Notes on The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill (podcast)

This is a podcast series on Mars Hill, a mega church in Seattle, and this thread will be a place to take notes on the episodes. I’m about five episodes in, and I’m a bit behind on posting notes, but I’ll do so soon (hopefully). I

I guess I could start with my knowledge–or, more accurately, my impression–of Mars Hill before listening to this. I think Marc told me about this church, which could be (and is) described as “punk rock.” The leader, Mark Driscoll, was known as brash, rough-around-the-edges–a preaching who would yell, maybe even swear. Again, this was my impression. In any event, Driscoll gained quite a following. I didn’t know what became of the church until I heard the title of the podcast.

I will say that from the first episode, the circumstances of the fall were similar to other scandals–or at least nothing really novel. I say this because this is not really the type of story I’m interested in. So why did I continue? I think part of the answer involves the hints that the podcast may explore the potential link between Christianity–or maybe Evangelicals, specifically–and authoritarianism. Given the politics of the past four years, I’m especially interested in this question. I would add the first episodes had echoes of Governor Andrew Cuomo, specifically details from the sexual harassment report that recently came out. With Cuomo, Trump, and Driscoll, one big–but very old–lesson is the dangers of high concentration of power. It’s an old lesson, but I’m not sure it’s one that the people living now fully appreciate. (Is there an example of an individual or group having a high concentration of power–without an abuse of power?)

More later.

4 thoughts on “Notes on The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill (podcast)

  1. I don’t want to derail you here, but I guess I’m going to anyway. A few points.

    1. The connection between evangelicalism and authoritarianism is probably better framed as a connection between conservativism and authoritarianism. Southern Baptists, generally considered “evangelical,” seem to line up behind 45 more predictably when they are conservative, and not as much when they are moderate.

    2. Possibly tangential. The definition of evangelical seems to have shifted in the last 10 or so years. I remember it as once being loosely defined as the section of Protestantism between Anglican and charismatic. Generally, your Methodists, Lutherans, Southern Baptists, Presbyterians. Generally not your Assemblies of God. I think Foursquare churches lean more charismatic than evangelical in this framework, but some seem to lean more evangelical.

    These days, “evangelical” as it’s discussed in mass media really seems to be more about conservative churches. Which makes it messy because as we know, there are conservative (in the context of church talk, we’re talking about fundamental) mainline Protestant churches, moderate Protestant churches, and liberal Protestant churches. But for clarity’s sake, I think it’s more useful to think of the possible connection as fundamentalism and authoritarianism, not evangelicalism and authoritarianism.

    3. This makes more sense when you think of it this way. Fundamentalist churches want an authority — God’s authority — to tell them what’s right and wrong; they don’t like gray areas or room for debate. They are uncomfortable with grey areas because of course (and I don’t disagree) humans’ interpretation of gray areas is almost unavoidably influenced by sin.

    A trusted authority to tell us what to believe is tempting, and it makes things a lot easier. I’d almost be willing to bet that (in the case of 45) once you filter out the race considerations and the abortion considerations it’s fundamentalism that connects to authoritarianism, not specifically evangelicalism.

  2. Those are really good points, and I’m glad you made them. Here are some questions and comments that come to mind:

    1. Among Evangelicals what’s percentage breakdown of conservatives, moderates, and progressives?

    2. What mean by “conservative” matters a lot. I think you alluded to a definition in a religious context (which would mean conservative = fundamentalist), but I was thinking of the term in a political sense. I would guess a high percentage of Evangelicals are politically conservative. If that’s true, then Evangelicalism can be seen as synonymous or at least closely associated with (political) conservatism.

    3. You mentioned a definition of Evangelicalism. I’m unfamiliar with formal definitions, but the definition that seem compelling to me involves the degree to which the desire to bring people to Christ is central to one’s Christianity. I have no idea if this is correct–I’m also making this up, but it seems like a good way to distinguish Evangelicals from non-Evangelical Christians. What do you think?

    4. The connection between fundamentalism and authoritarianism that you suggest makes sense. The ties between political conservatism and authoritarianism seem similar…Or at least the aversion of ambiguity seems related to discomfort with change…And actually how much of that discomfort to change is linked to not wanting to lose the majority status of Christianity? To say it another way, is political/social conservatism, at it’s heart, mostly about maintaining power of the majority?

  3. There are two things I wanted to say before proceeding:

    First, while listening to this, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, particularly the first chapter on community, always loomed in the background. In that chapter, he contrasts a church that has a spiritual basis versus churches that are more based on psychological and social factors. For me, that chapter completely upended my understanding approach to the church, and left me at a loss–at a loss because while I found Bonhoeffer’s views persuasive, the way to implement them was unclear and difficult. Are there really Christians who approach church in the way he described? I wondered who are these people.

    One specific example of what I will call the wrong way to approach church, according to Bonhoeffer, can be seen in this excerpt:

    God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The man who fashions a visionary ideal of community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by himself. He enters the community of Christians with his demands, sets up his own law, and judges his brethren and God himself accordingly. He stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle of brethren. He acts as if he is the creator of the Christian community, as if his dream binds men together. When things do not go his way, he calls the effort a failure. When his ideal picture is destroyed, his sees the community going to smash. So he becomes, first an accuser of his brethren, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”

    While I think applies to churches like Mars Hill, I think it also applies to believers like me who may not seek to establish a church but nevertheless have a ideal church in mind and then seek to find such a church; or join a church and work to make that ideal into a reality. One need not be a talented and charismatic preacher who can attract hundreds or thousands of people to adopt the approach described above.

    I should also say that the approach Bonhoeffer describes can be based on Scripture. Indeed, I suspect the vision and conception of churches that draw a lot of people almost always draw heavily from Scripture. For example, I would guess most Christians, upon hearing a description of this vision would approve or not have any major objections. My point is that the vision that Bonhoeffer decries may be biblical and something worth striving for.

    Now, I suspect some Christians would not really feel so sanguine about the vision offered by Mars Hill. I’m pretty sure I would have not been comfortable with it, and I would likely be critical.

    Being critical brings up the second point I wanted to make. I have some ambivalence about listening to the podcast, because I’m likely to become critical and even judgmental, and I’m trying to move away from that. If I raise objections, how do I know if these objections are legitimate or if they’re just don’t meet my personal ideal for a church? And even if the criticisms are legitimate, why do I have to bring them up? Answer: I don’t. And yet if I discuss this podcast, I feel like I will bring up these criticisms. I’m ambivalent about this.

  4. Episode 1

    In episode 1, the vision–or maybe more accurately, the narrative–that Pastor Driscoll offers to his congregation and potential members is what stood out to me. By “narrative,” I mean a story that allows individuals to understand their roles within the church, within larger society, and even in terms of the way they approach their lives. These roles often occur within the context of a story. For example, at Mars Hill, the narrative seemed to go something like this: If men fully take seriously their role as providers, producers, and protectors (of their wives and children), the church and the larger community would be totally transformed, ostensibly as a way to bring glory to God.

    Driscoll “told” this story with a very in-your-face approach denigrating men that shirked this responsibility. Here, my sense is that he’s thinking specifically of young men that are slacking–not getting a serious job, not committing to a serious relationship and spending lots of time on diversions like video games. To put a positive spin on Driscoll’s approach, you could say he was challenging young men to higher, more meaningful purpose.

    I should say that the narrative itself was very socially conservative, espousing very traditional gender roles. Driscoll’s approach seemed very macho–a man’s man type of schtick. I could definitely see both the message and delivery appeal to a certain group of men, and women. (Interestingly, both would be something I’d expect in the South, not a city like Seattle.)

    I can respect Christians who embrace more traditional gender roles (e.g., husband as the breadwinner and wife as the homemaker), but I think Driscoll went further, to a degree that I found off-putting at best, and I could see him offending a lot of Christians, especially women.

    But I want to put those criticisms aside. What struck me was the similarity between Driscoll’s vision/narrative and the vision/narratives in non-religious organizations. To me, the type of narrative he was providing is also important in a business or any organization. That is, if a leader can provide a similar vision/narrative, she can create powerful buy-in and culture that can lead to a highly motivated and effective workforce/membership.

    Here’s what I wondered: Is that appropriate in the Church? On one level, shouldn’t the church provide guidance and answers to gender roles and the roles of church members in relation to the church itself? I would think so. But on another level–going back to Bonhoeffer–the narrative/vision seems to largely meet social and psychological needs of individuals, not really the spiritual ones. If the narrative provides for all three needs, I’m not clear on the way this occurs and to what degree. And my concern would be that the narrative resonates with members primarily for meeting social and psychological needs.

    Here’s another way to look at this: If the member didn’t have a leader like Driscoll offering such a compelling narrative, what affect would this have on their spirituality and involvement with the church? If the members would drop out or not be so active, does that suggest that the members were going to the church for social/psychological reasons more than spiritual ones?

    I don’t really have any definitive answers; I’m still thinking about this.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *