Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"Who Would Jesus Smackdown?"

I admit, I've typically been on the receiving end of the whole bully thing. And given what I start with, I don't have the full range of options that burlier, manly men have at their disposal. I do, however, still have a full head of hair. So, there's that. And that ain't nothing.

I'm just saying that I find the whole chest pumping, macho thing hard to relate to. I don't watch martial arts movies or Smackdown. And over the years, I have developed an understanding of God and companionship with Jesus that is decidedly non-violent. I gave up violence for Lent a few years ago, which included being a consumer of violence. Tough thing to do. I have no doubts that my biography has much to do with this. But I also don't have to look far in the Bible or the Christian tradition for support. I'm not saying its the only way to read the Bible or the tradition. But I'll take my verses over the others any day.

I bring this up because the NYTimes Magazine carried an article this past Sunday on Mark Driscoll, the pastor of Seattle's Mars Hill Church, sporting the great title, "Who Would Jesus Smackdown." It's a great article (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/11/magazine/11punk-t.html?emc=eta1) outlining Driscoll's decidedly muscular approach to Christianity.

For those of you who don't know Driscoll, he grew up Roman Catholic, was converted to a fundamentalist/Calvinist strain of evangelical Christianity while a college student, and started the Mars Hill church, which is a multi-campus megachurch in the Seattle area. Driscoll was often listed as a leader in the early days of the Ermerging Church gang, though he has distanced himself from them and written particularly scathing remarks about other emerging leaders like Brian McLaren and Doug Pagitt.

His public remarks highlight Driscoll's style, unflinching, outspoken, never in doubt. He is not a conventional pastor to be sure. I visited Mars Hill for a week about six years ago and caught his gig. The website in those days featured young-ish "elders" (Driscoll being the alpha elder) who rock climbed, drank beer, dabbled in profanity and R rated movies, and talked straight about all issues. God is tough, demanding, and, at all costs, cool. To Mars Hill's credit, they were reaching people other churches simply don't care about, intentionally reaching out to a "postmodern" generation. I like the fact that Driscoll's church is also a critique of the seeker movement. His is not a "best life now" approach.

But make no mistake, Driscoll is no postmodern. He has wed two totalizing narratives, modern epistemology and hard core Calvinism. The Times piece, written by Molly Worthen, has some great descriptions of Driscoll's views.

"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."

And she follows:

"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.'"

I love the smell of steroids in the morning.

Driscoll's world seems to be a binary world. Saved or damned. Right or wrong. And this kind of world needs an ever vigilant sense of authority accounting for all details, keeping all the boundary lines drawn and distinct. It is telling that in a dispute over the direction of Mars Hill, Driscoll put down the hammer, following the advice of a martial arts, ultimate fighter, a member at Mars Hill. Worthen writes:

In 2007, two elders protested a plan to reorganize the church that, according to critics, consolidated power in the hands of Driscoll and his closest aides. Driscoll told the congregation that he asked advice on how to handle stubborn subordinates from a 'mixed martial artist and Ultimate Fighter, good guy' who attends Mars Hill. 'His answer was brilliant,' Driscoll reported. “He said, ‘I break their nose.’ ” When one of the renegade elders refused to repent, the church leadership ordered members to shun him. One member complained on an online message board and instantly found his membership privileges suspended. 'They are sinning through questioning,' Driscoll preached. John Calvin couldn’t have said it better himself."

I have a friend in Portland who is a close friend of Driscoll's. Together they are putting together conferences that feature ultimate fighting as a kind of metaphor for Christianity. They have Christian ultimate fighters tell their audience how Jesus has changed their life. Then they beat the snot out of each other. Seriously. Totalizing narratives don't shy away from a little violence.

Driscoll, Worthen points out, is not alone. Other megachurch leaders, notably John Piper, espouse this rock-ribbed Calvinism and are finding an audience. And what seems to appeal to this audience is the never-in-doubt appeal. It has a certain pastoral attraction in a confusing, overwhelming world. Worthen quotes a young blogger at Mars Hill who sees a definite pastoral upside to a no holds barred view of God's sovreignty. “There are plenty of comfortable people who can say, ‘God’s on my side,’ ” he says. “But they couldn’t turn around and say, ‘God gave me cancer.’ ” Indeed. (A pause for the full, shuddering effect to take hold).

I sat in worship a few weeks ago next to a young man whose mother died suddenly of meningitis a few weeks earlier. She was at church one Sunday, seemingly fine, and two days later was dead. As I sat next to him we sang "Blessed be the Name," a song quoting Job. "He gives and takes away. My heart will choose to say, 'Blessed be your name.'" Now I get the comfort in this song (though it doesn't comfort me). We don't have to figure it out. It's all in God's hands. He's bigger than me. It all adds up in the end. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

I wondered that morning how my young friend might hear that song. I would hear it as God killing my mother. There are so many ways this theology goes bad. But at the heart of it, it posits an irresistable God who works his will through violence, through an unquestioned, unbending, authoritarian will.

The gospel way forward for me is not making God invulnerable, but precisely through the vulnerability of God in Jesus Christ. This is the real occasion for love, a demonstration of the power of heaven that overcomes the human tendency to maintain order through authority and violent control. In the thick of it, I'll take vulnerable love over smackdown any day.

If you'll excuse me, I have some hair care product to apply.


JNW said...


Amen and Amen! Living in the Seattle area I am frustrated from time to time by people who suggest we ought to take a page out of Driscoll's book.

I have spent a good part of my life trying to escape a fundamentalist view of God and all things church. Driscroll can have his smackdown, but count me out.

Kevin said...

I will have to declare myself a product man. This weekend I went into a store called Sephora with my wife. From the outside it looked like a place I would not have any need for, but I was wrong. They had a section of face care products that pulled me in for so long that my wife had to drag me out.

Mark Love said...

Thanks for sharing, Kevin. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

thepriesthood said...


Rockin post/op-ed. Shouldn't be hard to get that published somewhere.

I was recently listening to a Neue podcast with Driscoll, just because it's interesting getting inside that "binary" world as you called it.

Speaking about lessons learned, Driscoll said, "I would have made a great soldier, because when a bullet's fired at me, I send one back." He seems to lack the self-awareness that he's been firing off preemptive bullets like it's going out of style... I suppose he's being "prophetic."

Interesting how you connect his violent epistemology with his violent tendencies. Right on.

Lisa Gonzales-Barnes said...

Rage disguised? Frightening.

Jim Martin said...

Mark--A very, very fine post. (I thought the NY Times piece was very well done in its description of Driscoll's ministry, Calvinism, etc.)

Anonymous said...

BTW: Driscoll uses lots of hair product, dons designer clothes, and wears make-up - look closely.