Recapping the Mars Hill Documentary: Love of money

Trigger warning: classist and racist language, misogyny, cissexism, spiritual abuse/cults.

Part 1 // Storify of my live-tweets // Mars Hill Documentary

I’ve noticed for some time that Mark Driscoll is at least as obsessed with money as he is with sex and gender roles – and further, his obsession with money is directly connected to his preoccupations with sex and proper gender roles. So it was interesting to see the considerable degree to which money is a major theme, if not the single dominant theme, in the Mars Hill documentary. Driscoll talks about money literally from the first minute of the film right through to the very last minute.

The douchey beginning: It takes less than a minute for Driscoll to make a nasty remark about “men in dresses.” Not one minute. The full comment reflects how how class and wealth are integral aspects of what Driscoll believes separates “manly” men from “girly” ones:

The last thing I ever thought I would be was a pastor, ’cause growing up Catholic, the pastor is a guy who lives at the church, is flat broke, is committed to never having sex, and walks around in a dress. So pretty much that was [the] last career choice of all possible career choices. – Driscoll, ~ 00:50-1:05 in the film.

Driscoll, of course, is not this kind of pastor. He owns a home. He’s not broke. He has lots of sex. He dresses in an appropriately virile fashion. And apparently, part of his job as a pastor is to make sure that everyone is informed of these facts. Repeatedly.

The vast middle: Driscoll repeatedly regales viewers, accompanied by sad womp-womp music in the background, with tales of the days when Mars Hill was “broke” and “homeless.” Homeless,” apparently, means “renting out someone else’s building for services rather than owning our own property” and “broke” means “not having as much money as other churches.”

Bonus: the use of “ghetto” (though not by Driscoll) to describe the temporary housing of the Mars Hill offices and three male church staff in the Driscoll home. Staff who, by the way, despite being grown and capable adults, left Driscoll’s wife Grace to do their dishes and clean up after them. Real manliness, y’all!

Driscoll talks about Mars Hill like it’s a business (to be fair, like most megachurches, it is one). In fact, he seems to see churches in general in business terms. He describes established denominations starting new churches as equivalent to a big business opening a new branch – denominations simply “write a fat check” as seed money and they’re good to go.

So it’s not surprising that Driscoll also casts Mars Hill as a brash and cutting-edge startup that “innovates” and bucks church traditions out of necessity (read: being “broke”). Traditional churches simply use their oodles of money to try to “buy cool” instead of innovating themselves.

The “absolute gamechanger” in Mars Hill’s history: receiving gigantic sums of money from wealthy donors. The first large donors to Mars Hill – a couple who single-handedly donated $200,000 – are described as “the first ones to believe in the possibility of what we were doing.” Because, as my husband says, you can tell who’s the first to believe in you by who gives you a large amount of cash.

The real kicker, though, is that Driscoll immediately follows this rhapsodizing about rich benefactors whose generosity saved Mars Hill from imminent demise with the sage conclusion that these donations came in because “God showed up….There’s another Trinity behind Larry, Curly, and Moe [Driscoll and his fellow pastors] actually putting this thing together.” In case that’s not clear, he equates people donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to Mars Hill so that they could renovate a run down church building with divine intervention and favor.

Why doesn’t God “show up” and help actual poor people? This remains a mystery we don’t really need to question. But we can rest assured that God takes time out of the divine plan to make sure people like Mark Driscoll have awesome renovated church buildings so their churches can grow. And we can tell who God really favors by who has big churches with lots of money, obviously.

The shocking conclusion: Let’s start with some context.

    • In fiscal year 2010, Mars Hill received about $13 million dollars in general giving, and is on track for $14-15 million dollars in giving for FY 2011.
    • Mars Hill owns over $16 million in total net assets
    • Between FY 2008 and 2010, their “excess revenue over expenses” – ahem, that is to say, their annual profit – has ballooned from $15,000 to $2.1 million dollars.
      [all numbers from the Mars Hill annual report, thanks WeenatcheetheHatchet for pointing me to this]

Keep these numbers in mind as I tell you how this shining record of Mars Hill’s history, this testament of “God’s work” and Mars Hill’s witness, ends. Given these numbers and what’s come before, you might think Driscoll would conclude by talking some more about how God has showed Mars Hill with money favor. Or perhaps with one more nostalgic anecdote about how “poor” the church used to be, but no longer. You might think that, but you’d be so very wrong.

Long story short? The documentary ends with Driscoll complaining at some length that Mars Hill “has often, quite frankly, really stunk at giving,” then trying to guilt people into giving more money to the church.

No, really. In Driscoll’s mind, “most of the people in the church need to be giving a whole lot more.”

[Partial transcript] Mars Hill has often really just, quite frankly, stunk at giving, and I think the last thing to be saved is a person’s wallet. And so I’m just going to tell you that most of the people in the church need to be giving a whole lot more.

Some of you are being generous. I’m not talking to you. For those people, we’ll have a separate conference for you in a phone booth.

For everybody else, the sad, cold, hard truth is about 24 percent of people at Mars Hill this year have given nothing. In addition, another 41 percent have given $500 or less. So that’s 65-ish percent of Mars Hill, two-thirds of Mars Hill’s twelve thousand people who are giving nothing or nearly nothing….

And I want you to ask this question of yourself. At the end of the year, how much do you anticipate that God wants you to give? We’re at that place now where it is going to take everyone being very generous to open up an opportunity to welcome nine thousand more people, all the new churches, seats, opportunities.

So is it about the money? Yes, it’s about spending the money to reach people for Jesus. Everything costs something. And we think that if you love Jesus and you believe people are going to hell, you should give at least as much money to that as toilet paper, and many of you aren’t.

Bottom line: you can do better. We love you and we trust in the grace of God. You will be more generous.

People are getting saved more than ever. Churches are getting planted more than ever. Leaders are rising up more than ever. Opportunities are surfacing more than ever. And this is the best possible time to get onboard, to pray, give, serve, because I promise you, what comes next is the kind of thing that you’re going to tell your grandkids about.

As I said while live-tweeting, you could land yourself into a coma if you had to drink every time Driscoll mentions money. But it wasn’t until these final minutes that I realized that money isn’t simply a recurring motif in the film, but rather what it’s about. The final note of a film like this is the take-away message – not necessarily the consciously intended message, but a moment that sticks in the viewer’s memory, precisely because of its finality, because it’s the last message you hear.

And this is the message Driscoll chooses to leave viewers with: God wants you do give us more money. You can show you love Jesus by how much of your money you give to me (note: not to charity, not even to Christian causes, but to Driscoll’s church specifically). If you don’t give us money, Jesus is going to send people to hell. Please ignore the fact that we believe in predestination, and no amount of money or time you spend on church will change supposedly preordained divine decisions about who ends up in heaven and hell. Don’t sweat the details! Just do better with the whole giving us money thing.

I mean – you can’t even call this an ‘appeal’ for more money. It’s blatant money grubbing, privileged and entitled grumbling from the pastor of what’s undoubtedly one of the wealthiest independent churches in the country, if not the world, and unashamed emotional and spiritual manipulation.

Comments are closed. Please comment at the new AWH site.

Advertisements

Recapping the Mars Hill Documentary: 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!]


Interlude: Class and true womanhood

NaBloPoMo Day 7: Success at posting every day for a week! It feels good even if the last two posts have been written before I go to bed ;)

In other news, AWH now has a page at Google+. Check it out.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about the ways “true womanhood” specifically excludes black women. But as I’ve noted a few times before, this is a model of femininity that erases and maligns so many identities and experiences that it ultimately denies the “realness” of the vast majority of women.

Class is a huge axis along which women are allowed or denied the label of true women, though not in a simplistic way that pits the rich or the middle class against the poor. Rather, socioeconomic status intersects with race, and geography (among other factors) in terms of which kinds of women are seen as exemplifying natural or godly femininity.

As I see it there are at least two fairly distinct, though not without overlapping ideas and influences, cultures in the white true womanhood movement. There’s the rural, almost homesteading culture, which seems to emphasize the role of wives in labor and production in the home (reproductive and otherwise). It’s a culture that preaches a particular kind of self-reliance and adherence to old-fashioned, “traditional” ways that to a degree deliberately isolates them from the rest of society, physically and culturally.

And then there’s the kind that centers on the trappings off white suburban life: owning a nice home, keeping that home looking nice and respectable, in the name of “hospitality” and “fellowship,” and keeping oneself looking nice and respectable (both stylish and modest!). It’s a model of true womanhood that requires being able to afford a certain level of consumption.

This is the culture I grew up in. Most of the families at church were financially comfortable. I’d say the majority of the church was upper middle class, and a not insignificant minority of the church was squarely upper class (new suburban rich persuasion). There were families who struggled financially, but the vast majority of the church was comfortably middle class or wealthier, and most people were from families that had been in middle class for some time.

Both official teachings and church events as well as the church culture reflected assumptions that everyone was fairly well-off. For example, it didn’t occur to me until I went to college and met people from different socioeconomic backgrounds that being a “good” member of my home church required expenditures that many people simply could not afford. Being fully “invested” in the church as a family with children meant sending or accompanying kids on myriad youth retreats, excursions, and missions, attending at least one out-of-town conference a year (often more), joining the evangelical versions of Boy or Girl Scouts, buying several books a year for discussion at bible studies, and numerous other literal investments of money – speak less of all the time away from home and work that had to be set aside for such things.

True womanhood as understood in this context makes similarly significant demands on families’ time and money. Women are expected to stay at home once they became mothers, and to homeschool their kids. Home ownership is also expected. I can’t tell you how many women from my former church have blogged ad nauseam about how they’re learning to “trust God” through the “trial” of not yet being homeowners. The cluelessness and privilege, it is rather epic.

Homes are to be tastefully and fashionably decorated. Women are expected to be frequent and accomplished cooks of healthy meals. And they’re expected to have larger families than average for suburban communities – 4 or 5, sometimes as many as 7 or 8 or 9 kids. To successfully do all this on one income in an area where cost of living and house prices are high (or even average) often requires a considerable income on the part of the husband and considerable labor at home as teacher, child-care provider, home decorator, chef, etc., on the part of the wife.

More thoughts on this coming.


Mark Driscoll Apologism Bingo

Since Mark Driscoll’s last round of public queer and trans baiting, I’ve wanted to make a bingo card of some of the ridiculous excuses some Christians make for why Driscoll’s behavior is either acceptable or just not a problem they should have to deal with. Alas, I couldn’t find a bingo card generator, and I didn’t have the HTML skills to make one myself. But now! I have mediocre n00b HTML knowledge to inflict on share with my readers :-D

And the timing couldn’t be better, since Driscoll appears to have gone and stuck another homophobic foot in his mouth yet again, like clockwork [eta: Molly points out in the comments that Driscoll wrote this in 2008, but it’s just getting attention now]:

First, masturbation can be a form of homosexuality because it is a sexual act that does not involve a woman. If a man were to masturbate while engaged in other forms of sexual intimacy with his wife then he would not be doing so in a homosexual way. However, any man who does so without his wife in the room is bordering on homosexuality [sic] activity, particularly if he’s watching himself in a mirror and being turned on by his own male body. (Dangerous Minds)

There’s really nothing that needs to be said about that, right? The man clearly has some personal issues to work through.

So, here it is: a handy guide to the absurd defenses of Driscoll fanboys and people who just find his public comments too inconvenient and embarrassing to handle honestly. What did I miss? Share your favorite example of ridiculous Driscoll apologism in the comments!

Mark Driscoll Apologism Bingo:

No one respects women more than Mark. He hates violence against women. Mark is just a provocateur. People hate/persecute Mark because he preaches harsh bible truth. You’re giving non-Christians excuses to slander and hate us! People have come to Christ through Mark. Don’t lose sight of the big picture.
“Jesus wasn’t just a gentle peacemaker.” This is sinful gossip and slander. You’re turning Christians against each other and destroying our unity. Mark is just rough around the edges. He’s refreshingly blunt. Mark loves his wife and celebrates femininity, just not in men.
Mark really loves Jesus. Mark isn’t in my/your church; he’s not my/your problem. FREE
SPACE
You’re supporting worldly criticisms of Mark by unbelievers. Why are you so emotional/angry/bitter?
Mars Hill is growing. God is really using Mark. You haven’t listened to every sermon Mark Driscoll has ever preached. You should share your concerns with Mark privately. Matthew 18! Just pray for Mark and pay more attention to your own sin. Mark just wants men to feel comfortable in church.
If we ignore him he’ll just go away. You should be working towards love and reconciliation with Driscoll. People who call Mark out are the real bullies. You’re just as much of a sinner as Mark. Mark is doing God’s work in godless, unchurched Seattle.

Heard over breakfast

I was getting my customary bagel and juice this morning when I noticed a conversation going on between a guy I assume was a pastor and someone looking to join his church. It was…interesting. I happened to be :  with the husband at the time, and, well, you can read the conversation between that ensued between us below.

You can also read it on a more reader-friendly interface on  Storify – I would have embedded it here, but unfortunately WordPress.com doesn’t allow javascript embedding.

Me: some very evangelical looking white dude is reading [a Bible] to a skeptical looking guy about lust being adultery in the heart
Mr. G: ………..huh?
Me: In dunkins
Me: Apparently they have questions about this guy joining the church because they’re not convinced he really believes their statement of faith
Mr. G: Troll them
TROLL THEM [eta: I feel the need to add the disclaimer for people who might not see the levity here that there’s no way I would have actually intruded on their conversation just to troll :p]
Me: How?
Mr. G: I DON’T KNOW YOU ARE CLEVER, JUST DO SOMETHING
Me: Lol! Not that clever. I want to talk to the other guy after the pastor or whoever he is leaves
Mr. G:  I think the spirit just gave you a word for them
Me: LOL
Mr. G: you had a really strong impression when you woke up this morning that you had to give someone a message [see above disclaimer]
Me: This guy is actually doing a pretty epic job of trolling the pastor himself
Mr. G: Oh good
Me: Pastor dude is such an SGM style douche
[a few minutes later] THIS GUY WON’T LEAVE
Mr. G: How is the guy trolling him?
Me: Well right now he’s accusing the pastor of infantilizing church members and women
before he was asking if cannibalism is always wrong
Me: and before that insisting that something done accidentally or without intent can’t be a sin. And arguing with the dude about what certain texts mean
Me: he might be a little weird, actually
now he’s talking about the boys and girls club being a government conspiracy and that he went down there to talk to them
Me: and then the pastor got all freaked out and asked if he [the other guy] said he was representing the church [to the boys and girls club]
this is fucking hilarious
Me: Pastor left. I’m not talking to other guy.
Me: Oh god now he’s running after the pastor. I feel a little sorry for him.
Mr. G:  For which one? <.<
Me: The pastor LOL
Mr. G: …………why? <.<
Me: He so obviously was out of his depth
Mr. G: *tiny violin*
Mr. G: Well I mean, if you set yourself up as the voice of God and are screening how other people live their lives and all, it should take a lot more than that guy to get you “out of your depth” :-P
Me:  No disagreement there. Still a tiny bit sorry for him
Mr. G:  It’s cool; the spirit was just using that guy to confront him about his pride.
Me: XD
Mr. G: The spirit could have used an assist from someone else, too, but they were not receptive to His voice. I hope you feel adequately guilty.
Me: Uh huh.
It was a real life example of how these churches are set up to exclude anyone who doesn’t fit into a narrow definition of normal
I’m so posting this on the blog :-P
Mr. G: I will be famous!
Me: You are ridiculous
Mr. G: ridiculously famous


Ann Voskamp and Jesus as lover: Perspective from the Puritans, pt. 1

I’d never heard of Ann Voskamp until a few weeks ago, when Elizabeth Esther wrote about the controversy some reformed evangelicals are stirring up over Voskamp’s latest book. (Is it just me, or does this seem to happen, oh, ALL THE TIME?) Voskamp has written a spiritual memoir which has some clutching their pearls over the sensual language she uses to describe her longings for God, e.g.: expressing a wish to have “intercourse,” “union,” “intimate communion” with God, and to “make love to” God.

Despite, once again, not having actually read the book, critics have leapt from being (understandably) squicked out by this language to basically calling Voskamp an irreligious pervert, blasting her book as “poison, “evil,” panentheistic, and “mysticism” (which is bad, apparently?), and comparing it to, I kid you not, a book on “how to kill your grandmother.” Right.

Now, to be clear, I haven’t read Voskamp’s book, and this post isn’t about the book. I have no intention of reading it; it’s the sort of spiritual writing I know will leave me cold. I’ve never had more than a fleeting, very occasional sense of personal connection with a spiritual being. It’s a relief to no longer have to pretend to feel any such connection, or try and fail to force myself to. And I completely understand being disturbed and even repulsed by the imagery of intimate union with God (although it does raise the question as to why people who feel this way belong to a tradition that requires them to believe the Holy Spirit impregnated a virgin).

Still, when Christians leap from disagreement or even outright disgust to accusations that different perspectives within their religion are poisonous or dangerous to “real” Christianity, it raises some questions for me. The perennial question being, why are conservative Christians so very threatened by anything even slightly outside their worldview or experience, if their version of God is so correct? Especially reformed evangelicals, with their completely sovereign and omnipotent God? Why are they so threatened by people like Voskamp, or Rob Bell, or William P Young (author of The Shack) who suggest a different view of God? It baffles. On my more cynical days I’m inclined to think the haters are just angry that these authors are so popular, with Bell and Young having sold millions of books in a religious publishing market where selling 100,000 makes an author a “bestseller.” John Piper can only dream of having such an audience for his writing.

The specific response to Voskamp raises further questions about: 1) how well reformed evangelicals know what they claim is their own religious history (hint: not all that well. Shocking, I know.) and 2) how well claims about the timelessness and universality of complementarian teachings on gender and sexuality hold up to the historical record (see above hint). Because the thing is, concepts of gender and sexuality have been far more fluid in historical Christian traditions than they are in modern day reformed Christianity, even in traditions present-day reformed Christians claim as their predecessors. If the ‘truly reformed’ bloggers of the world think Voskamp’s imagery is perverted, what the Puritans – Puritan men – wrote about union with Christ would make their heads spin. As Richard Godbeer writes in his excellent book Sexual Revolution in Early America:

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Puritan sexuality was not its spiritualization of the erotic but its eroticization of the spiritual. Scripture invites believers, male and female, to conceive of Christ as a husband and to envisage union with him in vividly sensual, even sexual terms. The challenge that biblical images of Christ as bridegroom and lover post to what we might term male heterosexuality has been met in various ways by different Christian cultures. Modern westerners have, for the most part, ignored biblical passages that contain this imagery. But previous Christian traditions have chosen options other than the suppression and bowldlerization of biblical text. New England Puritans welcomed and celebrated the sensual possibilities embedded within the scripture from which they drew inspiration. Their ability to do so was due in large part to remarkably fluid conceptions of gender within Puritan culture. As a result, in this world and the next, through both human marriage and espousal to the savior, Puritans could find sensual and sexual fulfillment within the Lord’s garden (55-6).

In upcoming posts I’ll look at some specific examples of the Puritan’s “eroticization of the spiritual” and how it undermines reformed complementarian claims about the fixed, eternal nature of gender roles.


Praying for Japan?

Trigger warning for images and discussion of natural disasters.

Houses swallowed by tsunami waves burn in Natori, Miyagi Prefecture (state) after Japan was struck by a strong earthquake off its northeastern coast Friday, March 11. (Kyodo News/Associated Press; source)

In the wake of the largest earthquake in its recorded history, and subsequent tsunami and powerful aftershocks, Japan is in the middle of a huge effort to rescue survivors, and contain further damage like radiation leaks. The death toll is expected to be in the thousands; countless more are missing, stranded, or displaced, and millions are without food, water, and electricity. Infrastructure has been completely devastated in many areas and rescue workers have yet to reach many of the worst hit regions.

Aid and donations are urgently needed. Some good organizations to support in their rescue efforts include Doctors without Borders/Medicins San Frontieres, which has a local office in Japan and is already on the ground, and Global Giving, which distributes funds to the International Medical Corp, Save the Children, and other organizations.


I’ve been thinking about the issue of prayer a lot lately, and the news of the earthquake has brought it to mind again. I no longer believe prayer works in any traditional sense. Still, for many if not most people, I think it’s a natural to such devastation. It’s a way of reasserting some measure of agency and control when we feel vulnerable, helpless, and out of control. It’s often psychologically reassuring for people being prayed for, if they’re aware of the prayers, but perhaps even more so for the ones doing the praying, especially if there’s little else they can do to help.

But more than that, praying for others – especially strangers or people far removed from us – can be an expression of identification and sympathy based on a recognition of shared humanity. At its best prayer is an affirmation of the dignity and worth of fellow humans – a statement that the people one prays for are worthy of concern and attention. Often, being unwilling as a religious or spiritual person to acknowledge and pray for suffering people is indicative of a belief that those people are less than fully human. Already some remarkably callous people have called the earthquake “payback” for Pearl Harbor, implying that the Japanese are undeserving of American sympathy, undeserving of basic human compassion. There’s a similar sentiment in the tendency of some Americans to be dismissive and even supportive of the oppression of Muslims and Arabs in the U.S. and around the world. Such beliefs are sustained by dehumanizing people deemed to be “other” or the enemy in some way.


(Evacuees stand around Shinjuku Central Park in Tokyo Japan March 11, 2011.)

How someone prays also reveals a lot about how they see the subjects of their prayers. They can pray in a way that affirms others as full people with experiences, needs, rights, and feelings that are just as valid as their own. Or they can pray in a way that centers their own worldview and their own experiences, objectifying the people they are ostensibly praying “for” and making their prayers all about themselves.

Unfortunately, some evangelical leaders have responded to the earthquake in Japan in the latter vein, with opportunistic, patronizing, and self-centered prayers. Al Mohler, for example, tweeted that he is “Praying for the people of Japan in aftermath of huge earthquake and tsunami. May they seek Christ the Solid Rock.” In his Friday podcast he added:

When a natural disaster like this takes place, many questions immediately arise. But as you think about this, keep in mind the fact that Japan is a very secular nation in terms of its worldview. Even though ancestor worship and forms of Buddhism and Shintoism are still in the background beliefs of many Japanese, fewer than about five percent have much knowledge of Christianity at all, and the operational worldview of many Japanese when it comes to the events of everyday life is basically secular.

Mohler later managed to eke out a few words expressing concern for survivors and gesturing towards an obligation to help, but he’s otherwise focused on the theological and religious implications of the earthquake:

We must pray that this horrible disaster may be used to call the people of Japan to the Lord as their only hope and refuge. The nation is still shaped by its Shinto, Buddhist, and Animist roots….when the grieving turns to the hard work of recovery and rebuilding, the true test for American Christians will be whether our commitment to the Gospel of Christ will lead to a renewed effort to reach the nation of Japan with the message of Jesus Christ, the Solid Rock.

John Piper’s “prayer” for Japan is perhaps worse; he asks god to show mercy on Japan even though they don’t deserve it. In fact, none of us deserve it: “We are not more deserving of firm ground than our fellowmen in Japan…if we were treated according to our sins, who could stand? All of it would be gone in a moment.” Like Mohler, his main concern is that Japanese people would repent and convert to belief in his version of god:

Grant, O God, that the wicked will forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Grant us, your sinful creatures, to return to you, that you may have compassion…Deal tenderly now, Father, with this fragile people. Woo them. Win them. Save them.

Piper doesn’t spare a word of prayer for the rescue efforts, for efforts to provide the most basic necessities to homeless and displaced people, for the nuclear plants threatening meltdown. He doesn’t pray for the actual Japanese people who have been killed, injured, or traumatized. Neither he nor Mohler has made any public comment encouraging their followers to help Japan, or offering any information on how to do so.

Piper and Mohler are living in some ass-backward world where “helping” in a time of national crisis and devastation involves prayers for conversion, and criticisms of the religious affiliations of the Japanese pass for compassionate and relevant commentary. Of course, they’ll claim that the souls of Japanese people matter more than their bodies or minds or property, and as was frequently repeated in my church, “their greatest problem is that they are sinners in need of a savior.”

These aren’t prayers for Japan. In a sense they’re not prayers at all. They have little to do with the actual victims of the quake, or really with anyone who isn’t a conservative evangelical. Rather, Piper and Mohler have seized upon this disaster as an opportunity to  reassert the superiority of their beliefs, of their god, and their status as god’s chosen elite.*  They’re effectively saying they know what Japan’s “real” problem is, and it’s not that the nation has been devastated, or that people are in pain and shock and need. The real problem is that the Japanese don’t know enough about Mohler and Piper’s god and religion. And as this problem is effectively unresolvable – since they believe as a matter of dogma that prayers for mass conversion won’t (or can’t) be answered – the real message is that they will be saved, while most of Japan and the rest of the world is basically fucked.

They completely erase the voices and experiences of the Japanese people. They completely erase their actual material and psychological needs. They refuse to see them as real human beings, even in a moment like this. They are props.

What’s truly frightening about this is that people like Piper and Mohler don’t have to be evil to believe such evil things. Their view of faith as being in a special in-group chosen by god makes it impossible to see others as full and equal human beings. They can only see people in terms of what religious team they’re on; their dogma obligates them to refuse to take different beliefs and experiences seriously. They can’t stand with the Japanese as fellow human beings. They have to assess where they stand in some imaginary cosmic war, and in so doing they lose sight of them as people. Viewing everything and everyone through that lens alone is inherently dehumanizing. It’s a worldview that strips non-Christians of their humanity so completely that it leads some to see this horrific disaster as “day of opportunity” for Christians and a tool intended by god to “[pierce] the darkness of Japan with His light.”

A truly loving prayer would identify with the suffering of the Japanese people and acknowledge it as unjust and undeserved. It would be accompanied by whatever concrete help those praying could offer. A loving prayer would ask for Japan’s needs to be met on its own terms, not that its people live up to external and arbitrary expectations of who they should be. A loving prayer would show survivors the same respect and concern anyone would want for themselves, even though they aren’t “like us” in ways we might deem profoundly meaningful, because they are human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, not as pawns in some perverse cosmic game.