Who Would Jesus Smack Down?

This past Sunday, the New York Times Magazine ran an article by Molly Worthen about […]

David Zahl / 1.13.09

This past Sunday, the New York Times Magazine ran an article by Molly Worthen about pastor Mark Driscoll and his Mars Hill church out in Seattle entitled “Who Would Jesus Smack Down?”. It’s a long feature, and raises a lot of interesting points, focusing mainly on the resurgence of Calvinism in America and the reaction to the so-called “feminization” of Christianity. I have to admit, I find the whole thing to be a pretty mixed bag. I’ve included some brief thoughts at the bottom of the post. See for yourself (my apologies for the super-lengthy post):

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.

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 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

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.”

Calvinism is a theology predicated on paradox: God has predestined every human being’s actions, yet we are still to blame for our sins; we are totally depraved, yet held to the impossible standard of divine law. These teachings do not jibe with Enlightenment ideas about human capacity, yet they have appealed to a wide range of modern intellectuals, especially those who stressed the dangers of human hubris in the wake of World War I.

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.

Nowhere is the connection between Driscoll’s hypermasculinity and his Calvinist theology clearer than in his refusal to tolerate opposition at Mars Hill. The Reformed tradition’s resistance to compromise and emphasis on the purity of the worshipping community has always contained the seeds of authoritarianism: John Calvin had heretics burned at the stake and made a man who casually criticized him at a dinner party march through the streets of Geneva, kneeling at every intersection to beg forgiveness. Mars Hill is not 16th-century Geneva, but Driscoll has little patience for dissent.

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.

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.

Okay… I find myself agreeing with – and even getting excited about – many of the doctrinal emphases outlined above (total depravity and original sin, the fullness of God’s saving grace, the passivity of the believer, etc). I also sympathize with a lot of the criticisms of American Evangelicalism (the rampant Pharisaism, the inflated anthropology, etc). It sounds like Driscoll is a dynamic preacher (an hour and ten minutes?!…), who has reached a LOT of people with the Gospel. So praise God for that!

But I must confess, I find the unapologetic Machismo and general in-your-face quality offensive and rather adolescent. It sounds like this guy enjoys and even relishes conflict – Ugh. Driscoll may be right to have misgivings about the “feminization” of the church – if you think he’s making it up, you clearly haven’t spent any time in a mainline body recently – but I wonder if there is something genuinely misogynistic at work, too. I have long suspected that this form of hardline Calvinism appeals to men on that level, at least subconsciously (A little help, Bonnie?).

Hypermasculinity is not the answer. You end up alienating and marginalizing women and, more often than not, being mean to everyone else in the process (esp your fellow believers and those in leadership). Not to mention flaunting the exact same gender categories that you took issue with in the first place (categories which I believe the Gospel dismantles, in an ultimate sense). The result, in my experience, is a culture of emotional suppression and violence where life becomes an enormous struggle. And who wants that?!

Perhaps I’m overstating things. Lord knows I’m not looking for an argument (been there, done that…), so I’ll leave it to someone else to frame these objections in more theological language. In the meantime, I’ll be rewatching Seasons 2 and 3 of Buffy while bracing myself for the final episodes of Battlestar (T-minus 3 days and counting…).