Thursday, April 10, 2014

Valerie Tarico publishes article on Mars Hill/Driscoll at Alternet & Salon, an overview of factual errors in the article

Wenatchee The Hatchet has been dormant for a week but is now back with a post.

On April 1, 2014 an article went up at by Valerie Tarico.  This piece warranted enough fact-checking and consideration that WtH has offline for a while going through primary source materials.  You see, dear reader, the Tarico article, which apparently got enough traffic to get picked up by Salon, has a variety of statements and summations of events that are either fuzzy or that can be proven to be factually inaccurate.  Before getting to where the details are wrong, here are the links to the article.

April 1, 2014  
republished in Salon at the following link:

Presenting Mark Driscoll as founding Mars Hill Church has not been paying attention to the range of blogging and journalism that has been published over the last year.  Furthermore, to list only Driscoll as the founder rather than one of three co-founders of Mars Hill Church would display ignorance of Mark Driscoll's own published work from 2006 that mentioned Mike Gunn and Lief Moi as co-founders.  That will probably seem pedantic to a reader of AlterNet or Salon, perhaps, but the devil is in the details and there are a lot of details in this article that have devils in them.

As we'll see throughout Tarico's article second and third hand statements are presented where primary source material has been available.  That can happen from time to time but there are several mistakes that are simply astonishing. 

Let's get the biggest one out of the way, perhaps a copy editor simply betrayed Tarico here, who took the trouble of linking to Janet Mefferd's on-line content but doesn't seem to have realized those links have been dead for about half a year now. This at least establishes that Tarico must have known how the name is spelled.  Something seems to have happened along the way. 

Of late, though, the armor of invulnerability may be cracking. Last November, a conservative fan of Driscoll’s theology, radio host  Janet Merford [emphasis added], accused Driscoll of plagiarizing material for his book, A Call for Resurgence. Further research revealed other incidents of apparent plagiarism which Merford detailed carefully (here, and here), leading others to back her claims and follow up with examples of their own.

And yet somehow Janet Mefferd gets transformed into some "Janet Merford" in Tarico's piece.  "Merford" is used in place of "Mefferd" in both the AlterNet and Salon iterations of the article, an error that is unfortunate and inexcusable.

Now let's get to another significantly problematic statement in Tarico's piece, just a few paragraphs into the article.

Though Driscoll rarely dabbles directly in politics—his followers know implicitly where he stands—his comments about queers and, in particular, women have been a source of ire for many. When Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals was caught with meth and a male prostitute, Driscoll pointed the finger at Haggard’s wife: “It is not uncommon to meet pastors’ wives who really let themselves go; they sometimes feel that because their husband is a pastor, he is therefore trapped into fidelity, which gives them cause for laziness.” Outrage on the part of feminists merely stoked Driscoll’s fire.

No, Driscoll didn't.  Tarico quotes the David Goldstein HuffPo piece from 2006 which in turn quotes a single bullet point from Driscoll's relevant commentary at Resurgence and from local commentary from The Stranger's Dan Savage, which Tarico has linked to for the backing for her statement.  So a partial quote from Mark Driscoll joked about by Dan Savage and then summarized by an author at HuffPo gets presented by Tarico as the basis for claiming that Driscoll pointed the finger at Gayle Haggard when Ted Haggard was caught with meth and a male prostitute. This looks like a fourth hand account basis for backing up a claim that doesn't hold up.

Go read it in full.  Here's the more notorious bullet point.
Most pastors I know do not have satisfying, free, sexual conversations and liberties with their wives. At the risk of being even more widely despised than I currently am, I will lean over the plate and take one for the team on this. It is not uncommon to meet pastors’ wives who really let themselves go; they sometimes feel that because their husband is a pastor, he is therefore trapped into fidelity, which gives them cause for laziness. A wife who lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband in the ways that the Song of Songs is so frank about is not responsible for her husband’s sin, but she may not be helping him either.

There's nothing in there referring to any Haggards at all.  Some authors and bloggers transformed this into a comment about Gayle Haggard by force of will.  Nobody asked how on earth Mark Driscoll was going to be constantly probing other pastors in active ministry about whether they were satisfied with their sex lives with their wives.  How many was "most" supposed to be referring to? Five?  Twenty?  Seven hundred? The obviously rhetorical flourish apparently meant nothing and a variety of people seized on the bullet point as having to mean something about Gayle Haggard. 

Let's not forget that Driscoll has spent about a decade telling guys that their standard of beauty is their wife and not some external standard of beauty.  By this paradigm how is it possible for a wife to "let herself go" if she is, in whatever shape she takes, her husband's standard of beauty?  Tarico's piece relying on essentially fourth-hand back-up for an easily disproven statement is the second most unfortunate and avoidable factual error in the alternet/Salon article.

Then we get to the very next paragraph and we have an anecdote that, while basically true, never gets backed up by any primary citation. Tarico wrote of Driscoll:

Another time, he set the blogosphere abuzz by recounting a self-congratulatory story in which he advised a woman in his congregation that she should apologize to her husband for the sin of not
“serving” him, and then should get down on her knees and give him a blow job. By Driscoll’s account this excellent advice caused the husband to start attending church.

And the source?

Hey, not the worst second hand source as far as things go but why didn't Tarico or her editors go a step further? It's not like Peter Lumpkins hadn't presented a synopsis of the content years ago.

And it's not as though the sermon has not been made available recently.

At this point what reason can there be for not citing the primary source, Mark Driscoll himself, instead of relying on second and third hand commentaries?  To be sure, Mars Hill Church and associates have purged content at an epic rate in the last month but it's still possible to find the materials that have been getting purged.  This anecdote from Driscoll about oral sex from the Scotland sermon can be sourced and verified and it's a shame that Tarico's article didn't go the full distance in establishing the credibility of the account. 

On to the next paragraph where ... :

In Mars Hill theology, female members are viewed through the lens of complementarianism, a theological position that prescribes separate roles for women and men including male headship. A woman being advised to get down on her knees and give her husband a blow job represents just one of a spectrum of submissive behaviors touted for females, who are encouraged to find their meaning in the traditional roles of wife and mother. The virginity of women is prized, and by some reports Driscoll’s late discovery and fury that his wife had sex with another male as a teenager became bizarrely significant in their relationship and in the life of the church even though he himself was not a virgin when he married.

Let's just float the idea that complementarianism may be described as the proposal that sex differences are, in general, biologically derived and that a set of specialized trade-offs in the genders can be inferred as the basis from which differentiation in gender role can be inferred.  The problem in proposing that "complementarianism" is a theological position is that the idea that sex differences play out in practical ways could, in theory, be an entirely secular proposal. 

Now Tarico went on to say the virginity of women is prized.  So is the virginity of anybody who isn't married at Mars Hill Church.  The report Tarico proposes made the statement that Mark Driscoll made a late discovery that his wife had sex with another male as a teenager comes out of thin air.  There's nothing presented as direct evidence that Kyle Firstenberg ever even proposed this idea that Tarico magically extracts from nowhere in particular at Firstenberg's blog.

That neither Mark nor Grace Driscoll were virgins when they met each other is recounted by none other than Mark Driscoll himself in page 7 of Real Marriage. It's the first sentence at the top of the page, no less.  Even if, against all odds, Tarico thought Kyle Firstenberg made any claim to the effect that Mark was angry to discover Grace wasn't a virgin, even if Firstenberg had ever made such a claim (and there's no evidence he has) Mark Driscoll's own account sets the issue to rest.  Tarico could have avoided all of this by, once again, consulting primary source material. 

The closest thing I could spot at Firstenberg's blog to anything Tarico seems to have found in it is the following:

You have led the staff in bitterness and rage for years because of your unforgiven sin that Grace committed against you. (This was very obvious in the abusive tone during staff meetings and trainings for several years, leading to demoralization and fear.)

But there's nothing there indicating the nature of what Mark perceived Grace's sin against him to have been.  

The unique element of the Mark Driscoll narrative about discovering that Grace had cheated on him in an early stage of their relationship was not the discovery itself but the attribution of this discovery by Mark Driscoll to a dream/oracle he had, in his account at Real Marriage, shortly before the birth of their first child, Ashley Driscoll.  Here at Wenatchee The Hatchet we've examined how the nightmare that led Mark to wake up, throw up, and stay up all night shortly before Ashley's birth as recounted in the 2012 book seems similar to the 2006 account in Confessions of a Reformission Rev of a dream Mark Driscoll said he had a few years after Ashley Driscoll's birth but that he considered a demonic attack.  That is discussed at some length over here.

Tarico, unfortunately, chose to emphasize the unsupportable and easily disprovable claim that Mark Driscoll thought Grace was a virgin when he met her.  Tarico's article not only makes a statement that can be refuted by direct quotation of Mark Driscoll, the statement that Mark was furious to discover Grace wasn't a virgin can't be attributed in any clear way to anything Kyle Firstenberg published at his blog.  Tarico or an editor seems to have simply seized this assertion about Mark angrily discovering Grace had sex with other men out of thin air.

At length we get to the paragraph referring to some Janet Merford rather than Janet Mefferd. We'll skip ahead to this:

Then, in early March, another ideological ally, World Magazine, reported that church funds had been used to buy thousands of copies of Driscoll’s book Real Marriage (written with his wife, Grace) in an attempt to force it onto the bestseller list. The books were purchased by Driscoll’s publicist through a variety of channels to make it appear that the sales came from an array of booksellers and buyers. In a deal signed by Mars Hill executive pastor John Sutton Turner, over $200,000 changed hands. The contract specified that the church would “provide a minimum of 6,000 names and addresses for the individual orders and at least 90 names and address [sic] for the remaining 5,000 bulk orders. Please note that it is important that the make up of the 6,000 individual orders include at least 1,000 different addresses with no more than 350 per state.”

If there were any demonstrated history of any connection between World Magazine and Mars Hill Church it would be an incredible find!  Readers of Alternet and Salon may not particularly care for World Magazine and that's as would be expected, but Warren Smith's articles establishing that Mars Hill Church and Result Source contracted to put Real Marriage on the NYT bestseller list is more actual journalism, in the opinion of Wenatchee The Hatchet, than anything in Tarico's article.  Tarico could be generally correct in observing that the most trenchant criticism of Driscoll has been coming from evangelicals and religious conservatives rather than self-identified progressives or emergents but leading the paragraph saying that World Magazine is an "ideological ally" may just be a reminder that this piece appeared at AlterNet and then Salon. 

Now we get to a bit further on in the article.
In a rare public moment of contrition, via a letter published on Reddit, Driscoll committed never to game the bestseller list again, and further, said he would pull back from his place in the spotlight.

No on all counts.  Mark Driscoll's letter, which has made the rounds, was probably published to The City. It was leaked to several outside parties and found its way on to Warren Throckmorton's blog and to Reddit.  It was never published on Reddit by anyone that can be demonstrated to be Mark Driscoll.  If anything, given that Wenatchee The Hatchet published content leaked from The City through basically the entire 2013 calendar year, and given that Stephanie Drury posted a statement from Mark Driscoll dated Dec 18, 2013 to Twitter, it would be safe to suggest at this point that Mars Hill has been aware how unsecure content from The City has been and how quickly it can be leaked to outsiders.  The tentative opinion of Wenatchee The Hatchet has been that the people who leaked the open letter and published it may have inadvertently given MH some fantastic PR.

That a variety of Christian news outlets reported the open letter that was published to The City as though it were a public act of contrition simply reinforced the unreality.  At no point has Mark Driscoll addressed that seven of his published books showed evidence of plagiarism.  When Mefferd confronted him directly on air about plagiarism Driscoll pleaded that he may have made a mistake and that a mistake is not a sin.  Intellectual property lawyers may or may not care about intent in dealing with a perceived violation and the intent did not seem to be foremost in the concerns raised when, in 2011, a cease and desist letter got sent out to a church perceived to have infringed on MH logo and trademark.  You can go read about that at your leisure. 

So, not only has Mark Driscoll not publicly addressed plagiarism in his books, the BOAA publicly stood by Driscoll and the executive elders amid what it claimed were false accusations.
... The BOAA stands unreservedly behind Pastors Mark Driscoll, Sutton Turner and Dave Bruskas as the Executive Elders of Mars Hill Church. We deeply appreciate their endurance through false accusation, their submission to authority, and their humility where regrettable decisions from the past have come to light.

Meanwhile, as Throckmorton has been documenting at his Patheos blog, the publishers of Mark Driscoll's books have been steadily and quietly correcting editions and adding citations in the wake of the plagiarism controversy.  It's worth noting that at no point in any of Mark Driscoll's internal statements to The City that have been leaked (assuming their wording has been preserved) has he ever even conceded that there has been a plagiarism controversy.  There is no evidence, yet, of public contrition about anything.

While Firstenberg's primary account seems to be holding up Wenatchee The Hatchet is not ideally situated to comment on whether Tarico accurately describes Firstenberg as seeking to start a MH franchise in OC.  Reports have had it that it was Bogardus who had a more prominent role in spear-heading the start of MH OC and that Firstenberg's role was a supporting one. 

Now regarding Mars Hill Refuge, Tarico may simply have failed to understand the significance of the language employed within Mars Hill Church.  IF you didn't sign a membership covenant (i.e. contract) then you were never formally a member of Mars Hill Church.  Period.  Jamie Munson's odd 2007 era bylaws withstanding that claimed even regular attenders could be disciplined as though they were members, there's a difference between a regular attender of a Mars Hill campus or church plant and a contracted member.  From the Mars Hill perspective Sophia couldn't be a former member if she never signed even one membership covenant.  This is not a mundane detail.  By refusing to sign the covenant Sophia demonstrated a clearer understanding of what was at stake than Tarico seems to have. 

Moving along, this paragraph has some unfortunate fuzziness about facts and details. Tarico's piece states.

In March, a Mars Hill blogger and elder, a naturopath by profession, was stripped of his professional license because his idiosyncratic cancer treatments, often provided to members of church family, were exposed as failing to meet minimal standards of evidence and efficacy. When the problem hit the Seattle paper, Mars Hill removed his posts from their Resurgence blog. But the incident raises broader questions about how authoritarianism, group think, suspension of disbelief, and in-group trust at Mars Hill may contribute to vulnerability on the part of members.

The man is never named and so one could only speculate as to his identity.  But John Catanzaro's license suspension has been covered by the local press and Wenatchee The Hatchet has a whole series of posts tagged in connection to Catanzaro.  Catanzaro, so far, cannot be proven to have even been a member of Mars Hill Church, let alone an elder in either a paid or unpaid capacity.  It remains to be seen how his appeal of his license suspension plays out but he's successfully withstood legal action against him in the past and it is entirely possible he may withstand this recent controversy.  That Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill have opted to purge rather than wait and see is what it is. 

This paragraph from Tarico unfortunately suggests that authoritarianism, group think, suspension of disbelief and in-group trust can apply to any side of any ideological spectrum.  Someone should have caught the various demonstrated factual errors before this article ever saw print. 

Sure, cumulatively a lot of the basic narrative in the Tarico article holds up but there are enough egregious and preventable factual errors paragraph by paragraph that, in its way, it manages to function as a kind of PR for MH to MH regulars.  But on a paragraph by paragraph basis Tarico's article bungles so many basic, easily established points in the history of Mars Hill Church in general and Mark Driscoll in particular it's unfortunate both AlterNet and Salon ran with this piece.  When numerous statements in Tarico's article can be shown to be inaccurate based on direct quotations from Mark Driscoll himself her article has problems, significant problems.  It's a shame Salon picked up the AlterNet piece and ran with it because it may be one of the most widely disseminated articles about Mars Hill and Mark Driscoll dealing with 2013 controversies may have the largest number of avoidable and egregious factual errors.