Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mark Driscoll, Mississippi Sorority Girls and The Mind of God

The odd theological convergence of Mark Driscoll and Hilly Holbrook.

Mark Driscoll is pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington. He's also l'enfant terrible of the American evangelical Christian world. His peculiar spray of neo-Calvinism, occasional cussing, faux-now-aging-hipster vibe, and prodigious platform skills have coagulated into what is arguably the most influential movement in conservative Christianity. This includes a mega-church, the now inevitable franchising of "satellite churches", books, blogs, videos, conferences and a legion of devotees and sycophants.

Driscoll also inspires intense and at times unhinged animosity. His detractors provoked by everything from his theological positions to his potty-mouth and even alleged authoritarian practices at Mars Hill Church. I've remained generally agnostic on this issue. In person Driscoll does come off relentlessly smug and it's hard not to see the cult of personality as a constituent part of his expanding empire. Yet his sermons I've managed to listen to in their entirety have been generally helpful. Over the past few years I've gotten to know several young pastors who are, or have been, part of his church-planting "network". They are, to a man, generous and humble. So lacking any evidence to be concerned I haven't been.

That's changed a bit. Recently a friend pointed me to a YouTube video that is a preview of a seven part DVD series from Mars Hill Church called "Real Marriage". This particular clip is a question and answer session with Driscoll and his wife Grace. The question is, "How can a single Christian man best prepare for marriage?". Driscoll has this advice:
“Guys, it’s good to be journaling for your wife someday, praying for her, as Scripture comes to mind, and then using that as a way to have affection and devotion, even though you may have not met her yet...and the day you meet her, and you get to know her and you become engaged to her, to give her that. To say I've loved you before I met you, I've been praying for you and waiting for you." (Emphasis mine)

Some may read this and, apart from the High Cheese, have no problem with it. Others may see where I'm going and think it very, very picayune. Bear with me.

In the Spring of 1998 I spoke at a weekend conference for college students in Mississippi. I was invited by a good friend who was then a campus minister at the University of Mississippi (henceforth "Ole Miss") and most of the 400 or so present were from his campus. He asked me to speak on the issue of guidance and decision making which, as you might guess, is a subject on constant rotation in college ministry. Having watched firsthand the dominant evangelical view of guidance and "God's will" paralyze an entire generation of students I had developed (and still hold) strong contrarian views on the issue.

In 1998 I was, even more than now, needlessly confrontational, self-aggrandizing and tone-deaf. So I began the talks by asking the question, "How many of you in this room have been taught by your parents to pray for your future husband or wife?" I made it clear I was not talking about the notion of a future spouse, but a specific person out there who one day they will be married to.

My conceit in asking the question was simple. I already knew what the response would be. Earlier in the evening I had met a large number of young women from the Ole Miss group. They were sweet, charming and sincere. And sorority girls all. It was also clear they were faithful Christians who wanted to grow and learn in the gospel. So naturally I reduced them to a sociological stereotype and decided on the spot to later expose their vulnerabilities and publicly embarrass them to help me make a point. That's how I rolled.

As hands shot up all over the room the largest, most conspicuous cluster came from this group of young women. Hands went down. I nodded and paused to milk as much from the moment as I could. I then said, "That is a dumb, irreverent prayer. Stop doing that."

"You wanna dance, you gotta pay the band," said Rocky Balboa. I confused cruelty for edgy communication and payment came due immediately and in full. Audible gasps, brimming tears and a roomful of harsh stares. Solomon was right. A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. That anger settled in the room like an arctic air mass as I summarily dismissed half the room (and their mothers) as stupid and sub-Christian. I completely lost the room less than two minutes in. No mea culpa was going to rescue this weekend. I plowed on anyway because I had to. But it was miserable for everyone.

Apart from my witless taunting, the worst part of it was I had an important point to make and that window was closed. The notion that there is a specific person out there for the single person to claim, imagine, pray for, journal about or anything else is theologically spurious and encourages a view of the Christian life which is pastorally damaging. 

Hilly Holbrook is the loci of everything shallow in Kathryn Stockett's The Help, set in early 1960's Jackson, Mississippi. A Chi Omega at Ole Miss, she leaves after two years to get married. She neatly fits the worldview one character in the book suggests,  “Isn’t that what you women from Ole Miss major in? Professional husband hunting?"  Hilly and her Junior League friends see marriage as birthright, duty, and the sum off all hopes and dreams. And Stockett is clearly lampooning that mindset. Yet it lives on and otherwise sane and well-meaning Christians not only encourage it but infuse a doctrinal sheen which makes it impervious to biblical scrutiny and common sense.

Among the comments on the YouTube video is this one (copied as is):
"Im a single virgin 25 year old Christian guy and i want to get married. I struggle and have struggled in the past in purity lusting watching porn ect. I think i will start to Journal apologizing for corrupting her image before we met, and i am fighting to honor God and be a good husband one day. Its my desire to walk in purity before we meet so we can share close sacred intimacy together and honor God Together."
I want to weep for this guy. The affect of pornography is real and pernicious. On top of the genuine burden he carries, he's now being tormented by the Ghost of Marriage Yet to Come -- the face of a specific but yet-unseen woman who now hovers over him and is perpetually aggrieved and disapproving.

Then there's this:
"Take his advice! :) I think it’s romantic and thoughtful. I have been (journaling) for my future husband since 2003 (9 years)."
This will seem a lot less romantic if no husband shows up. Not only is that a statistical possibility but one the Scriptures both allow for and give explicit approval of. Instead there is breathtaking presumption (God will give me a spouse) and an off-kilter and overly sentimentalized view of marriage (The spouse God gives me will deliver me from this unfulfilling and prosaic existence). 

And by sentimental I'm thinking of Oscar Wilde's definition, "A sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it." The thrill of a God-guaranteed future spouse is by necessity a cheap one that promises much and delivers future frustration. Mike Mason in his book The Mystery of Marriage suggests different expectations.
"Marriage is about nakedness, exposure, defenselessness, and the very extremities of intimacy. It is about the simple unadorned truth between two human beings, truth at all levels and at all costs, and it does not care what pain or inconvenience must be endured in order for the habit of truth to take root, to be watered, and to grow into maturity."
The emotions of real-life marriage can indeed be intoxicating. But you earn them. Sometimes at excruciatingly high cost. I think Driscoll and the Mississippi moms mean well. That's not faint praise. But I think they're indulging themselves and others in a view of God and marriage which just adds needless cost in the future. I have another campus minister friend who has probably officiated at a hundred or more weddings of former students. He talks about the "deer in the headlights" look young marrieds get several months in and they realize, well, "S(tuff) just got real." Men often because they finally catch on that their porn-site expectations of sex and the female body are a destructive fantasy they brought into the marriage. But for both there is also the creeping awareness that the road ahead, as Mason puts it, "does not care what pain or inconvenience must be endured in order for the habit of truth to take root." And the habits they developed were watered by this fantasy-land view of God and marriage.

The Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy is both a restatement and explanation of the Law of God. It's also a document of covenant renewal where a particular generation embraces the God of their fathers as their own and the covenant made between God and their fathers as their own. It's long and detailed with covenant blessings, obligations and curses. The covenant renewal is highlighted in chapter 29 which ends with these words: 
"The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law."
And therein lies the rub. And the reason this view that "God has this person out there for you" is so resilient. And so wrong. And the mother of all manner of dysfunctions as it extends to the paralyzing belief that you need to find those things God will give you which the Bible is silent about . It's just a gussied up version of demanding to know the mind of God, something the polytheistic religions surrounding Israel were obsessed with but the Israelites were warned against. "You will be like God" was the Serpent's lie in the Garden of Eden. "We will know with the certainty of God" is the present rebellion, good intentions or not.

If you watch that video, notice that Driscoll's wife answers first. She's not nearly as polished as her husband. A little nervous. And it kind of strikes me that while she's talking her husband isn't really paying attention. Too bad, because her answer is pretty sensible and biblically consistent.
"Much of marriage is serving and being selfless instead of selfish. so continue to work on your relationship with Jesus...and serve in whatever ways you can find."
Listen to your wife Mark.


  1. So, so good to read truth spoken to ignorance. Thanks for blogging this!

  2. I still remember that talk you gave at the women's retreat a few years back on knowing God's will. More people need to hear this.

  3. I largely share your view of Driscoll, perhaps with a little more appreciation. And just based on this one quote, largely agree with your take here. But...

    Overall Driscoll's advice to young men hasn't been "sit on your haunches until THE ONE appears." This is actually one of the areas where I think he's the most helpful. He encourages (OK, sometimes browbeats) single guys to get jobs, pursue healthy relationships with single women and families, serve in the church, actively look for a wife, start a family and take care of them.

    I think Driscoll would agree with what you've said about the "God has this person out there for you" idea; I know I do. But at the same time, unless you're called to celibacy, God does have a future spouse out there. To expect him to reveal her name or shine a halo on her when you meet is bad, as is to expect that finding her will deliver you from all earthly misery. But I don't think praying for your hoped-for future spouse necessarily involves those errors.

    1. Thanks for the comments Jake.

      I think a conundrum is, as you put it, the 'call to celibacy'. In 30 years of ministry I've known more than a few who've very much wanted to be married, felt no call to celibacy but have remained single. Some now heading into late middle age..... they despair and are disillusioned. They've been told there's that person out there they haven't met yet. It's all a bit cruel. The weight of Scripture tells us to seek wisdom and maturity to choose among what may be many choices in spouses (with the one we end up with being "the one"!) ... but also to navigate through a life that may mean no spouse at all, and to know God is still just as good.

      I suspect you agree with this Jake. And it could very well be that I'm making too much of Driscoll's sloppy language. But good grief, in the position he's in he should be a lot more careful.

      Thanks again.

    2. In other words, how does one know he/she is called to celibacy? I asked a 75 year old man, never married, when he found out he was supposed to be unmarried. He replied in all seriousness, "What do you mean? I'm still looking."

      The cult of marriage can be as bad as overemphasizing anything else. Give it the weight it is due, expect nothing more from it, and see what happens. The Joy of the Lord is our strength. And those are the best promises we have.

      I'm glad you quoted Mike Mason. His *Mystery of Marriage* is probably still the best book on marriage.

  4. Brilliant, Tom, and many thanks for this!

    I'm fan-requesting a follow up post on the flip side of the phenom you've described (referred to in the comment above) of being 'called to celibacy,' or, more often, 'obviously NOT called to celibacy since I'm not going to be a missionary in Pakistan and want to get married.'

  5. I find Driscoll to be a refreshing change of male leadership in the church. I hope you all keep in mind the challenges he embraced with his church planting brave to tackle the most liberal, unchurched terrain of the US! He calls men to man-up in the church. To protect the widow, the orphan, the abused. I find this very wanting in any church I've attended since being a believer for 22 years. His brave and fierce protection for women is to be commended. I am sure the Lord is pleased. Every one has faults and flaws... I admire Mark for risking judgment for the sake of women.

  6. TC,

    1 - I've found the perfect way to read your blog. Check it every three months then read the two or three articles there with much profit. You are too good a writer with too distinct a take to write so infrequently. Consider the finger wagged in your general direction.

    2 - You must have had more compassion on the Rice students when you spoke to them on the same topic a few years ago. Your material was rich, but you didn't ice out the room. There was the classic interaction with the Pentecostal girl who told you she discerned the Holy Spirit's leading whenever she "got a chill" (pronounced "cheer.")


  7. I fully embrace that finger-wag. To put it indelicately as I can, this is harder than it looks! Seems to me the on-time bloggers tend to be 1) Academics, 2) Full-time bloggers or 3) pastors with sinecure positions (by way of a large staff or laziness.)

    Chills indeed.