Tragically hip New Calvinists

MD_Pulpit1.jpgThe New York Times Magazine has wandered into the testosterone-heavy world of Pastor Mark Driscoll's Mars Hill Church and emerged with a feature story that mostly does justice to both Driscoll and his critics. The coverage is by Molly Worthen, who has also written a previous New York Times Magazine story on classical Christian education and a feature about L'Abri Fellowship for Christianity Today. She is no stranger to the subcultures of evangelical Protestantism. I have only a few criticisms of Worthen's report, most of them involving overstatements of Driscoll's importance and -- in one case -- an overly simple description of most evangelicals' theology:

Mark Driscoll is American evangelicalism's bête noire. ... 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.

... With his taste for vintage baseball caps and omnipresence on Facebook and iTunes, Driscoll, who is 38, is on the cutting edge of American pop culture.

... 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.

I think it's safe to say that modern evangelicalism is Driscoll's bête noire, especially judging by his remarks in this report. Considering evangelicals' many concerns about politics and culture wars, however, it's difficult to imagine evangelicals choosing Driscoll as their bête noire -- or wasting time on hoping that he will "trade in his fashionably distressed jeans and taste for indie rock for a suit and tie and placid choral arrangements."

If one can be on the cutting edge of pop culture through baseball caps, Facebook and iTunes, that cutting edge sounds more like a 16-lane highway, gridlocked in both directions by packed SUVs.

Further, it's hard to think that even Joel Osteen (much less most evangelicals) reduces Jesus to one's personal friend. Even the overused "personal Lord and Savior" says more than that. These sorts of generalizations add to the sense, expressed here before by Mollie, that too much mass-media coverage of evangelicals reads like a "typical anthropological study of a bizarre species."

That said, I admire Worthen's moments of elegant writing and insight. These paragraphs were my favorites:

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.

... Mars Hill counts four of the city's top tattoo artists among its members (and many of their clientele -- that afternoon, [Damon] Conklin was expecting a fellow church member who wanted a portrait of Christ enthroned across his back). While other churches left people like Conklin feeling alienated, Mars Hill has made them its missionaries. "Some people say, 'You're pretty cool and you're a Christian, so I guess I can't hate all of them anymore,'" he says. "I understand where they're coming from."

... Critics on the left and right alike predict that this delicate balance of opposites cannot last. Some are skeptical of a church so bent on staying perpetually "hip": members have only recently begun to marry and have children, but surely those children will grow up, grow too cool for their cool church and rebel. Others say that Driscoll's ego and taste for controversy will be Mars Hill's Achilles' heel. Lately he has made a concerted effort to tone down his language, and he insists that he has delegated much authority, but the heart of his message has not changed. Driscoll is still the one who gazes down upon Mars Hill's seven congregations most Sundays, his sermons broadcast from the main campus to jumbo-size projection screens around the city. At one suburban campus that I visited, a huge yellow cross dominated center stage -- until the projection screen unfurled and Driscoll's face blocked the cross from view.

Photo of Mark Driscoll is from the Press Room section of Mars Hill's website.

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