Mark Driscoll & the Empty Politic of Evangelicalism

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We evangelicals have a problem.

And the problem is, simply put, that we do not know how to tell the truth.

If that sounds harsh, hear what I mean: it is not that we don’t think we are telling the truth (we do), it is that we have so constructed the “master signifiers” of our faith and life that we no longer know how to be really, deeply honest – with ourselves or with the world. And, unfortunately, it is the world that is the most painfully aware of this.

I’ve spent a good deal of energy over the last 5 years of my life trying to deconstruct these master signifiers, the structural beliefs that define evangelicals as evangelicals, both for myself and for those around me. It kind of goes with the territory of planting an evangelical church in a very progressive city (see us make Barna’s “bottom ten” list!) - one that can sniff out evangelical dishonesty from a mile away. That deconstruction was the driving force behind the book I wrote last year about a serial killer and the gospel; and even as I am in the midst of a wonderful new season of reconstruction in life and ministry, I am conscious of the way the structure of the evangelical project is continuing to shake and quake all around me.

As the title implies, Mark Driscoll, the lead pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, serves as the illustration for this point. I was hesitant to put his name in the title because, really, it’s not all about him; but his controversial ministry has become an obvious example of this phenomenon. Indeed, the evangelical structure shook a little more last week during President Obama’s inauguration when Pastor Mark tweeted this:

Screen Shot 2013-01-28 at 5.02.24 PM

 

With over 3,000 retweets (some of them, no doubt, unfavorable) and almost 1,500 favorites (all favorable, per definition), you could say this sentiment went viral rather quickly. And, the blogosphere was soon abuzz as well. By now, Driscoll’s media exploits are not unlike chumming shark infested water: tweets like this signal the start of a feeding frenzy. And the sea is currently swirling in a cloud of blood and guts.

Much like the moment that John Piper pulled the trigger on the infamous, “Farewell Rob Bell” tweet, once Driscoll fired this one off, there was no going back, no matter how many subtly explanatory missives might be launched thereafter. And, also like Piper, while many Driscollians have jumped up to defend the statement semantically or theologically, the watching world is painfully aware of an insidious deception at work.

For instance, some apologists have countered that the tweet is simply reflecting Driscoll’s ultra conservative theology. That, really, all Driscoll is doing is saying that he believes in a strict definition of atonement that Obama has obviously not embraced, as well as strict stances against abortion and homosexuality, social issues that Obama champions as good and right. Thus, Driscoll’s tweet is just a true reflection of his theology: Obama, in Driscoll’s view (and the view of many conservatives), does not believe in God or the Bible.

But it’s not true.

It’s a lie.

It’s a lie because the tweet begins with that word “praying.” Tony Jones succinctly shut that down by comparing Driscoll to the Pharisees that Jesus chided for their showy and self-righteous public prayers. And it doesn’t get any more public than tweet-praying. (I’d add the The Pharisee and the Tax Collector to Tony’s repertoire.)

Praying is, of course, meant to convey piety and sincerity and concern. But the intended piety is betrayed by the public judgment – that Driscoll assumes to know, with almost complete certainty (enough certainty to tweet, at least) – the unsaved state of the President’s soul. It is betrayed by the sheer pride of such an accusation; the palpable rush of superiority and arrogance amidst the words. The piety is further betrayed by the implication, clear to anyone familiar with Pastor Mark’s inhumane position on hell – that Obama is currently an object of God’s wrath fitted for eternal fire, barring any unforeseen change before death. Most obviously, the change from liberal to conservative, Democrat to Republican. Because, after all, this is an inherently political statement about inherently political things; which means the piety is even further betrayed by the clear assertion of power.

The truth, then, of the tweet becomes clear: that Pastor Mark wants his audience to think, to know, and to live according to the prideful judgment that the President is bound for hell because of his political views, and, thus, that someone else ought to be in power.

This is, essentially, dehumanization. Obama is declared to be the Church’s political enemy in this well-timed Inauguration Day tweet. As such, he is to be pitied and opposed, if not scorned; after all, God probably hates him, and will likely send him to hell.

And the watching world knows one thing beyond the shadow of a doubt: that this is definitely not the thing that every evangelical, Driscoll included, claims to believe in, namely, love.

My friend Stephanie is fond of saying, “Evangelicals are scared to death of their own humanity.” What she means is that we have so constructed a system of belief and life as to stifle, numb, and mask the reality of human feeling.

Therefore, tweets like Driscoll’s are evidences of evangelicalism’s empty politic – its political rules and signifiers that take precedence over true piety, empathy, compassion, and love.

In the words of David Fitch, this empty politic turns us into the callous, unloving thing that we despise.

So, what can we do? Is there any hope for evangelicalism, or is this the end?

I think there is hope.

My tweet reply to Driscoll (which garnered considerably fewer retweets) was simply this:

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The Missio Alliance is a growing conversation among third-way evangelicals – those who are determined to move beyond this persistent dishonesty and empty politic at work among many churches and movements in America, brothers and sisters though they may be. And we are likewise determined to move beyond the sour skepticism which assumes, because of the numerous abuses and unfeeling theological implications that seem to signal the coming implosion of evangelicalism, that the only answer is to deconstruct it until there is nothing left of the gospel itself. Indeed, to let it collapse on itself while the feeding frenzy continues.

I am excited to attend the inaugural (pun intended) conference for the Missio Alliance this April precisely because I believe in the future of an honest, empathetic, truly human evangelical theology and praxis.

And most of all, because I believe in the purest, truest, deepest expression of love imaginable, given to us in the evangel itself – the gospel of Jesus the Liberating King.

So, will you join us in D.C. this April?

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter was released in 2012. Twitter & Facebook.

  • Mark Burgess

    Really good. I am evangelical, do not believe abortion is right or homosexuality, but at the same time, I believe you can be saved and not agree with everything that someone believes. As a Brit working as a missionary in Peru the whole republican, democrat issue is strange, as I know God loves them all the same. In addition I believe that God likes and dislikes Democrat and Republican policies. I work with many missionaries here who are good friends, their theology is different to me on several issues, eg baptism (Anglican friends) but it doesn’t mean they are not saved, or that I cannot agree with them on so many other issues. I do not agree with everything, or even a fair amount of what Obama says or agrees with, but if I was an American I couldn’t have voted for a mormon!!!

    • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

      Thanks for the comment, Mark. Unity across denominational and traditional lines, especially in a missionary situation (which is what America is becoming, too), is essential. I think it’s also essential to look at the deeper doctrinal and theological issues that provoke disunity and intolerance of all kinds. Have a good weekend!

  • http://anoigmatic.wordpress.com/ Simon Nash

    Best metaphor I’ve read all year “Driscoll’s media exploits are not unlike chumming shark infested water”
    He plays right into the evangelical trope (after a twisted reading of Galatians 5:11) that the more offensive you are being the more true to THE GOSPEL you are being and its corrollary that if anyone calls you out for being a jerk you are being “persecuted for my sake”.
    i like your blog Zach.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

      Thanks, Simon that’s encouraging.

  • Guest

    Hey Zach –

    It is indeed worth pondering deeply the conditions of evangelical speech (and as you so helpfully point out, prayer) that make this kind of deception possible.

    I will say that you lost me at:

    “Most obviously, the change from liberal to conservative, Democrat to Republican. Because, after all, this is an inherently political statement about inherently political things; which means the piety is even further betrayed by the clear assertion of power.”

    I don’t quite follow you here. Maybe you could help me out?

    I was hoping that you were going to say that Driscoll’s problem might be that his habits of prayer have warped his soul and made him unfit for a politics centered around the worship of Christ. Although maybe in saying this, I am going too far and am expressing the kind of judgment of my neighbor that we Christians avoid. :) Perhaps it would be better put that Driscoll’s habits of prayer are an obstacle to his participation in the politics centered around the worship of Christ.

    Also, when you say that prayer ‘is meant to convey piety,’ I suppose that you meant that prayer as Driscoll uses it is meant to convey piety, not prayer as a practice ought to convey piety?

    • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

      Hi Madison, thanks for the feedback. Yeah, the point I was going for there was that Driscoll’s tweet is obviously politically motivated, which means it’s power-motivated. My prediction is that we’ll see more of this from the “younger” conservative evangelicals as they age – they’ll be more open about their political affiliation, and will attempt to lead their people to the right. Mark is a very privileged white guy who happens to be very, very conservative in every way. He most definitely would want a Christian Republican in office.

      As for the prayer/piety thing, probably better stated this way: public prayer is meant to convey piety to others, and obviously, prayer in a pure form is an aspect of true piety. But this prayer was not pious, for the same reason the Pharisees’ public prayers were not. Etc.

  • http://twitter.com/NoahStepro Noah Stepro

    Great Thoughts, see you in DC:)

    • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

      Thanks man, see you then.

  • http://twitter.com/tg24 Tim Ghali

    Excellent post Zach (Found you as I have been using the #futuregospel tag too.) I blogged on this too – I don’t understand how and why so many of intelligent friends like him in light of so many better minds they have access too.

    Sometimes I think it’s best to ignore Driscoll, sometimes I think we need to confront and bring attention to nonsense like this. But what I really think is the best response is to serve the Kingdom boldly & selflessly. Many things happen when we truly serve God and others, the awkward Driscoll moments will be annoying not descriptive of evangelicals and second, people will be blessed in the name of Christ.

    See you around.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

      Tim, agreed. I waited a week for that reason – wanted it to be more of a dispassionate look at the event as an illustration for a bigger point, rather than a fuming rant.

  • Pat O’Leary

    I want to cry over the state of the church. She has become an obstacle, a stumbling block for people and opposed to the grace and the cause of Christ.

  • Gabriel Finochio

    Mr. Hoag,

    i’m not sure what you deem to be “dishonest” about Pastor Driscoll’s tweet. As far as i can tell, it looks quite possibly too honest.

    Also, it appears that the tweet is far from being “empty politic”. Again, if anything, it may be too full of politics.

    And i’m confused as to what a First and Second way Evangelical looks like, let alone a Third-Way.

    Furthermore, how can conversation be the nostrum to solve the Evangelical conundrum? Let alone the Protestant one?

    And finally, it sounds quite nice to move beyond our current problems, but what, may i ask, shall we move into? Shall we move beyond our current problems and into our future problems?

    Sincerely,

    A quite confused reader.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

      Gabriel, it would help to know whether your intent is to defend Pastor Mark’s comments, or if you have another perspective to share. I understand your critique, but I’d like to understand the position behind the critique.

      • Gabriel Finochio

        Mr. Hoag,

        I suppose that if you (rightly) interpret my comment as a critique of yours, then yes, i guess i am, in a round-about-way, defending Pastor Driscoll.

        And I apologize for the flurry of questions, but it was my hope that you might be able to share more of your own perspective, so as to clear things up for me.

        • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

          Let me know if this helps at all with the “first, second, third way” issue: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/zhoag/2013/01/31/crackheads/.

          My hope is not that we simply solve a problem but that we listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. In that way, there will always be problems, but it can get better.

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  • Brian Burchett

    Zach, i’m curious about your description of Driscoll’s position on hell as inhumane. I’m not looking to defend him, nor attack you, but would like to have you unpack that comment so I can understand it. Thanks!

    • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

      Hey Brian, perhaps this article from Driscoll sheds more light: http://theresurgence.com/2011/03/14/to-hell-with-hell. This quote is particularly troubling:

      “Hell will be ruled by Jesus, and human and demon alike, including Satan, will be tormented there continually.”

      I find Driscoll’s view to be perhaps more fundamentalist, violent, and torturous than any I’ve ever come across in my life as an evangelical. Presently, I’m landing somewhere between an annihilation – deterioration (Lewis/Wright) view because it deals with the both the nuance in the NT text and the ethical issues of justice and torture.

      • John Andersen

        Zach – would you mind elaborating with some scriptural support? Lacking that all I can glean from this is opinion. From the scriptures reference in Mark’s piece I don’t really see where he could be that far off base though I’m not clear on the “Hell will be ruled by Jesus” implications. I don’t imagine that Hell would really require “ruling” other than the process of populating it.

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  • http://zhoag.com Zach

    John, probably not here in the comments but maybe a future blog post. I’m sure you realize that there are several views that can bring plenty of “scriptural support,” so it’s not a scriptural view on one hand and opinion on the other. Peace.

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