January 11, 2009
Who Would Jesus Smack Down?
By MOLLY WORTHEN
Mark Driscoll’s sermons are mostly too racy to post on GodTube, the evangelical Christian “family friendly” video-posting Web site. With titles like “Biblical Oral Sex” and “Pleasuring Your Spouse,” his clips do not stand a chance against the site’s content filters. No matter: YouTube is where Driscoll, the pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, would rather be. Unsuspecting sinners who type in popular keywords may suddenly find themselves face to face with a husky-voiced preacher in a black skateboarder’s jacket and skull T-shirt. An “Under 17 Requires Adult Permission” warning flashes before the video cuts to evening services at Mars Hill, where an anonymous audience member has just text-messaged a question to the screen onstage: “Pastor Mark, is masturbation a valid form of birth control?”
Driscoll doesn’t miss a beat: “I had one guy quote Ecclesiastes 9:10, which says, ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.’ ” The audience bursts out laughing. Next Pastor Mark is warning them about lust and exalting the confines of marriage, one hand jammed in his jeans pocket while the other waves his Bible. Even the skeptical viewer must admit that whatever Driscoll’s opinion of certain recreational activities, he has the coolest style and foulest mouth of any preacher you’ve ever seen.
Mark Driscoll is American evangelicalism’s bête noire. In little more than a decade, his ministry has grown from a living-room Bible study to a megachurch that draws about 7,600 visitors to seven campuses around Seattle each Sunday, and his books, blogs and podcasts have made him one of the most admired — and reviled — figures among evangelicals nationwide. 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. Liberals wince at his hellfire theology and insistence that women submit to their husbands. But what is new about Driscoll is that he has resurrected a particular strain of fire and brimstone, one that most Americans assume died out with the Puritans: Calvinism, a theology that makes Pat Robertson seem warm and fuzzy.
At a time when the once-vaunted unity of the religious right has eroded and the mainstream media is proclaiming an “evangelical crackup,” Driscoll represents a movement to revamp the style and substance of evangelicalism. 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. Yet his message seems radically unfashionable, even un-American: you are not captain of your soul or master of your fate but a depraved worm whose hard work and good deeds will get you nowhere, because God marked you for heaven or condemned you to hell before the beginning of time. Yet a significant number of young people in Seattle — and nationwide — say this is exactly what they want to hear. Calvinism has somehow become cool, and just as startling, this generally bookish creed has fused with a macho ethos. At Mars Hill, members say their favorite movie isn’t “Amazing Grace” or “The Chronicles of Narnia” — it’s “Fight Club.”
It is a certain militant theology that the article rightly notes is a throwback to "sinners in the hands of an angry God" style of thought. Nonetheless, a hyper-macho, perhaps militant, theology also had already emerged in the 1980s among many evangelical groups, although, perhaps, with less Calvinism.
On that Sunday, Driscoll preached for an hour and 10 minutes — nearly three times longer than most pastors. As hip as he looks, his message brooks no compromise with Seattle’s permissive culture. New members can keep their taste in music, their retro T-shirts and their intimidating facial hair, but they had better abandon their feminism, premarital sex and any “modern” interpretations of the Bible. Driscoll is adamantly not the “weepy worship dude” he associates with liberal and mainstream evangelical churches, “singing prom songs to a Jesus who is presented as a wuss who took a beating and spent a lot of time putting product in his long hair.”
Part of the problem, it seems, is that Driscoll sees the church as emasculated, feminized, or neutered:
God called Driscoll to preach to men — particularly young men — to save them from an American Protestantism that has emasculated Christ and driven men from church pews with praise music that sounds more like boy-band ballads crooned to Jesus than “Onward Christian Soldiers.” What bothers Driscoll — and the growing number of evangelical pastors who agree with him — is not the trope of Jesus-as-lover. After all, St. Paul tells us that the Church is the bride of Christ. What really grates is the portrayal of Jesus as a wimp, or worse. Paintings depict a gentle man embracing children and cuddling lambs. Hymns celebrate his patience and tenderness. The mainstream church, Driscoll has written, has transformed Jesus into “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that . . . would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.”
Mars Hill Church, while a megachurch, is highly critical of the tactics of other megachurches that are overly sensitive, warm and fuzzy, and perhaps a bit watered down in order to draw new congregants--particularly Joel Osteen's self-help books-- but....
Mars Hill has not entirely dispensed with megachurch marketing tactics. Its success in one of the most liberal and least-churched cities in America depends on being sensitive to the body-pierced and latte-drinking seekers of Seattle. Ultimately, however, Driscoll’s theology means that his congregants’ salvation is not in his hands. It’s not in their own hands, either — this is the heart of Calvinism.
Human beings are totally corrupted by original sin and predestined for heaven or hell, no matter their earthly conduct. We all deserve eternal damnation, but God, in his inscrutable mercy, has granted the grace of salvation to an elect few. While John Calvin’s 16th-century doctrines have deep roots in Christian tradition, they strike many modern evangelicals as nonsensical and even un-Christian. If predestination is true, they argue, then there is no point in missions to the unsaved or in leading a godly life. And some babies who die in infancy — if God placed them among the reprobate — go straight to hell with the rest of the damned, to “glorify his name by their own destruction,” as Calvin wrote. 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.
Yet Driscoll is not an isolated eccentric. Over the past two decades, preachers in places as far-flung as Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., in denominations ranging from Baptist to Pentecostal, are pushing “this new, aggressive, mission-minded Calvinism that really believes Calvinism is a transcript of the Gospel,” according to Roger Olson, a professor of theology at Baylor University. They have harnessed the Internet to recruit new believers, especially young people. Any curious seeker can find his way into a world of sermon podcasts and treatises by the Protestant Reformers and English Puritans, whose abstruse writings, though far from best-selling, are enjoying something of a renaissance. New converts stay in touch via blogs and Facebook groups with names like “John Calvin Is My Homeboy” and “Calvinism: The Group That Chooses You.”
Most evangelical groups believe in some sort of free will and base their theology on a guy named Jacobus Arminius, who took John Calvin to task. Calvin, however, allows no room for free will with regard to one's salvation--you don't choose your ultimate destiny, but God chooses for you.
But here is something that is truly different about this evangelical, something that, in fact, brings us back to pre-American "evangelicals," if you can call them that, basically the earliest figures in Reformation history:
Driscoll found his way into this tradition largely on his own. He recently earned a master’s degree through an independent-study program he arranged at a seminary in Portland, Ore. Years ago, paperback reprints of old Puritan treatises in the corner of a local bookstore piqued his interest in Reformation theology. He came to admire Martin Luther, the vulgar, beer-swilling theological rebel who sparked the Reformation. “I found him to be something of a mentor,” Driscoll says. “I didn’t have all the baggage he did. But you can see him with a quill in one hand and a drink in the other. He married a brewer and renegade nun. His story is kind of indie rock.”
Driscoll disdains the prohibitions of traditional evangelical Christianity. Taboos on alcohol, smoking, swearing and violent movies have done much to shape American Protestant culture — a culture that he has called the domain of “chicks and some chickified dudes with limp wrists.” Moreover, the Bible tells him that to seek salvation by self-righteous clean living is to behave like a Pharisee. Unlike fundamentalists who isolate themselves, creating “a separate culture where you live in a Christian cul-de-sac,” as one spiky-haired member named Andrew Pack puts it, Mars Hillians pride themselves on friendships with non-Christians. They tend to be cultural activists who play in rock bands and care about the arts, living out a long Reformed tradition that asserts Christ’s mandate over every corner of creation.
Like many New Calvinists, Driscoll advocates traditional gender roles, called “complementarianism” in theological parlance. Men and women are “equal spiritually, and it’s a difference of functionality, not intrinsic worth,” says Danielle Blazer, a 34-year-old Mars Hill member. Women may work outside the home, but they must submit to their husbands, and they are forbidden from taking on preaching roles in the church.
So here is an evangelical who drinks, smokes, cusses, with some taste for violence and indie rock. At the same time, advocates a very very conservative message. At the same time, Driscoll allows absolutely NO DISSENT to his decisions within the church. He officially shuns anyone who disagrees with him. He is authoritarian to a totalitarian degree. In short, he has absolutely no theological or disciplinary accountability.
The article concludes:
Mars Hill — with its conservative social teachings embedded in guitar solos and drum riffs, its megachurch presence in the heart of bohemian skepticism — thrives on paradox. 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. 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 adherents.
Here is the real paradox. This is nothing new. This is just an extreme version of a particular evangelical tendency, or, I might say, a general Protestant tendency. Evangelicals historically have had an uncanny ability to adapt their methods, liturgies, and worship services to changing cultural norms, allowing them to attract larger numbers of people. You can find this as early as George Whitefield in the 17th century. Current evangelicals have particularly had an extraordinary ability to appropriate the latest technological advances, whether using computers and effects in their worship services (making them like rock concerts in some cases) or disseminating their message through the information networks like the internet, facebook, etc. While they continually adapt their methods, their message often becomes more and more conservative. I think this case illustrates this quite well. Driscoll has dispensed with most traditional methods, services, and done what few evangelicals do, dispensed with the behavioral codes that characterize much of the more conservative groups regarding drinking, smoking, swearing, etc., but theologically he is perhaps just as if not more conservative than most. Note the reverse is true. Liberal or progressive Protestant groups usually have a very traditional liturgy or service, while their theology is, well, liberal. I think Driscoll's Achilles' heel will be tied with the cult of the personality, particularly a rigid personality as this pastor's seems to be. A cult that has no accountability and does not allow dissent will inevitably lead to problems, particularly if he runs up against someone as stubborn as this article claims he is.