Monday, December 15, 2014

a linkathon on the theme of how a single narrative can define or control a public discussion

For those who read the earlier links/posts in which Wenatchee The Hatchet discussed the nearly perennial concern about the loss of real masculinity in the church and an attendant concern that churches are losing men ...

it may be a matter of point of view, to quote an old Jedi. This linkathon will be a bit oblique.

After all ... depending on who you talk to it's working women who are starting to check out of church life because it doesn't speak to them unless they're already pigeon-holed into the "single", "wife", or "mother" categories and what some call the "applicatory" section of the sermon may devolve entirely into a set of anecdotes and practical applications of an interpretation of a text that would fit neatly and perfectly into "does not apply" to a listener.

As a middle-aged bachelor it's not as though Wenatchee The Hatchet couldn't say an "amen" if working women begin to get the idea that a lot of sermons aren't preached with them in mind.  Here's the first link, with a hat tip to Phoenix Preacher:

Now there's something about narrative and perspective in the news lately that thematically links to things Wenatchee The Hatchet has been writing about for years, which would, of course, be the history of Mars Hill.  Earlier this year Terry Teachout had an interesting quote from Eric Hoffer that seems worth reproducing here.
“You can discover what your enemy fears most by observing the means he uses to frighten you.”
Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind and Other Aphorisms

When something traumatic happens to you at the hands of someone else one of the most powerful ways to disincentivize speaking about what has happened to you would be if the person who harmed you controls the narrative of how anyone might perceive what has happened to begin with.  This is,  to be artlessly direct, has been one of the reasons rape cases may never even be heard.  What the Rolling Star article and associated follow-up coverage has raised as a particularly difficult and thorny issue is the conundrum of narrative as a form of emotional appeal.

Over at Culture Crash, Scott Timberg has the simple title for a post, "Is First-Person Narrative Killing Discourse?"  The post, in turn, links along to the following interview with Meghan Daum.  Now Wenatchee The Hatchet has taken issue with a great pile of statements made about Mars Hill in Salon this year but they've made corrections and this interview was interesting.
Look what’s going on with this Rolling Stone situation [the story about the gang rape of a woman at the University of Virginia]. People are so shocked by it, but it was out for a week… It took about a week of shock for people to start looking into it… We’re so driven by the idea that one person’s story can guide an entire narrative. Sometimes it can. But in a big, reported piece like that, it can’t. It’s interesting to me that it took a week almost for people to move beyond this one person’s story. [emphasis added]

If you get too indulgent with your feelings… The reader needs to know that the writer is in charge; authority. So they have to be confident that you’re not going to say something that makes the reader cringe, or makes you feel sorry for the writer… It’s very much about control, deciding which details to reveal. It’s not visceral. If it just “poured out of me,” a lot of it should be cleared out. It should not just pour out.

Who gets it right? A lot of it goes back to Joan Didion. [WtH, oh yes!  Love Didion's non-fiction] She managed to use the “I” in a way that felt very intimate in the moment, but ultimately was distanced; she kept herself at arm’s length. She used that “I” narrator as a tool, to talk about other things. And that’s really what I want to do. Talking about Joan Didion’s influence on young essayists, especially women, is like talking about Joni Mitchell’s influence on songwriters… It’s in your ear, the rhythm, the syntax, the sound gets internalized. I found myself often ripping off Joan Didion in my early writing life.

[Didion’s "I"] is a character – a persona. You have to be a little more dramatic than you really are, more lively than you really are… It’s a persona that you are shaping… I always say, by the end of the piece or the book or whatever it is, the reader should feel that they know everything about the narrator – but not necessarily anything about the author. It’s really two different things.

It doesn't just so happen that Joan Didion's deliberate, detached, almost icy calm has been a significant influence on Wenatchee The Hatchet since college.  As a writer who believes that outrage has become the cheapest and most dangerous (yet most swiftly expressed) emotion on the internet an alternative to outrage can be careful consideration. 

Authors at Slate and Atlantic have been discussing the necessity of journalists to not just run with an emotionally powerful story without also doing some heavy fact-checking on a case by case basis.  This isn't a matter of not taking rape allegations seriously but of taking them seriously.  The fact that there are very few false rape allegations or that rape victims frequently are so traumatized by what has happened to them should be given to those who have read up on this while also not setting aside the responsibility to check things as carefully as possible. As Wenatchee The Hatchet has worked to demonstrate this year it's possible for reporters to have a general idea of what a story is connected to a religious organization even if many basic facts got butchered before publication.  But, again, the articles published by Salon and AlterNet did get corrected.  The trouble in these days is that articles may get corrected but the pace of a news cycle or a blogged response can be so swift that not everyone will read or acknowledge when corrections have been made.  A lot of traffic and click-bait can get going on by the time people figure out that things were not what they initially seemed to be.

Others have said this in one way or another but what happened in the last thirteen months in the history of Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll could be described as a total loss of control over the public narrative. Since the "public narrative" within the confines of Mars Hill history was frequently how influence and control were mediated in the wake of the 2007 re-org, terminations and trials, it's conceivable, if one wishes to explore Hoffer's aforementioned quote in the context of Mars Hill, to suggest that a means of inducing fear could be through controlling the narrative. 

By now Mark Driscoll's public narrative of his life and times has swerved from describing Mike Gunn and Lief Moi as good dads in a 2006 book to later 2013 where he claimed against his own testimony that there was no kids' ministry in the early days of Mars Hill because there were no kids.  In Real Marriage Mark Driscoll described how his formerly carefree and fun-loving girlfriend became his fearful and frigid wife and yet this would have implied almost by necessity that there was a baseline of positive sex for both against which the married sex life could be seen as bad, so whence Grace's view of sex as gross?  One possible interpretation of this transition could be that in the very process of avoiding premarital sex the Driscolls developed the hang-ups that made it nearly impossible to get back to where they were at as not necessarily hugely serious Christian fornicators.  Or ... it may be the larger narrative in Real Marriage itself has raised enough questions about the previous decade of Mark Driscoll's public account of his marriage that its overall credibility might potentially be open to question.

If a mainstream publication as well-established as Rolling Stone could turn out to have dropped the ball all the more could be said for the same mistake happening with any other publication and also for bloggers.  A journalistic enterprise, whether formal or informal, can never afford to rely on a silver bullet. 

To the extent to which Driscoll and his associates were able to define the narrative was the extent to which their leadership was consolidated and stable.  It might be a bit too broad to say that things began to fall apart when the narrative began to fall apart but it is probably not a completely inaccurate thing to say.  The narrative of Mars Hill as mediate by Mark (and occasionally Grace) Driscoll was crucial to defining and retaining the trajectory of the narrative for the community. 

With the 2008 spiritual warfare transcription project still only about halfway done there's a lot more work to do, but even this far into the session one can see that there's been a narrative.  Driscoll explained that the great threat to Mars Hill and churches in general was not from godless outsiders but from wolves within.  Time permitting we'll get back to the demon trial of part 3 and observe that paradoxically in individual counseling sessions the arc seems to be telling counselees what sins have been committed against them, occasionally by relatives but apparently by non-members.  What Tompkins once described as the "ad hominem narrative" can be more readily seen as taking shape as far back as late 2007 and early 2008.  Driscoll explicitly condemned doubts about the love of the executive leadership for the rank and file as a demonic lie and that condemnation set the tone for the narrative of MH within its leadership culture.  What also established the, er, pastoral tone, would be Driscoll's emphasis that too many of the pastors were basically going too easy on too many people that they really needed to bring the hammer down on.

As longtime readers of Wenatchee The Hatchet probably already know, Wenatchee The Hatchet has not told anyone they have to or even "should" leave Mars Hill.  The invitation here has not been that people should leave Mars Hill (or its various reincorporating subsidiaries) but to reconsider the narrative and to consider the ways in which the narrative has changed and has been changed. 

Whether in reporting on what happened to Jackie or whether reporting on the history and events of Mars Hill we may be getting an opportunity to be chastened by relying too much on a single person's narrative.  Does this mean that narrative is only ever incorrect?  Well, no, of course not ... but it also doesn't mean that in terms of journalistic or historical enterprise that we can ever afford to take a single perspective/narrative completely at face value. 

If there has been something to consider for those who have opted to share their stories about their time at Mars Hill it would be this, that the story as the foundation for a polemical case has been foundational to Mars Hill.  There's a sense in which you don't and can't fight fire with fire, as the axiom has it.  The power of the personal narrative had a lot to do with Mark Driscoll's rise to prominence and the way he shaped the narrative of a community around his personal story may be worth examining not just for the general influence it had on the community collectively known as Mars Hill but also for the uniquely internet-based way that narrative began to cumulatively take shape. 

In some sense the internet age is the age of the comic book geek and by this we can mean the capacity to graph out and break down all the narrative and continuity shifts in a public narrative.  This is not easily done but it is more possible now than it was before.  It's possible to see how Mark Driscoll as modified and outright changed his own story of the history of Mars Hill and to reconsider how reliable the narrative has become.  But so long as people fixated on the comments about sex and gender rather than on the narrative itself people were, if anything, playing to Driscoll's strengths.  It took quoting Driscoll chapter and verse, so to speak, and seeing where the material may have really come from and how the narrative began to change in ways that tried to square a circle for things to shift.  It also seems more and more like things didn't really change until a possibly small but informed variety of people across the political and theological spectrums of left to right began to compare some notes on what the accepted narrative has been and whether or not everything added up.  Perhaps if there's a "lesson" here that we could actually learn it's that we need to listen to the people we don't agree with as much as we need to listen to the people we do agree with.  There is no doubt that another movement like Mars Hill, whether a secular or religious movement, will happen.  This is just how people are, but we may have an opportunity to understand the economic and sociological dynamics that led to this thing rising and falling and getting an attempt at a de-branded reboot. 

There was stuff incubating about the distinction between imperial and counter-imperial narratives within the biblical literature that could have become a new paragraph here but that's probably best left as an entirely different post.  This one has rambled enough.

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