Monday, January 13, 2020

The rise and fall of Mark Driscoll

Dear H,

Up until Mark Driscoll I had never considered getting a full-time job.  I was a playboy and a loser at heart, had never read a serious book, and had lived in a kind of perpetual childhood.  Then I heard him speak.  A stocky, round-faced working-class type, he caught me off guard because he was funny.  A pastor who was actually funny.  Unheard of, in those days, and in fact most days, as Christianity and humor are in an eternal fight to the death (neither sex nor laughter are mentioned in Heaven).


But Mark had jokes about everything, and they were so good that even non-Christians were sharing them on the internet.  Brutal jokes about Baptists, and hipsters, and women, and sexual encounters, and Bible characters, and Seattle, and everything he touched in general -- jokes that stung and soothed at the same time, couched in sermons that shocked and made you think hard about yourself.  Sometimes he would start preaching softly and build into a shout and leave the room in silence, and no band would start playing, no soft-buildup from a guy on a keyboard, no nothing -- just dead and awkward silence, as you realized the sermon was about you, and that what you had done, or many of you in the crowd had done, anyway, was rotten, or lazy, or unworthy of manhood.  I had never seen anything like it -- like him.  These sermons changed my life.  Jordan B Peterson is interesting, but second wave.  Mark Driscoll was the beginning of the American man's renaissance.

His sermons of that era are all gone now, at least to my knowledge.  Hundreds of these sermons and their fire, their brilliance, and their humor, just scrubbed off the internet in a single night of panic and despair.  It turned out that Mark was never an administrator.  He was a brilliant, driven orator, but from what I hear not a great pastor.  These two roles are different as being a theology professor and a parent, usually fused together, in our haphazard American style, in a single role regardless of the man who bears them.  We most usually pick him because he can speak.  But in a church, we rarely consider whether speaking is leading.  Lots of great talkers have been terrible doers.  Mark Driscoll was a doer, and a great doer -- but what was he good at doing?

He used to say that lazy and disorganized people never accomplish anything great and he meant it -- and he was right.  But we knew lots of people who went to Mars Hill and, approaching the end, we heard it was a church full of burnouts**.  His drive was nearly heroic.  He went so hard and so brilliantly that many simply couldn't keep up with him.  Demanding in the extreme, like so many men of vision, he nearly couldn't keep up with himself.  Unbeknownst to many he was on the verge of collapse, and he dragged many of his closer followers with him.  We found out, later, in one of his own sermons, that this collapse was averted by a fellow believer -- a doctor, who would hook him up to an IV and pump him full of vitamins, or something.  Mark said he felt better than ever.  Many of his parishioners got worse.  They had no IV.  They had much less of the vision.  He would ask and ask and ask and ask and when you couldn't handle any more he would keep asking.  The church was growing and the boots-on-the-ground leaders were collapsing.

People left the church in a trickle, at first, bearing horror stories like people tell about Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos.  Go, go, go, go, take, take, take, take.  Gone.  They said they left Mars Hill Church, but talking to them and watching the way they behaved it was plain many of them had left the church.  I wondered, for years after Mars Hill imploded, whether this was why other local pastors, when I told them I left "the" church, asked me whether other Christians had hurt me.  Like Nietzsche, I always said no*.  But I believe when so many Christians are run ragged, not appreciated, and then implode emotionally, the church gets confused with the man who was leading it.  Not his fault, entirely, but ours.  What do you do when only a few men are as dedicated as you are?  When everyone else is inferior? What happens when the dream is so big that others can only catch shreds of it?

It turned out the dream was too big for Mark Driscoll himself.  His power was in talking but not in administration.  There's a kind of man good for making a product and another man for organizing a large corporation.  Likewise there's a man for running a small church and a man for running a mega.  Mark Driscoll wasn't a humble man but he wasn't an idiot either.  He had dreams but knew he wasn't an administrator.  So instead of trusting those close to him, many good men, but small-scale and inexperienced in empire-building, he hired out.  Went looking for men whose talent wasn't necessarily in preaching or teaching or anything of that nature, but in admin.  These men promised him that his message, if he would let them, could be taken across the whole planet.  That Mars Hill could spread, campus by campus, not across Washington, but over the whole nation.  They had big ideas for finance, and the finance was what killed him.  Not the social justice warriors protesting outside the churches, not other left-wing, scrawny, hostile megachurch pastors in the area***, or a sex scandal even though women loved him and crowded in to see him.  He was technically upright in most things, and if he wasn't he was funny and visionary enough for most people to put up with him.

It was the admin people, the finance people, the people he hired to get him to the top.  The worst sherpas in the world.  He had nurtured this church, watered it with late nights and hard words and years of late night study and meeting, day after day, with low people -- Seattle people, losers, junkies, faggots, man-children, screw-ups, and fools of all kinds.  This time he went to people who dealt primarily with big people.  And they put an idea in his head, that Wall Street and its financial trickery could lead many to the Pearly Gates.  He took the bait and ran ahead full steam.

The plan was simple.  He was an expert at fundraising.  When Haiti blew up, for instance, he would go there himself.  He would stay there a while and meet the Christians there and introduce them to us, via video, and talk about them, and about all the horrors they'd experience.  Our brothers in Christ.  He would describe the misery of living in post-earthquake Haiti, the Christians starving and sipping on street-water, the just-murdered people lying fresh-dead in the streets, the children newly orphaned, the houses unsafe to live in, the whole terror of living in a post-apocalyptic society -- and he would deliver it in such a way that if you didn't give money you were an apostate.  Not his words, but the ones in your heart.  If Christ wouldn't want you to give then, to them, then when?

So we gave by the hundreds.  Poor people like us.  Mars Hill began sending out mail, shaming the members for not giving when nobody I knew would dare to not give.  The statistics, included neatly in pie-charts and other such pictures-for-dummies, claimed that most people who went to Mars Hill didn't give much, if anything at all.  I began to wonder what was going on, as I never went to Mars Hill regularly, and the letters addressed me as if I did.  I had only been there twice.  Funny numbers, I thought, and then brushed it off as an accident.

The first "scandal" that happened and signalled the beginning of the end was a joke.  It was that, ten to fourteen years earlier, Mark Driscoll had gone online as "William Wallace II" and said some things about manhood and "pussies."  Not enough to bring a pastor down, and especially not a culturally right-wing one (why were we there, after all?), but the first signal that local media was against him.  Not looking into him, but outright anti.  Calls for his removal could be heard from high places.  Protesters began gathering outside of his churches.  The squeeze was put on the little people.  You go to Mars Hill?  You must hate gay people and other such nonsense -- a small thing, but in a world of non-discrimination acts and the Pink Mafia, not a comfortable one.

Once the papers turned it was only a matter of time before they looked into the finances.  And they did.  First off they found how much he was paid.  Something to the tune of half a million, plus benefits.  Next they found that those sermons he used, the sermons about Haiti and giving in general, got the money he wanted.  And that once he got the money they spent it -- not on Haiti, entirely, or on other urgent projects, but on marketing.  Particularly for Mark's new book.  A book I never read and never wanted to read (he was a terrible, juvenile writer who used the word "dude"), but apparently where my money had gone.

The reasoning on this one was easy to discern.  Some white-collar finance jerk had told him he was raising good money for Haiti.  But what about more money?  What if there was a way to get more money than ever before, money which could be used for projects in Haiti, or in Mexico, or in Africa?  A whole slew of programs to save lives and spread Jesus, a tiny renegade church that changes the whole world.  So they took that Haiti money and planted a seed, and the plant that grew out of it was Hemlock.

People were livid when the news broke.  We were working and scraping by in one of the most expensive cities in the nation -- many of these givers, by the way, natives whose parents and grandparents had lived here for decades, and now, due to pricing, couldn't even find a decent apartment.  They were being replaced by outsiders, day after day, squeezed paycheck by paycheck, when along came this man with a message -- a life-changing message, a beautiful message; deep, challenging, and hilarious; and he tells us we aren't giving enough to save the Haitians, and when we gave more for one thing it turned out we gave to something else.  We believed in his message.  He could have asked us to fund it directly.  But mouths said one thing and hands said another.  We were bamboozled by Christ's man, he admitted it like a man's man, and the lesser-men in charge of Mars Hill, trying to salvage whatever they could, undid the tremendous inertia of the movement.  They agreed to boot Mark to the curb, and promptly, stupidly, ruinously deleted all his sermons from the website.  The biggest thing that had changed lives for the better was gone, and all that was left was a disillusioned rabble.

I was told Mark has a new church, and that it's doing well.  I wish him the best of success, hope that his humor is still sharp, and that he builds his new church like the first church -- on zealots without soft hands and pie charts.

Your father,
-J

*Nietzsche, the most anti-Christian author I have ever read, writes shockingly in Ecce Homo:
When I wage war against Christianity I am entitled to this because I have never experienced misfortunes and frustrations from that quarter—the most serious Christians have always been well disposed toward me. I myself, an opponent of Christianity de rigueur, am far from blaming individuals for the calamity of millennia.
To both Nietzsche and me, the danger about Christianity isn't usually that Christians fail at it -- it's that they might take the New Testament alone, and too seriously.  We prefer a mix of the Old Jew alongside it.  The wealth-building, poetry-spitting, war-fighting, property-respecting, love-making Old Jew.  Nobody wants a Sermon on the Mount Christian next to him in a foxhole.  Nobody wants an "obey Nero" Christian next to him at the ballot box.  Nobody wants a "money is the root of all evil" Christian as a partner in business.  It's true that life is vain -- but does it have to be spineless and bland?  It's true we're all going to die -- but do we all have to die on the cross?  The Christian in practice is a failure and we love him.  At least many of him.  The "New Testament Christian" in theory is a menace -- and we hate him.

**Many driven men, I think, are like fire.  You stand at a distance and all you get is light and warmth.  You get too close and you're likely to get burned.

***I was a new Christian around 2009, and my idea of Christendom was that of an infant.  We were a brotherhood more than literal brothers, as Christ taught.  Who are my mother and my brothers? Those who hear the word of God and do it was the idea at the time.  As such the name Christian was a magic spell over me.  You claimed it and I claimed you, but I expected things of you after it.  I didn't know it at the time but I was alone, like all newcomers to a spiritual organization.  One Christian was always the target of another.  There were some Christians who were too filthy for others.  There were some Christians who were too clean.  There were blood-feuds in a spiritual sense in which churches were hell-bent.  I went to Mars Hill and they said you needed to man up.  I went to Bethany, where the limp-wrists are on top, and found Mars Hill was anathema -- a church for bros and all kinds of meatheads.  Or so the parishioners said.  Bethany was open to gays but not to the bros.  Christ's love always had boundaries, and they were usually set around the wrong kinds of Christians.  Do not judge -- but only queers and non-believers.  The heretic, for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of the Good News, for the proclamation that all sins are forgiven and heaven in impending, has to go under.

It sounds like I'm talking about other people, but I'm talking about myself too.  Christianity is an organization just like Boy Scouts are an organization.  You need rules or you can't be an organization.  But you focus too much on the rules and you forget why you're there in the first place.  There's no way to reconcile these forces, and continual battle between the two comprises much of church history.  We simply can't trust anyone just because he calls himself a Christian.

I knew this in my heart, but never admitted it until I left.  It was too much for me to admit that Christendom is human.  I remember now the moment I accepted it, while reading Macaulay's must-read speech on The Civil Disabilities of the Jews.
It is altogether impossible to reason from the opinions which a man professes to his feelings and his actions; and in fact no person is ever such a fool as to reason thus, except when he wants a pretext for persecuting his neighbours. A Christian is commanded, under the strongest sanctions, to be just in all his dealings. Yet to how many of the twenty-four millions of professing Christians in these islands would any man in his senses lend a thousand pounds without security? A man who should act, for one day, on the supposition that all the people about him were influenced by the religion which they professed, would find himself ruined before night; and no man ever does act on that supposition in any of the ordinary concerns of life, in borrowing, in lending, in buying, or in selling. But when any of our fellow-creatures are to be oppressed, the case is different. Then we represent those motives which we know to be so feeble for good as omnipotent for evil. Then we lay to the charge of our victims all the vices and follies to which their doctrines, however remotely, seem to tend. We forget that the same weakness, the same laxity, the same disposition to prefer the present to the future, which make men worse than a good religion, make them better than a bad one.
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