Sunday, September 28, 2014

Mark Driscoll and the power of the sob story: a survey and a proposal

You will not be able to read this analysis adequately without first having read the other posts in the tagged set that this post is part of.  Please go back and read the previous posts in this series, if you would, so that you can have a narrative framework for this piece.  Or, of course, you can read this first and go revisit the other parts in whatever order you see fit.  The point is that this analysis won't make sense and shouldn't be considered as a stand-alone analysis. It presupposes a working knowledge of all the materials tagged in this series of posts.

There have been many stories from former members and some former staff and elders about their time at Mars Hill.  There have been a number of high profile writers and bloggers who have attempted to shed light on things at Mars Hill.  In many cases this has been done through sharing the stories of those who have been hurt by practices or teachings people encountered, or in some cases believed they encountered, at Mars Hill Church.  Those stories, to be sure, have value and are worth bringing to light as people feel comfortable and confident going on the record.

But there's a problem with this that may not be apparent to people embroiled in the midst of reading all these stories.  A story like Andrew Lamb's is informative but not necessarily normative. That is to say that it showed us a great deal about how things could play out at Mars Hill under certain circumstances but might not be indicative of everyone's experience.  Joyful Exiles is a personal narrative told through some very impersonal means, correspondence and documents as well as intermittent flashes of narrative.  Then there are websites like Repentant Pastors and We Love Mars Hill and others and these are all valuable for the contributions they are working to make to inform people about the history of Mars Hill.

There is, however, a substantial limitation to these avenues which is that they are many and Mark Driscoll is one.  Rather, they are a variety of blogs and platforms that are sharing dozens of stories spanning campuses and years while the story of Mars Hill has increasingly been the story of Mars Hill has told by Mark Driscoll about Mark Driscoll. 

When Wenatchee The Hatchet published various writings of William Wallace II (better known as Mark Driscoll) earlier this year one of the aims was to bring back to public consideration the actual content and discussion that happened on the old Midrash so that people would no longer have to read about what Mark Driscoll said he said under the pen name William Wallace II and have an opportunity to go see for themselves what he actually wrote. 

One of the things that is worth mentioning about how Driscoll has engaged Mars Hill and his audience at large is to observe that one of the key ways he has done this is through telling the story of his own life, of his marriage to Grace Driscoll, and telling that story as a way to sum up and define the history of Mars Hill overall.  This has particularly been the case at certain controversial moments or periods in the history of Mars Hill. 

One of the reasons sharing individual stories or trying to highlight individual stories that critique Mars Hill or Mark Driscoll is that these stories simply don't disseminate along avenues swift or forceful enough to gain traction in most cases.  An individual story has to shed some light on systemic problems in the corporate culture of the church or corporation known as Mars Hill to gain any traction.

But at a more fundamental level you can't fight fire with fire (unless you're Prince Zuko having a showdown with Princess Azula).  Most Driscoll critics have simply failed to fully grasp the way Mark Driscoll has controlled the public narrative because it's so simple and so obvious, he simply controls the public narrative.  Driscoll has been able to rhetorically position himself as a sensible centrist against whom liberal secularist pagan heathens on the left and uptight fundamentalist anti-charismatic non-missional wingnuts on the right can all be presented as foils.  To the extent that critical media attention focuses on the persona and person of Mark Driscoll he has not only been able to cope with this he has arguably thrived on it.  Negative attention actually plays a crucial part in a long-running narrative technique Driscoll has practically used to define his career in public ministry.

No, it's not the incendiary stuff, not by itself.  It's not stuff like William Wallace II.  No, that's the inciting first-stage way of defining the narrative.  The far more important secondary stage is how the public narrative really gets defined by Mark Driscoll in the history of his public career.

You may have already guessed it but if you haven't, it's the sob story.

Even going back to William Wallace II we can see that Mark Driscoll framed the emergence of that pen name as a reaction to the ways women were being treated by lazy, irresponsible, selfish and immoral guys.  William Wallace II may seem a knight errant at best and a thug and a fool at worst but William Wallace II presented himself as a knight in shining armor challenging immature adultescent men to find their pants and man up already.  It's worth noting that when the persona had consequences that literally met Driscoll where he lived he was swift to say "lighten up" and invoke the emotional distress of the wife and child.

Sure enough, guys can't take a joke or figure out that William Wallace II was just a character and someone troubles the wife and kid.  This is a small-scale form of a sob story.  At no point did Driscoll seem to step back in the moment and imagine that perhaps he wouldn't get weird antagonistic people shouting at him at 3am if he simply never bothered to write under the pen name William Wallace II and publish what he published to begin with.  Sure, later, sorta, in 2006 he could admit he sinned and cussed a lot but he was still saying God somehow drew a straight line with the crooked stick that was Mark Driscoll, even to the point of indicating that gay guys were going straight in the wake of his yelling at them to man up. 

There were nods here and there at the end of Confessions of a Reformission Rev about the travails of Mark Driscoll in earlier 2006 but the heights of pathos were attained in the November 8, 2007 letter he wrote to Mars Hill in the wake of the re-org and the controversial firings.  Here we saw fretting about death and a sense of tragedy tucking the Driscoll kids into bed at night.  Grace summed up the moment by crying and saying "It's good to have you back."  This was possibly the zenith of the sob story as a rhetorical technique to define the narrative of Mars Hill around Mark Driscoll's personal woes.

But at no point did Driscoll seem to get that nobody told him he had to be president of Acts 29 Network, president of the Resurgence, president of Mars Hill and chairman of the board.  There was no inherent reason he needed to be writing books (in 2006, it turns out, he had mostly finished the book that would become Death By Love, an overview of 2005 atonement sermons he preached the year before) while he and Grace had their fifth child and even that fifth child has to be considered in light of the fact that, according to Mark Driscoll, Grace was ready to be done with pregnancy after four C-sections and a miscarriage but it was Mark Driscoll who declined to do anything permanent to prevent the possibility of another child.  So even when Mark Driscoll has leaned on the travails of Grace via childbirth he can seem to soft-pedal his own decision as having a bearing on what she went through (scroll down to the part that quotes Death by Love if you're so inclined).  To be sure the born baby is such a joy to behold the mother forgets her agony.  The Puritan Richard Baxter once wrote that the miseries and agonies of marriage and motherhood are often so severe he speculated that had God not given women an inherent yearning to bring children into the world no woman should ever choose a married life.  Go look it up in the Christian Directory.

So in 2007 Driscoll shared how rough it was being president of Acts 29, president of Resurgence, legal president of Mars Hill, and how poor his health was and how many services he preached and yet at no point does it ever seem to have crossed his mind he voluntarily took all these things on.  At times Driscoll even seemed to indicate he threw himself into ministry and fatherhood as a distraction from the problems in his marriage relating to Grace but this is getting ahead of the narrative curve.

In 2007 Driscoll made a point of saying he feared he would die if things at Mars Hill didn't change.  He was also indicating that he needed Grace to not be in any kind of ministry so that she could be there for him.  In spite of saying in 2007 that he made a point that Grace Driscoll's photo would not be on a MH site, by 2012 and beyond ... well ... she's in photos with Driscoll these days.

Back in the 2007 period the sob story was about the travails of Mark Driscoll and if the travails were the result of him taking on too many things and bringing misery on himself that may not have been material to members or staff.  The core of the sob story was simply that Driscoll had it so rough and if you pointed out it was self-inflicted travail you might have just found yourself under the bus.

By later 2011 with the "ten lessons" and God's Work, Our Witness, the nature of the sob story had changed a bit.  Now the problem was Driscoll was doing all the big work alone and had not managed to raise up leaders to help him carry the burden.  Never mind how simply it can be proven Driscoll was the runt of the litter and had the lowest amount of practical ministry experience or formal theological education.  Never mind Doug Busby or David Nicholas or Antioch Bible Church or any of those people.  Driscoll was alone and had not raised up leaders to help carry the burden.  Except that he was raising up leaders like Tim Smith and Jamie Munson.  He was telling people he'd had dreams about them working with him.  He'd made a point of soliciting David Nicholas for money to give Brad Currah a salary.  The idea that Driscoll didn't have a team of elders backing him up from the start and that the elders were all young and new and green is difficult to square with Driscoll's own previous narratives. 

But for a sob story, well, the sob story didn't need to depend on the pesky details of Mark Driscoll's own previously published accounts.  Most of that stuff was on websites that weren't even live any more and in spite of the relish with which Mars Hill leadership poured mountains of data onto the internet it's as though not a single one of them ever thought that tools as simple as the WayBack Machine or members holding on to Driscoll content might ever come back to cause any inconvenience.

If up until late 2011 the sob story Driscoll used to curry sympathy from his church and fellow evangelicals revolved around his own travails a signal shift came in 2012 with Real Marriage and beyond.  At this point the sob story stopped revolving around Mark Driscoll as an individual and focused more on Grace Driscoll and to a lesser extent the Driscoll kids.  Rather than revisit what he wrote as William Wallace II as having anything at all to do with angry or unstable young men looking to fight, Driscoll could unleash "The Hardest Part of Ministry" as a litany of all the evil, crazy, terrible things his critics shored up not only against him but his kids.  When Driscoll did the video announcing the eviction of Mars Hill Orange County (for those who remember that video) he had two blonde tots in tow who at different times smiled at the camera while Driscoll talked about how Mars Hill Orange County looked like it was about to be homeless.  This was one of those moments that Wenatchee The Hatchet considered to be craven and mercenary.  Mars Hill Orange County getting evicted was not the kind of thing that needed little Driscolls in front of a camera for while Mark Driscoll claimed he wasn't sure what the deal with the eviction was.  This was a small way in which Driscoll kids could be integrated into the sob story at a level that would be almost subliminal for someone who was still inside the cultural system.

When chapter 7 of Real Marriage unfolded it told us very little about what actually happened to Grace Driscoll but packed in a startling amount of information about the developing Re:Lit line of books.  While in Real Marriage it seemed as though Grace Driscoll recounted "an" incident in which she turned out to have been sexually abused in a 2013 film "Stepping Up" Mark Driscoll recounted that there were several times where Grace had been sexually assaulted, raped and abused before he met her. At the risk of making an observation that will likely rankle some readers, it's possible part of the reason the entirety of mainstream Christian publishing and journalism didn't spot the startlingly obvious use of Dan Allender ideas and material in chapter 7 of Real Marriage that got no citation or credit in the first edition is because of, well, the story of Grace Driscoll.  If we consider the possibility that the sob story is a through-line for Driscoll as a public figure then adding Grace Driscoll and her story of abuse may be construed as a story of woe within the larger sob story Mark Driscoll has told as a way to define the narrative of his role as founder/leader/visionary of Mars Hill.

And from 2012 the sob story, if you will, of Mark Driscoll began to reorient itself toward the troubles of Grace Driscoll.  Her story became the reason so many controversial decisions and changes had to happen in 2006-2007.  The miserable state of the Driscoll marriage for apparently the stretch of 1996-2006 did not invite a question as to whether Mark Driscoll was ever fit to be in ministry to begin with but rather invited sympathy.  What was striking about the 2013 video "Stepping Up" was how Mark Driscoll took the entire narrative of 2007 as he recounted itself and cast it aside in favor of what he "had" to do to be more emotionally present for his wife. 

That fifth child and the challenges of Grace Driscoll working through her root issues (that kept Mark Driscoll from having as much sex as he wanted) became a big deal and a cause for ... rewriting the bylaws and the constitution of Mars Hill.  Why?  Just because Mark Driscoll said so, never mind that this flew in the face of the emphasis on Mark Driscoll nearly dying and being overworked by all the things he voluntarily took on up through 2006.  The new narrative moving from 2012 forward was about the wife and kids and how Driscoll wanted to be there for them.  And this is not an inherently "other" path than the 2007 invitation to pity Mark Driscoll himself.  If anything it's more potent because it takes the form of Mark Driscoll eliciting sympathy on behalf of his wife and children as a way to draw sympathy from readers toward Mark Driscoll himself as husband and father who also happened to be legal president of the corporation known as Mars Hill Church. 

As Wenatchee The Hatchet has noted before Mark Driscoll has shown that he's willing to filter sermons through the prism of daddy-daughter narratives--he made a point of sharing from the pulpit that Esther could have and should have said "no" to the Persian collection of virgins because Ashley said she would have said no.   This can be interpreted as another variation on the sob story, the story of the Driscoll family troubles and convictions, in the sense that you can't quite get through to the exegetical and historical problems of Mark Driscoll's take on Esther without negotiating with the story about Ashley Driscoll's gut reaction as to why Esther ought to have had a different path.  And for a 21st century American teenage girl, sure, that makes a certain type of sense ... but Esther wasn't a teenage American girl and it was intellectually specious of Mark Driscoll to leverage a story about his daughter as part of a rhetorical rather than scholarly case for his contentious reading of Esther.  But as a public incident in a larger rhetorical strategy through which Mark Driscoll defines and redefines the nature of Mars Hill around himself and the history of his family it could be seen as "all part of the plan", to borrow a line from a movie.

But perhaps the new zenith of the sob story as a way Mark Driscoll has invited sympathy was "The Hardest Part of Ministry", which has since been purged from the net.  It doesn't matter.  Wenatchee The Hatchet has had the full text sitting around for months ready to publish should the original content be pulled, which it seems it has been lately.  It's part of this series.

In the October 2013 tour de force of garnering sympathy Mark Driscoll explained that the most soul-aching part of his ministry was all the trouble his family encountered because he preaches the Bible.  Wenatchee The Hatchet has discussed a number of specific statements in that litany of difficulties and believes there is at least some evidence to indicate that Mark Driscoll shared events that really happened but neglected to mention some noteworthy details that former members of Mars Hill might consider to have been mitigating variables.  If a crazy guy comes looking to fight at 3am in response to the discovery that Mark Driscoll had been fuming under the pen name William Wallace II that surely DOES influence how a person interprets a Driscollian plea for sympathy that sometimes these crazy wingnut guys show up at his house looking to brawl.  It's not that the Driscoll kids don't deserve to be undisturbed, they surely deserve to be undisturbed--it's that the sum of historical evidence and documents available does invite a reader to wonder whether Driscoll's own close to twenty years of public trolling and intra-church explosions may not have brought at least some of the troubles his family has encountered upon them.

All of this is to make a suggestion, that those who would critique Mark Driscoll in the public sphere need to be cautious and careful in articulating a distinction between an objection to the substance of what Driscoll says and the way in which he says it.  If you fail to do this and react at a visceral emotional level then you're in some sense feeding a troll. Lamenting the visceral vitriol of the critics who just don't get it or can't take a joke or don't love Jesus or take themselves too seriously is part of the Mark Driscoll shtick.  In fact for as long as progressives and cessationists leaned on their usual hobby horses all they did was give Mark Driscoll a far more abundant reserve of words and experiences upon which to further build the sob story.  People who keep trying to make the problems of Mark Driscoll about the views and not about the products, the literal products, of Mark Driscoll's proverbial pen, will be missing the point.  We did not reach this point in the public discussion of Mark Driscoll because progressives and cessationists kept beating their drums about Mark's views on gays or women or speaking in tongues.  We got to the point we're at in the public discourse because someone compared books to books and found out how one of the books was promoted. 

In other words, people approached the subject of Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill in a way that could not and did not simply feed into the narrative frame of the sob story.  Once Driscoll was shown to have used a pile of materials written by other authors without giving them credit there was no refuge to be taken in the old sob story of how hard it was to be Mark Driscoll.  Once the Result Source Inc. contract was discovered, and the extent to which Mark Driscoll may have relied on Docent Group research and recycling his own material was discovered, it was no longer possible to take Driscoll at his word about how fast he did or had to crank out books for his publishing projects.  Some even wondered aloud who on earth thought it was a good idea for Driscoll to be publishing books in the first place.

And for all of that it seems no one has attended to the narrative of Mark Driscoll closely enough to wonder when on earth that vomit-inducing nightmare happened except Wenatchee The Hatchet.  If people continue to insist on making a point about what Mark Driscoll says about gays or women or other things they're missing the real point.  Study the books, study the narrative, ask where things came from, where they are going.  What Wenatchee The Hatchet has concluded is important is to consider the various ways in which the basic narrative of Mars Hill as mediated by the stories Mark Driscoll has told about himself and his family is a microcosm of Mars Hill and about Mars Hill as a social system.  Too many people have wanted to jump straight into the scandal-mongering stuff without turning an eye to the mundane things like real estate acquisitions or associated leadership appointments.  People have, to risk boiling things down too much, been taken in by the sob story or unwittingly contributed to it.  There's no way even the most striking story of an individual former member or elder or deacon of Mars Hill will, in itself, be capable of competing with the brand of Mark Driscoll.  But what is possible, that Wenatchee The Hatchet at times labors to show, is that if you carefully examine the narrative you can see where and how it changes.

What is striking about the sob story as a rhetorical device that may guide what Mark Driscoll says about himself, his family, and about Mars Hill, is how utterly simple it is.  It works, or it has worked, and it plays upon a natural inclination to offer empathy or sympathy from many.  What is also striking about the use of the sob story as a rhetorical/narrative tool is that as controversy has ratcheted up surrounding Mark Driscoll the sob story has shifted from Mark Driscoll pleading for sympathy to Mark Driscoll pleading for sympathy for his family.  It is, in fact, possible to extend sympathy to the Driscoll family while noting that for Mark Driscoll to plea for that sympathy while also rationalizing his own approach to public ministry is so craven and mercenary that it would be beneath the contempt of Wenatchee The Hatchet if it didn't seem at this stage so necessary to point out the longevity and pervasive use of this rhetorical/narrative tool.  Perhaps Mark Driscoll or someone close to him may have even shared this possibility with him, because now it looks like "The Hardest Part of Ministry" has become yet another 404 in the web presence of Mars Hill. 

POSTSCRIPT 10-15-2015
Whoever got the assets and information of The Resurgence has republished a lot of the material that was once at the resurgence site. So "The Hardest Part of Ministry" is up again.