Tragically hip New Calvinists

MD_Pulpit1.jpgThe New York Times Magazine has wandered into the testosterone-heavy world of Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church and emerged with a feature story that mostly does justice to both Driscoll and his critics. The coverage is by Molly Worthen, who has also written a previous New York Times Magazine story on classical Christian education and a feature about L’Abri Fellowship for Christianity Today. She is no stranger to the subcultures of evangelical Protestantism.

I have only a few criticisms of Worthen’s report, most of them involving overstatements of Driscoll’s importance and — in one case — an overly simple description of most evangelicals’ theology:

Mark Driscoll is American evangelicalism’s bête noire. … Conservatives call Driscoll “the cussing pastor” and wish that he’d trade in his fashionably distressed jeans and taste for indie rock for a suit and tie and placid choral arrangements.

… With his taste for vintage baseball caps and omnipresence on Facebook and iTunes, Driscoll, who is 38, is on the cutting edge of American pop culture.

… Since the early 19th century, most evangelicals have preferred a theology that stresses the believer’s free decision to accept God’s grace. To be born again is a choice God wants you to make; if you so choose, Jesus will be your personal friend.

I think it’s safe to say that modern evangelicalism is Driscoll’s bête noire, especially judging by his remarks in this report. Considering evangelicals’ many concerns about politics and culture wars, however, it’s difficult to imagine evangelicals choosing Driscoll as their bête noire — or wasting time on hoping that he will “trade in his fashionably distressed jeans and taste for indie rock for a suit and tie and placid choral arrangements.”

If one can be on the cutting edge of pop culture through baseball caps, Facebook and iTunes, that cutting edge sounds more like a 16-lane highway, gridlocked in both directions by packed SUVs.

Further, it’s hard to think that even Joel Osteen (much less most evangelicals) reduces Jesus to one’s personal friend. Even the overused “personal Lord and Savior” says more than that. These sorts of generalizations add to the sense, expressed here before by Mollie, that too much mass-media coverage of evangelicals reads like a “typical anthropological study of a bizarre species.”

That said, I admire Worthen’s moments of elegant writing and insight. These paragraphs were my favorites:

Calvinism is a theology predicated on paradox: God has predestined every human being’s actions, yet we are still to blame for our sins; we are totally depraved, yet held to the impossible standard of divine law. These teachings do not jibe with Enlightenment ideas about human capacity, yet they have appealed to a wide range of modern intellectuals, especially those who stressed the dangers of human hubris in the wake of World War I.

… Mars Hill counts four of the city’s top tattoo artists among its members (and many of their clientele — that afternoon, [Damon] Conklin was expecting a fellow church member who wanted a portrait of Christ enthroned across his back). While other churches left people like Conklin feeling alienated, Mars Hill has made them its missionaries. “Some people say, ‘You’re pretty cool and you’re a Christian, so I guess I can’t hate all of them anymore,’” he says. “I understand where they’re coming from.”

… Critics on the left and right alike predict that this delicate balance of opposites cannot last. Some are skeptical of a church so bent on staying perpetually “hip”: members have only recently begun to marry and have children, but surely those children will grow up, grow too cool for their cool church and rebel. Others say that Driscoll’s ego and taste for controversy will be Mars Hill’s Achilles’ heel. Lately he has made a concerted effort to tone down his language, and he insists that he has delegated much authority, but the heart of his message has not changed. Driscoll is still the one who gazes down upon Mars Hill’s seven congregations most Sundays, his sermons broadcast from the main campus to jumbo-size projection screens around the city. At one suburban campus that I visited, a huge yellow cross dominated center stage — until the projection screen unfurled and Driscoll’s face blocked the cross from view.

Photo of Mark Driscoll is from the Press Room section of Mars Hill’s website.

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  • Chris Blackstone

    I’ve been a fan of Driscoll for a few years and the article in the Times was a pretty fair and balanced article. It correctly noted that he doesn’t tone down his Reformed Theology and devotion to Christ even as the church grows by leaps and bounds.

    I wish there was a note about their most recent church series on 1 and 2 Peter and the over 200 page study guide that was published by the church for small groups, families, and children to use to dig deeper into the Scripture. For a technologically innovative church, some might see a printed study guide as old news, but it’s still the best combo with a printed Bible.

  • Brian

    I think this is a well done article overall, but I don’t see how the closing line can be substantiated:

    “Driscoll’s New Calvinism underscores a curious fact: the doctrine of total human depravity has always had a funny way of emboldening, rather than humbling, its adherent.”

    I think the is crossing the (admittedly blurry at times) line between feature and editorial//blog post.

  • Samuel J. Howard

    The article doesn’t establish “Driscoll’s New Calvinsim” with any evidence. It merely asserts it. Furthermore, with it’s almost equal focus on total depravity besides double predestination, I think it provides an impression that Driscoll’s theology is more different from mainstream evangelicism and historic orthodoxy in general than it really is. Evangelical doesn’t neccesarily equal Arminian Baptist.

  • danr

    “if you so choose, Jesus will be your personal friend.”

    Agreed that in the context of most MSM articles, reference to personal friendship with the Messiah Himself usually comes across as a bit casual, simplistic, and condescending. But Christ does say in John 15, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends,” which leads many evangelicals to wonder why such a claim must seem so controversial.

  • bethany

    I agree with your general estimation of the article – that it was well done. I also agree that it seems kind of silly to assume that baseball hats and talking about sex are hip and edgy. I would add tattoos and spiky hair to that collection.
    From my perspective, I was troubled that she did not mention that there are plenty of other calvinists in the US who might disagree with some of Driscoll’s interpretations of Calvinism, but that’s asking a lot of an already long and detailed article.

  • Dale

    I disagree with your assessment of this article. The writer’s grasp of evangelical culture and Driscoll’s place in it comes across as glib and too willing to indulge in caricature. My guess is that she bought Driscoll’s description of his critics, did a modicum of research to back him up, and wrote a “colorful” but inaccurate piece. If someone wants to “get” Mark Driscoll, I recommend this much better piece by Collin Hansen in Christianity Today.

    Where does Worthen miss? Let’s start with her reason for the controversy among “conservatives” about Driscoll:

    Conservatives call Driscoll “the cussing pastor” and wish that he’d trade in his fashionably distressed jeans and taste for indie rock for a suit and tie and placid choral arrangements.

    While Worthen attributes the label to generic “conservatives”, Hansen’s article helpfully identifies the source of the label “cussing pastor”: Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz. In what sense is Miller a “conservative”? I haven’t read the book, but from what I understand, it’s not a screed against Driscoll, but a compliment.

    Hansen also reports that Driscoll is controversial among evangelical Christians, but he accurately states that there are a number of reasons why:

    The spectrum of response speaks to his sharp tongue—his greatest strength and his glaring weakness. But Driscoll also disturbs many fellow evangelicals because he straddles the borders that divide us. His unflinching Reformed theology grates on the church-growth crowd. His plan to grow a large church strikes postmoderns as arrogant. His roots in the emerging church worry Calvinists. No one group can claim him. Maybe that’s why they all turn their guns on him.

    Contrary to the theme of Worthen’s article, Hansen reports that Driscoll is not representative of a Calvinist revival–that Driscoll is controversial among Calvinists because his theological background isn’t sufficiently Calvinist. Driscoll is an odd duck, and if he’s representative of anything, it’s evangelicalism’s willingess to make a pragmatic if eclectic use of disparate parts–Calvinism, pop culture, and a tinge of postmodernism– to reach a mass audience. That, and a tendency of some pastors to shoot off at the mouth in less than winsome ways.

    Hansen describes one particular instance of a “sharp tongue” that first brought Driscoll to my attention:

    All the debate Driscoll stirs up over his edgy preaching and his style of evangelism pales compared to reactions when he talks about women. . . .

    Driscoll would have been wise last fall to take his own advice and stick to men’s issues when he commented on Ted Haggard’s resignation from the National Association of Evangelicals. Writing on his blog, Driscoll offered helpful, practical advice for young pastors who might struggle to ward off sexual temptation. But one comment stood out.

    “It is not uncommon to meet pastors’ wives who really let themselves go; they sometimes feel that because their husband is a pastor, he is therefore trapped into fidelity, which gives them cause for laziness,” Driscoll wrote. “A wife who lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband in the ways that the Song of Songs is so frank about is not responsible for her husband’s sin, but she may not be helping him either.”

    Note that there’s not one profanity in that comment, but it’s offensive nonetheless. It’s offensive even to people who believe that wives should submit to their husbands. It certainly raised the ire of some of the faculty of Seattle Pacific University, a nearby evangelical college, who circulated a petition condemning the comment as disrespectful to women. Worthen’s piece would have us believe that fellow evangelicals (I guess that’s what she means by “conservatives”) obsess over the superficial issue of four-letter words, when Driscoll’s rhetoric is more problematic than that.

    On the other hand, Hansen’s piece contains comments from people throughout the evangelical community about Driscoll; only one jives with Worthen’s claim, a comment by John McArthur:

    “[T]he lifestyle he models—especially his easygoing familiarity with all this world’s filthy fads—practically guarantees that [his disciples] will make little progress toward authentic sanctification.”

    Overall, I think the Christianity Today piece is much more balanced and nuanced than the New York Times piece. Worthen is too quick to dismiss Driscoll’s “conservative” critics as prudes upset by his language and casual dress, when there’s much more meat to the story. She adds to the mistake when she tries to portray him as typical of a new kind of Calvinist.

  • Kevin P. Edgecomb

    …until the projection screen unfurled and Driscoll’s face blocked the cross from view.

    Wow! That would’ve been a real zinger to end the article with. What a thought-provoking observation, in that “Old New York Times that used to be consistently thoughtful” kind of way. To end immediately after with the lame sentence on emboldening depravity is a denouement. It seems misplaced.

    And what’s up with a thirty-eight year old dressing like a twenty-two year old, complete with “fauxhawk”? Is this symptomatic of the kind of crowd that he attracts, the perpetually twentysomethings? It would have been good to hear something about that.

  • Doug Sirman

    What, no cigar? We should care? Gene Scott is dead. Next!!!

  • Chris Blackstone

    I wish online versions of articles would take much better advantage of the medium to provide context.

    For example, this line “Lately he has made a concerted effort to tone down his language,” could be directly linked to the audio found here

    Doug, et al, any chance that as journalism continues to reinvent itself online, we might actually see what’s online actually taking advantage of being online?

    • Douglas LeBlanc

      You make a good point, Chris. If a news report is drawing from a video for an important detail, it makes perfect sense to link to the video.

  • Mollie


    Eugene Scott may be dead but his young and beautiful wife Melissa has totally taken up where he left off. She’s beyond compelling.

  • Kevin P. Edgecomb

    What, Mollie, does she wear little pillbox hats and smoke Virgina Slims?

  • Dale

    What, Mollie, does she wear little pillbox hats and smoke Virgina Slims?

    Oh, Kevin, we can do better than that. Melissa Scott is a hot little number in a clerical collar. Formerly known as “Barbie Bridges”, a porn starlet.

  • Kevin P. Edgecomb

    I was gonna say “Get out!” Truth is stranger than fiction. Who could write this stuff?

  • Doug Sirman

    My Point: Gene Scott brought the crazy in a way that some fanboy of the damned french lawyer never could. Driscoll’s playing old, scratched vinyl.

  • Russ Reeves

    I wasn’t so wild about the perpetuation of the myth that Calvin “had heretics burned at the stake…” I have this crazy idea that to prevent such errors, maybe newspapers could hire people who check facts, maybe call them fact-checkers…

  • Jud Lindsay

    I don’t know Mark Driscoll, I wish I did. Based on this review he is sounding more like a guy who is reaching out. Too bad they had to refer to ‘ego.’ We all have one but if his extends that far that it is referred to, then maybe a shade too big. I pray for emergent churches. Many pastors are running solo with them and do crash. They would be better if they had wise consultants but then, appears no one has trod where they are. They do need to be prayed for. All pastors and ministers need wisdom and guidance from the Holy Spirit.