Pastor Mark Driscoll's rise to prominence has always confused me.
It's not that I don't think he has the goods. Mark is a talented communicator. As his official bio points out, Mark's sermon podcasts regularly top iTunes and this Sermon Central piece even claims he achieves that by spending only an hour per week on sermon prep. Mark also possesses some high-level administrative skills. According to his church's website, they've planted 14 Mars Hill churches in four states and have "been a part of" planting over 400 churches through the Acts 29 church-planting network. In addition, Mark has certainly been successful at engaging his congregation in fresh enthusiasm for the Bible. Mars Hill, which now boasts over 13,000 members, began as a home-based Bible study. And Mark has famously spent as many as 58 weeks working through individual Biblical books as he preaches.
But despite these credits, for the life of me, I can't figure out why Mark's notoriety continues and even seems to expand, in the face of the ongoing press stunts and offbeat commentary that has come to light.
This, after all, is the guy who Religion News Service senior columnist Jonathan Merritt likened to Pat Robertson. The guy who the New York Times said,"has resurrected a particular strain of fire and brimstone." The guy who publicly tweeted about his feelings that a male worship leader was too effeminate.
So I get why this sort of branding might've landed one a TV show during the height of the Religious Right in the 70's or 80's. Back when it was possible to wage campaigns against seemingly arbitrarily chosen toys--such as tiny troll dolls--as demonic tools of Satan. However, I struggle to understand how this sort of personal-branding gets bankrolled by people of faith in 2014.
But maybe, as it turns out, it doesn't. Maybe Mark's supporters are fewer than the public has been led to believe. Recent reports suggesting Mark hired a strategic marketing company to "purchase" his spot on the best-seller list would support this conclusion.
(This book launch strategy, by the way, wasn't shocking to anyone who has been involved in the publishing industry though. There have always been ways to underwrite the success of authors in any field, religious or not, when the efforts were attached to a deep enough bank account. Don't doubt for a second, then, that some of Mark's more progressive counterparts haven't done (or tried to do) the same.)
But Mark's story of purchasing success will get way more blogosphere and social media space than the others who've engaged sketchy marketing tactics.
The question is why? Why is the public reaction to Mark's tactics more aggressive than the way we respond to others?
I think the scrutiny over Mark's book sales gets more press for the same reason his plagiarism "scandal" did.
Mark Driscoll has been pushing the lines, making people uncomfortable with the way he sometimes carelessly wields his faith, for years now. While reading through the anecdotes below, one might deduct he's wounded plenty of vulnerable people. Not to mention embarrassed a lot of Christians with his extremism.
Bloggers and media sources have critiqued Pastor Mark for:
• Making snide comments judging Obama's faith, despite the President's claims to be a Christian.
• Dismissing the need for environmental care because the earth is going to burn up anyways.
• Implying the wife of a leader who had an affair had "let herself go". (After a national outcry he said he was "sad and sorry" to hear that things he has said made some people feel "personally attacked.")
• Squelching question askers in his congregation.
• Telling his church attenders "God hates some of you."
• Claiming men who serve as primary care-givers are "worse than unbelievers."
• Calling women gullible and easy to deceive.
• Joking about violence as a means to resolve disagreements with elders.
• Making comments about male worship leaders being effeminate.
• Voicing disagreement over homosexuality by making insensitive jokes about being a "male lesbian" and concluding at the end, "this is all gay."
• Calling Christian yoga practices demonic.
• Comparing "nagging" wives to water torture.
• Referring to women as "chicks."
• Calling the men of this generation "jokes."
• Referring to Jesus as a "pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed."
• Making fun of Catholics, Jews, Muslims and other religious sects.
And of course there's two of the more prominent and recent controversies:
• He crashed a conference he disagreed with and created controversy handing out his own books in what some suspected was a press stunt.
• He was prompted the resignation of one of the show's producers.
Here's one theory, then, on why Mark Driscoll's slip-ups trigger mammoth responses, prompting bloggers like Christian Piatt to call the critics' response "a witch hunt."
1. I think there are silent masses, across the Christian spectrum, who are polarized by Mark and uncomfortable with how he projects himself.
I think a lot, a lot of people are uncomfortable with Mark's sometimes seemingly purposefully polarizing remarks. Even evangelicals. And if I dare say it, even far right-wing evangelicals. While friends and followers of Mark Driscoll would surely come to his defense, it seems to me the masses beyond that circle feel increasing tension about this inflammatory religious figure. Even among evangelicals on Mark's side of the spectrum, I rarely if ever hear his name mentioned without a "but." It is always, "He's brilliant. He's funny, but..." And then the speaker predictably offers an anecdote about something Mark said that they found to be off-putting or inappropriate. The number one phrase anecdotally dropped in my part of the world when talking about Mark Driscoll is "over the line."
2. I think people in conservative Christian camps like the ones I hail from are naturally conditioned to be cautious when critiquing those who are part of the "kingdom work."
Many groups are put off by Mark, in other words, but a lot of the people who are polarized by him are "supposed" to be "in his camp" on paper. They, like me, share some--but not all--of his tenets of faith. And they, like me, don't want to invalidate the good they see in others' efforts despite their shortcomings. Plus, hopefully we're honest enough to admit that all of us have our moments where we disgrace the ideals and causes we live for, and we know there's some wisdom in not crucifying someone when you share in their humanity and fallibility.
There's something awkward and sticky and borderline inappropriate about criticizing one of your own...someone who is seen as "doing some good for the kingdom" regardless of his antics.
3. This means after one of Mark's incidents in the media, many in the culture may feel hopeless, believing there is no legitimate channel for this faith leader to be held accountable no matter what he does.
After all, Mark seemingly enjoys ongoing camaraderie with many other prominent and respected faith leaders of our time. They speak at Mark's church. They invite Mark to speak at their churches and conferences. Publishers continue to grant book contracts. His books, now perhaps questionably, continue to hit the bestseller's lists. And his iTunes sermons faithfully skyrocket to the top of religion lists.
To the public's knowledge, for example, neither of the men whose work is at the center of the plagiarism accusations has offered public comment.
And only a relative few, like David Moore of Fuller Theological, evangelical blogger Tim Challies, and maybe reformed evangelical author Kevin DeYoung, have challenged any of Mark's behavior or comments in the public spaces where it is showcased.
When it comes to Mark Driscoll then, the public--who aren't privvy to any closed door conversations happening behind the scenes--may feel that no matter what he does, he seems to enjoy unbroken access to public platforms in the religious arena.
4. When Mark trips up in the media, even a little bit, some who feel starved for justice are desperate for a chance to see him held accountable.
So when Mark's name hits the news, there's a huge backlash. He hired an agency to buy books? He improperly borrowed another author's material for his work? People race to string him up. Stakes are prepped for a burning.
Because it's way easier for a run-of-the-mill guy or girl with a blog to critique a famous guy for improperly citing his sources, than it is for them to go up against his larger-than-life personality and media powerhouse regarding his overall conduct and "heart." It's easier to challenge someone's footnotes than to take on how they project God through their actions.
Mark's marketing antics, then, become some people's only opportunity to finally sideline a known criminal...by pulling him over for having a broken headlight.
I don't know Mark personally, and because of that, my own research and reflection is not as well rounded as it could be if I had more of his input. (I did reach out to his camp and offer to include any quotes, unedited, in this article.) And I also won't pretend that complex issues like this that spring up around the intersection of personality, faith, and capitalism are ever solved by some simple idea plastered on the web by someone like myself.
But I will offer this. First, I am disgusted by some hateful critics' responses to Mark's behavior. As this Church Leaders article details, for example, Mark has been confronted by armed assailants trying to stab him during a sermon, home break-ins, human excrements left on his doorstep, and social media users posting directions to his house when his wife and children were staying there alone.
And secondly, I think people like me are enabling part of the problem. Whether it is because we prefer to keep our distance from inflammatory culture wars or whether it is because we're hesitant to critique someone who still bears some similarities to our mission, some of us who are more moderate have perhaps allowed a tragic silence to be our default response to Mark's pattern of commentary and behavior.
Maybe, in fact, one largely untried way to protect Pastor Mark from these attacks is for more people -- particularly moderates and evangelicals like myself who still share some of his beliefs -- to raise a louder voice and to raise it more often. To put Mark's behavior into context more. To underline just as publicly as Mark speaks, that we don't admire some of these insensitive acts or marketing ploys and to stress that sometimes his attitude doesn't represent ours.
Maybe instead of trying to pull Mark over on a broken headlight charge by drawing blood over his every media infraction, it would be wise for more people to come clean on what they think his true crime is. Publicly forgetting that Jesus desired mercy, not sacrifice.
I believe in Pastor Mark's God. And I wish only well-being for him and his. But despite the potential problems with saying it aloud, I have to tell you, I am one moderate evangelical who is growing increasingly tired of the silence. I hope it is increasingly time for those who are uncomfortable with the way our faith is being represented in these antics to find their voice.
Follow Sarah Cunningham on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sarahcunning