I never much liked Mark Driscoll. I don’t say that because it is now fashionable to not like Mark Driscoll. I say that only to admit my biases here at the beginning of this post. I suppose in some ways I should have liked Mark Driscoll. I’m a white evangelical male who was entering leadership ministry at about the time when Driscoll was becoming a thing among people like me. I’m also the type of person who generally likes fighters, people who are bold and brash and maybe a little dangerous. Mark was definitely that, but he was also a hack. At least that’s the opinion I had of him after reading about Donald Miller’s “cussing pastor” in Blue Like Jazz. Even though I was right in Driscoll’s target demographic, there were other ways that I didn’t fit the type at all. I wasn’t disillusioned. I wasn’t angry. I was also from a middle-sized church, in a middle-sized town, in the middle of the middle-west. I naturally distrusted anyone who wore cool t-shirts and who thought they were interesting enough to preach for an hour every Sunday. I just had the sense that this guy is just a performer, a blowhard, a phony. I suppose I was too cynical to be intrigued by guys like Driscoll.
So when I was told about this new podcast that I “absolutely had to listen to” which was dedicated to exposing Mark Driscoll, I avoided it. I just didn’t care. I already have plenty of podcasts that actually bring me enjoyment. Why would I want to listen to hours of drama airing Driscoll’s dirty laundry? Well, several weeks ago I had to drive about 16 hours in a 24-hour period. I decided to dive in. It turns out that the stench of Driscoll’s dirty laundry can effectively keep a person awake.
Like everyone else, I was shocked, saddened, and angered by much of what I heard. Several people have asked me for my thoughts on the podcast, and since the final episode was released this weekend, I decided it was time to put a few thoughts together.
Kevin Vanhoozer has this model for cultural analysis that I teach my students. He says that when we analyze any “artifact” of culture we should ask three questions. 1) What does this artifact tell us about the people who produced it? 2) What is the message of the artifact itself? 3) What does this artifact tell us about the people who consume it? I’m going to attempt to ask these three questions as I analyze The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.
Cosper the Friendly Host
Christianity Today and Mike Cosper did a very fine job putting together a professional and engaging podcast. I wouldn’t want to speculate on what motivated the creation of this podcast although Cosper didn’t try to hide the fact that for him the topic was personal. I will only point out Christianity Today has three different obligations in a project like this, obligations that may at times complement and other times challenge each other.
First, there is the kingdom obligation. Christianity Today, I assume, is an organization ultimately committed to kingdom advancement which includes the discipleship of believers and the promotion of the gospel. CT can make a legitimate case that the podcast did exactly that. An important, yet painful, element of discipleship is issuing warnings about spiritual abuse and abusers, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and dangerous ideas. Some would argue that an expose like this does damage to the gospel by bringing shame upon the church, but I have a hard time believing that hiding internal rot serves any positive purpose in the church. Eventually, the truth will be brought to the light.
Second, there is a journalistic obligation. Cosper mentioned several times that the podcast was “longform journalism.” I think on this point, CT was successful as well. The podcast was definitely unflinching, careful, thorough, and well sourced in the way that you would expect from good journalism.
Third, there is an entertainment obligation. This is a podcast. The medium demands a certain attention be paid to entertaining the audience, to entice them to keep listening and to tell their friends. CT was successful on this count as well. It was somewhat ironic that some of the episodes talked at length about Driscoll’s drive to create and protect a brand while expanding his audience through digital mass media while the podcast itself was doing the same thing. They weren’t exactly trying to hide the fact that they were raising subscribers (and money) on the strength of the podcast. The bumper music, the cutting of the audio, the edge-of-the-seat-you’ll-never-believe-what-happened-next feeling of many of the episodes made for a very entertaining product.
But that’s also a part of the dilemma. How do you hold these three concerns in tension? Has CT discovered a winning formula that they can go back to over and over again? I titled this post “Dirty Mark” for a reason. My wife loves true crime podcasts like Dr. Death and Dirty John. These are “rubberneck” podcasts intended to scandalize and shock the audience. And they are extremely popular. Turns out people like being scandalized and shocked. Mars Hill was just the evangelical version of Dirty John or Serial. Much like Serial, should we expect future seasons of evangelical rubberneck podcasts? Now that we know the formula, should we expect a Ravi Zacharias podcast or a Bill Hybels podcast or a Liberty University expose? Some might say, “Sure. The more rot that is brought to the light, the better.” I would just issue this caution. There is a point in which the drive to entertain an audience with more and more “tales of woe” becomes deleterious to the ultimate purpose of discipleship. One of Driscoll’s biggest failures was that enticing an audience became his addiction, and he harmed people with his unrelenting desire to more authority and more attention. A successful podcast critiquing Mars Hill could become the next example of Mars Hill.
It’s impossible to listen to the podcast and not come away recognizing that Mark Driscoll is a narcissistic bully. His beliefs on gender, on spiritual authority, and, as the last episode emphasizes, even the gospel itself are troubling. It’s not a stretch to apply the word “cult” to what was happening at Mars Hill. In fact, I think the church fits most of the standard definitions for a cult.* It was at least a cult of personality.
That is just the text of the podcast, the message on the surface. It’s more interesting to wonder about the subtext. To me, the important question we should ask is “Where do Mark Driscolls come from?” There are at least four answers to this question.
- It’s important to recognize that Mark Driscoll is extremely talented, compelling, and charismatic. He is a gifted communicator who also happens to be pretty smart. He’s at least not dumb. I know there are likely a lot of people who want to begrudge giving any compliments to Driscoll, but this is a mistake. One of the reasons I genuinely grieve the damage done by Driscoll – to others and the damage he did to himself – is because he possessed so much positive potential for the kingdom. One of the inherent dangers faced by all talented leaders is that they become seduced by their own talent. Even pointing people to Jesus in a sermon doesn’t mask the inner narcissism. “Look at me as I look at Jesus” quickly becomes merely “look at me.” Success and compliments destroy them if they aren’t buffered by humility and accountability. Driscoll had neither.
- Driscoll tapped into an alienation especially among young men that still persists today. It’s not surprising that Driscoll spent some time flirting with the emergent church in the early 2000s. The emergent church was also characterized by young (especially white) males who were feeling out of place and alienated. In the case of the emerging church, these young men were feeling alienated from the evangelical church. Driscoll separated from them because he correctly recognized the warning signs of theological and cultural accommodation within the emerging church.** But there wasn’t just a theological divide between Driscoll and the emergent church. There was also a cultural divide. The emergent church was more irenic, latte-sipping postmoderns interested in meditation and dialogue. They were not at all the type of street brawlers embodied by people like Driscoll. Driscoll spoke to the Fight Club generation. Young men who felt they had no place, no purpose in modern society. To Driscoll, young men didn’t need “conversation.” They needed clear, loud direction. They didn’t need metrosexual singer-songwriters wearing girl-jeans. They needed punk rock. These young men had been emasculated by society. People like Driscoll sought to reawaken and celebrate their latent masculinity. The problem, of course, is that Driscoll’s version of masculinity wasn’t about honor and virtue. It’s debatable how much it actually resembled Jesus. It was instead cartoonish and abusive, like boys trying to act like men, but without knowing what that really entailed. Even though Driscoll’s specific approach was wrong, he was not wrong in reading the moment. The problem of masculine alienation continues today. Our culture tends to treat boys as a problem to be controlled and feminized. Boys are told they are a problem, so many of them turn toxic either with listlessness or violence. This ongoing alienation is one of the reasons why people like Jordan Peterson have become so popular.
- Driscoll was also aided by some unique cultural characteristics of North American evangelicalism. The evangelical church in North America has always celebrated a sort of autonomous entrepreneurship that reflects our culture in general. Related to this is the fact that what you measure reflects and directs what you value. In North America, we like things that are big, bold, growing, and new. Large and shiny things are declared to be necessarily good things. What this means is that in America, it is possible to become a leader and a person of influence based solely on the number of followers you have. In fact, these are the only people who are taken seriously as leaders. Traditionally, gate-keepers offered some built in accountability and vetting for leaders. The two most important gate-keepers were credentials and institutions. You couldn’t be a leader if you didn’t have the right training, and you couldn’t be a leader if you weren’t approved by the right institutions. These two gate-keepers have lost much of their power in American life, and what is true of American culture is also true to evangelical culture. The major reason for this is related to my next point, but what I want you to see is that people like Driscoll are able to become very powerful in our society based solely on charisma. They don’t need to have the necessary credentials, and they don’t need to be approved by an institution. They can just start their own institutions. In the case of Driscoll, they can start their own pseudo-denomination centered on his leadership and personality. If they are charismatic enough, they don’t have to be approved by any gate-keepers. They don’t have to be accountable to anyone. Any accountability that might exist is merely voluntary. I found the reference to Rachel Held Evans to be somewhat ironic in the podcast. Before her untimely death, she was a longtime critic of Driscoll in particular and conservative evangelicalism in general. But RHE was just like Driscoll in this regard. She had no credentials outside of a BA in English and wasn’t approved by or held accountable to any institution. She was simply a charismatic writer who made a committed audience for herself online. Because of that alone, she became an authority.
- Mark Driscoll could not have become Mark Driscoll without digital mass media technology. He was the right person at the right time and in the right place. Digital mass media is marvelously effective in helping charismatic people build a platform for delivering content to establish a brand. As the podcast reminded us, it doesn’t take very long until the brand becomes the mission. The alchemy of the internet turns Mark Driscoll into Pastor Mark™. What people like Driscoll, Rachel Held Evans, and the emergent church pioneered has now become commonplace I’m afraid. I fear that Christians are less about the work of the kingdom today than they are about the work of brand management. Technology always presents us with imperatives. Once a technology is fully embraced, it will quickly take over and transform us into its image. You can certainly build the kingdom using online tools, but the path of least resistance is to use those tools instead to build a following. The internet has untethered individuals from institutions and institutions from localities. Honestly, I expect more Mark Driscolls in the future, not less.
A Mars Hill to Die On
The final question is what does this podcast tell us about ourselves? I heard one person refer to the podcast as “failure porn.” We obtain gratuitous satisfaction from watching the slow train wreck of a failure that doesn’t directly concern us. Just like porn objectifies people for our satisfaction, failure porn objectifies victims and victimizers for our own entertainment or smug satisfaction. The old fashioned word for this is gossip. It’s a question I asked several times while listening. Does this podcast amount to sophisticated gossip as entertainment? Or worse, do I use a podcast like this as a way to make myself feel better? Cosper referenced the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the last episode. I wonder how many of us listened to this podcast as the Pharisee. “Lord, I’m so glad that I’m not like that pathetic, narcissistic Mark Driscoll.” It’s good to ask what is motivating us as we listen to reports of the failures of others.
We should also be careful to avoid a totalizing interpretation of this podcast. I admit that cynicism is always crouching at my door. It was so easy for me to listen to these episodes and let cynicism run untamed through my heart. I worry that this podcast, rather than bringing healing, will just bring about much more cynicism towards the church. It will make pastors more cynical about their work. We might be tempted to assume that all megachurches are cults or that all complementarians are misogynists or that all charismatics misuse spiritual authority or that all Calvinists are arrogant bullies. I really want to caution you to avoid that cynicism. No single church community represents every community. No single pastor represents every pastor. There was a lot of talk in the last episode about deconstruction. I’ve already talked a lot about deconstruction and have actually sworn off of using the word. All I’ll say is that we should be careful to not use this podcast to unfairly “grievance hunt” in our communities.
But we should also be careful not to offer consequentialist justifications for the abuses at Mars Hill. Were lives changed for God’s glory through Mark Driscoll’s ministry? Yes. Many. Does that at all justify what happened there? No. Not at all. I think that the response desired by Cosper and Christianity Today is sober reflection. This podcast is a warning especially to those in leadership. There are so many ways for sin to derail our leadership. There are so many ways to compromise. There are so many little justifications. Our failures have devastating consequences in the lives of people who trusted us. Be careful lest you fall! Watch your life and your doctrine closely. This podcast is a call for honest confession and repentance for those moments where our leadership does fall short. Lastly, this podcast is an encouragement to those who have been abused. Your abuse was not acceptable, and it was not a faithful reflection of the gospel or the Church. Healing is difficult, but it is not impossible. Don’t allow the failures of individuals or of a particular community steal away your hope in Jesus.
*This isn’t a bad list of characteristics typical of a cult. Mars Hill checks most of those boxes. The one exception is that cults usually possess significantly heterodox beliefs. While some of Mars Hill’s beliefs especially regarding charismatic gifts and strong complementarianism fall outside of the mainstream of Christian thought and practice, I wouldn’t call them heterodox.
**Full disclosure. I was also too cynical for the E/emergent church (Sometimes the E is capitalized depending on who you are reading. There is also a subtle, but important, difference between the emerging church and the emergent church, but that is a weird, niche evangelical debate that virtually no one cares about.). I have several friends who were participants in the emergent church “conversation” back in the day. I believe that the emergent church did make some valuable observations. They were asking questions that needed to be asked, but I also believed then, as I do now, that there was a lot that was toxic and dangerous about the emerging church. Many of the foremost voices in the emergent church have done nothing but prove my suspicions right over the last 15 years. I know the podcast was about Mars Hill, but it was a bit frustrating that the emergent church was just kind of given a pass in the podcast. Maybe that’s a topic for season two. I’ll not hold my breath.