The rise and fall of faith

Photo by Guilherme Stecanella on Unsplash

I had heard a lot about Mark Driscoll but had never heard him preach. It wasn’t until my old boss brought over his book Religious Saves + Nine Other Misconceptions from a business trip in the US that I began to read and listen to him. What would happen in my old workplace was that my boss would be given books by publishers and he would take them back for his staff to have. None of my work colleagues was interested in the book so I took it home. I don’t remember reading much of it but soon after taking the book home I began listening to his podcast.

I recently finished listening to the Christianity Today limited podcast series The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It has caused me to reflect on the times I listened to Pastor Mark Driscoll and how he influenced my thinking and life. At times he said some nasty stuff in his sermons but I still came back for more. More often than not I felt worthless while listening to him preach but almost every morning on my commute to work I would listen to this man preach. There was something about this man and his sermons that brought me back to him no matter how offended I was by what he said.

On one of my commutes, I found myself laughing out loud at one of his jokes which led a fellow passenger who was on the bus to start asking me about what I was watching. He seemed to think I was watching some stand-up comedy, I tried to explain to him what it was but I’m not sure he fully understood. I told my fellow commuter that his name was a pastor of a church and his name was Mark Driscoll and it seemed to me he was planning to look him up online. I don’t know whether he ended up listening to Mark Driscoll since I never saw him again but it’s quite something that someone who I had never seen before would ask me about the podcast due to how I was reacting to it. I regularly listen to podcasts when I use public transport but to this very day, Mark Driscoll’s podcast is the only podcast I’ve ever been asked about. I think this shows one thing that was so appealing about Driscoll, he could be really funny. Even when listening to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill I found myself laughing out loud at the joke they played in episode 1 about men who Driscoll thought of being ‘unmasculine’. In the joke, I think he was mocking men like but I still found myself laughing.

I expect if Mark Driscoll were to meet me he wouldn’t be that impressed. I’m in-between ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’. I watch the occasional UFC fight and am a casual boxing fan. I follow the NFL and tend to watch the big rugby games. But I don’t take part in such sports. I briefly played rugby in school and hated it. Nowadays the only sport I play is yoga and I don’t think that’s even a proper sport anyway. Either way, Pastor Mark would never encourage men to take part in such a feminine exercise. I remember how every time before UFC fights he would put his UFC predictions on his Facebook page but ignored the women matches. I have no doubt he was quite disgusted when women started being included in the UFC. I have no problem with women fights being in UFC and have no problem watching women’s sports. I could add other ‘unmasculine’ things about me that Mr Driscoll wouldn’t be impressed by but let’s just leave it there. Despite this I still found myself laughing at his jokes despite how harsh they could be.

That leads me on to the harshness. I remember him once saying that men are like sticks because sticks could never be broken. According to him, it didn’t matter how hard harsh he was to men because men can’t really be hurt but I often felt hurt listening to him. I can’t remember exactly what he said that hurt but I still remember feeling wounded during the sermons. So why did I continue listening to him despite feeling such pain? Well as I wrote above Mark Driscoll could be funny. His boldness was another thing I found appealing. He just wasn’t afraid to say whatever he wanted. I admired how he said things that no one would say and didn’t care who he offended. Episode 3 of the podcast highlights this when Driscoll is speaking at an interfaith conference where with the occasional swear word he basically tells all the other religious leaders that they’re weak and pathetic. It is shocking and I would never say such things but there’s a part of me still that admire how he just didn’t care. It’s not good to not care about other people but I think because I’m the kind of person who tends to worry about what people think about me I find myself admiring someone who doesn’t give two hoots about people not liking them. He could say the most outrageous, most offensive things and that was all a part of the appeal. Listening to Mark Driscoll was like watching a violent thriller or an outrageous comedy. You know something terrible and shocking is going to be said but you keep listening just so you can hear how offensive he was going to get each time.

Another thing was I approached his sermons like I approached all sermons at the time. The person delivering the sermon is a man of God and therefore is God’s spokesman so I should just listen and accept what they had to say. It didn’t matter how I felt about it because the message was from God. To have questioned God was wrong so I never questioned what Pastor Mark was saying. Another thing that kept me going back was the sermons were more in-depth than most sermons I had heard. They were more intellectual than what I had come across. Compared to Mark other pastors seemed rather shallow and boring. I have memories of Mark preaching about how important Jesus was, how the most important thing a person could do was love Jesus. He would talk about how much he loved Jesus with so much passion that I wanted to love Jesus as much as he said he did. The way he would talk about Jesus made me want to love Jesus even more.

There was also an intellectual side to Pastor Mark’s sermons. That intellectual side led me to think deeply about Christianity. He had the ability to introduce complex theology to his audience and help people understand it. I wasn’t aware there was such a thing as penal substitution until I heard Mark preach about it in a sermon. It was his appearance on the Unbelievable? podcast that introduced me to a world of intelligent scepticism which would lead me to question and then eventually leave the faith.

The Mark Driscoll interview on Unbelievable? was like a stepping stone between my belief and doubts. Before hearing the interview I have brief doubts that I would quickly forget about. I only began entertaining those doubts when I began listening to the debates between atheists and Christians on Unbelievable?. From what I remember before the interview was released I heard about it via Christian Today. They had somehow come across the interview and wrote a story about it. Driscoll had made a statement about the interview and I was firmly on his side. I had never heard of Justin Brierley and the way Pastor Mark spoke about their interview I didn’t think much of him. I ended up listening to the interview and remember being quite annoyed that the interview was towards the end of the episode. I remember at times the interview was quite uncomfortable to listen to with Mark interrogating Justin about his relationship with his wife and telling Justin that he liked him but also found him annoying. I went away from the interview still a Mark Driscoll fan but there was something about that Unbelievable? episode that sparked an interest in me. I found myself coming back to listen to more of the show.
Another show I began listening to around that time was Fighting for the Faith. It was a podcast produced by Pirate Christian Radio and during the show, they would take a critical look at sermons pointing out when pastors of megachurches and preachers would say something ‘unbiblical’. Nowadays I wouldn’t listen to the show but I am grateful for it since it was the first time I had ever heard anyone with a platform question what some of the most popular preachers were saying. One preacher he was critical of was Mark Driscoll. He would point out ‘unbiblical’ things Pastor Mark would say and would talk about how former members of Mars Hill were so hurt by what was going on at the church that they would never enter a church ever again. The more I listened to the podcast, the less I listened to Driscoll until I stopped listening to him completely. I heard the story of all the Real Marriage controversy as well as the allegations of plagiarism and was glad I was no longer listening to him. When I heard he left Mars Hill which led to the collapse of the church I wasn’t surprised. The picture I got from listening to Fighting for the Faith was that Mars Hill was quite a toxic church.

Fighting for the Faith didn’t cause me to lose my faith. My thinking at the time was that there were bad churches with bad pastors and there were good churches with good pastors. It was listening to Unbelievable? that got me doubting. From the show, I discovered Bart Ehrman and it was his work that caused me to question my faith. On Medium, I wrote a piece entitled The Time I Was Almost Drowning in Doubt where I go into more details about how I reacted to what Professor Ehrman said. That blog post was written in 2018 when I still had some belief in God and I’m more of a sceptic than a believer nowadays. Today I struggle with Christianity and find it almost impossible to believe in. I find Jesus an interesting, complex character. I’m fascinated by him but no longer have this desire to love him like I did when I used to listen to Pastor Mark. I don’t hate Christians or Christianity and can get annoyed by what some atheist’s say. I admit sometimes I find myself getting annoyed by what some believers say as well but I recognize faith is complicated and simplistic arguments against it seem ridiculous to me.

I don’t know how Mark Driscoll would feel about him being the stepping stone between my faith and doubts but I am thankful that I come across him. Yes, his views on masculinity were hurtful and I am still trying to unlearn what I learnt from him regarding gender roles. That still doesn’t take away that his Bible teaching caused me to start studying the Bible and to take more of an intellectual approach to Christianity. If I had never come across him I might still be that shallow Christian who only read the Bible on Sundays and knew next to nothing about theology.

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