(Content note: religious abuse, mind-blowing misogyny and anti-LGBTQ bigotry.)
Big, big news, R2Ders! Over the last few days we’ve been seeing a lot of news about Mark Driscoll, the Lizard King of Misogynists, and finally there’s some kind of resolution to his increasingly-erratic, unstable fall from grace.
See, it seems that this bigoted, misogynistic, sex-obsessed MAN OF GOD™ (“or a man of gold?” is running through my head suddenly.. oh, Young!Charlie, you were so awesome in that movie) started a network of church-planting churches (“church-planting” is the process of colonizing to start new churches, sort of like how rose gardeners graft and air out new rosebushes from old ones) called Acts 29. If you’re wondering what Acts 29 refers to, it’s a nonexistent Bible reference. Acts goes up to 28:31, you see. So from the get-go I’ve got to just boggle at the sheer megalomania on display here. When I was a fundie, I was guilty of a lot of poor-taste decisions, but belonging to an organization that literally thinks of itself as the continuation of the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible? Wow, that’s some impressive-ass hubris there.
Mark Driscoll was a polarizing and disruptive influence from the beginning on the group he’d started. As one of his own co-founders stated in a passionate and touching open letter to him, Mr. Driscoll was denigrating and abusing people from almost the very beginning:
But then I listened as you slandered and maligned the men and women we worked with behind their backs -who though we didn’t agree with some of them theologically- were wonderful people, and never deserved to be spoken of, or treated the way you did. People who I know would have considered you a friend and have no idea how you really felt about them.
Even Mr. Driscoll’s own co-founders didn’t realize how deep this behavior went, and in the heady rush of a very successful Christian enterprise, no doubt got caught up in that excitement and didn’t stop to think till things hit the fan. It certainly doesn’t take religion to get a predator riled up and abusing people, either, though it sure seemed to give this one a lot more license to do so.
Over the years I’ve followed this guy’s meteoric rise with a combination of utter disbelief and dismay. Disbelief, because jeez, gang, just how bad does a Christian need to be before his tribe finally reins him in? Dismay, because what he was saying and doing was genuinely hurting people. If you’ve never heard of the dude, then know that he’s a really big name in a relatively new school of evangelical Christianity called “New Calvinism.” It’s supposed to be just as hardline as regular evangelical Christianity in its way, but a little more reform-minded and more interested in cooperating with other types of Christians than regular Calvinism is. I know, I know, I don’t really see why they needed this new term either, but if there is anything that Christians are really good at, it’s delineating their groups from all the other groups. And Mark Driscoll really is–or at least was, until very recently–one of the biggest names in that movement.
Here’s a good overview of his general career and here’s a timeline of New Calvinism in general; he started Mars Hill as a little college un-church kinda ministry in Seattle in 1986, and it took off bigtime thanks to his own enormous charisma. A couple of years later he founded Acts 29 with a couple of other folks. It didn’t take long for him to start showing up in news articles as the hip, edgy Seattle pastor who cussed and wore casual clothes onstage as he preached; when I was in Portland in the 90s, I read about him for the first time and thought “Is this really what this religion’s come to?” It just seemed so weird that this hardline fundagelical guy was dressing that way and talking that way and doing all this stuff in Seattle, which doesn’t really strike me at least as this deeply religious town anyway.
But Mr. Driscoll’s hubris was only getting rolling. After a long series of successes, he turned his little home church into a megachurch empire with numerous campuses. For a while it seemed like he was simply unstoppable. Slowly, though, oh so very slowly, people began noticing that he had some very seriously warped ideas about women, gender roles, LGBTQ people, really anything that didn’t fit into his very narrow view of the world (like yoga, which I’ve mentioned here in the past, which he has said is demonic and no Christian should ever ever ever do it because ickieickieickiePTANG). His entire vision of Jesus is a hypermasculine tough bully who was coming to whoop ass and take names:
Some emergent types [want] to recast Jesus as a limp-wrist hippie in a dress with a lot of product in His hair, who drank decaf and made pithy Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes. In Revelation, Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is a guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.
I still remember that when I saw that quote for the first time, I just about felt my eyes pop out of my head! But it was not the first time I–and others–would see that Mark Driscoll has an almost desperate need to be as manly-man and tough as possible, and an even more desperate need for his Jesus to be even more manly-man and tough than he himself can be. I think that most Christians make Jesus into their own image. A punitive, nasty, evil-minded Christian’s Jesus will be punitive and nasty; a sweet and caring Christian’s Jesus will be all but a twink boyfriend and lover. Mark Driscoll’s idea of Jesus is a reflection of who he is, in like manner. He drilled down on this idea all the time, like in this thing where he also declares that his Jesus isn’t a “pansy.” Cuz if there’s anything worse in his little world than a man who isn’t able to kick ass in a fight, it’s a man who isn’t hypermasculine just like he is.
But other than the usual folks getting upset with him for casting Jesus as an Expendables action figure, he just plowed on like that. I’ve met quite a few abusive people and conjobs in my day, and I’ve noticed that if they’re not reined in, they tend to get more and more out of hand–they get convinced that they’re invincible; they start believing their own hype about themselves. I really think that’s what happened to Mr. Driscoll here. After storm after storm battered his ministry and didn’t wash him out to sea, he began taking ever more daring risks–consolidating power in his own hands, removing any leaders in his churches that weren’t entirely subservient and replacing them with more amenable followers, and taking more and more control over the church’s finances–and becoming less and less transparent about where that money was going and what he was doing with that authority.
That’s not to say that storms didn’t seriously batter his ministry though. His church’s weird version of discipline got exposed a few years ago and the whole Christian world seemed to just be blown away by that level of abuse. Victims talked about being stalked, shamed, their secrets exposed in public, chased out of church and victimized even at their next churches, and gossiped about to their friends and loved ones by their former leaders in hopes of bullying them back into Mars Hills’ clutches and into obedience. Men spoke of being battered down so they wouldn’t threaten Mark Driscoll’s alpha-male dominance; women spoke of being interrogated about their favorite sex positions. Entire blogs sprang up discussing the abuse suffered by people in Mark Driscoll’s church.
Even with all this attention on abuse, nothing seemed like it could stop what was happening. I heard people talking about how frustrated they were with the halfhearted swipes at reform that Mars Hill claimed it was making, but nothing was changing at all.
He published his weird advice book Real Marriage in 2012 and that’s where it all got real. Like most right-wing Christians, he has a really skewed and warped view of women and marriage in general, and that view came through loud and clear in his book. The book sounded a lot like a douchebro’s take on relationships and sex, with lots of crude sexual terms and whatnot used throughout, but other than that rather striking departure from Christian custom it was the standard bullshit you hear spewed by sexist douchebros: Men are from Mars, wives have a mortal responsibility to give their longsuffering husbands sex, etc. etc. What really freaked Christians out was that quite a bit of it detailed exactly what sex acts a married couple could enjoy–and it was really detailed. I read some reviewers that said they had no intention of letting their wives see the book because it’d crisp the ladies’ ears. I didn’t see any really positive reviews of the book out of any Christians. Despite its shockingly frank sexual vocabulary and pernicious sexism in general, the book was carried without argument by Lifeway, a huge Christian bookseller in America, while Rachel Held Evans’ book about Biblical womanhood, which uses the word “vagina” on occasion, was considered way too frank to be carried by Lifeway.
Troubling projection and double standards aside, horrible sexism aside, Real Marriage sold like gangbusters. It was baffling to say the least; Christian marriage books are popular with fundagelicals, but this seemed too good to be true. Its sales put it on a short list of bestsellers. And then the world found out that Mark Driscoll had used church funds to artificially game his book’s sales figures by contracting with outsiders to make his sales seem much higher than they really were.
While the practice isn’t that uncommon with secular books, the idea that a Christian pastor might be gaming figures really got everybody upset. It wasn’t Jesus making the book sell: it was Mark Driscoll himself. The book wasn’t a bestseller on its own merits (and thank any god that exists for that!), but because he’d cheated. “Well, other authors cheat too” proved to be a less-than-acceptable rationalization. Worse, I’d gotten the impression that Mark Driscoll was using his book’s sales figures as a barometer of how much his god approved of the book, so that made the news of his cheating even more troubling to me at least.
I’m not sure exactly what happened, but the news of this cheating lit Mars Hill up like a Roman candle. Suddenly a lot of things happened all at once.
Suddenly we began hearing about his behavior on that forum we talked about last time, where he trolled as the super-manly “William Wallace II” and openly talked about scratching his testicles and how awesome it is that Hell is at least run by a man. Mr. Driscoll tried very hard to spin-doctor the news about his forum antics from years ago, but the damage was done. Emboldened by the positive reaction this news got, suddenly a lot of people began criticizing Mark Driscoll and his church.
He’s now been tossed out of Acts 29 on his ear, as has his entire Mars Hill Church. Lifeway says they’re not selling his books anymore and they’re yanking any that are currently on the shelves. Demonstrators have been picketing with signs and demanding changes. There’s conflicting evidence about whether or not Mr. Driscoll’s publisher, Tyndale (one of the bigger names in Christian book publishing), supports him or not, or if they’ve withdrawn from printing anything of his in the future; my guess is they’re waiting to see what direction the wind’s blowing.
After over a decade of being entirely in thrall to this colorful leader of theirs, Mars Hill is finally beginning to question him and to do so more openly than they’ve ever dared.
Can Mars Hill survive? Can Mark Driscoll? If I had to take a stab at answering those questions, I’d say the answer is “yes, in some form or other.” Mark Driscoll isn’t really suited for anything else besides preaching, as poorly-suited for even that as he is. All he knows how to do is tell other people what to believe and how to live. I suspect he’ll find a ready and eager market in those Christians who believe as he does in a big tough-guy Jesus and a take-no-prisoners, over-controlling environment–and who will accept whatever lame apology he manages to churn out. That said, it’s hard to imagine someone as blustery and up-front about his attitudes changing them so quickly. Mr. Driscoll genuinely believes that his attitudes are the only really Biblical ones, and in his writing I detect a hard edge of resentment that he’s being called into question like he is.
And for those who ask how this could ever happen, look… it’s just human nature. I used to admin on online games a lot. When someone was viewed as indispensable to the success of a volunteer group, then you could count on that person being kept on staff no matter what he or she did. Someone who was horrible to the players or who even got caught cheating could be excused if that admin was the only person who knew how to make the game’s code work or how to keep up with the forum’s back end–or in one dramatic case, if that admin happened to be the one paying for the server hosting.
There obviously isn’t a Jesus making Mark Driscoll a better person, and there’s no god making Mars Hill immune to simple human nature. That’s why we need to look at these stories and know about them: because way too many Christians say otherwise. I see them depending on Jesus to keep their organizations safe and healthy, and if there’s no Jesus able or willing to do that for them, then they need to do it for themselves or else it just won’t happen. It’s like installing a door-lock made of soap-bubbles; it might make the homeowners feel like they’ve done something to protect themselves, but in reality they’ve done worse than nothing to safeguard their lives and property.
I could say something, as well, about how strange it is that Mark Driscoll can’t live or act like the character of Jesus depicted in the Bible he claims to love so much. Out of everybody, he should know if the Bible’s promises and threats are true or false–and he can’t even live according to them. That doesn’t speak very highly of this religion, when someone as gung-ho as him can’t even handle humility, honesty, and love even under the threat of eternal torture if he doesn’t do it. “Do what I say and not what I do” just doesn’t fly here, not with me at least.
I’m glad that the people of Mars Hill–and Christianity in general–are starting to wake up to the wolf in their midst. I hope they can get some real change made, and I wish them the best.
(h/t to Warren Throckmorton for some of these links–that gentleman is just tireless!)
* Rachel Held Evans’ good review of Real Marriage.
* Some stuff about Mr. Driscoll destroying evidence back in April. (Presented as speculation only.)