June 1, 2017

Driscoll and The Bogeyman Narrative

After reading The Gospel Coalition article – Seattle Reboot: Life After Mars Hill about the Driscoll/Mars Hill fall-out  I was struck by two things.  First the total absence of the Bogeyman, Driscoll himself.  He looms over the article by his vast absence not his vast presence. The general tenor is “We’ve moved on so let’s not even talk about it.”


Secondly I was struck by a narrative that tends to paint others in the Mars Hill leadership as either unwitting or unwilling accomplices, fellow victims even, of Driscoll’s failures; a projection of the faults of other leaders onto the man himself. Hence the narrative is that they discover only later how much a part of the problem they were, hence they end up working hard to rectify it, or at least explaining how they do.

The narrative goes like this:

The Bogeyman no longer holds sway over us. We too were swept along with his charms and his gifts, and we in turned burned others before we were in turn burned by him. We then took charge, got rid of him and now our role is now to help the hurting recover.

This narrative is an increasingly familiar one in Australia in recent years,  where we have had a succession of toppled Bogeymanesque Prime Ministers who have outstayed their welcome and gone sour.

After weeks and months of affirmations of support, one day the senior government members suddenly land in the Prime Minister’s office en masse and announces it’s all over.

“Look,” they say, “We no longer support you.  The polls have slumped.  You’re toxic. You’re trashing the brand -our brand –  you have to go.”

And that’s that.  The coup, plotted over weeks and months as number crunchers sniff the polls, suddenly comes to a head and it’s all over in a single day. Just yesterday they were singing the PM’s praises on national television.  Tomorrow he’ll be fish and chip wrapping.

The former Prime Minister then sits on the back bench, a forlorn Bogeyman, alone and just a little bit bitter.  Okay, a lot bitter.

Sarah Zylstra’s article paints a similarly swift demise for Driscoll and Mars Hill: “Then, in a few breathtaking months, the whole thing collapsed.”

Interestingly the next stage of the narrative in both the political story and the Mars Hill story are also similar. In both cases the old guard who were part of the problem pitch themselves as the solution. Having named the problem, they announce that, at great cost to themselves, they are now willing and able to lead the way forward.

Hence Zylstra quotes several leaders, who after a period of reflection and repentance, establish ReBoot Camp, so to speak, helping clear the rubble and binding up the wounded.

Now I am more than sure those leaders are sorry for the hurt that was caused and they want to lead people out of it.  They say as much.  There is certainly a repentant tone to, and some admirable attempts to reconcile.

But Zylstra’s article would have been a little more pointed – and a little more helpful – if she had acknowledged that the collapse was not as breathtaking as she posits.

Many blog articles, several recovery FB pages and other social media sites by bruised and broken sheep had been signalling this in the years (yes years) leading up to those fateful months. This thing was not done in the dark, let alone swiftly. The sheep had been bleating – and loudly for some time.

The problem with church leadership in such lofty settings – and it’s not exclusive to Mars Hill’s set up – is that it is not until the brand reputation is threatened that anything is ever done.

The welfare of the broken and bleeding sheep never seems to be the decisive factor in bringing things to a head.  Not until afterwards at least, when their welfare is suddenly made out to be the primary concern for the change.  And then it’s a case of leaders being seen to make up for lost time.

And in that sense Mars Hill simply aped the secular political and business culture upon which such religious organisations have, unwittingly or otherwise, lifted their leadership frameworks.

Whether it’s the dodgy Prime Minister, the corrupt CEO, or the bully senior pastor, no one breaks rank until everyone does, and it’s usually long after the bulk of the damage has been done.

That’s why such collapses are so quick.  Just ask former Australian Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott (and probably Malcolm Turnbull in a few months too).

It’s easy to treat the Driscolls of this world as the singular and coalesced problem because this narrative allows other leaders the escape route of painting themselves as victims who have suffered within the abusive system rather than enablers of that system.

Yet perpetrators only perpetrate, and continue to perpetrate,  because enablers enable, and continue to enable, even well after it dawns on them that there might be a problem.

Sure, enablers can help pick up the pieces, but some of those pieces are pieces that they helped create. To their credit several of the leaders admit as much in the article, yet even that admission process apes the Oprah Winfrey-esque reinvention of self so beloved of American culture.

After all, Driscoll has reinvented himself too, down in Arizona, and there’s nothing in the All-American handbook that says he can’t. Although the Bible may have something to say about it.

I’d be interested to read a book about the whole thing, if someone has the time, energy and access to write it.  By necessity, Zylstra’s article deals with the surface issues.

I’d love to read something that deals with all of this from a sociological and psychological perspective, especially the point that Driscoll was a father figure to a culture of young men with absent fathers, whether that absence be actual or emotional. For a while there Driscoll was the Young Pope of post-denominational reformed Protestantism.

But then again perhaps that’s beyond The Gospel Coalition’s remit.  Perhaps The Gospel Coalition’s role is to aid the church salvage operation, and leave the deeper sociological and psychological matters to others.

So for instance, I’d like someone to follow up on these quotes from an interviewee in her article:

“Mark changed the face of Christianity in the United States for this generation. Mars Hill helped popularise the neo-Calvinistic movement and complementarianism. In the early stages, it was a vital component of a return to conservative biblical family ideals.”

It’s certainly true that Driscoll and Mars Hill filled a vacuum; a vacuum created by a way of doing church and understanding the nature of the church that often pushed pragmatism over principle.

The only problem was they ended up repeating the coolly pragmatic mistakes that they had intended to rectify. And the nature of the leadership frame meant that no one who mattered would act on the the noisy concerns being voiced from outside until it was too late.

Note that.  Not that no one listened to the concerns. They obviously did.  But the time lapse between listening to the concerns and acting on them raised the body count way higher than it should have gone.   As I said, this thing didn’t unravel in the dark.

And honestly, I’m not sure that popularising neo-Calvinism was worth the cost.  Nor are those things that are celebrated as victories as settled as one might think. Mars Hill may have helped popularise neo-Calvinism, but it did so, primarily, at exactly that level – a popular one. Once the plausibility framework of Mars Hill was stripped away from it, such populism got stripped away too.

In its early iteration Mars Hill scooped up a host of lost young men who were lacking any sense of identity in post-foundational American Christianity, and for whom the traditional denominations had failed.

I remember meeting many of them at Mars Hill back in early 2007 and being struck by the number of thirty to thirty five year olds escaping from unreconstructed fundamentalism and pragmatic church experiences.  They could plainly see that neither of those options had any cultural traction left and they were looking for something else.

Standing drinking whisky and smoking cigars on the Driscoll’s lawn after a Boot Camp, it seemed they had found that future. It was a heady time.  I found it fairly intoxicating too.

Zylstra said many people have made their way back to church. I’d be interested too in a “Where Are They Now?” article about those who didn’t, especially those eager young church planters who were all zeal and fire and whisky back in the day; ready to plant or be damned; girding their loins with the doctrines of grace and baptised rugged American individualism.

And as for a recovery of complementarianism and conservative biblical family ideals? Those noble goals, – and  I do consider them noble -,  were swamped by an increasingly brutish patriarchal tone, one that turned away as many people as it drew. Complementarianism is up against the wall enough as it is. With friends like Driscoll, who needed more enemies?

In the end,  I’ll take a good old paleo-Calvinist any day over a neo one. An old Reformed dinosaur who read Graeme Goldsworthy before he was famous in the USA, who loves Spurgeon, but baulks at cigars; who has quietly led his family well for decades; who has convictions about complementarianism, but doesn’t feel the need to shove it in people’s face; who understands that the biblical idea of manhood doesn’t require a foot long beard and a smokin’ hot wife.

So I’m waiting for someone to write the book. Someone with a little more distance from it all than TGC perhaps.  And definitely someone who loves the gospel, and in Christ loves Mark Driscoll as well. I don’t want to see the gospel-less Schadenfreude of those post-evangelical bloggers who were right in calling Driscoll and Mars Hill out, but were wrong in some of the theological conclusions.  Their glee turns my stomach.

So whoever writes it is going to have to dig the knife a little deeper than Zylstra was able to, especially if we’re ever going to learn the subterranean lessons of what led to the rise of Driscoll; what sociological factors, as well as theological, were going on in the progressive west coast city of Seattle that led to Mars Hill’s extraordinary growth, and what, ultimately, led to the demise of the Bogeyman and his self-imposed exile to the desert of Arizona.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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