundly a culture like that shapes who you are. It's never just "what" it's the mind-shaping immersion of the "how".
Think of it this way, former Mars Hill member, if you haven't in some sense detoxified a mass-media fueled, social media participating activist conception of public righteousness that defines who you are then it doesn't matter whether you're throwing yourself into a blue state civic religion or a red state civic religion you'll be serving an antichrist worse than whatever it was you served within the confines of Mars Hill. It doesn't matter if you wanted to make America great again or affirm "I'm with her". Driscoll's propagandistic method was small time by comparison.
Let me see if I can try to approach this indirectly by way of a reflection on what's known as the "hot take" approach to social issues in social media. It could be applicable to the first person industrial complex/personal essay approach as well.
The Christian "hot take" blog or podcast needs to be understood as part and parcel of a cultural system of content generation and content promotion. You know ... in a way I gotta give Justin Dean credit for spelling this out in his book about PR. What makes Mars Hill a special church culture in 21st century American terms is how explicitly is leadership culture kept publishing content about how and why they're propagandists and how and why, if you want your church to thrive, you should totally be one, too, or hire someone who is. But, ahem ...
In evangelical terms there's basically one of two paths at work:
1) a Christian with a modicum of celebrity is inveighing on a topic to agitate a base
2) a Christian with a modicum of celebrity is talking to another Christian about a product on sale or a cause to invest in
That's ... pretty much it, right there.
When Jesus said to take care you don't do your righteous deeds for acclaim the warning can apply to social media use, even though it's arguable that in making use of social media you're never doing anything except advertising something. That's it. That's what social media is remarkably useful for, promoting stuff if not outright selling stuff. Every time you use social media of any kind ask yourself "Why am I willing to sell this?" Because selling is what you're doing. It's fine if you believe in the cause but, and this is the point I've been hammering away at here, you need to also ask yourself if you being a propagandist is the best way to use your time. Ellul wrote half a century ago that there was this thing called sociological propaganda and that it was immensely difficult to produce and distribute at a state controlled top down level. Well, that was half a century ago. Ellul was not in a position to anticipate that the majority of what goes on in the blogosphere and social media usage, as I'm seeing it in the Christian media industry scene but even more so in political activity, is sociological propaganda.
Sociological propaganda is what you let the rabid fans of the brand do on your behalf and all you hae to do in a gatekeeping capacity is to say a few things that provide them with an incentive to do their own thing. Mars Hill members who plugged into social media got fantastic at creating sociological propaganda whether they knew that was what they were doing or not. If your righteousness is demonstrated by what you post on social media feeds first and foremost then, hey, you're like Mark Driscoll! Sweet. You're like Rachel Held Evans! You're like any celebrity Christian who can use social media to sell something and you're doing it at your own time and expense. Maybe it's for a great cause addressing social inequality or the decline of Christian doctrine. My warning is that if you don't abandon this "how" of being a social media advocate online even if you've left Mars Hill then at a social, emotional and spiritual level you're still acting like a Mars Hill member even if you think you've repudiated the official platform of ideas you picked up there.
Which is another way of warning that if you're a former Mars Hill member you could still manifest the training of that culture in how you use social media and relate to people through it, reflecting the cultural training you got inside Mars Hill. The longer you were there and the more immersed you were in that leadership culture the worse you're likely still going to be unless you step back long enough to understand what being a lay or vocational propagandist in a social media context might mean.
Last year Joe Carter wrote about "pseudo-events". It's possible to read a pseudo-event as a publicity stunt, which, of course, it is, but pseudo events probably constitute a more virtual stunt. No, I think I take that back, I hesitate to call pseudo-events publicity stunts because I think that a pseudo-event is ... well, you can read Carter first.
The Christian media complex isn't addicted to pseudo-events, pseudo-events are simply the new norm for marketing. You see that two option summary of what goes on in Christian punditry earlier? Well, anything that isn't a front and center explicit sales pitch for a product is going to be the outrage machine that drums up demand for a sales pitch for a product that addresses the topic that is most often brought up in the pseudo-event, often a person and the person as a representation or distillation of a set of ideas or behaviors. Mark Driscoll is a bully! Stand up to him ... by buying my book! I don't have a set of platforms that can adequately give me an occasion to pontificate on marriage above and beyond my pulpit and blogs and twitter and Facebook and Instagram and ... anyway ... in order to really talk about important issues a guy needs a dedicated web page and also to promote this book.
When people who are the movers and shakers within the Christian media industry itself get indignant about amateurs using the same tools they use in the professional scene to similar ends, but particularly when the amateurs raise objections to the lather, rinse and repeat cycle of production promotion passing itself off as spiritual life, the outrage may be more that there are Christians who object to the idea of the constant rebel sell itself. Don't prove to me your a Christian by how you're willing to sell me something on social media that might be a cause you really, seriously believe in. Show that you're a Christian by how you treat people.
When the guys at the Gospel Coalition so often embody the very sales pitch methods and pseudo-events they find frustrating in others it's impossible to take them seriously, just as its impossible to take a Rachel Held Evans seriously or even Matthew Paul Turner. The longer I spend time blogging and reading blogs and considering what celebrity Christians who use social media have to say about it when the shoe is on the other foot the harder I find it to believe they can say a lot in good faith. Frequently the people most upset about how other people seem to be misusing or misshaped by social media activity are themselves symptomatic of the problems they see in others.
Now, obviously, I am absolutely all in and all for Christians using blogs and social media with a social responsibility paradigm of serving the public good and loving neighbor. Clearly I believe that's an important thing Christians should do. But that is not the same thing as being in sales mode or stirring up anger so that the angry base can then be sold on a product they've been primed to want to buy.
So part of my scaling back of blogging activity is that I don't feel like I need to blog as much this year, I don't feel like blogging as much because it takes away time from reading and composing, and because I'm not eager to be part of what I now regard as the Christian blogosphere's fixation on outrage production and sales promotion. I guess I' m saying that I believe blogging can and should be used in the promotion of education and the public good and not just a blunt instrument for sociological propaganda of the sort that is the aim of red state and blue state civic religions that masquerade as the Christian faith.
You also can't really blog as fast if you're doing the kind of musical analysis I've been doing or getting back into writing about films now and then.
The last year or so has not been particularly pleasant or encouraging and there have been some things in the offline world that came up that made the prospect of writing as much as I used to less appealing.
Nevertheless, obviously I blogged a couple hundred posts this year. Fittingly enough, we kicked off the year 2017 at Wenatchee The Hatchet looking back at Frank Turk's quitting blogging at Pyromanics.
Frank Turk at Pyromaniacs on calling it a day on blogging, which inspires some more thoughts on what some call watchblogging
For those who aren't already familiar with what I mean by talking about red state and blue state civic religions there's this piece:
revisiting the "Deadlock of American civic religions" ide, Americans de-churching from the institutional church doesn't mean for a moment they'll be rejecting the red or blue state civic religions
Whereas 20 years ago I really enjoyed Buffy the Vampire Slayer my interest in the series cooled steadily and even quickly after the end of season 3. I explained a bit of that and why I've come to believe that Joss Whedon is kind of an overhyped one-trick pony over at the following post.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer at year 20
Now one of my favorite blog posts from 2017, easily, would also have to be the least user-friendly post for anyone who doesn't have fun reading musicology books at a grad school level.
On the possibilities of spatial-temporal correspondence between the syntactics of ragtime and sonata forms
One of my projects in the last few years has been working to formulate a fusion of the syntactic procedures of sonata forms with the style of ragtime, blues, and country. There's a lot of theoretical reflection and compositional work that has to go into a project like that. It's been one of the things I've been slowly working at accomplishing in the last twenty years. It was the kind of thing I meant to start writing about seriously in 2011 but, as anyone who's read the blog between 2011 and 2015 knows, a bunch of stuff at Mars Hill happened. But this year and last I've managed to get more into blogging in a serious way about music and the arts more generally.
Of course ... seeing as somebody still insists on a media presence and has a legacy that has been ... interpreted a bit post-resignation, it was necessary to provide a long-form analysis of the interview Mark Driscoll did with Sheila Walsh. The video went down quickly after initial release and it's only accessible via Driscoll's platform last I saw, but there's an extensive analysis with links (which may or may not work now) in this series of tagged post.
on the Walsh/Robison interview with Mark Driscoll
Since this year was also the 25th anniversary of Batman: the animated series, it seemed good to run with all the content I wrote for Mockingbird for the 20th anniversary years ago. If memory serves (and it might not) the versions at this blog are the longer, less edited-down versions of what Mbird ran years ago. I remember the end of the Clayface essay was truncated at Mbird in a way that I hoped wouldn't happen. If you want to read all the originally published works at Mockingbird that whole set of essays is called Batman: The Agony of Loss and the Madness of Desire.
Not that anyone exactly asked me but if someone were to ask me what I had the most fun writing in all of my time as a blogger I'd have to say it was writing about Batman: the animated series for Mockingbird. I had a blast writing it, even though it was actually ... pretty difficult. One of my college buddies read the series years ago and told me he thought it was funny that I wrote about Batman cartoons just as seriously as I would write about Dostoevsky. Well, yeah! I love Dostoevsky, too! I even think that for all its warts here and there that Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy is the closest thing to an adaptation in spirit we'll get for a Dostoevsky story. The more time goes by I can appreciate BTAS even with its shortcomings of clunkily written episodes and some takes on characters I didn't always warm up to. You can't understand the last twenty years of American animation on television without getting a sense of how much BTAS and The Simpsons opened the floodgates to a new approach to animation. I take Dini and Timm's series seriously as art because they made it clear that what they wanted to do with the series was treat it as a work of art and not just something to distract the kids in the afternoon. It shows and the show has held up for decades since it came out.
Another less charming anniversary came this year.
regarding the 10th anniversary of Mark Driscoll's "Fathers and Fighting"; two firings and their context; and Driscoll's explication of powers and providences published or presented in 2008 in the vein of "I see things" and how distrust of his executive elder team was wrong
There were a few deaths this year. Nat Hentoff passed but for classical guitarists the most noteworthy passing was more recent, the death of Matanya Ophee. Ophee's lecture "Repertoire Issues" was something I read in transcript at G.A.L.I. on Ophee's website way, way back in 1999 and it changed my life.
I started composing a cycle of chamber sonatas for the guitar with woodwinds, strings and brass. It's supposed to have about twenty-four duo sonatas in it by the time I'm finished. Ophee's admonition to guitarists was that we have no inferiority complex about what our instrument and its literature has to offer. I started getting an idea to write 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar over the years and eventually finished that cycle, and arranged it for guitar duet. I've been working on creating another cycle of 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar since 2015. Knowing that a lot of people just don't like fugues I know the stuff won't be to everyone's liking and it's an esoteric niche, but I've managed to conclude to my own satisfaction, if no one else's necessarily, that fully convertible counterpoint on solo guitar in every major and minor key is absolutely possible and even practical.
I really, really wanted to write about Nikita Koshkin's 24 preludes and fugues for solo guitar which were published this year. They deserve to be written about and they deserve to be heard, but this was, sadly, not the year to have things together enough to blog in that way, not the way I would like to write about the cycle.
Nor did I write about John Borstlap's The Classical Revolution as I'd intended.
There's no review of PR Matters by Justin Dean, that may as well wait for 2018, too.
I also meant to write about a few other things but those things are incubating.
I did a little bit of writing over at Mbird this year, though.
We kicked off contribution to Mockingbird by being unimpressed with The Red Turtle. The film was pretty but vacant, an uninspired entry in what I'd now probably describe as a mollifying art religion for what a bohemian bourgeois. Yeah ... that might be a harsh way of putting it but the film was a real disappointment.
If you want to see a film that manages to be visually gorgeous and surreal and riffs on connection and spirituality in a way that's vastly more interesting than The Red Turtle go rent Your Name. The subject of incompetent Western remakes of anime classics real or merely cult is going to be something I hope to tackle in 2018 because, man, that Ghost in the Shell remake was lame but in many respects no lamer than the original. But I might be able to demonstrate by example that a film like Oshii's original Ghost in the Shell is a cult classic because of the stream of ideas that film critics can write about the film that the new film shuts off. I've written a lot in bits and pieces about how the art religion envisioned by 19th century artists has mutated into a kind of meta-art religion of arts criticism and I'd unpack more of what I think that means but it's easier to do that as part of another project I've been incubating. It's probably going to make its way into what would be considered an unpardonable sin in the art religion of arts criticism Decalogue of writing about the Michael Bay Transformers franchise. Yeah, they're terrible movies but they're terrible in a very special way that film critics don't want to understand.
Meant to tackle that this year but ... well ... see ... I'm not going to get at my attempts to read Gadamer's Truth and Method as part of that project so let's just move on.
I actually really liked the new Wonder Woman movie, though--yet it was fascinating to read film critics and social commentators find Diana wanting in light of her perceived debt to real feminists and real feminism and some went so far as to say it was Americanist propaganda ... as if that problem in Marston's creation was somehow not emblazoned in the costume. But I digress.
Another superhero film I saw and thought was ... okay ... was the new Spiderman film. The cake was tasty and yet it has a strange aftertaste which was the subject of this essay.
I guess now that I've written all this out even a "fallow" year for me involves a lot of writing.