Famous Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll’s recent resignation from his Mars Hill megachurch and empire of church satellites is maybe vindicating to some of his many critics, who denounced his brash, hyper-masculine Calvinism. He was accused of plagiarism and inflating his book sales, but his downfall seems more related to a brusque, often obnoxious demeanor that ultimately turned many associates against him.
Driscoll, age 44, has been a successful pastor and religious celebrity for 18 years, and perhaps he rose too far too fast, without sufficient time to mature into his fame and responsibility. He is a dynamic preacher with an artful stage presence. And his creation of a robustly conservative and once thriving evangelical church network in the secular northwest, especially appealing to much vaunted hipster, often tattooed Millennials, showcased both his own skill and the Gospel’s capacity to appeal even in difficult terrain.
It was especially memorable and satisfying when Driscoll’s Mars Hill took over a once glorious Seattle Methodist sanctuary that had served thousands but whose congregation collapsed into irrelevant liberalism. As the highly reduced United Methodist church met nearby in much smaller space, self-congratulating itself on its supposed inclusiveness, Mars Hill transformed the church-turned-theater back into a vital worship space, attracting hundreds that inert liberal Methodism never could.
Driscoll famously denounced liberal religion as effete and feminized, offering instead his own manly, sometimes vulgar but popular form of Reformed orthodoxy. Here’s a quote from a New York Times story about him five years ago:
As hip as he looks, his message brooks no compromise with Seattle’s permissive culture. New members can keep their taste in music, their retro T-shirts and their intimidating facial hair, but they had better abandon their feminism, premarital sex and any “modern” interpretations of the Bible. Driscoll is adamantly not the “weepy worship dude” he associates with liberal and mainstream evangelical churches, “singing prom songs to a Jesus who is presented as a wuss who took a beating and spent a lot of time putting product in his long hair.”
… The mainstream church, Driscoll has written, has transformed Jesus into “a Richard Simmons, hippie, queer Christ,” a “neutered and limp-wristed popular Sky Fairy of pop culture that… would never talk about sin or send anyone to hell.”
Wonderfully, the same Times story cited early twentieth-century evangelist Billy Sunday, who also championed muscular Christianity, quoting him: “The Lord save us from off-handed, flabby-cheeked… effeminate, ossified, three-carat Christianity.”
Sunday seemingly had more staying power than Driscoll. He preached for 50 years nationwide in sawdust-strewn tents and tabernacles. A former professional baseball star, he laced his sermons with sports analogies, sometimes slid across the stage as if landing on home plate, and occasionally waved chairs aloft, even smashing them for dramatic emphasis. He deplored sin:
Listen, I’m against sin. I’ll kick it as long as I’ve got a foot, I’ll fight it as long as I’ve got a fist, I’ll butt it as long as I’ve got a head, and I’ll bite it as long as I’ve got a tooth. And when I’m old, fistless, footless, and toothless, I’ll gum it till I go home to glory and it goes home to perdition.
Sunday denounced saloons, theaters, dance halls and gambling dens as Satanic instruments. He championed Prohibition and America’s war against Germany’s Kaiser. He sometimes listed the famous names of the damned in Hell, including irreligious philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau, prompting a disapproving Isadora Duncan, the flamboyant Russian dancer, to pronounce that Sunday should go to a Hell himself, “where he may speak with more authority.” Sunday had little use for the infamously scantily clad Duncan, calling her, not entirely unfairly, a “Bolshevik hussy,” and noting she wore not enough clothes to “pad a crutch.”
Such controversy animated Sunday and led millions to hear his provocative message, which, like Driscoll’s, was also full of damnation, inspired by a form of Calvinism. Sunday responded to the increasing emasculated milquetoast Protestantism of his day, as Driscoll pivoted against therapeutic, somnolent religion of today found both in Mainline Protestantism and generic Evangelicalism.
Sunday largely avoided scandal and seems, thanks to his wife, who successfully managed his ministry, to have kept ego mostly in check. Driscoll, whose resignation specified he was not guilty of immorality, illegality or heresy, is still young enough to recover from his errors. Maybe he will eventually reemerge chastened and wiser. Unapologetic, polemical, muscular Christianity is needed in every age to challenge sleeping, self-satisfied, apathetic religion.