For some reason, my satirical post on how Mark Driscoll is forensically justified after his plagiarism scandal last year is the most popular post on this blog of all time.
I am having trouble understanding this. I write about a lot of things. I’ve been retweeted by Hong Kong’s democratic movement, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, for my posts on Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the legacy of Tiananmen. I write a ton about Asian Americans, and I’ve even used a key moment in Asian American evangelical history, the Asian American open letter to the evangelical church, to make a hashtag, #TPCIU, ‘the private consensus is unraveling.’ I write about politics in British Columbia, and I make fun of how I lived for nine years in the same Richmond that is both populated by a lot of Chinese people and where Once Upon a Time is filmed. I happen to think all of these topics are interrelated — after all, they are all about publics, which is what I study and write about — and accordingly, I have no plans to ‘focus’ — I’m focused enough!
But for some reason, that post on Mark Driscoll is the most read thing on this whole blog, along with a post on Driscoll’s ‘biblical’ usage of the ‘private consensus’ and the possibility that Mars Hill could enter its own religious freedom case into the docket that has all the other religious freedom cases (check this cheeky Anglican post out as well). Of course, I’m not sure what people think of it, except that they’ve read it. Because I have a day job as a postdoctoral researcher, I don’t have time to play sovereign and weed out comments. It’s just amusing because even though I happen to identify as a Christian, this is not an evangelical blog by any stretch of the imagination.
That said, I do have some sense that people think that one of my writing interests is Mark Driscoll. Enough people, for example, have forwarded the latest drudge on Mark Driscoll’s early 2000s posts as the Scottish freedom fighter, William Wallace, on the evangelical blogosphere. They’ve done the researcher’s dream, reconstructing as one single PDF document Driscoll/Wallace’s angry rants on assertive women, the LGBTIQ+ community, liberal Protestants, feminists, women in ministry, men who have egalitarian relationships with their spouses, etc., all under the banner of how we have become a ‘pussified nation,’ although it is unclear whether that ‘nation’ is Seattle, America, or, since Driscoll traces the ‘pussification’ of the ‘nation’ to Larry Crabb’s exegesis of half a verse of Genesis 3 in The Silence of Adam, the people of God — and if the ‘people of God,’ whether that people are Jews (what kind?), Catholics (what spectrum?), Orthodox (which nation-state?), or Protestant (which theology?). They’ve even screenshot Driscoll’s 2007 Confessions of a Reformission Rev, p. 129:
Some have seen fit to send me evangelical feminist blogger Rachel Held Evans’s epic takedown of these William Wallace posts as evidence that ‘teachings like these reveal a disturbed and dangerous man who needs counseling, not a place at the pulpit‘ because ‘[m]isogyny and homophobia are not okay. This is not an issue of using “salty language” or “unconventional tactics” to preach the gospel, because there is not a trace of gospel in this.’
This could be, as blogger Matthew Paul Turner puts it, Driscoll’s ‘worst nightmare yet,’ in the wake of his plagiarism scandal, New York Times’ bestseller scandal, pastoral gag order scandal, and all the other sundry scandals that Patheos blogger Warren Throckmorton has epically chronicled.
There is just one problem: none of this was private to begin with.
If Driscoll posted this stuff in a forum of sorts, and then wrote about it in a book that is still in active public circulation, this stuff about a ‘pussified nation’ hasn’t been private for a long time, regardless of whether that forum was supposed to be public or whether William Wallace was supposed to be outed as Driscoll. That’s a problem for the bloggers wanting be make Driscoll’s nightmares worse.
It’s a problem because it’s one giant distraction from the big issue.
The big issue is that while what Mark Driscoll is doing with Mars Hill church is of serious public interest — and by public interest, I mean of interest to more than evangelicals because, to use the New Calvinists’ language, the attempt to build a church as a ‘city within a city’ is a political act — the actions of Driscoll and his colleagues attempt to establish that private, in-house management of Mars Hill’s affairs are the best practice. This is what’s called the private consensus. As I have been defining it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again, ‘the private consensus’ is simply the implicit agreement especially among American evangelicals and conservative American Catholics that church governance is private. Whenever ‘the public’ gets involved — the media, the government, bloggers — the church’s private materials get circulated, which means that the church is unable to maintain that implicit agreement that everything concerning the church should be governed privately. They can’t control the way that materials are read and interpreted, and in this way, their public image can spiral out of control. The proliferation of all of this private material on the public space of the Internet is what I mean when I say that the private consensus is unraveling, or #TPCIU.
And thus, everything that has been in circulation about Mars Hill up till now has been an attempt to articulate why what is happening at Mars Hill is important for even a secular public to know. After all, if a secular public — the polis that contains the polis — is being evangelized, it ought to know for what it’s signing up! Because of that, Warren Throckmorton and Religion News Service‘s Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Jonathan Merritt have done the painstaking work of making public all the stuff Mars Hill labeled ‘private’ because, well, it’s important to know when a New York Times’s bestseller is not really a New York Times’s bestseller, or when material is lifted from other books and passed on as original, or when pastors who leave Mars Hill have to sign a gag clause in their exit contracts, or when a lawyer contacts Mars Hill to ask that evidence not be destroyed in light of impending litigation. It may be in Mars Hill’s interest to keep all of this under wraps. It is also in the public’s interest for it not to be kept under wraps, but circulated for discussion. To this end, Throckmorton, Bailey, and Merritt, among others, have been doing a remarkable public service.
At one level, one could say that Rachel Held Evans is also trying to do make a similar public case. Quoting Driscoll’s William Wallace at length to establish that Driscoll has a history of misogyny, Evans argues that what the evangelical public should do is to launch a mass appeal to evangelical leaders to remove Driscoll from leadership. Evans does her best to avoid making this look like a private vendetta: she contends that Driscoll’s very apparent misogyny and homophobia makes him a menace to the public good. Evans, of course, does not specify which evangelical leaders to which we are to appeal; after all, there’s a laundry list that William Wallace himself alienates, and it is quite the political kaleidoscope: for starters, Focus on the Family, Promise Keepers, Christians for Biblical Equality. Evans’s idea of what the evangelical public sphere is, then, is a deliberating public that can be mobilized to take down a leader whose words and actions are inimical to the good of evangelicalism.
Evans thus implies that Mars Hill has never believed in this evangelical deliberating public. The problem is, they once did.
Once upon a time, for the few who remember, Driscoll and Mars Hill did their utter best to be ‘brutally honest’ in the public sphere. In fact, as one of Mars Hill’s earlier female deacons Stef Hjertager records in Driscoll’s first book, The Radical Reformission, about her evangelical conversion through Driscoll’s sermon series through Revelation, ‘I was amazed at and utterly in awe of how brutally honest the pastor spoke’ (p. 86). There was a time when Mars Hill took great pride in making as much as they could public, and as Driscoll himself records in both Confessions of a Reformission Rev and in his most recent video addressing the church on this difficult ‘season,’ this publicness was restructured twice to consolidate the church into a more private institution.
In other words, digging into Mars Hill’s past to find a consistent pattern of misogyny and homophobia is counterproductive because it simply misses the point of what’s at issue in the Mars Hill ‘season.’ All the stuff that one needs is not the stuff in the Mars Hill archives, but simply what Mark Driscoll has put out for us all to see. Even for him, the issue is that the private restructuring of Mars Hill led to a series of internal ministry casualties (see the previous two links for the sources for these quotes):
There have been two seasons in the history of Mars Hill Church where we have made substantive organizational changes. One was around 2006, 2007, the other was in 2011 and 2012 and those two seasons of substantive organizational changes really were caused by our church going to multiple locations and leaders being spread out across our various locations and, and at the time we were not, I was not, as sympathetic and empathetic as we could or should have been, that some of those organizational changes had some adverse personal implications for the people and the leaders who were involved. As well, we could have communicated, should have communicated those changes more clearly and could have acted upon those needed organizational changes with more love and affection and empathy, and pastoral affection. The result is, that some people were hurt, don’t want to speak on their behalf, that’s my interpretation, and as a result, there is today a group of largely anonymous former leaders of our Mars Hill Church family.
This assessment suggests that while the private consensus is touted as an evangelical best practice, the results of this private restructuring was in fact a lot of internal organizational contention and a division between the private leaders of the church (this is the ‘we’ who ‘could have communicated’) and the various publics of those outside the inner circle, in the congregation, and in the public sphere more generally. The result of this restructuring is that a lot more at Mars Hill is private, and the strategy for reconciliation is also private:
Some of you have asked, well, what are the people or details involved, and to be honest with you we’re just not free to speak about those matters because the terms of the relational reconciliation process include us signing a covenant and that includes confidentiality because we want to create a safe place where people can come in and work out any relational differences and difficulties and so we don’t want to gossip, especially with media and social media, we don’t want to subject anyone to any unnecessary fear or an unsafe environment, and so we, we intend to abide by, by those rules and we think they’re godly and good and they really just quite frankly come pretty much straight out of the Bible and so we, we want to honor God above all in this process and so we, we won’t say a lot except, and it’s not for any reason other than we’re trying to love well and submit to the process that we believe is a good one and a Godly one.
In turn, the way that Mars Hill imagines that it should address its controversies is through private conversations, not through circulating material through the public sphere for open deliberation:
As well, one of the things that has been… complex is the fact that a lot of the people that we are dealing with in this season remain anonymous. And so we don’t know how to reconcile, or how to work things out with, with people because we’re not entirely sure who they are, and so that has, that has made things a little more complex and difficult as well. And what it seems to me is that in this season it’s not a group of people it’s groups of people, and it’s, it’s a real spectrum from some who are Christians, some who are non-Christians, some who have attended Mars Hill Church, some who have never attended Mars Hill Church, some who really want good for our church, and other who frankly don’t seem to want much good for our church. And, and so in this includes everyone in the middle and a long entire continuum and spectrum, and so trying to determine how to respond to, to various people and issues and groups, it’s just been something that we have been prayerfully carefully trying to determine what would be the godliest and best course of action.
Sure, Throckmorton et al. have called Driscoll out on this statement, saying that he is known by name — and perhaps I am as well! But that too is not the point. The point is that Driscoll et al. think that the only way to deal with the criticism is to ram everything back into the private consensus, including the critics who all must have personal reasons for criticizing the church — which in turn makes it overwhelming to address each critic’s putative baggage and is complicated by the anonymity of some of the critics. What Driscoll does not propose is that it is this touted best practice of the private consensus that is the source of his troubles, that the unraveling of this private consensus with new public circulation and an openness to public, democratic deliberation may well be his salvation.
With that, we are back to William Wallace. The William Wallace posts were written at a time when Driscoll et al. believed in this sort of public deliberation. This means, of course, that the very convenient pdf this whole poobah has given us has always been public. It’s so public that Driscoll even wrote about it in his book. That I have linked to Amazon, which carries even Driscoll’s first books, means that all of this material is still in public circulation.
This, finally, casts unfortunate doubt on Driscoll’s critics this time. Read, say, what Matthew Paul Turner is saying: ‘Mark’s seemingly funny story about writing as William Wallace II might end up becoming his worst nightmare yet. Because Mark’s Internet ramblings as William Wallace II from 14 years ago have allegedly hit the Internet.’ Turner implies that Driscoll’s posts were to be understood as private. Now they have been leaked. Now, Driscoll’s putatively private statements are now going to be interpreted to make his ‘worst nightmare’ come true.
If this is the case, then the bloggers have themselves retreated into the private consensus. After all, they think in terms of private interests. They reinforce Driscoll’s notion that his private interests as a pastor over his private church are now at stake. With Evans’s call to arms, they have a private mission to call on the private leaders of evangelicalism to use these privately posted public ramblings against Driscoll’s private interests. If this is what they are doing, then they are simply reinforcing Driscoll’s reality: critics of Mars Hill have only private vendettas, so they seek to undermine the private interests of Mars Hill.
In so doing, the public good of putting Mars Hill’s material in circulation is lost. It’s all swallowed by the private consensus. It’s my interests versus Driscoll’s interests. This is a bomb for Driscoll’s interests. There’s a consensus on that point, a private consensus, and there’s just no other way to read these posts…
Oh, but there is…
There is, finally, then, an alternative approach to these William Wallace posts. While what William Wallace has to say on these posts sounds very authoritarian — very much like the authoritarian that Driscoll is imagined to be in light of the private consensus — that they were posted in a forum suggests that these are in fact discussion pieces. What Driscoll did with these posts — and later with his books and his sermons — is to provoke a public conversation about gender, feminism, and the putative crisis of masculinity in American evangelicalism. That Driscoll’s position is becoming increasingly discredited as the men’s rights’ movement is shown time and again to inflict more violence on women than it claims to protect them – most recently, for example, through the UC Santa Barbara shooting — is besides the point. Driscoll should be thanked for his William Wallace posts, appreciated for the time that he actually appreciated something called a forum, shown gratitude for those early moments when he put his own ideas out into the public sphere — misogynistic and homophobic as they may have been — for public scrutiny.
This fresh approach is our departure from the private consensus. It might be articulated like this: instead of materials arriving into the public sphere by leak and insinuation, the best practice may well be to keep things in circulation and to be open to scrutiny and deliberation, where the most patriarchal assertions of gender normativities can be contested, debated, dissected, discredited, and imagined differently, where irresponsible statements must be publicly examined and held to account. In this new paradigm, what’s at stake is not your interests, my interests, Driscoll’s interests, Mars Hill’s interests, Rachel Held Evans’s interests, Warren Throckmorton’s interests, Matthew Paul Turner’s interests, etc. What’s at stake is something called the common good, and the way that we arrive at this common good in a deliberating public is, well, through public deliberation. You could call this the public consensus. You could also call it Mark Driscoll’s potential salvation.