Thursday, January 06, 2022

a couple of recent thinkpieces on The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill from Carey Nieuwhof and former MH pastor Matt Johnson at Mbird

The Carey Nieuwhof piece is ... a bit boilerplate ... but then most of the thinkpiece responses to the Mike Cosper podcast have tended to be a bit boilerplate.  Exemplifying what Samuel D James exemplified as "the take trap" is common.

His readers pointed out that ... he still kinda has to explain Episode 328, why he decided to give Driscoll a platform in which Driscoll said stuff.

Stuff, as it turned out, that was not only easy to comprehensively debunk but to comprehensively debunk based on a combination of Mark Driscoll's own previous accounts and the accounts of other executive elders from 2020, with a few other accounts for good measure.  Thus ...

In other words, Nieuwhof has to account for, at some point, why he personally gave Driscoll time to tell his story having not done much diligence about what had happened previously.  I have wondered why Episode 328 got taken down and the reasons for that have not been explained.

Matt Johnson's piece is less of the usual boilerplate takes I've seen about The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill for the simple and obvious reason that Matt and his family were there for 17 years.

What's interesting about Johnson's piece as an Mbird contribution is how even it has elements that are typical of an Mbird contribution (and having read the online magazine for a decade I think I can safely say this)--particularly the Forde-inspired style Lutheran approach to cross/glory contrast.  I'm still more or less in the Calvinist/Reformed evangelical wing and didn't reach some moment where I felt I had to pivot on those kinds of doctrinal issues to leave Mars Hill.  In fact I noted a few years ago that among the most trenchant and sustained criticisms of Mark Driscoll's doctrine and conduct came from people in the PCA and OPC (i.e. Presbyterians of the conservative wing).  Which is another way of saying that while I know a few Mars Hill departers who felt liberated to embrace and endorse not-Calvinist theology this is, if you will, optional rather than required.  I just started reading John of Damascus and a bit of Maximus the Confessor so, when I have branched out it hasn't been to Lutheranism.  Ah, and also reading Ephraim Radner, but I digress.

What I'm getting at is that even at Mbird the pieces I've seen about the late Mars Hill tend to be of a kind, and that kind is of a piece with other thinkpieces I've seen.  Baptists thank God they're Baptists; Presbyterians thank God for their ecclesiology; Episcopalians with a thing for Luther or maybe also Tillich or Barth or Moltmann and have a low anthropology ... I trust by now you get the idea.  

What Cosper's sprawling podcast fails to fully convey is that one of the most pernicious things about Driscoll's legacy (and I'll come back to legacy in another way in a moment) is something that Michael Newnham, aka Phoenix Preacher, nailed immediately--on paper Mark Driscoll's soteriology looked like a thoroughly small `o' orthodox monergistic soteriology with a low anthropology.  To wit, both Matt Johnson and I have contributed to Mbird over the last ten years and I contributed entirely after my departure from Mars Hill in the 2008 year.  I.e. I left Mars Hill but felt no big need to shift from the Calvinist traditions to the Lutheran ones and, for that matter, what differences I have with Lutherans were not so big I couldn't contribute to Mbird for a decade while simultaneously writing hundreds of posts year after year documenting what I believed was gruesomely wrong with the culture of Mars Hill.

But I can understand the temptation to think "there but for the wrong kinds of Christian doctrine I would go" mentality that saturates Christian blogging. One of the more specious takes on this kind of take was Tony Jones' proposal that the theology of Calvinism was what made Mark Driscoll a thug.  No, nobody who ever actually met Mark and knew him for a few years and his accounts of his life could take that idea seriously for even a second.  He was a thug first and he gravitated to theologies within which his thuggish qualities could, in his mind, be presented as virtues.  

Driscoll made no secret that the church he loved was the big amazing church in his own imagination rather than the one he was dealing with that he co-founded.

Yes, there is a problem in Mark Driscoll's approach to the Law/Gospel dualism but it wouldn't necessarily be as simple as that he emphasizes Law over Gospel.  Mike Cosper was right to ask "what is Mark Driscoll's definition of the Gospel?" The problem I saw and see in Driscoll's Gospel is not that there's a Law/Gospel blending, it's more subtle and brutal than that. The problem is that Mark's "Gospel" is himself, markulinity rather than masculinity, and that everything in his exposition of his idea of "Gospel" amounts to Driscoll exemplar rather than Christus exemplar. This was something only briefly touched on by some of the people Cosper spoke with but it shows up near the end of the podcast.  Driscoll's far less likely a King David figure, as his fans keep hoping, than a Jehu figure and I've explained a Jacques Ellul inspired reading of Driscoll's life and ministry as typologically closer to Jehu than David in the last year. That people keep wanting to compare Driscoll to King David when there are more compelling analogies to be made between him and Eli the high priest or King Saul in 1 Samuel or Jehu suggests that there's a lack of biblical literacy or, more specifically, a lack of imagination in typological readings from scripture used to describe what has happened in the present.  Once when I was asked what it could hurt to meet with Mars Hill elders I said "Judges 9".  I admit it's obscure but not if you know the story of Judges 9!

One of the things I keep hearing and seeing from people who used to be at Mars Hill is the "we never thought it would get so big".  There's a lot of people in that "we" but I keep coming back to the reality that most likely Mark Driscoll was not one of them.  He'd say that he imagined they would "tap out" at 200 people for the fundraising film God's Work, Our Witness but go back to Confessions of a Reformission Rev and you'll learn that he was dreaming big from the start.

God's Work, Our Witness Part 1
Pastor Mark Driscoll

about 12:30 in
You know, and I thought, for sure, we’d probably tap out at two hundred. I thought if we can get this thing to two hundred, that would be amazing.

And I had big vision for more. I put together a forty-page vision statement. I said, “We’re going to start a school. We’re going to plant churches. We’re going to do a record label.” I had this whole vision, and I handed it out to, like, fifteen people, and they’re like, “Are you kidding me?”

So I had big dreams. But to be honest with you, man, if we could just get up to two hundred, I thought that would be amazing.
About 200?
From "Seasons of Grace" by Mark Driscoll

In the fourth season, we launched the church in October 1996 at 6pm with an attendance around 200, which included many friends and supporters. The attendance leveled off shortly thereafter, somewhere around 100 adults, and we continued meeting until the Christmas season.
So at the launch of Mars Hill Church, according to Mark Driscoll's "Seasons of Grace" they had already launched at the number that Driscoll was saying in the 2011 film would be "amazing".
Then there's this:
Confessions of a Reformission Rev
Mark Driscoll
Copyright (c) 2006 by Mark Driscoll
ISBN-13: 978-0-310-27016-4
ISBN-10: 0-310-27016-2
CHAPTER ONE: Jesus, Our Offering was $137 and I Want to Use it to Buy Bullets
0-45 people

from pages 53-54
So in an effort to clarify our mission, I wrote down on paper the first of what would eventually be many strategic plans. I shot for the moon rather foolishly and decided that our church that was not big enough to fill a bus would plant multiple churches, run a concert venue, start a Bible institute, write books, host conferences, and change the city for Jesus. I started handing out these goals printed on boring white paper without any graphics, colors, or cool fonts, naively assuming that it would all happen eventually just because it was what Jesus wanted. [emphasis added]

To get leaders in place for world domination, I also spent time trying to articulate the vision in my head to good men who would be qualified to rise up as fellow elders-pastors. So, as Jesus did, I spent time in prayer asking the Father which of his sons should be trained for leadership. The church started as an idea I shared with Lief Moi and Mike Gunn. Lief is a descendant of Genghis Khan and his dad was a murderer, and Mike is a former football player. They proved to be invaluable, except for the occasional moments when they would stand toe-to-toe in a leadership meeting, threatening to beat the Holy Spirit out of each other. Both men were older than I and had years of ministry experience, and they were good fathers, loving husbands, and tough. ...
Because it was what Jesus wanted, eh?  That right there is an example of Driscoll exemplar, in which Mark Driscoll cast a vision of what he wanted and presented it as what Jesus wanted.  When people ask what it was that inspired them to stay so long Mark was always up front and always closing the sale on the idea of legacy.  It's what drives him.  

Even now he's apparently grooming his sons to all go into pastoral ministry and talking about the legend that is his dad which is not how he or Moi talked about dads back in the 1990s. Consider this moment reported in Mother Jones back in 1998:

From nine to midnight each Saturday night, Driscoll sits with Moi in a studio high above downtown Seattle, where the two host “Street Talk,” which is broadcast to 16 stations around the country. The show is the brainchild of Moi, who has hosted it for six years.
Tonight’s topic is “The American Dream and Postmodernity: Is There Hope for the Future?” and for the first 15 minutes Moi and Driscoll toss out questions and debate them: Can one be a Christian and be an upwardly mobile capitalist? How can young people reconcile Christian tenets such as service, charity, and community with American ideals such as individualism?

“Some of us haven’t given ourselves over to the American Dream yet,” Driscoll says into the microphone. “How do we make sure we don’t become victims of what harmed us— parents who weren’t around because they were too busy making money so we could go on vacations and look like a family?” The phones are dead.
During a commercial break, Driscoll throws up his hands in mock surrender. Moi says, “When we do a show that is philosophical, either they sit back and listen, or it goes over their head. But when we do a controversial or reactionary topic—like paganism or Satanism—we hear from everyone.”
The silence is starting to grate on the hosts. They decide they must talk in specifics if the troops are going to be rallied. Moi comes up with an idea: “Call me up and tell me what the top three priorities in a Christian life should be.”
No one answers these questions directly, but the calls finally trickle in. Most callers are simply looking for solace. “My parents were together until I was 14 and we were the model family; the American Dream was there,” says Stan from Philadelphia. “But my parents pushed me to go to college and, well, that’s nice and all, but you have to do what the Lord wants you to do. Personally, I like to work with my hands, but that was out of the question.”
After Joe Driscoll became the kind of born again Protestant Mark wanted him to be, apparently, then he became "the legend" that Driscoll has tweeted about.  Driscoll has made no secret of his dreams of "world domination" and it seems necessary to remind people for the record that he was always selling legacy.  What changed was not his obsession with legacy at a personal level but how he assimilated people into that legacy and whose legacy it was he was telling everyone about. It was as simple yet as subtle as "we" becoming "I".

It's here that Matt Johnson's piece reveals something that I think Cosper's entire podcast failed to do.
The folks in charge of running technology were given free reign to figure out creative solutions too. Over a couple of years the creative and technology teams were dabbling in new forms of media to find innovative solutions for making the gospel message accessible online. We were genuinely surprised that the church’s ministry was connecting with others outside the Seattle area. 
Now Cosper did mention this element in the podcast but what Johnson has done is connect some previously unconnected dots in the course of his piece by saying that Driscoll invited people to innovate and gave them free rein and then, once the innovation took off, annexed it as part of his personal rather than the church's corporate and collective effort.  It's a bit too easy to throw around the term "narcissist" but if you want to view Driscoll as a narcissist then you could propose that he was shrewd enough and alert enough to talent to surround himself with a seemingly endless amount of narcissistic supply.  

But what was his sales pitch to people who helped him?  Legacy.  There's no secret about that and it may be that for those who were immersed in the pressures, abuses, traumas and corruption of the late Mars Hill leadership culture that it's entirely possible to forget the "what" Driscoll sold everyone on after years or even decades of how hard they were working.  It was legacy, always legacy.  Driscoll may reject postmillennialism but he was still influenced by Doug Wilson, after all, and legacy is a big part of the Mars Hill legacy.  The Cosper series charts the rise of Mars Hill in a spotty way and the fall in more detail but you'll never get a clear sense of what animated Driscoll or where he got his ideas from.  

Which is why something as formulaic in Christian blogging and thinkpieces as "Mark went off the rails because of his bad doctrine" explains everything and nothing.  The problem with even Lutheran counters to Driscoll's pseudo-Calvinistic homiletics is that we live in an era in which pastors of all sorts mediate the doctrines and mysteries of the Christian faith through themselves.  I leaned hard on Nadia Bolz-Weber as Mark Driscoll 2.0 for blue state voters because there's nothing in her bag of tricks Mark Driscoll hadn't perfected decades earlier

One of the things I've noticed since the demise of Mars Hill is that former members and leaders can be just as susceptible to jumping on some bandwagon now as they were before (Jacques Ellul had a warning that people don't just "stop" consuming propaganda, they consume even more propaganda for some new team in contrast to their old one, a point he spelled out in, well, Propaganda).  The temptation among Christians is to say that as long as the "what" that you believe is different the "how" you live it out will be different.  From what I've seen over the last twenty some years of the rise and fall of Mars Hill I'd say that's probably not true.  People who have become cultists don't stop being cultists so much as they become cultists for new causes.  Matt Johnson's admonition that you find some place to live an ordinary life among believers where you're not constantly "on" seems solid.  I might go a step further.

Driscoll's sales pitch was legacy and if you understand how the promises of God find the answer "yes" in Christ then Christ is your legacy, which means that what some man like Mark Driscoll tells you ought to be your legacy is just that, what some man claims Jesus wants your legacy to be.  But time has shown that Driscoll's the kind of man who will lay heavy burdens on others he wouldn't lift a finger to move himself.  How so?  Well, he'd extoll a form of manliness he couldn't even live out in his own life while he lived in a house he couldn't have afforded on his credit rating that had spare rooms he was renting out to guys, as Matt Johnson would know first hand!  Even back then there was an element of "Do as I say, not as I do" but back then Driscoll was more likely to couch what he was doing as "life together" or "community" not as "this is a stop-gap arrangement of convenience for me and I'm rationalizing a set of spiritual concepts to make it seem spiritual when I plan to drop this living arrangement as soon as possible to get the nuclear family lifestyle I want that might include Tivos and a home theater for just me and my wife and kids".  

But it was legacy, all legacy.  A response that insists we should view everything about Driscoll's flaws in terms of soteriology will miss the real bait and switch.  A response that insists even that Driscoll was a Law rather than Gospel preacher will miss the most pernicious element of what his Gospel was, himself.  For all of Driscoll's orthodoxy on paper watch his life and ministry and his goals across decades and you'll see a many who is obsessed with status and if power leads to status then that's fine and all of it leads to a this-worldly legacy.  This is why, though I can appreciate that Lutheranism can be a healthier alternative to Driscoll's ideas for some, I don't see it as any kind of solution in itself for the real problems inside Driscoll's doctrine and life.  I'm not saying a Lutheran theology of the cross can't help people see that the Driscoll pitch for legacy is a this-worldly theology of glory because it pretty much is ... but I still read Puritans and dig Richard Sibbes and am a Calvinist who appreciates the third use of the law has relevance and I still left.  In other words, Driscoll is the sort who pays lip services to traditions he has to trust people don't know enough to compare him against.

UPDATE 1-7-2021

One of the things that has stuck with me in the last few years is that when I've read Mbird contributions in the wake of #metoo there's a current that I'm not sure is conveying cumulatively when editors might consciously be on board with.  Yes, there was "Love the Art, Hate the Artist" I expressed a difference of opinion about that argument that if we got rid of the art by monsters we'd have no art left.  If a doctrine of Christian grace is rolled out to rationalize continuing to consume the work of Woody Allen what kind of doctrine of grace is that? Grace for sinners or grace for consumers?  In years past I'd read pieces at Mbird singing the praises of Louis C. K., whose work I've never been familiar with and who only became "famous" for me after the 2017 allegations.  Do powerful celebrity pastors need "grace" that lets them keep their celebrity?  Maybe Paul boasted in his sufferings rather than his character at specific points but he mentioned the thorn in the flesh as something he received after having received amazing heavenly visions, too.  He could also still write "imitate me as I imitate Christ" and in the pastoral epistles (for those who take it that Paul wrote at least some of them) the instructions as to the moral fitness for ministry were literally canonized.  

It's one thing to wonder aloud how and why Americans voted a man prone to sexual harassment into the Oval Office when musing on art and monsters and another thing to have sung the praises of someone who was alleged to have sexually harassed people in the midst of being a famous comedian. In other words, not to put too fine a point about it, a man like Trump couldn't have even become a presidential nominee without having been given the "grace" of being a celebrity long enough to decide to run for high office and this is the paradoxical tension between "art" and "politics" that can happen in some scenes of Christian writing on the arts and politics.  Woke progressives may be way too  easy to make fun of but if they have a moral crisis of conviction that they don't want to consume and fund the art of artists whose ethical lives seem repellent and dubious to them I don't personally hold that against them. As a Christian I can be sympathetic to the desire to want to not fund the art of artists that people consider ethically dubious. This becomes more rather than less salient to those form whom art is their religion and for whom unscrupulous and predatory artists foment a kind of Donatist controversy for art-religion.  

What's interesting about defenses of monstrous artists is that they are defenses of monstrous artists, not coaches, not photographers, not athletes, or other types of figures.  It has been interesting to see a defense that if we didn't allow art by monsters we'd have no art left.  Is that so?  Do we need monsters in the arts? Do we need monsters in athletics?  Did we need a Paterno or a Sandunsky? Did we need a Larry Nassar?  Why? Nobody needed Sherman Alexie so much to be a voice for Native Americans that people haven't been reassessing how necessary his work is to teaching Native American literature but here, I find it necessary to add, Alexie's still alive and his canonical status is hardly cemented.  I don't regret reading The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by any means. I don't think he needs to be "canceled" but I do think that many people live vicariously through the media they consume and that this can be an incentive to defend themselves through a spirited defense of consumption. Art for the sake of art or maybe theologies of "grace" allow people to keep consuming the products of people who are designated monsters and I am concerned that that kind of process is precisely one of the dynamics at play in how someone like Mark Driscoll made it so far as he has.

But back to defenses not given.  Why artists and preachers? Why athletes and coaches (Mike Cosper's Knight problem)? Now ... what about translators?  What about writers who do adaptations of works from other languages? I have literally seen no one make that kind of defense on behalf of Gerard Jones who, if you don't already know who he is or of what he was convicted you may be better off for that. I have found it unsettling and interesting to consider that people who will still listen to Michael Jackson because his influence is "too big" despite what he's been accused of may have no idea who Jones is.  I am not likely to buy more translations of Rumiko Takahashi's work in the future but back in the 1990s when manga was getting translated Jones won awards for his English-language translations of her work.  He was convicted in court a few years ago.  The odds of his ever landing steady work in comics and comics translation now seem remote.  He came and went without so much as a ripple on the cultural commentary radar.  No one, by and large, has mounted a case for why people should keep buying his translations of Takahashi's work and Viz has moved on to other translations from other translators.  And that's frankly as should be and within their rights as a publisher.  

Jones has come and apparently gone without so much as anyone not already familiar with comics and manga over the last forty years having ever heard of who he is. Is there room for grace and repentance from Jones?  Yeah but how quickly, or if ever, he's restored to place he once had seems to be the kind of issue thinkpieces about celebrity in general and Christian celebrity in particular fastidiously dodge. Would someone give a defense of how and why if we had no monsters we'd have no art left for Gerard Jones?  I haven't seen it and I'm not surprised that I haven't seen it. Nobody seems interested in "redemption" or "grace" as much for the people used by the star as for the star themselves. 

This was, it seems, a terrible discovery Matt Johnson and many others within Mars Hill discovered--people want their star and people want to defend the person through whose work they vicariously live and have faith, through whom they directly and vicariously experience a sense of being part of something big and new and world-changing ... which is not so different from why we come back to the work of artists and writers and film-makers and musicians whose work we love.  Even in an age such as ours we live through the gods and goddesses we venerate and if there are priests and scribes who mediate the divine presence who turn out to be bad or not-useful there's a kind of rejection of the Donatist heresy for true believers in art religion.

If we want some more insight into how and why Mark Driscoll was allowed to say and do behind the scenes what he did for so long without anyone objecting we may have to ask parallel questions about how and why people like Louis C. K. had careers and why Woody Allen has still had a career; why we continue to consume the material generated by these sorts of people despite what we know about them.  We may so compartmentalize our thinking about what entertainment we consume and what Christian inspirational literature (i.e. sermons and self-help books and the like) that we listen to that we may find that there are parallel processes at work in saying "God's not done with my favorite Christian celebrity" much like there's an argument of "if we got rid of all the art of monstrous artists we'd have no art left".  

Before he ran for the GOP nomination Trump was much as Louis C. K. was in terms of being a media figure. There were differences, obviously, but I've had questions over the last few years about how and why Christians can develop a doctrine of "grace" to keep consuming the work of people who seem to be "monsters" yet balk at the idea of such people gaining real political power.  I thought it was a disaster Trump got the GOP nomination, to be clear, but I have been looking at more than just how Mark Driscoll stuck around in the last twenty years.  I have been thinking we may need to de-compartmentalize a bit when it comes to arts writing and politics.  Could it be that the way art-monsters have had their way for so long is related to how similar types of men gain high office and wield power?

I haven't seen a whole lot of pieces singing the praises of Louis C. K. since 2017 at Mbird. As little as I understand the appeal of a Louis C. K. for other Mbird contributors I can understand that he was, perhaps, in his own way, a Mark Driscoll surrogate.  He said outrageous things that people listened to him say, perhaps because people thought the outrage was a kind of public, for the record "verbal processing" that showed (or would show) he wasn't really as bad as the things he entertained in his routines.  This was the point of a recent piece at Slate revisiting what seems to have happened to C. K. when it turned out he was more or less exactly as bad as his routines could have intimated were his audiences not committed previously to the idea that "he's really not that bad".  If an alternative to Mark Driscoll's hypermachismo is to go watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer .... ah ... right, Whedon has been accused of leveraging feminism and girl-power themes as a way to do casting couch moves in the last few years.  

Maybe the thing that is hard to escape noticing in the last ten years is that some of the icons of alternatives to Driscoll's style of masculinity not only seem to have feet of clay but are, well, monsters, too, if in different ways.  Are we to just keep consuming the work of monsters in the arts without articulating what's different about the arts from ministries?  Or ... in the age of mass media celebrity have those distances vanished, as Jacques Ellul kinda sorta warned Christians in The New Demons.  Back in the life and time of Jesus traveling healers had to have a reputation for actually healing, not having some hip relevant podcast or vodcast which became the sole means through which a fan base developed. 

It can seem as though theologizing about second chances can be the best option left after there's no clear or satisfying answer to the question of "Why did these particular people first chances?" To say that we're all monsters will not answer the question of why this or that particular monster becomes a celebrity and is celebrated by all the other monsters or how and why  theological notions of grace are rolled out to defend continued consumption of the things monsters make.  I affirm common grace but common grace simply means terrible people can make beautiful things ... but I'm also an enthusiastic opponent of Wagnerian style art-religion. That is why I think we can make a case that because the arts have no sacramental function we don't need a Donatist controversy debating why to keep watching someone.  If Bill Cosby did what he was accused of and people decide to cancel him does he need "grace"? Sometimes the gap between message and conduct becomes severe enough there's a case to be made to not give people the "grace" of still being celebrities.  Had people taken that approach with the 45th president he couldn't have gotten nominated ... which is where the disconnect between theologies of "grace" between the consumption of arts and electoral politics may, perhaps of necessity, profoundly diverge.  Should it?  

Paul rebuked the Christians in Corinth for boasting and yet simultaneously permitting a sin he regarded as so heinous he pointed out that even the heathen wouldn't approve of it, that a man lived with his father's wife and yet the Christians in Corinth were proud. 

I've wondered in the last few years whether compartmentalization allows us to not connect dots about why we let these people do the things they do. 

I've been updating this one in bits and pieces today, which is unusual for me. 


  1. "Jacques Ellul had a warning that people don't just "stop" consuming propaganda, they consume even more propaganda for some new team in contrast to their old one, a point he spelled out in, well, Propaganda"

    This is true at the deepest sense, though you don't need to go this far. A quick and dirty heuristic is whether or not someone is continuously attracted to cults/people with the same flaws and failure modes. If someone has gone through a variant of Driscoll->Wilson->Peterson .. well, that tends to speak for itself.

  2. heh, yeah, fair point there. That's getting at what I was trying to say that if people KEEP going for a Driscoll to a Wilson or a Peterson that speaks for itself.

    But here in Seattle if they pivot from a Driscoll to a Sawant or a Nadia Bolz-Weber that the pivot is still along axes of provocateurs, too. The thing I've been struggling to articulate is that the "how" is more telling at a practical level than just the "what".

    Keeping with your example, after I left Mars Hill I've just not managed to see the real appeal of Peterson and I think of Wilson as a self-aggrandizing blowhard. :)