Monday, January 12, 2009

"Reforming the Reformation"-Take 23,487

The goings-on among American mega-churches continues to interest me, though reading about them leaves me feeling the same way I do after wasting 30 minutes in front of the televisional box. I suppose they are as good a barometer as any of our chronic cultural ill-health. In a surprisingly-balanced article for the New York Times, Molly Worthen examines a new wrinkle in the emergent church world--a return to roots--not of the Apostolic Faith, mind you--but a return to the Calvinism of old. For the Reformation is ever in need of...well, reform.

Her subject is Mark Driscoll and his Mars Hill Church in Seattle. I was vaguely familiar with Mars Hill, but totally uninformed about Driscoll, or other emergent-type church leaders. Worthen entitles the article "Who Would Jesus Smack Down." Driscoll and Mars Hill are angling for a particular market segment--think skateboarder attire, tattoes and YouTube sermons. Indeed, Worthen observes: 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. Detractors have dubbed him the "cussing preacher." There is nothing particularly new in any of this--even modest-size cities boast any number of preachers attempting the same thing. What is interesting here is that his message is not new at all, but a return to old-time Calvinism. And it seems to be working--at least for now, and in this place. "In little more than a decade, his ministry has grown from a living-room Bible study to a mega church that draws about 7,600 visitors to seven campuses around Seattle each Sunday, and his books, blogs and pod casts have made him one of the most admired — and reviled — figures among evangelicals nationwide."

A few excerpts from Worthen's article, below:

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.

[Well, no wonder I didn't know who he was.]

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.”

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.”

He read voraciously and was born again at 19. “God talked to me,” Driscoll says. “He told me to marry Grace, preach the Bible, to plant churches and train men.”
....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 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.”

In recent years, mainstream mega churches — the mammoth pacesetters of American evangelicalism that package Christianity for mass consumption — have been criticized for replacing hard-edged Gospel with feminized pablum. According to Ed Stetzer, the director of LifeWay Research, a Southern Baptist religious polling organization, Mars Hill is “a reaction to the atheological, consumer-driven nature of the modern evangelical machine.”
The “modern evangelical machine” is a product of the 1970s and ’80s, when a new generation of business-savvy pastors developed strategies to reach unbelievers turned off by traditional worship and evangelization. Their approach was “seeker sensitive”: upon learning that many people didn’t go in for stained glass and steeples, these pastors made their churches look like shopping malls. Complex theology intimidated the curious, and talk of damnation alienated potential converts — so they played down doctrine in favor of upbeat, practical teachings on the Christian life....Stetzer says. “The center is not holding.”

New Calvinists are still relatively few in number, but that doesn’t bother them: being a persecuted minority proves you are among the elect. They are not “the next big thing” but a protest movement, defying an evangelical mainstream that, they believe, has gone soft on sin and has watered down the Gospel into a glorified self-help program. In part, Calvinism appeals because — like Mars Hill’s music and Driscoll’s frank sermons — the message is raw and disconcerting: seeker insensitive.

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.”

Well, okay. I will give Driscoll his due. He has spotlighted an obvious failing in mainstream liberal Protestantism, as well as evangelical mega churches--the wussification (to put it in Kinky Friedman parlance) of the faith. I am not a church-hopper, but did park myself in a large happy-clappy Church of Christ for a short while before following through to Orthodoxy. The church is chock-full of the most wonderfully nice people one would ever want to meet. But a diabetic could not attend there without endangering their health. Thankfully, the hymnody is fading from my memory, though it will be a few years yet before I can fully erase "The Days of Elijah."

So, Driscoll has identified the symptoms of an illness. Yet he has misdiagnosed the true malady, for the remedy is not Calvinism--not even "cool Calvinism." He has added another entre to the buffet-line of our religious pluralism, but there is little of lasting value here, and the novelty will fade. Again.

But it is a good story, which can be read in full here.


Steve Hayes said...

I find this interesting.

I've been trying to follow "the emerging conversation" since I first discovered it three years ago (as a missiologist I have a professional interest in these things). Much of the conversation is incomprehensible to outsiders because of the name dropping. Mark Driscoll said this, so-and-so replied with that, and someone else said something else. Your piece at least puts a little bit more into context.

The Scylding said...

Over at Gene Veith's blog (
a subsequent discussion denied Driscoll the status of "Reformed". The main objection was that although he is a "5-point" chap, that is all he is - he doesn't have a Reformed liturgy, Christology or anything else. If anything he is a Reformed Baptist, a particular problematic suburb of "Baptistville". There have also been reports of the typical megachurch pastor - dictatorship - see a recent discussion at

His main appeal seems to be to "cage stage calvinists" of particularly limited understanding, but an over supply of testosterone.

If that sounds harsh, I di apologise. But coiming from a personality-driven, "hard core", fire-and-brimstone cult/sect in my past, I tend to be over-wary of these phenomena.

John said...

That doesn't sound harsh at all--pretty accurate, I would say.

As I said, I don't really follow these guys that much. Thanks for the added insight.

s-p said...

Hi John, Funny... I JUST read that article day before yesterday and my gut reaction was "people aren't reacting to doctrine, they are reacting to a "manly" Christianity". The dot connected for me because we have about 25 men who live in a homeless shelter/rehab who visit our Mission and we do Vespers and Bible study for them on Thursday nights. They stand for the services, we teach the gospel and the hard work of transformation to them. They LOVE the Church. Why? I think there is a physicality and "manliness" to it they don't get at the protestant churches they attend. Driscoll has unmasked the true desire of the human heart, but Calvin's sovereignty of God is ultimately a cosmic bully and not a "man", it will leave a hole that needs to be filled eventually.

John said...

Exactly. They are attracted to the "manly Christianity," in contrast to all the hush-toned sincerity and sensitivity around these days. But the doctrine will eventually leave a cold, empty place that, as you say, will needed to be filled eventually.

Milton T. Burton said...

People go to extravaganzas like this for the same reason they used to go to hangings---spectacle and emotional excess. In fact, most of them, if they would be honest, would probably rather be at a hanging.

Milton T. Burton said...

This bozo probably picked Calvinism because it was an "undeveloped market."

James the Thickheaded said...

Uh... I guess I always read the Gospels with Christ as a sort of "action figure"... kicking a few butts that needed it. Always the heavy with the "arise and walk" bit. No lip...just get up and do it. There were nuances... but save'em for when you got time... in the meantime... get busy. Not proud of it... but it was a place to start... so maybe...

Like the irony of your title...but can't tell whether he's for or against asceticism. Seems to me that "for" is manly, "against" is not... but then it sounds like he's modeled his preaching at least after the shock-jocks of the 80's and 90's. Agree that it promises to have a very limited appeal... and more pressingly... .. limited in its potential for development, formation, etc.

John said...

Milton, I knew his expropriation of Calvinism would push your buttons :)

John said...

James, I don't think he's really considered the hard work of asceticism's generally not on the radar screen. And I don't see much potential for development here--just another sideshow, though it does reveal the yearning for a muscular Christianity.

Anonymous said...

I haven't yet found anything in Orthodoxy that indicates the hard work of asceticism is gender-specific.

If "wussification" means the tendency to refer religious experience to what is happening inside of someone and how one is feeling, that is a legacy that began in the Renaissance/ Enlightenment and continued through Romanticism and into early 20th c. evangelicalism. NT Wright traces this down masterfully in a couple of places, through the popular philosophy of the 17th through 20th centuries. Again, this focus on "the inner" was propagated by both men and women.

I'm in the middle of "Freedom of Morality", and Yannaris is clear that the "masculine" and "feminine" principles are not necessarily the same thing as the culturally-informed ideas people attach to them. One of the things that makes me want to embrace (and be embraced by) Orthodoxy is the strength of its insistence that there is no ontologic difference between men and women, that we are all human persons. Some Protestants must construct a system of thought that ultimately makes women ontologically non-human, in order to uphold their view of inerrancy, or what it means to have "conservative" theology, or simply because they're sincerely trying to do what God wants but haven't thought through the ramifications. Of course there are differences between men and women- and having a gendered body is both more and less important as impacts those differences than most people take the time to consider.

S-P, I think those homeless men are drawn to the hard work of transformation because something is required of them (as well as that you-all care about them). Churches that require things of their members tend to retain people. But for Ev. Protestants, as you know, nothing is required for "salvation" beyond praying a prayer. Living a moral life is enjoined, but that so often lapses into a crushing perfectionism. It is only as I have been able to let loose of personal and religious perfectionism that I have been able to understand Dostoyevsky (a little).

Forgive this rant, but please listen, you men who have commented; I just have to say that it's a little scary for me that some "conservatives" flee to Orthodoxy because it's "conservative" and "traditional" with regard to men and women, and they don't take the time to consider the ramifications of making "masculinity" or "femininity" into the ultimate norm, rather than "Fully Human". The goal is not continued separation as defined by *any* one characteristic- it's Communion.

I enjoy your blog, John, especially your travel commentaries- inspiration for some of my current reading.

St. Nino equal-to-the-apostles, pray for us on this your day.

Dana Ames
Orthodox inquirer

John said...

Thanks, Dana. Your comments are most appreciated. You are absolutely correct--asceticism is hardly gender-specific. I too share your concern about "conservatives" fleeing to Orthodoxy simply because they consider it to be traditional, etc. You bump up against this attitude sometimes in Orthodoxy, and when you do it strikes a discordant note. But it is not the norm.

Also, regarding the term "wussification"--that is a Texas-specific term. In 2006, Kinky Friedman--singer/songwriter/entertainer/animal-rights activist/provocateur--ran for Governor of Texas as an independent. In his campaign, he spoke often of the "wussification" of the state, but he used it in the sense of being opposed to rampant political correctitude of some of our faint-hearted Texas politicians and bureaucrats.

I appreciate your comments on my travel commentaries--that is what I am most comfortable blogging about.

Thanks for posting, and please do so again. We guys get a little full of ourselves sometimes.

Kirk said...

Nice entry, John. I watched a movie the other night that, in a way, hits upon the subject of discussion--the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, with Charles Laughton and Maureen O'Hara. The movie portrayed the early influence of the printing press upon the govenment and the church. It made me think about the early years of the Reformation, the perceived (and real, of course) abuses of the (Catholic) Church and the implications of the personal interpretations that arose when the Bible got into the hands of the people. All of this led, of course, to the heresy of Calvinism.

With regard to Milton's thoughts about hanging, the film depicted the dichotomy between man's horror of and attraction to ugliness and punishment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, John. Your comments are why I keep coming back.


Anonymous said...

Who knows where to download XRumer 5.0 Palladium?
Help, please. All recommend this program to effectively advertise on the Internet, this is the best program!