Believe it or not, Mark Driscoll still emails me.
Some years ago (to my shame), I offered up my precious contact info in exchange for some free resources on the Mars Hill website. Now, all this time later, I still receive spam correspondence from the subject of the viral Christianity Today podcast.
The serialized exposé chronicles years of narcissistic leadership, abusive practices, and a total failure of accountability in one of America’s fastest growing megachurches.
My students are too young to recall the actual rise of Mars Hill—but I remember it well. In many ways, I never meshed with Driscoll: I’m not a Calvinist. I’m not a Complementarian. And I’ve never had that aching father-wound that causes some young men to seek out a “substitute dad” to yell at them to get their lives together.
Nonetheless, as a young male with no love lost for Ned Flanders Christianity, there was something (way back then… ) that intrigued me about Driscoll’s no-nonsense, witty, and often humorous style of preaching. Hence the offering of my precious contact info.
There’s much to appreciate about the podcast.
It is impeccably produced, with solid reporting and well-placed interviews that detail the damage done by abusive leaders and their enablers. Unexpectedly, one of my favorite parts has been the music, woven through each episode, featuring artists like Kings Kaleidoscope, Taylor Leonhardt, and Bill Mallonee.
(If you listen to the Mallonee song while reading this post, it might even make me seem winsome and earthy, like a pensive Rich Mullins, staring wistfully into the distance while holding a book by Marshall McLuhan.)
Tales like that of Mars Hill need to be told. And Mike Cosper should be commended for doing so in a way that will (hopefully) make us hesitate before again elevating and tolerating corrupt and charismatic leaders, like Driscoll.
But at the risk of pouring yet another “take” upon our collectives iPhones, there is one facet to the podcast’s viral popularity that gives me pause.
In my view, perhaps the foremost sickness that enabled Driscoll to run amok for so long is what one might call “The evangelical celebrity industrial complex.” Define it this way: We are drawn to media-driven personalities whose entertainment value far exceeds their character. And to be honest, that sickness is as apparent in our breathless consumption of CT podcast as it is in the real rise and fall of Mars Hill.
I am not immune from this phenomenon.
I too felt the charge of excitement upon noticing that Cosper had finally released a new episode. It was like realizing that my favorite Netflix show had just dropped a new season. “Have you listened, yet!?” “Come on!!! I can’t wait another week!”
For at least some of us, there was a kind of voyeuristic deliciousness to the podcast (both sickening and enthralling) that went beyond our need to lament, repent, and ensure accountability. It became a form of intimate and commodified entertainment, all orbiting a celebrity preacher who has proven just as marketable in his ruin as in his rise. It was Icharus Inc. – now brought to you by BetterHelp.com.
Perhaps that worry is a bit too harsh.
If I’m going to critique this danger, I should probably propose a workable alternative that allows us to learn the lessons of Mars Hill without turning the whole commercialized spectacle into, well… you know. Sadly, I’m not quite sure how to do that.
As I’ve said, the truth does need to be told in cases like Mars Hill. It should be told winsomely. And I hope Cosper’s reporting does some good. But it’s worth noting that the same celebrity fixation and commodification that propelled Driscoll to power is also in play each time I pop in the earbuds to “binge-out” to his burning effigy. (That’s no defense of Driscoll; rather, it’s a check on every one of us.)
In his book, Celebrity Worship, Pete Ward defines a celebrity as a person who has been mediated by technology, so that when we consume media, we consume people.
“The value of the celebrity inheres in his or her capacity to attract and mobilize attention, which is then typically attached to other products (a television show, a magazine cover, a record album)…”
In this sense, it’s been years since Mark Driscoll has been this valuable.
Maybe that’s why he keeps emailing me, asking for more money.
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See here for my latest book, Perhaps: Reclaiming the Space between Doubt and Dogmatism.