On an era of things coming undone—families from their traditional bonds, populations from their places of origin, genders from their longtime roles—the impulse to retreat into the lifestyles of steadier times is detectable in discourse and media, from our fascination with costume dramas to our encounters with ever more reactionary conservatisms. It’s within this tendency that Pastor Mark Driscoll has become something of a parable. A man of extreme aspirations, Driscoll set out to revive Christianity and the American family with good old-fashioned machismo. But for all his charisma and virility, something went badly wrong.
On January 1, 2015, the Seattle-based network of Evangelical church campuses known as Mars Hill dissolved into a series of independent churches. Boasting an average weekly attendance of some 12,329 souls at its height in 2013, Mars Hill now struggles to bring in 9,000 on any given Sunday. With revenues in precipitous decline, the worship syndicate has closed several locations and laid off numerous employees. But it was the mid-2014 resignation of controversial founder and lead pastor Mark Driscoll that sounded Mars Hill’s death knell.
At only 25 years old, the freshly graduated seminarian Driscoll, along with friends Lief Moi and Mike Gunn, founded Mars Hill in 1996 with the hope of reaching out to a “postmodern” generation blighted by divorce, abortion, and dissolute sexuality. A 1998 Mother Jones profile of Driscoll presented the pastor as a pop culture savvy quasi-rockstar with the “purest of intentions,” but even in his nascent days the pathologies that would later define his ministry were detectable: “I’m very confrontational,” Driscoll remarked, “not some pansy-ass therapist.” Driscoll’s rhetoric, with its robust tolerance for the fleshly but never for the pansy-assed, instantly appealed to his target audience of “young, urban men whom he [sought] to reach with his message of the masculinity of Jesus and the need for strong, godly men to lead families and the church.” During its formative years Mars Hill grew steadily—from 160 congregants in 1996 to 350 in 1999—but once Driscoll settled upon his gender-focused approach and began to use emerging technology to blog and livestream his sermons, attendance jumped. Between 2011 and 2012 alone, Mars Hill’s size and growth rate each soared from 43rd to 3rd place in Outreach Magazine’s church ranking.
A plain but thickly built man, Driscoll hailed from North Dakota, where he was raised Catholic. His broad shoulders and stocky build gave him the physical presence to command the masculine mission and persona of Mars Hill, which he evidently equated with himself, informing Church elders in a 2012 meeting that the brand of Mars Hill was “me in the pulpit holding a Bible.” As an emblem of his mission Driscoll was convincing: he wore jeans and hoodies and leather accessories, and hit his stride when he thundered on stage, frequently deploying a seething-and-shouting style of delivery that echoed the intensity of men’s motivational speakers. And by all accounts, a men’s motivational speaker is precisely what Driscoll was. Though Mars Hill never released demographic data about its congregations, Professor Jim Wellman of the University of Washington concluded based on his research that Mars Hill’s rapid expansion was due in large part to its appeal to a typically church-averse cohort of young men, especially those “who are trying to figure out who they are in terms of their purpose in life.” Driscoll’s sermons had a touch of the fiery bombast of spirit-filled churches and always pressed the need to spread the message, which eventually led to the expansion of Mars Hill’s original campus to a network of fifteen locations in four states.
Mars Hill’s self-enumerated four pillars: reformed theology, spirit-empowerment, and a missional purpose are listed alongside gender complementarianism as the church’s core beliefs. True to form, Though professedly Calvinist, matters of justification and salvation always seemed only secondarily important to Driscoll, who focused instead on the notion that contemporary American men are sissified, Jesus has been misconstrued as a “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” and good Christian wives need to “serve [their husbands] and love them well” by giving performing frequent acts of oral sex. To refuse, Driscoll averred, is a sin.
Driscoll’s sexual fixation was sprawling and vaguely macabre, twining together an eager sexual permissiveness with a strident focus on female servitude and sexual submission. “The problem with the church today,” he asserted in a 2006 interview, “it’s just a bunch of nice, soft, tender, chick-ified church boys,” then noted with dismay that “sixty percent of Christians are chicks and the forty percent that are dudes are still chicks.” The troubles of numerically determining emasculation aside, Driscoll’s core concern was that innovation, leadership, and discipline do not come naturally to women, and therefore lack in churches where women dominate. Citing a commitment to complementarian theology, Mars Hill allowed no women in “elder roles,” meaning that women could not “preach, enforce formal church discipline, and set doctrinal standards for the church.” In domestic matters, Driscoll’s theology of gender was even more particular. Women wanting cosmetic surgery, opined Driscoll, should do so only if their desire is purely to please their husbands with their new bodies. A wife who “lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband … is not responsible for her husband’s sin,” Driscoll remarked in the wake of Evangelical superstar Ted Haggard’s public disgrace involving meth and a male prostitute, “but she may not be helping him either.” Blaming Haggard’s wife was a low not even Haggard himself had stooped to.
In content and delivery, Driscoll’s ministry mirrored facets of the “pick-up artist” movement, a self-improvement industry generated, according to Katie J.M. Baker, out of “neuro-linguistic programming ‘speed seduction’ theories in the early 1990s,” which promises to get frustrated men into bed with the women of their dreams. With books like Neil Strauss’ 2005 The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists and Erik Von Markovik’s 2007 The Mystery Method: How to Get Beautiful Women Into Bed forming its core narratives, the PUA world now convenes largely online, in designated forums and discussion boards.
Its books, talks, seminars and videos all presuppose those seeking its wisdom are losers of one sort or another, though the source of male short-coming is often chalked up to institutionalized anti-masculinity in homes, schools, and society at large. There is as much disdain for women as desire for them, and the techniques developed by PUAs tend to focus on fulfilling both urges at once.
For both PUAs and the hyper-masculine ministry of Mars Hill and its like-minded flankers, the story goes something like this: feminism and its attendant ideological shifts have undermined traditionally male sources of power and dignity; nevertheless, certain anthropological realities (divinely ordained gender differences for the Christians, evolutionary psychology for the PUAs) resist this newly imposed order, and men have much to gain from taking advantage of these deeply inscribed truths.
Mars Hill maintained much of the essentializing and misogynist ideology of the PUA world without adopting its technical guidance. Nonetheless, twin how-to and sexual self-improvement themes run through both streams of products and promotional materials. Manuals and live presentations on seduction techniques are the hot selling items in the PUA world, with famed pick-up artist Julien Blanc’s recent abruptly cancelled Australian tour being a fine exemplar of the craft. (Blanc’s jaunt down under ended when he was de-facto banished after the Australian government revoked his visa in response to activists who pointed out Blanc is an ersatz advocate of rape; prior to his exile, Blanc’s tour had been sold out.) For Christians who traffic in this vein, sales come from how-to books (Driscoll’s splashy sex manual Real Marriage turned out to be a factor in his downfall), seminars, speaking events, and good ol’ fashioned passes of the collection plate.
In style and rhetoric, Driscoll also resembled other preacher-gurus of the 1990s, who inherited an introspective self-help focus from the televangelists of the Reagan years. As Kate Bowler notes in Blessed, her careful history of the Prosperity Gospel movement of the 1980s, the legacy of the explosively successful celebrity pastor moment comes in the form of guru-preachers who both make appearances on “Oprah” and share in her vocabulary of self-invention. Houston’s Joel Osteen, with his gleamy smile and buoyant optimism, is perhaps the heir apparent to the you-can-do-it style of preaching that made Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker millionaires, but his is not the only brand of self-help on the market, nor is it much appealing to those who have as many grudges as grievances.
Conservative Christian publications have noted the obvious similarities between Driscoll’s brand of ministry and the PUA pitch. A writer at Faith and Heritage mused, “I think this largely explains the success of Mark Driscoll, who, besides offering a more meaty theology than 95% of evangelical churches, also provides a positive masculine example. He’s a tough guy, almost a caricature who enjoys watching cage fighting, not a sweater-wearing low-testosterone Ned Flanders type.” The affinity was mutual: a 2011 thread on Roosh V Forum, the online discussion venue of pick-up artist Roosh V (author of a series of books on how to “bang” women in various global locations) displays an interest in Driscoll. “They clearly understand female psychology,” one poster noted of Mars Hill, adding that the church likely owed its popularity to the fact that “they emphasise female submissiveness and traditional gender roles.” Another applauds: “Anything that makes church less appealing to women is great by me.”
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