Mark Driscoll: A Prolegomena

If you know anything about him, the mere mention of Mark Driscoll‘s name will cause a reaction.  For some, the response will be positive.  For others, viscerally negative.  He’s become a lightning rod in Christian culture–similar to yet different from Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell before him.

Driscoll is the pastor of Mars Hill Church here in Seattle.  He started the new congregation during the mid-1990s and has made it his mission to minister to the emerging culture here in the hip, hip Pacific Northwest.  Driscoll’s gone on record proclaiming that his mission is to proclaim the gospel in a way that is “theologically conservative yet culturally liberal.”  It is as good a description as any for exactly what he’s been trying to do these past fifteen years.

When I first became aware of Mars Hill and Driscoll back in the 1990s, I was excited.  He and his church were on the leading edge of how things were changing in the Church in ways cultural, musical, and (I thought) theological.  After a flurry of personal excitement I sort of lost track of Driscoll and his church, only to rediscover them more fully about five years ago.  Since Driscoll is a gifted preacher,  I used to listen to some of his sermons while jogging.

And then?  Well, then Driscoll became a big star–and the lightning rod he is today.  There are things I never really knew about him that have come into sharp focus in the past year or so.  The fact, for instance, that he does not support women in ministry (as a matter of fact he is pretty vehemently opposed).  The fact that he seems to relish theological combat.  The fact that he seems to be resurrecting a form of “muscular Christianity” the likes of which we haven’t seen for nearly a century.  Driscoll can have a real “in your face” approach, and this doesn’t sit well with a lot of people–myself included.

Controversy has gone up a notch in the past few weeks.  First, he’s released his new book Real Marriage, co-authored with his wife Grace.  It is getting a lot of flak for its frank discussion of sex and purportedly sexist or misogynistic take on marriage.  I’m currently reading it with an eye towards these issues and its potential use in a pastoral setting.  More on that to come soon.  Second, he was recently interviewed by a British Christian and, if the summation on this blog is to be believed (I have yet to listen to the entirely of the audio), he said some pretty mean and crassly fundamentalist things.  The crux of a lot of what he was saying comes down to the following quotation.  Though in itself a fairly orthodox point of argument, the way in which Driscoll uses this manly father image to justify and exemplify the entirety of his ministry and theological outlook is a bit disconcerting:

It does. It depends on your view of God. Is God like a mom who just embraces everyone? Or is he like a father who also protects, and defends, and disciplines? If you won’t answer the question, I think I know the answer.

Since I’m now a Seattlite (and an academically trained historian, ministry professor, and ordained minister), I feel that I ought to be addressing such matters more directly.  I will be–on this blog and, perhaps, elsewhere.  On one matter I’d like to be clear, though: Mark Driscoll is not the devil.  He is a follower of Christ, and we are certainly brothers in Christ even though we may disagree on various issues.  There is a lot I have to learn about Pastor Mark and, no doubt, a lot of areas in which we would find great comaraderie.  But in other vital areas…disagree we do.

"In one corner..."

Some Books For A Snowy Day

On this auspicious day of anti-SOPA protests, joshuaziefle.net is also blacking itself out.  Not so much because I’m protesting, but because I’ve got a lot of work to do on this snowy day in western Washington.  In my absence, I present: the “2012 Christianity Today Book Awards.”  Note the presence of a recent major release in the field of youth ministry and new Mark Noll book!

Tomorrow the first thoughts on Mark Driscoll in light of his continued controversy and new book on sex and marriage.

The Last Temptation of the Republicans

The South Carolina primary is coming up this Saturday February 21, and–as of yesterday–the Republican field has contracted to 5.  A look at the last remaining contenders or, as I heard on NPR, Mitt Romney and his four opponents:

  1. Rick Perry:  Enjoyed a surge in the polls after his late entry into the race.  A Texas conservative who’s tried to parlay his “Aw shucks” demeanor into a serious run at the White House.  His performance has been rather lackluster and in many ways he has come across as painfully dumb.  The popular image of George W. Bush was one of limited intelligence, and Rick Perry makes Bush look like a genius by comparison.
  2. Newt Gingrich:  For a time he too looked like a real choice in this contest…and in many ways he still is.  There are no questions about Newt’s intelligence or experience.  Just his stability.  Republicans may desire a strong conservative leader, but Gingrich comes across as too undisciplined and–shall I use the word?–maverick at times.  Plus, the motif of self-aggrandizement that seems to surround him speaks to a kind of nascent megalomania that concerns people.
  3. Rick Santorum: Rocketed from relative obscurity to the talk of the town thanks to his virtual tie with Mitt Romney in Iowa.  He’s the kind of conservative that social conservatives love…and everyone else looks at a little suspiciously.  He may do well in South Carolina, but I question his ability to succeed going forward.
  4. Ron Paul:  Maintains a large following, but not large enough to guarantee the Republican nomination.  People love his economic libertarianism, and young people are especially enthralled with Paul’s call to legalize marijuana and bring all of our troops home.  Paul is the real deal here: he believes what he says and would actually try to do it as president.  In the process, however, he comes off as a little crazy and far too radical for the mainstream of a basically center-right country.
  5. Last and certainly not least: Mitt Romney.  I am not endorsing any candidate–Republican or Democrat–but I will say this: Romney is the best remaining choice the Republicans have this year.  He comes off as robotic, calculated, aloof, and occasionally out of touch…but he’s their man.  He has the money to run a national campaign.  He’s been building the organization to do so for years.  He brings experience as a governor, organizer of the Salt Lake City Olympics, and successful businessman to the roundtable.  Though criticized for his “flip-flopping,” suspected cutthroat business practices, and occasional moderate tendencies…it may be just these things that help him to win in November and become a successful president.  To do so, however, he’s going to need to create a lot more enthusiasm than currently exists for the “robot Mormon opportunist” he appears to be for so many.  A solid vice-presidential choice may help with this…but that’s a conversation for another day.

The British Are Coming

I’m a little mixed up.  American as they come, deeply excited about my German heritage…and yet also a bit of an Anglophile. It’s the way they talk, I think.

Honestly–a proper British accent? Tell me it doesn’t make the person sound automatically smarter.  You know it’s true.

I spent a semester in London during college, and I suppose some of my UK love comes from there.  I also have a father who really likes English literature, so that doesn’t hurt.  And what young Christian doesn’t adore C. S. Lewis?

The greatest source of my attraction to the British intonation, however, comes from all those great  actors in the films and shows I love.  From a young age I heard Grand Moff Tarkin and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.  Captain Picard’s Shakespearean pronunciation was foundational for both my love of Star Trek and the “Sceptered Isle.”  Need I mention James Bond, The Lord of the Rings, Gaius Baltar from Battlestar Galactica, the or recent über-cool incarnation of Doctor Who?

Bow ties are cool.

Recent news promises more.  Much more.  I’ve long been a fan of Sherlock Holmes, and have especially liked the modern-day adaption the BBC is running.  It’s clever and interesting.  The actors are great…and now they’re getting their due in two large projects I’m sure to love:  The Hobbit and the sequel to J. J. Abram’s Star Trek.  Martin Freeman (Dr. Watson) will be playing Bilbo Baggins, while Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock) will be the yet-to-be-determined villain facing off against James T. Kirk and company.

If the entertainment world desired to wean me from all things English, they’re certainly doing a poor job of it.  Where are the good old American Harrison Ford’s?  Where are the plethora of  quirky German actors ?  (Austrian Christolph Waltz excepted.)  Missing in action, it seems…and aptly covered by heroic Jedi, villainous bad guys, and–oh yes–faithful butlers to Dark Knights everywhere.

The Apotheosis of Timothy Tebow

America: we need to talk.  It came to my attention last night that 43% of you think that Tim Tebow’s wins are at least partly due to divine intervention.  It’s right here on CNN.com.

Now, Tebow is a good guy.  He’s fun to watch.  He (like many other professional athletes) is also a professing and practicing Christian.  All of these are, I think, good or at least neutral things.  Yet here we are.

Somewhere in the strange alchemy of media obsession, Tebow’s outspoken faith, and his unorthodox style of play, he has become something more than a man.  Tebow is now a symbol for the hopes, fears, and dreams of the American religious and their culture despisers.  Rick Reilly believes in Tebow.  U2 fans create a new Trinity out of Tebow, Jesus, and (of course) Bono.  Charles Barkley, tongue-in-cheek, calls him a “national nightmare.”  And of course Bill Maher has said something innappropriate.  In light of this, there are those who remain suspicious of any criticisms of Tebow, asserting “The anti-Tebow Bias Isn’t About Football.”  Of course not.  Why would it ever be about that?

43% of Americans think God helps him win.  42% don’t.  Only 14% expressed no opinion.  I have an opinion for you: stop asking such a stupid question!

Either Americans actually believe that somehow God is on Tebow’s side (and, apparently, not on the side of any believers on the opposing team), or–more likely–reflect so little on matters theological that they just assume that if someone’s religious God will “do stuff” for them.  Moralistic Therapeutic Deism at its best.

Never mind that the rain falls on the just and unjust alike (see Matthew 5:45).  Never mind that God’s ways are not are ways (see Isaiah 55:8-9).  Never mind that the Lord has more to do than pay attention to the Broncos quarterback (see THE WHOLE BIBLE).

In the end, it is possible that Tebow himself may have the best perspective.  According to the Wall Street Journal: ” In postgame interviews, the young quarterback often starts by saying, ‘First, I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’ and ends with ‘God bless.’  He stresses that football is just a game and that God doesn’t care who wins or loses.”

How about that?

P.S.  Tebow’s probably going to lose this weekend when he takes on Tom Brady and the Patriots.  I think both he and God can handle that.  I just hope the faith of 43% of Americans can.

Messing With The Order of Salvation

One of the classes I’ll be teaching every semester here at Northwest is called “Discipleship & Spiritual Formation.”  I look forward to the opportunity to continue honing the class into something increasingly excellent as time goes on.

In the midst of teaching the class for the first time last semester and now again this January, I have become convinced that discipleship is often wrongly understood as only coming AFTER conversion.  Moreover, I feel strongly that dividing salvation from sanctification as we often has is rather questionable.

The tradition model of the ordo salutis or “order of salvation” is as follows:  reprobate life of sin, moment of salvation, and then sanctification.  Christians debate about how sanctification works (see below) but most do not debate that this is the order.

Make no mistake, there is a lot to commend this somewhat staccato progression.  We think here of the story of the Apostle Paul, or the various testimonies we may have heard of those who had a powerful transformation from despair to glory.  The Scripture tells us about moving “from death to life” (John 5:24).  I think especially here of a former Sunday School teacher who had a powerful conversion experience from a drug-addicted and suicidal life.  It happens.

But then there are other stories.  Stories we know well.  Stories that are often our own.  Situations where people spend a long time being “pre-discipled” or “pre-sanctified” before coming to saving faith.  They bring a great deal of philosophical concerns to the table or are dealing with a lot of questions.  Perhaps they’ve been hurt before or are unwilling to make a completely blind leap of faith.  For these–and I’m convinced their numbers are not insignificant–discipleship is not merely something that happens after salvation.

Historically, I think here of the practice of the early Church, where baptism and admission to the Eucharist (indeed, the Church itself) took place only after a focused period of catechesis or religious instruction in the Christian faith.  I remember the conversions of Augustine, Wesley, and C. S. Lewis, all of whom seem to have moved in stages to full life in Christ.  Wesley had been a “Methodist” and a missionary long before he said he “felt his heart strangely warmed” and made a full commitment of faith (interestingly, he later espoused the idea of a “prevenient grace” that went before salvation).

If therefore, discipleship and/or sanctification can both precede and follow salvation, how ought this knowledge alter our evangelism efforts that are seemingly far too focused on the altar call or particularly moving sermon?  The Alpha Course coming out of the UK is one development that recognizes this need…but what more can we be doing?  And how important is the altar call, anyway?

Hipster History

We academics are often like hipsters: we assume that if something is too mainstream, it must not be worthwhile.  The popularists among our ranks are therefore often shunned.  Even if public praise is offered for NY Times bestsellers, murmuring in the ranks raises numerous questions as to the “appropriateness” or academic prowess of such work.

Make no mistake: popular writing often oversimplifies the facts at hand and leaves out a lot of nuance.  In my own field of history, this can sometimes lead to incomplete understandings, faulty conclusions, and questionable assumptions.

But here’s the rub: popular histories by journalists, amateurs, and grammatically gifted academic historians get people reading.  They draw people into the stories of the past.  They make it alive in ways that dry academic studies never could.  At least not to the average reader.

Case in point: I’m currently wading through Steven Ozment’s The Age of Reform: 1250-1550.  It is a prize-winning and solid piece of academic work about the Reformation.  But it is also a bear for me to get through…and I’ve got a PhD in Church History!  A lighter and more “fun” piece of writing would certainly be better for the casual reader.   If the goal is to have as many as possible understand the stories of the past, why not do so in a way that actually lets them do so?

Academic historians will always have a role in offering high-level and erudite scholarship that will serve to critique and define the bounds of more popular retellings.  But if they are the only ones writing, we are in trouble.  Because when I was precocious and inquiring teenager it wasn’t high-level academic history that got me so excited about the past.  It was popular writing.


So, my fellow historians: be careful about critiquing popular writing too harshly.  Its absence would, over time,  mean far fewer members of our guild and much less historical awareness overall.  Our job is to make sure that history is done well, not that is it done only by us.

Four popular recommendations:

1.  Guns, Germs, and Steel: All of history, explained.  Awesome.

2.  1776: The epic year of young America.

3.  Mayflower: The first ones here.

4.  Horrible Histories:  For the kids

The Hidden Republican Trinity

Tomorrow’s headline can already be printed: Mitt Romney wins New Hampshire.  No surprise there.  Romney’s long been leading in polls of the state, even as Republicans nationwide have  hemmed and hawed about supporting him.

In the end, though, everyone agrees: Mitt Romney will be the Republican presidential nominee–whether the Republicans like it or not.

The lack of enthusiasm for Romney and the inability of GOP voters to coalesce around a single anti-Romney candidate gives tonight’s results and the course of the next few months a rather anticlimactic feel.  This is, however, the state of things.

One wonders, though, about the “hidden” three in Republican politics. Each could very well have entered the race and drawn significant numbers of voters.  That they haven’t could alternately indicate a personal choice to avoid the race, a perceived fatal weakness in their own candidacy, or a subtle fear that maybe this isn’t the Republican’s best year.  This so-called Trinity?  Sarah Palin, Jeb Bush, and Chris Christie.

By now everyone knows Sarah Palin.  Love her or hate her, there is no denying she is a force in conservative American politics.  While I don’t think she could have won either the Republican nomination or the general election, she certainly would have shaken things up and polled better than Bachmann.  It is even possible that she could have become the anti-Romney candidate.  At the same time, entering the race would likely have tarnished her rock-star image and subjected her to more criticism than she wants.  She is content, it seems, to be more symbolic than actual.

I know more about Chris Christie than the others.  Until this past August, I was a lifelong New Jerseyan…and he was my governor.  Nationally, Christie is seen as a tough-talking no-nonsense free market hero.  But then, of course, his politics have little effect on those outside the Garden State.  For those living in the state, his austere policies have created no small amount of resistance–especially from workers in the public sector.  While everyone agrees that SOMETHING had to be done in New Jersey, the actions he has taken have frustrated many.  Everyone wants the government to be more efficient–but not when it means their job.  It is possible that his policies and in-state reputation would have torpedoed him if discussed on the national level.

While I’m not exactly sure why Christie didn’t decide to run for President, I suspect  he would be more than happy to accept the offer of VP or a choice Cabinet post if his friend Romney wins the day.

Last is Jeb Bush.  What to say?  While again his legacy as governor of Florida is debated, he is widely known to have been pretty popular overall.  More than once I have heard it said he is seen to be the best and brightest the Bush family has to offer.  But then that’s the problem.  As a Bush, he knows his name alone creates too many difficulties to be elected.  At least this time.  I suspect his political story isn’t over yet.

In the end, though, this is Mitt’s show now.  If he locks up the nomination soon we’ll see how the national debate progresses, and in what way the Republican’s trinity of non-candidates and fallen contenders contribute to the electoral battle ahead.

History Is Boring

A bright new semester beckons here on the campus of Northwest University.  I look forward to embracing all the opportunities it will present.

Having just returned from attending the annual meeting of the American Historical Association and the American Society of Church History, I am doubly enthused about teaching Church History II this afternoon.  I’ve blogged previously on my plans for the term and look forward to a good few months with my students.

I have been thinking about my love for history over the past few days, and I’ve realized a few things.

First, history is not meant to be a purely pragmatic discipline, at least not in the way it is commonly thought.  Many people say that the only reason to study it is so that you can avoid the mistakes of the past.  On a surface level, I suppose I can accept that.  But it is true only on a surface level.  Yes, we know about the horrors of the Nazi regime…but while we’ve never done THAT again, it hasn’t stopped humanity from committing other great atrocities.  We are similarly aware of war, but we still have it.  You could simply say that these results are simply because “people never learn,” but if that is the case, why do history of this kind in the first place?  On the macro-level, history is therefore influential but not determinative.  On the micro-level, it is just a bunch of historians talking in code to other historians about interesting topics which have little to no connection to the “pragmatic history” position.

Second, historians don’t want to admit it…but history can be boring.  I experienced this during some of the conference sessions this past weekend.  As I thought about how little I cared about some of what I heard, I shuddered to think what someone who was a non-academic would think.  Just as I am not interested in every piece of news on CNN.com, there is a great deal of history that just doesn’t grab me.  It doesn’t grab a lot of people.  History helps explain more about the story in which we find ourselves…but when the history we are learning has little to do with us, it can be hard to follow or even care.  You might think this is rather provincial and smallminded.  Perhaps, but it’s true.

What do I think?  History is both essential and useless, pragmatic and esoteric.  It is not a trade.  It is not vital in our everyday lives.  Houses are built without it.  Machinists work metal without it.  No plumber ever need know about the Holy Roman Empire.  The history of Pentecostalism in North America has no relevance to the businessman.  So why study it?  If you’re looking for some purely pragmatic reason, please look elsewhere.  I study history because I like stories and stories about people.  In the words of Lady Gaga, I was “born this way.”  Yet there has been value for me in its study.  It does remind me that things have not always been the way they are today.  It does force me to have respect for others and reserve judgment.  It has kept me honest and never lets me forget my place.  These are my lessons from history.

I hope that history and my teaching of it will help others learn these lessons.  But I don’t do it because I assume it will enthrall others the way it does me or because I feel like knowing history will automatically make the future better.  I do it because it is my passion.  Because it helps us understand the communities in which we are bound.  Because at its best all history may be deeply biographical and jarringly foreign at the same time.  There is something very…human about bringing these things together.