SETTING UP THE CASE, REVISITING THE HISTORIES OF DEAD MEN
About a decade ago someone at Mars Hill asked me if I'd ever read anything by Jacques Ellul. I had not. Well, things have changed in the last ten years. I've been working my way through Ellul's book Propaganda.
As we cycle through election cycles year after year it's easy to recognize that propaganda is all over politics. But Ellul's writings about propaganda suggest that even if he was addressing Cold War era politics there are insights in his work that can be applicable to 21st century megachurches. Ellul proposed, for instance, that while a state-centralized and state-controlled mass media can certainly produce propaganda privately monopolized media can get the same basic result, too.
We're coming up on the tenth anniversary of Mark Driscoll's book Confessions of a Reformission Rev. While in some settings the book was popularly reported as the place where Mark Driscoll apologized for what he wrote as William Wallace II this would be a fundamental misreading of what was actually written in the book on that topic.
By now, of course, we know what this is:
And it's been claimed in some settings that in his 2006 book Mark Driscoll apologized for the stuff he wrote under the pen name William Wallace II. But let's look, again, at what he actually wrote about his stint on the Midrash.
CONFESSIONS OF A REFORMISSION REV
Mark Driscoll, Zondervan
copyright (c) 2006 by Mark Driscoll
CHAPTER FIVE: JESUS, WHY AM I GETTING FATTER AND MEANER?
At this time, our church also started an unmoderated discussion board on our website, called Midrash, and it was being inundated with postings by emerging-church type feminists and liberals. I went onto the site and posted as William Wallace II, after the great Scottish man portrayed in the movie Braveheart, and attacked those who were posting. It got insane, and thousands of posts were being made each day until it was discovered that it was me raging like a madman under the guise of a movie character. One guy got so mad that he actually showed up at my house to fight me one night around 3 a.m.
Things were starting to get out of hand with the men, so I called a meeting and demanded that all of the men in our church attend. I preached for more than two hours about manhood and basically gave the dad talk to my men [emphasis added] for looking at porno, sleeping with young women, not serving Christ, not working hard at their jobs, and so on. I demanded that the men who were with me on our mission to change the city stay and that the rest leave the church and stop getting in the way because you can't charge hell with your pants around your ankles, a bottle of lotion in one hand, and a Kleenex in the other.
On their way out of that meeting, I handed each man two stones and told them that on this day God was giving them their balls back to get the courage to do kingdom work. Guys put them on their monitors at work or glued them to the dash of their truck and kept them. The stones of remembrances from the Old Testament. The next week the offering doubled and the men caught fire. It was a surreal time, since I was basically fathering guys my own age and treating them more like a military unit than a church.
The life change was unreal. We had guys getting saved. We had gay guys going straight. [emphasis added] We had guys tossing out porn, getting jobs, tithing, taking wives, buying homes, making babies, and repenting of the sins of their fathers. We had guys who had divorced their wives remarrying them. We had men adopting children so they would have a Christian father. It was a lot like Acts because the whole city seemed to be abuzz.
This season was messy and I sinned and cussed a lot., but God somehow drew a straight line with my crooked Philistine stick. I had a good mission, but some of my tactics were born out of anger and burnout, and I did a lot of harm and damage while attracting a lot of attention.
Sure, there's something about doing a lot of harm and damage while attracting a lot of attention. But notice the assertions made about the long-term results of the incitement. The life change was unreal. The week after the confrontational preach-a-thon the offering doubled and the men caught fire. Driscoll described how he was "fathering" guys his own age and treating the more like a military unit than a church. We'll get to that after some time, but the main thing to note is that when we look at what Driscoll actually wrote about the stuff he wrote as William Wallace II and why he wrote that he was reacting to emergent/liberal/feminist stuff. That's not actually borne out in the majority of "Pussified Nation", is it? Driscoll ripped into Dobson, for instance, and Promise Keepers, hardly stalwarts of feminism, those.
But one of the mistakes that can be repeatedly made about "Pussified Nation" is to see it as some standalone stunt. That's not what it was. There was a social and historical context in which the stunt was undertaken.
Rather than just recycle that there's a new angle to consider, the comment Driscoll made about treating guys more like a military unit than a church. It can be easy for outsiders who were never at Mars Hill to remember "Pussified Nation" and not "Dead Men". It was the preach-a-thon that was more remembered within Mars Hill than the inciting incident on Midrash. For those who slogged through the entirety of "Pussified Nation" you might recall Wallace II mentioned that there was a formulation of a problem and that there was intended to be a second phase, one that addressed practical solutions.
We've seen that Mark Driscoll's account of the Midrash/Dead Men phase of Mars Hill in his 2006 book tends to accept blame for cussing and sinning a lot but the sum of the narrative focused on the sins and failures of the men in Mars Hill. Driscoll was over-reacting by his account, but he was reacting to the sins of others and, ultimately, the account in 2006 was that God used a crooked stick to draw a straight line.
By the time the 2011 fundraising film God's Work, Our Witness was distributed there was another form of remembering the Midrash/Dead Men days.
The Men and Two Stones
Pastor AJ: There was an event at the Paradox, and Pastor Mark’s getting all the guys together.
‘Cause guys would repent of sin, and then they want to meet and they’d be talking, “Oh, I’m sleeping with my girlfriend.” “Oh, I’m looking at porn.” “Oh, I can’t get a job.” “Oh, I don’t know what I want to do with my life.”
[Driscoll] And it got to the point where I couldn’t have that many counseling meetings, so I just decided to bring all the guys together and absolutely yell at all of them at one time. And so I called an all-men’s church meeting.
Jason: People actually flew in to attend.
Pastor AJ: The instructions are, “Grab two stones. Read 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus. And when you finish, read them again. And when you finish, read them again.”
Jeff: And we all show up and they hand us a pair of rocks.
We literally filled up every single seat. I met every guy at the door and I told them, “I want you to shut up. You’re not allowed to talk. Nobody is allowed to speak. You guys all just sit down and shut up until I’m ready to yell at you.”
Pastor AJ: And you just keep reading 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus; 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, wondering, “Why do I have these two stones?”
Jason: I think half the people probably thought he was going to apologize for some of his harsher rants that he’d posted online and then say, you know, “You without sin, cast the first stone.”
Pastor Phil: And that silence was just so palatable, just like, “What’s going to happen?” Like you’re waiting for an earthquake, like, “When’s it going to hit?”
Pastor Matt: And Driscoll had just had it and he was losing his mind.
Pastor AJ: Pastor Mark then goes off on the guys.
Jeff: Pastor Mark gets up onstage and just starts yelling!
Pastor AJ: It seemed like a couple of hours, just yelling at us about all of our perversion, all of our laziness, all of our lack of drive and ambition, all of our ungodly living.
“You belong to Jesus. I’m giving you your stones back. It’s your church. We’ve got to fix this building. We’ve got to raise the money. We’ve got to do this thing. This is what God told us to do.”
So I got up there and I preached a sermon on what it means to be a man. I literally think the sermon went about three hours, screamed and yelled at all of the guys. [emphasis added]
Pastor AJ: All of us just completely, like, laid open, and he says, “You guys are men, and until you find your own stones, use these.”
And then closed in prayer and told them to shut up and leave.
Pastor Matt: And for a lot of us, this is the first time we heard this kind of stuff.
Jeff: Hearing the truth that we needed to man-up and that God had something better for us, and we weren’t seeing clearly—
Pastor AJ: Guys glued those things to their dashboards. They kept them in their pockets all the time. It was just this reminder of God has made us men, and we will be men. Who does that stuff?
Jeff: We kept hearing that over and over and over again, sermon after sermon after sermon addressed towards men, specifically young men, specifically, taking initiative to lead and love well like Jesus. And that was life changing, life changing.
There were maybe 100 to 120 guys at that time. Probably the average age was maybe early twenties, twenty years old. You’re talking college guys. But a lot of those guys, to this very day, they did it, man. They’re running companies. They’re deacons, elders. They’re starting churches. They’ve gotten married. They’re having kids. Their lives are changed and they are still, you know, hands up, chin down, feet forward, getting it done. And it’s just really cool what God did in this place. [emphasis added]
There was a whole lot less of Driscoll expressing regrets about cussing or sinning a lot in the 2011 account. It's more like a life change was unreal and it was really cool what God did in the place. Interesting how the further the accounts of the 2000-2001 period get from what was going on the more thoroughly the stories focus not on what incited the Dead Men seminars but on the seminars themselves. Gone completely are references to Mark Driscoll's notorious pen name, replaced instead by plaudits of how Mark's yelling transformed boys who could shave into men.
The story about what happened itself became the story, never mind that once access to the primary content was possible again a lot of details didn't quite fit so snugly into the narrative. That gives us an opportunity to explore the William Wallace II/Dead Men era and how Mars Hill talked about it as, to use a rather blunt way of putting it, a recurrent propaganda campaign about a propaganda process.
EXPLORING THE WILLIAM WALLACE II/DEAD MEN ERA AS A CASE STUDY IN AGITATION AND INTEGRATION PROPAGANDA
With more than a little help from the work of Ellul perhaps we can revisit "Pussified Nation" and Dead Men. We can take some time to see the former incitement as not a stand-alone thread but as part of a larger body of work, the complete writings of William Wallace II. And, further, we can see what relationship might exist between "Pussified Nation" and Dead Men in light of Ellul's descriptions of categories of propaganda.
PROPAGANDA: THE FORMATION OF MEN'S ATTITUDES
Translated from the French by Konrad Kellen & Jean Lerner
Vintage Books Edition, February 1973
Copyright (c) 195 by Alfred A Knopf Inc.
Propaganda is a set of methods employed by an organized group that wants to bring about the active or passive participation in its actions of a mass of individuals, psychologically unified through psychological manipulation and incorporated in an organization.
To make this very simple, the one-two salvo of the Midrash stunt and the Dead Men initiation rite can be thought of as a propaganda campaign. Driscoll's 2006 narrative collapsed Dead Men into a single incident when for those of us who attended the events, Dead Men was more like a couple of months of meetings, presentations and debates on a variety of topics. The initial confrontation, sure, was a couple of hours if memory serves, but it was just the start of something. In Ellul's taxonomy of propaganda "Pussified Nation" could be easily identified as the propaganda of agitation. A mass media tool in public was deployed to create a controversy.
In all cases propaganda of agitation tries to stretch energies to the utmost, obtain substantial sacrifices, and induce the individual to bear heavy ordeals. It takes him out of his everyday life, his normal framework, and plunges him into enthusiasm and adventure; it opens to him hitherto unsuspected possibilities, and suggests extraordinary goals that nevertheless seem to him completely within reach. Propaganda of agitation thus unleashes an explosive movement; it operates inside a crisis or actually provokes the crisis itself. On the other hand, such propaganda can obtain only effects of relatively short duration. If the proposed objective is not achieved fast enough, enthusiasm can give way to discouragement and despair. Therefore specialists in agitation propaganda break up the desired goals into a series of stages to be reached one by one. There is a period of pressure to obtain some result, then a period of relaxation and rest. ...
The writings of Mark Driscoll as William Wallace II in general but "Pussified Nation" in particular, sure seems to fit the working definition of "propaganda of agitation". It seems that in press coverage and discussions of the WW2 writings it was easy for people to forget that all of that stuff was ultimately a means to an end. Driscoll expressed regret about the means coming back to haunt him but he's clearly got a history of boasting about the legitimacy of the ends.
If readers think that what Driscoll was aiming at was necessary to rant about gays and women they may well miss the point. That hardly means you would be wrong to think the way Driscoll behaved and what he wrote was despicable. That's not in question here, after all--we're looking at how the means-ends balance has been tipped too far in the direction of "means". With a little help from Ellul we might be able to explore what on earth someone like Mark Driscoll hoped to accomplish by inciting so much controversy on Midrash so many years ago.
What Driscoll was apparently ultimately aiming at was inciting a controversy through which those who were on team and those who weren't could in some way be identified. The more we survey what Driscoll and Mars Hill men said ABOUT that time and its long-term effects the more this proposal seems borne out, not least because I was at Mars Hill at the time and talked with guys about their understanding of what went on. Part of Driscoll's regrets about his pen name might be because he never imagined that what we can call an agitation/integration propaganda campaign was ever going to see the light of day. At the time he was doing all this the notion that something like The Wayback Machine could preserve so much of the content was not on anybody's mind. But we've gotten ahead of ourselves here.
William Wallace II was a pen name that we could say was formulated to produce propaganda of agitation through that newest of propaganda tools at the dawn of the millenium, the internet. That much seems obvious. But just inciting wasn't the endgame, the explosion was intended to lead to what, in Ellul's taxonomy of propaganda, could be described as the propaganda of integration.
... Propaganda of integration aims at making the individual participate in his society in every way.
The Dead Men sessions could be described, at least by those who were there, as Mark yelling at them to shape up and fly right. By both Driscoll's account and the account of those men willing to talk about Dead Men for the 2011 film God's Work, Our Witness, the integration campaign seems to have worked fantastically. But it should not be forgotten that the catalyst was "Pussified Nation". It might be telling that in the 2011 version the emphasis was placed entirely on the "Dead Men" side of things and the Midrash/William Wallace II side of the project was omitted entirely.
Once the men who made it through Dead Men got their stones, the next phase was to set up small groups. Ellul has a particularly succinct observation about small groups
This propaganda can be called horizontal because it is made inside the group (not from the top), where, in principle, all individuals are equal and there is no leader. ... But the most remarkable characteristic of horizontal propaganda is the small group. The individual participates actively in the life of this group, in a genuine and lively dialogue.
Once you have a small group set up with men and women whose loyalty was established, "horizontal propaganda" became possible. The stories of life change and of the roles everyone could/needed to play to make Mars Hill a force for change could emerge organically from within small group contexts rather than having to be imposed from the top down. But there first needed to be enough people in the church as a whole for this sort of dynamic to emerge. But once you had the guys go through the initiation rite of Dead Men, they could create and share their own narratives.
Ellul proposed that in any technologically advanced culture in the West propaganda is more or less inevitable. In part this is because individuals who are all of equal value can sense that they are of no essential importance to society as a whole, to keep things perhaps too simple.
But there may well be those who would say it's ridiculous to describe a nascent church as practicing propaganda techniques to begin with. Or perhaps someone might say that "everybody" uses propaganda these days so this seems like no great insight. Well, let's not underestimate the obvious if we affirm the latter proposition, and if we affirm the former and have doubts as to whether a church like Mars Hill could become a hotbed for propaganda ...
bear in mind Driscoll's initial training was in speech communications and Grace Driscoll's training was in public relations. Mars Hill was a church in which young up and coming people in Seattle during the dot com craze were being recruited into a church movement that explicitly set out to achieve what Driscoll semi-jokingly called "world domination". Between the sermons and the internet presence and Driscoll's activity on radio we're talking about someone who was engaging every form of social and mass media available as possible. That fits Ellul's description of preliminary requirements for propaganda. As Mark Driscoll used to say, don't miss the big E on the eye chart.
But we must point to a dual factor necessary if the mass media are really to become instruments of propaganda. For they are not such instruments automatically or under just any conditions. They must be subject to centralized control on the one hand, and well diversified with regard to their products on the other. Where film production, the press, and radio transmissions are not centrally controlled, no propaganda is possible.
To make the organization of propaganda, the media must be concentrated, the number of news agencies reduced, the press brought under single control, and radio and film monopolies established.
Centralized access and control, in the hands of a few people, of a diverse range of mass media? That sounds like Mars Hill even in its earliest days. For those who visited Mars Hill in the later 1990s they might recall that if you asked for a doctrinal statement you might get the mainly hostile coverage from a Mother Jones article. Even from the earliest years of Mars Hill Mark Driscoll discovered that hostile press coverage could be fantastic PR. One can only guess as to where or from whom he could have potentially learned that.
All this is to suggest that even from the first years of Mars Hill there was not just the potential to engage in a multi-media propaganda campaign, it might well have been the thing that set Mars Hill apart from other emerging/emergent church plants. Plenty of guys came from that scene but not many of them had the media savvy that Mark (and we can't forget Grace) brought through their college training to the game.
Driscoll was eager to point out generational alienation as a theme he wanted to address in those early years. But within a few years of starting Mars HIll the focus shifted. The new focus became the more famous focus, get the young men. You get the young men you get the future establishment. You don't get the young men you get nothing.
Let's consider the nature of "Pussified Nation" that opening salvo. How "real" was the problem? What was the problem, really? Men were pussified but the men were described as being pussified as individuals on account of a culture. Would the generation of a manly culture or subculture solve the problems that young men were facing in 2000? Well ... Ellul proposed that a propagandist could essentially use mass media to "create" problem for which he'd already formulated a solution.
And just as propaganda acts to create new needs, it also creates the demand for their solutions. We have shown how propaganda can relieve and resolve tensions. These tensions are purposely provoked by the propagandist, who holds out their remedy at the same time. He is a master of both excitation and satisfaction. One may even say that if he has provoked a particular tension, it was in order to lead the individual to accept a particular remedy, to demand some suitable action (suitable from the propagandist's viewpoint), and to submit to a system that will alleviate the tension. He thus places the individual in a universe of artificially created political needs, needs that are artificial even if their roots were once completely genuine.
If the real ultimate aim of "Pussified Nation" was to agitate the men attending Mars Hill into either bailing on the community or doubling down on their commitment then the reality of the problems described in William Wallace II's opening salvo would ultimately be moot. It wouldn't matter if Driscoll's pen name was describing actual problems or just riffing on stereotypes.
It did seem that Driscoll did not anticipate the kind of blowback he'd get once his pen name was traced back to him.
Cumulatively, based on the things Mark Driscoll wrote about the William Wallace II stunt and, crucially, given what he and other former Mars Hill men said about what the endgame was for which the stunt was a prelude, not the business at hand, it seems there's a historical case to be made that "Pussified Nation" was a signal flare to get attention to see which men would respond to what became Dead Men. Who would agree with Driscoll's polemic and sign on "for real"?
Driscoll told Brian Houston he no longer feels the way he did at the time he was writing under that pen name. As has been argued here repeatedly, the real case is that what Mark Driscoll thinks on the issue of men and manhood has not substantially changed yet. He's regretted "how" it went but not "what" he was working toward.
There have been secularists who have suggested in this setting and that that Mars Hill wasn't "that" unusual and Mark Driscoll wasn't "that" unique. He was another right-wing fundy who hates women and gays. Well, that might miss what actually made Mars Hill unique. At the risk of putting it too simply, Mars Hill was very often more about the "how" than just the "what". Driscoll wasn't always a Calvinist so we can't really boil down the uniqueness of Mars Hill to doctrinal distinctives. His Amyraldian approach to the atonement (let the reader understand) meant he wasn't exactly conventionally Reformed even in 2008-2012. He could end up becoming an egalitarian in the next ten years. Why not? He's shaken hands with T. D. Jakes and made friendly overtures to Joel Osteen. The only common thread here might be media savvy. Alastair Roberts wrote a few years back that if the theologian of the sixteenth century was a lawyer the theologian of the twenty-first century is a marketing guru. THAT seems to fit Driscoll pretty well even if Roberts was considering Rob Bell.
When we consider that Driscoll has sermons and he has speaking engagements and he's using vodcasts and blogs for the not-yet-launched new church, these are all uses of mass and social media from a centralized corporate presence. This is not necessarily a church, a church can't fit inside a UPS mailbox. The church is still a people and not a place? Well, where are those flesh and blood people who are the "spiritual members" of Mark Driscoll's new church? There's staff, perhaps, but not spiritual members.
What does that look like? It doesn't seem too big a stretch of Jacques Ellul's ideas to suggest that what made Mars Hill unique was its leadership culture acquired and employed an early mastery of integrated mass media and social media, i.e. Mars Hill had distinction as a propaganda machine that was ostensibly recognized as a church. Rightnow all Driscoll's "church" has is a demonstrable mastery of propaganda. It remains to be seen when and if it begins to look more like a traditional church.