Thursday, June 14, 2018

a postlude to my review of Jessica Johnson's Biblical Porn, thinking of Mars HIll as a kind of "participatory dictatorship"

So regular readers of this blog will probably recognize that one of my areas of hobbyist reading is music from the Soviet Union and associated regions.  I like a good bit of music from central and eastern Europe as well as Russian music.  I'm particularly fond of music by guitarist composers from the Balkans region that long-time readers should already know.  And I love me some Bartok and some Tansman and Shostakovich and, you get the idea.
And I've also read a bit of Solzhenitsyn in my life.  So I'm starting into a book called Composing The Party Line by David Tompkins. It's about music and politics in early Cold War Poland and eastern Germany.  I've just been in the early chapters as reading goes. 
Nevertheless I've already been struck with a concept, attributed to Mary Fulbrook, that's known as "participatory dictatorship".  If you want to read a blog post discussing the concept swing on by over here.
As I've been thinking about Jessica Johnson's book Biblical Porn I think the book is a valuable read but I also feel more, now that I've finished the book, that for me the most useful reference points for Mars Hill's more cultic dynamics is to cross reference to Soviet era history and, of course, Jacques Ellul's writings about propaganda. 
Even though I get the usefulness and currency of a term like "affect" I'm not sure that could convey to someone who wasn't a part of what Mars Hill once was what it was like.  By contrast, a concept like "participatory dictatorship" does.  In such a system there is, if you will ,the apparatus of the state but the implementation of the life of the society is undertaken by small groups and regional leaders.  Andrew Lamb, for instance, was disciplined at a campus level.  When Mars Hill leadership tried to get in touch with Wenatchee The Hatchet it was through email, messaging, and in one case a certified letter.  A lot of the regular life of the church culture was mediated and sustained by small groups (aka community groups).  There was also a sea of internet activity by way of The City or, in earlier pre-2007 re-org days the internally notorious Midrash, both its original un-moderated form and its 2.0 version that was ... sort of ... moderated.
What I'm trying to convey is that there was at least some level of personal investment and initiative for men and women at the various levels of cultural/social mediation.  There was, of course, a glass ceiling about eldership and sacerdotal service options for women but if one could have participated in the members-only Midrash before The City was introduced one could find that men and women could and did have lively interaction.  The level at which that happened was, so to speak, the ground level. 
Now this is a mere blog post so I'm not trying to make a scholarly defense of Fulbrook's nomenclature and the historiography associated with that term so much as proposing that a "participatory dictatorship" could be a way to understand cultic dynamics in regimes, whether ecclesial or more formally political.  The dictatorship has the top dog but the real-world implementation depends on the initiative and personal interests of every small group leader, on-line group moderator, and every infrastructural gatekeeper who could play a role in granting, administrating or revoking access to online or in-person participation in the community that was known as Mars Hill.  It can be so easy to assume that a judicial system hinges on judges that it can be easy to forget every lawyer, clerk, receptionist or court stenographer involved in the whole process of a case. 
Put that way all Wenatchee The Hatchet on the subject of Mars Hill may amount to is a kind of blogged stenography of the peak and fall of Mars Hill in the court of public opinion. 
This is hardly to suggest that was "nothing" as an accomplishment.  I'm also not trying to suggest that Driscoll and the upper echelons didn't exercise an essentially totalitarian practice. I am, however, proposing for the record that we who were part of Mars Hill over its many years can find it far too easy to exonerate all the levels of operatives necessary for the implementation of an empire that was increasingly branded as Mark Driscoll's own brand and legacy.  The danger of distilling all that was Mars Hill on to Driscoll is that he can be scapegoated for a system that, repressive as it was capable of being, depended on thousands of people to implement.  People had to have some level of autonomy and personal initiative to get the cultural system to work.  Johnson's book articulates the promise of nookie for pious conformity, but in a sense that would have been most salient to those who were NOT married.  Once married the new expectations were you'd best be volunteering.  Volunteering was urged on the unmarried with the pretext that men and women would find their respective spouses in ministry service where you could "go with the one in front of you" (an actual axiom strewn throughout talks at Mars Hill in the 2002 to 2005 period).  Volunteering was urged on the married because this was your legacy, too. 
Even if we impute epic levels of preference falsification for all the people from the weekend volunteer through the community group leaders to admin at campuses there were hundreds of people in the corporate structure of Mars Hill and thousands of volunteers who made the system run.  A web an informal observers and commenters could create a cultural idiom in which people would, as Johnson could observe in her book, think twice about expressing a variety of ideas in a given context.  As Mars Hill has dissolved in the last few years a few people have shared how they felt silenced and sidelined within the Mars Hill culture.  This I don't doubt but the thing about Mars Hill was that being silenced and being able to silence may have been a more reciprocal dynamic than can be conveyed in blog posts or in-person conversation, which is something else Johnson's book makes reference to.
I was not interested in being in formal leadership during my time at Mars Hill but I can't say I wasn't in a position of influence at an informal level.  It's possible that I had somehow acquired a substantial amount of informal influence or "soft power" regardless of how much formal authority I never accumulated because that didn't interest me.  I guess I could put it this way, people with connections to Mars Hill who recognize who I am could recognize that I'd met the three co-founding pastors of Mars Hill; could recognize that I have a ... moderate educational background in theology (nothing particularly formal); and that I had been recruited by elders and deacons to serve in a variety of volunteer capacities.  So I had a role to play in what I'm describing as a "participatory dictatorship".  One of the recurring messages I got in the years before I left Mars Hill was that I came across as ruthless and cold-blooded.  That began to trouble me and by 2008 I began to have doubts about renewing my membership that had percolated since 2007 so I just didn't renew.  By 2008-2009 I felt that the problems people said I had in how I related to people were serious enough that if I was going to change my ways it wasn't going to be at Mars Hill where what people said were my bad habits in relating to people seemed to be prized within the leadership culture.  So I left, although with the favor and blessings of my campus pastor.  For the Mars Hill people who know the names there's zero surprise to that but I don't wish to bore people with the details.
All that is to say that I had to reach a point where I had to see myself as having a lower tier cultural enforcer type role, however absurdly informal it was.  I had joked in the past about how "reverse engineering your life" with a set of five-year plans seemed ridiculous and Soviet-like, but by the 2007-2009 period I found it harder to joke about Mars Hill centralized planning resembling some kind of quasi-Soviet regime because, well, the boot fit! 
It took hundreds, eventually, to implement the formal apparatus of what was once Mars Hill but it took an entire culture of thousands to implement the ethos and praxis in the proverbial trenches and the people who did this did it as much for personal reasons as to appease some expectation.  Mark Driscoll and the other leaders could not sell us on anything we did not already want to buy but what that was varied with each of us who invested ourselves in what was once Mars Hill.  Diffusion of responsibility meant that there was a diffusion of agency at a local level. 
Guiding conversation in a community group was a way to exert a form of influence, however small the group might be. Participating in Midrash could be the same way, let alone moderating a forum on Midrash or a group on The City.  If you have enough hundreds or even thousands able to wield this small thoroughly local level of cultural influence and reward initiative and provide feedback for comments and the entire cultural apparatus that could be in place for a church discipline scenario could be inculcated and incubated over the course of years.  But the signal, terrible mistake to make about such a culture is to assume and presume that its power was in the top-down edict.  That's not how the power dynamics worked.  There was more likely a tacitly as well as explicitly negotiated quid pro quo across levels of leadership at formal and informal levels. 
Let me put it this way, it's not like the identity of Wenatchee The Hatchet was unknown within the ranks of Mars Hill so there were times in the 2012-2013 period prior to the Mefferd interview where I might be riding on public transit and feel a bit ill at ease if someone who still seemed enthusiastically part of Mars Hill might end up on the same route.  It was preferable to not talk about Mars Hill on public transit for the simple reason that many people despised the church and what they felt it represented.  But at another level loyalists to Mars Hill weren't the sorts of people I'd feel comfortable just sitting near on a bus if they were potentially going to get confrontational.  Sure, the church at its zenith had 14,000 some people possibly counting children or not but it was not altogether possible to know how many might connect the dots.  In retrospect there may have been hundreds or even thousands of people who already knew perfectly well who blogs at Wenatchee The Hatchet that just had nothing to say or do and things were fine.  But there was for a short time a sense of unease about being stuck on public transit talking with someone who was still at Mars Hill who might recognize me and wonder if I heard the latest sermon Mark preached.  Or I'd have some concern about how I had housemates or neighbors firmly within the church culture who I wasn't sure would be interested in association if they were certain who blogged here. 
There can be a sense of unease about the possibilities of such a thoroughly tech-saturated culture full of people so connected at so many nodes of interface that Mars Hill leadership could send me unsolicited emails or a certified letter establishing just how readily they knew who I was.
But at the same time, those kinds of correspondence told me something, that the sheer volume of leaks from The City that came my way became a cause of worry for the Mars Hill leadership.  The only way those leaks were possible was from members or even possibly small group leaders with access to send things along.  If the "participatory dictatorship" depended on a cultural network of regional information gatekeepers and distributors then what happened with Wenatchee The Hatchet here and Warren Throckmorton's blog and elsewhere was, if I have to hazard an explanation, the lower and mid-tier leaders in informal levels (i.e. not staff) began to have enough doubts about the ethics and credibility of the culture to start using the tools that were meant to consolidate the culture at an internal level toward the end of what's traditionally known as whistle-blowing.  Driscoll's late 2014 claims or insinuations to the effect that hacking had happened seemed improbable.  Who would hack Mars Hill?  What for?  A far more coherent and simple explanation seemed to be that, if you will, the surveillance possibilities and information distribution potential of the lower and mid-tier leadership culture (and maybe, even, higher up) were redirected toward making accessible to the public what had previously been kept hidden.   The cultural enforcers began to feel it was wrong to keep enforcing is the simplest way to describe it, and that was a process that had to involve hundreds, even thousands of individual decisions to de-invest, to no longer invest in Mars Hill in terms explicable as a sunk cost investment.
All of which is vastly more complex and subtle than the simple rise and fall of one guy who made himself a celebrity Christian.


chris e said...

I assume this wasn't an interpretative spin you wanted, but the term "participatory dictatorship" immediately made me think of a cult.

Things like "It was preferable to not talk about Mars Hill on public transit for the simple reason that many people despised the church and what they felt it represented" would not be out of place in some of the cult recovery forums I've read.

Obviously reality is more complicated. At some level the Soviet Five-Year Plan overlaps with the Corporate Strategy of a Fortune-500 company overlaps with .. you get the picture, it all ends up being a sliding scale.

I suppose the only real lesson is that those of us wanting to transform culture ended up aping its worst aspects - there are some lessons here regarding a lot of ministries that end up being post-millennial in realisation even if they aren't so theologically - with the promised land being 15K people, a movement, with a wife and two kids at home, and being able to adopt the tagline "pastor, husband, father" - more irony in those who talked about functional idols being defined by their functions.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I've been hesitant to use cult partly because it tends to be used so pejoratively but also because I often think, looking back, that cult-formation is literally every cultural enterprise in the history of humanity.

But we definitely ended up aping the worst aspects of the cultures around us while imagining we were just adapting the best elements. As ruthless to the point of pointless expansion/franchising went Mars Hill didn't seem that different from 1998-2004 Starbucks. As technocratic mercenary optimism with a vaguely culty inner-circle culture thing went Mars Hill wasn't so different from stories I ended up hearing about Amazon.

The functional savior via roles really is a big irony. The other big irony is that Mark Driscoll's shtick was sufficiently pornographic in its ethos and praxis that an anthropologist named a whole monograph Biblical Porn after that tendency.

So, I was kind of invoking "cult" by mentioning "participatory dictatorship". I'm kind of sad to see that a few former MH folks have gone all red-state or blue-state in reaction to things from MH. At this point I think any attempt to reverse-engineer a Jesus in which America is even the good guys is a disaster and a heresy.