Mars Hill: gender, race, sex, and cults of personality

Trigger warning: racism, misogyny, cissexism, spiritual abuse/cults. 

So Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill Church made a documentary… about themselves. Specifically, about the history of the church and how it came to be where it is today. The full documentary is online: God’s Work, Our Witness. Quite the title.

I watched the documentary over the weekend and tweeted my reactions while watching it. You can read the round-up of my live-tweeting on Storify. I can’t embed or post the full text of my reactions to the documentary here; it’s pretty long. But I can sum up a few things that struck me after watching it.

Predictably, much of it consists either of Mark Driscoll talking about himself, or other leaders from Mars Hill talking about Mark Driscoll. Also predictably, there’s a lot of talk about manliness, sex, and money, from the typically boorish and self-obsessed “Pastor Mark” perspective. Let’s break it down.

Gender: The documentary is slightly over an hour long. In that time, only two women appear on screen without their husbands, one of whom is Grace Driscoll. The other women who are featured barely speak in comparison to their husbands. They seem to mostly be there to look supportive, smile, and hold their husbands’ hands. So it doesn’t really come as a surprise when one of the pastors’ wives, recalling the challenges the church staff faced during a period of sudden growth, says the following (emphasis mine):

It was just really intense, really busy…it was trying to [pauses, looks at her husband], the guys were just trying to keep up with what God was doing. And so I think all of us wives were just holding on for the ride. With our kids in tow. [looks at her husband, smiles].

Well. Sigh. The church belongs to the men, you see. The women and children are just along for the ride.

Then there are the lovely bits where he talks about how he decided to start doing a church-wide men’s meeting because he simply didn’t have the time to yell at all the men individually, poor thing, so he just had to gather all the men in one place so he could yell at them at the same time!

This is real innovative leadership, y’all. You should take notes.

Naturally what one does when one has a captive audience of men is to tell them to “sit down and shut up until I’m ready to yell at you,” and then in fact proceed to yell at them for 2-3 hours about about “all of [their] perversion… laziness…lack of drive and ambition…ungodly living.” Oooh, also, hand them stones with Bible verses written on them, with instructions that the men hang on to them “until they get [their] own stones.”

Like I said: real cutting edge stuff. What a memorable and classy way to “lead” men!

Not only is Driscoll communicating to the men he leads that they are “inadequate” men (they have no stones), he’s communicating to them that he is in a different, higher position than they are. Not only does he have “stones,” he’s in a position to judge their lack of “stones.” This is all part of Driscoll’s whole shtick, which is not only about putting women in their place, but actually about putting everyone, including and perhaps especially other men in their place – namely, beneath him. Eeeeveryone is inferior to him. No man is as manly as he.

And this manipulative, toxic behavior is part of a long-established pattern. From the discussion of the documentary the Stuff Christian Culture Likes FB page, we learn that in the earlier days of Mars Hill, the church had a message board on which Driscoll had two accounts: one that was known to other church members as be his account, and another, “anonymous” sock puppet named “William Wallace II” (oh, the evangelical male obsession with Braveheart. A post topic of its own). Driscoll used this fake account to rant about how the U.S. is a “pussified nation” and to angrily challenge other men in the church to “man up.”

Let’s be real about what Driscoll is passing off as “leading men” here. Questioning someone’s gender is an attack on their identity and very personhood – I’m not talking about intent, but content and effect. Driscoll goes way beyond that. He deliberately tries to undermine people’s security and confidence in their gender identity. He deliberately tries to induce a feeling in men – and people of all genders – that their gender is actually or potentially not “real.” That? Is abuse. Period. It’s a deliberate attempt to degrade people and make them *feel* the degradation, make them feel ashamed, and it’s not leadership. It’s abuse.

It’s also cissexist as hell – i.e., treating people whose bodies, appearance, or behavior don’t conform to arbitrary norms of the gender they are, or are assumed to be, as lesser than people who do conform to gender expectations. It’s bigoted behavior that literally kills people. That is the “bold” leadership Mark Driscoll is selling.

Race: There are also precisely ZERO visible people of color in the entire documentary (I say visible because some of the people in the documentary may have nonwhite ancestry that’s not immediately obvious). This is a documentary about a twelve thousand member church, in a huge city, with one of the biggest Asian-American populations in the country. And there appear to be no black people in it. Nor any Asians or Asian Americans. Nor any Latin@s. Zero.

A quick browse through Mars Hill’s various staff pages on line shows that this stark absence of people of color in the documentary is in fact reflective of the leadership of Mars Hill as a whole. Just taking men who are explicitly labeled as pastors, there’s only one visible man of color (Asian or Asian American) among the various Mars Hill’s total staff of 31 pastors.

Put it differently: Mars Hill’s pastorate is 97% white in a city that’s 14% Asian/Asian American and has a 30% minority population.

Add in the nasty “joke” about a worship pastor whose poor singing, according to Driscoll, “sounded like he got captured by Al Qaeda,” Driscoll’s complaints about a church building Mars Hill wanted being given to a Chinese church, and appropriating other people’s culture by using a digeridoo in worship, and the lack of people of color in the documentary becomes a glaring problem.

Narcissistic leadership/Cult of personality: I’d say the people in the documentary, Driscoll included, talk at least as much about “Pastor Mark” as they do about Jesus. Probably more. Which is kind of telling in a documentary that’s supposedly about their witness to “God’s work.”

There’s also quite a bit of approving/enabling commentary about Driscoll’s long-established penchant for yelling and screaming at his congregation. This vitriolic sermon style (if it can be called that) is at turns portrayed by people in the documentary as “awesome” or hilarious. Emotionally abusing and manipulating a congregation that looks to you for guidance is so cute!

I had to laugh at the moment where Driscoll introduces the documentary as “one big roadtrip” through the history of Mars Hill, “with Jesus as the driver”…while he was sitting in the driver’s seat of a car. I mean. I know the man has a Jesus complex, but that’s a bit much. On top of that, a good portion of the documentary is narrated while Driscoll is driving, or, bizarrely, parked in such a way that his hands are on the steering wheel in every shot. Which…again, is just a somewhat telling bit of visual and verbal rhetoric. He’s in charge. He’s in the driver’s seat.

More narcissism on display: Driscoll talks about trying “make [people] into Christians,” and also disparages some musicians who left Mars Hill in the early days “over theological issues,” which he sums up as “basically, they decided not to be Christian.” Because disagreeing with Mark Driscoll on theology is exactly the same as not being a Christian. This would make sense if, y’know, Mark Driscoll were Christ. Which he’s not.

Sex: Of course, it wouldn’t be a Driscoll production if he didn’t manage to throw in some kind of gratuitous or vulgar reference to sex. The winner in this regard is clearly Driscoll’s random mention of a member of Mars Hill who, as a new Christian, didn’t want to get rid of his “enormous p@rn collection”  because it was “vintage p@rn [that] cost a lot of money.” Some of it, as Driscoll helpfully and totally necessarily adds, was Nazi p@rn.*

I’m still struggling to understand what would lead someone to think this is an appropriate or enlightening anecdote to include in a film documenting the history of a church. Really?

Not one minute into the documentary, Driscoll states that he never considered his Catholic upbringing meant that he never considered becoming a pastor as a kid, in part because  Catholic pastors are “committed to never having sex.” Let’s just say I have a bit of trouble imagining that a young boy would really be thinking about priestly celibacy in quite those terms.

There’s a lot of talk about how various members of the church used to be goth fetishists, or strippers, and so on – all done in a way that makes it clear that they think this is some sort of badge of honor or bragging right. It confuses me that a church claiming to follow a man openly reviled in his day for consorting publicly with sex workers and people who had committed adultery would pat themselves on the back so vigorously just for being so “radical” as to, gasp, not completely shun social interaction with people outside our society’s sexual norms.

It’s particularly strange to see Driscoll congratulating himself for having former strippers and fetishists in his church. Like…given how sinful he clearly thinks such things are, isn’t it preferable for them to be going to church rather than not? Wouldn’t he rather they be coming to his church rather than not? So why should he get an award for “taking in” the very people who most need church, at least in his conception of it? I am baffled.

But even after having written all the above, the biggest story to me in the Mars Hill documentary was not about gender, race, cult of personality, or sex. No, in fact, the most significant recurring theme in the documentary is money. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s really what the documentary is about. More on that in the next post.

*[redacted to avoid spammers, not out of prudery!]

23 Comments

  1. ah, i tried to watch this but couldn’t finish it.

    great analysis though.

  2. Oog. My mom and sister rec’d this documentary on FaceBook. I’m kind of afraid to watch it. I don’t like seeking out RAGE headaches.

    • I don’t know that I could recommend it unless you want to write about it? :p There’s nothing really new or shocking about Driscoll in it.

      • Yeah, I didn’t think there would be. I’m starting to feel like I should stop seeking out info about Driscoll and his church, since it just infuriates me. Instead, I should ignore him until he goes away.

  3. So, basically it’s the long-form of the infamous bowling-with-wives promo that First Baptist of Hammond put out?

  4. Thank you for reviewing the film. From what you describe, it sounds like Driscoll is deeply insecure about his own masculinity and sexuality, which he projects on his congregants. A deeply unhappy man, bullying his congregation to distract himself from his doubts, thereby creating a toxic church — NOT a good thing!

    • Ahab, you said exactly what I was thinking.

      Having recently first the first chapter of Driscoll’s new book on marriage, the obsession with sex and sexuality is particularly disturbing. In contrasting the priest he grew up with and the one in church shortly after he became a Christian, Driscoll comments that the priest basically wasn’t a “real man” because he “wore a dress” and didn’t have sex. The pastor who changed his life, however? A “real man.” Tough. Hunts. Has sex with his wife.

      He was shoving sex into a discussion where it had no business being there. And that he would list his pastor having sex with his wife as a mark of manliness begs the question: HOW DO YOU KNOW? Unless the pastor was doing it in front of the church, your assumption could be totally wrong – as his own book indicates (during the time when he was discussing intimacy in his sermons, he was struggling with that very same intimacy at home). The lack of introspection/self-awareness would be laughable if he wasn’t in such a powerful position.

      • The dear leader of SGM does this too. Or used to. He apparently used to talk at both “men’s meetings” and in mixed gender settings about how his wife “never turned him down” for sex, even when she had a bad hip and was in excruciating pain, and when she was horribly nauseous…like, really? Really? There are so many levels of rapey and inappropriate and disgusting there I don’t know where to start. Perhaps with the question of why putting your spouse through excruciating pain isn’t reason enough for you to put off having sex with her.

        • Sounds like a stellar husband and Man of God(tm).

        • What a jerk! He thinks he’s entitled to sex, no matter how harmful or repugnant it would be to his wife. This sounds dangerously close to marital rape.

          • Ahaha, I wouldn’t even say “dangerously close.” I’d said it is.

            Someone (I don’t know who) once commented that “A yes is not a yes unless a no is possible.” That is a fantastic standard, in my mind, because it covers marital rape so well. If the husband has the attitude of “I’m entitled to sex when I want it,” that creates a situation in which the wife saying “no” isn’t really possible. Ergo: rape.

    • On the nose, Ahab.

  5. Oh my. You missed the point of the film entirely.

    • If you mean that I didn’t take away from it what Mars Hill hoped members and Driscoll fans would take away, you are quite correct.

  6. So how do these men, who have been yelled at for two to three hours, “lead” their wives when they get home? How do they “lead” their small groups? How do their wives “lead” their small groups? How do they “lead” their children?

    Hierarchalism is really one big sad mess. And the vitriol doesn’t necessarily just “trickle down” either… often those at the bottom of the totem pole have to bear the weight of everyone’s baggage “above” them.

  7. Nice review grace. Driscoll’s chauvanistic attitude and actions towards women are well-known. The important thing you brought up, and which this “documentary” confirms, is Driscoll’s need to put men in their place as well. Very insightful.

  8. Wow. You are tremendously generous and gracious…calling it a documentary, I mean. I tend to think of it as Church P@rn. I seriously never trust a documentary “about a church” if the church involved made it. It’s propaganda, not an honest look at the church in question.

  9. A little Seattle-based context, 2011 annual report just got released at the same time as the film. That should eliminate any potential mystery as to what the purpose of the film has been.

  10. Pingback: Recapping the Mars Hill Documentary: Love of money « Are Women Human?