A Train Wreck in Slow Motion: The Rise and Fall of Mark Driscoll’s Unbridled Charisma

A Review of the Christianity Today podcast: “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” produced by Mike Cosper

A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Christian Courier here. My recent book focused on the charisma of a self-confessed beta male megachurch leader, the Canadian pastor Bruxy Cavey. This podcast explores the acceleration and implosion of the opposite: an arrogant hyper-masculinist bully who charmed thousands with his public persona. The infamous Mark Driscoll.

“HOW DARE YOU? WHO IN THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?” screams Mark Driscoll at full volume, the pastor to thousands of young men. He badgers them to get out of their video games, away from their girlfriend’s bed, and grow up in Christ into a his mission of renewing a messed-up culture. 

These shrieks front-end every episode of one of the hottest podcasts on the internet today, and the podcast is almost done its slated run. It is not for children, as the regular warnings suggest. Its dramatic, critical, intense, and wide-ranging in its exploration of the collapse of an evangelical megachurch and its megapersonality, Mark Driscoll. The production is stellar, and the analysis both trenchant and candid.

“It’s a story of power, platform and fame,” says the trailer, but also “an unflinching look at the cost,” including the spiritual trauma experienced by devotees and spectators. This expose is hosted and written by Christianity Today’s Mike Cosper takes a broad and simultaneously intimate look at the sensational rise and spectacular fall of firebrand Mark Driscoll and his mighty Mars Hill empire in Seattle, an empire centred around his 15-site megachurch crossing four states with its 15,000 attendees and more than 260,000 sermon views per week. 

Driscoll’s myth starts enthusiastically with God’s audible call to “marry Grace (his wife), plant a church, train men, and preach the Bible” in 1996 and ends in shambles with his resignation in 2014 after accusations of bullying, fraud, plagiarism, and spiritual abuse. How could such domineering leadership be so popular and avoid any significant accountability? Why does this actually sound so familiar to us today?

Its not just the USA juggernaut of mega-religion. Think of apologist Ravi Zacharias’ post-humus fall from grace. He had his start in Canada. Then there is the governor general’s son, Massey Lecture celebrity, and founder of the beloved L’Arche community, Jean Vanier’s scandalous end. So Canadians are not set apart from this. I should add this difference: there is no sexual scandal attached to Mark Driscoll. He was a bully who hurt so many people. How did someone like that get so much influence? How is this about us, and not just about a bad Christian leader?

Human Sacrifices

Here is one sordid example of Driscoll’s abusive behaviour. Driscoll manipulates to have two elders removed from his board—both who are leaders employed by the church—when they start naively requesting a revision of some by-laws. Soon after their abrupt and highly questionable dismissal, speaking to a group of church planters, Driscoll brags:

“Too many guys waste too much time trying to move stiff-necked, stubborn, obstinate people. I am all about blessed subtraction. There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus [he laughs] and by God’s grace it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done. You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus. Those are the options; but the bus ain’t gonna stop.”

He then looks at the church planters in front of him. He advises: “This will be the defining issue as to whether or not you succeed or fail.”

There is a wake of bruised souls behind Driscoll. The podcast promises that the story is not just about Driscoll or Mars Hill. It’s a window into modern church leadership today, into the shaking foundations of the evangelical matrix, and most intimately, into the wily self-deceptive character of the human heart. That means its not just about Americans or megachurches: its about charisma, leadership, and how it can run amok.

As I listen, some things sound strangely familiar. Like people who so easily forgive the misbehaviours of a minister because he is so clever and charismatic, unaware that removing such accountability is setting a pattern that paves the way for greater misdemeanours and even a wildly dramatic exit from ministry. Or like this: bending the rules because so much seems at stake. “Look at the fruit of the ministry!” Strange how we so easily forgive the wrong things of charismatic individuals without demanding they face up to their failures.

Sensationally Reformed

The podcast borders on sensationalism at times, as Driscoll was known as the “cussing pastor Mark” in his early years, and his inspiration came from the punk rock scene and the movie Fight Club. Episodes investigate his “demon trials,” his shocking dismissal of a female staff member for heresy, and his X-rated talks, where he preaches that wives are commanded by God to give oral sex to their husbands. 

Oh, did I mention he identified as Reformed in a certain sort of masculinist American way? Yes, he was young, restless, and “Reformissional” in his vision, with a focus on getting the doctrine right and bringing in the crowds. Thus his 400-page book entitled Doctrine. He was a defender of the definition of the gospel, a watchdog against the encroaching wimpy liberal elite. He did preach about young men being “creators and cultivators”—an endorsement of the cultural mandate—but it seemed to come with a narrow focus on being leaders, growing a big family, and being a tough Christian man. Women should focus on nurturing the children rather than seek work outside the home.

Don’t be too cynical about this story. Lives were transformed at Mars Hill. He took young men under his wing, let they live in his basement for a season, and he bought groceries for single mothers. His charisma wasn’t just teaching: it was drawing people into a grand vision of transforming lives and communities worldwide. Young men testify that they were drinking beer and watching TV until Driscoll gave them a sense of purpose—a vision for making a difference, taking responsibility for women, family, and the city. Driscoll can be easily demonized, but he was no demon.

“True Crime”

This is deep, slow journalism in the aftermath of an ecclesiological train wreck. It’s a post-mortem that sounds almost like a “true crime” podcast with the victims and experts, and its especially aware of the role of the internet. Cosper shows how this “first internet pastor” hyperlinked his way to infamy—how his speaking and visioning ability got broadcast to thousands before he developed the character to bear the weight of such notoriety. Then in the court of the internet, through bloggers (insiders and outsider critics), this megachurch tyrant was brought to unofficial public trial that spiralled into an implosion.

Yes, there has always been media. Language is media, as are roads and the Common Book of Prayer. But electronic media is so spectacularly faster, more incoherently episodic, and now globally accessible that it out-paces what is human. The scale dehumanizes those involved: disembodying, disembedding, and de-contextualizing. Driscoll is not a victim of the machine, but the machine invited his vice to grow to monster-size.

“Train Wreck By River” from the De Forest Douglas Collection, Diver Railroad – from Cornell University Library, New York

As a post-mortem with disillusioned former Mars Hill staff, the podcast gives voice to those who were wounded and abandoned by their unapologetic leader. This behind-the-scenes expose will resonate with many who have been bruised by an unrepentant charismatic leader. The confusion, the mixed emotions, the sense of betrayal—it will sound familiar to many church-goers. Maybe even the hyper-masculinist teachings will be conclusively unmasked for some young male listeners for the rigid stereotypes that they are.

Canadian writer Sara Bessey describes this ecclesial deconstruction as an apocalypse—both a destruction and a revelation. It lifts the curtain on the spiritual poverty and corroding machinery behind “Big Eva”—the falling empires of evangelicalism. Something is deconstructing in America–and actively being deconstructed. The scandals and abuse has piled up over the decades, and right-wing evangelicalism is losing its mass appeal from the 1970s and 80s. Its been looking just mean and angry these days.

“We All Did It”

Listeners beware. By putting this podcast in your ear, you participate in a secular trope and the extension of Driscoll’s charismatic wave. The secular trope is the cynical assessment that all megachurches, and even all Christian religion, is an Elmer Gantry tale of manipulation, fraud, and chauvinism. This is nothing less than a prejudice, as there are 1800 megachurches in North America and they are no more abusive than small churches, political parties or basketball teams. The book High on God, a study of 12 megachurches, critiques the soft patriarchalism of such churches but concludes, on the whole, megachurches are “wells of goodness, satisfaction, generosity, and inspiration.”

You should attend a few and see for yourself. Or if you know your own church well, you may know that even small churches are places where dynamics go awry, personalities clash and preachers end their stay on bad terms. Communities with human beings in them are not safe. Sinful saints abound.

In the episode “Who Killed Mars Hill?” they rightly put responsibility on Driscoll’s ego, insider alarm bells, outsider critics, but most importantly, they end by saying “We all did it.” When we ask why this happens, they say, “shouldn’t we ask why we keep doing it, why we seem to like charismatic figures whose character doesn’t align with their gifts, giving them platforms and adulation?” 

This tendency knows no politics, traditional or progressive. There is no big leader without a campaign staff who prop them up and a crowd of adulators who attend, fund and applaud. Whether you liked Ravi Zacharias or Jean Vanier, we’re all in it. By making this podcast, Driscoll’s infamy is extended a little further. By writing this review, I’m building on it. By reading this, you are now part of the ripples of another charismatic leader’s ever-widening wave of influence. Charisma makes the world go ‘round, for good and ill.

I’m not blaming the victims, although I am diluting the responsibility. Vincent Lloyd wrote a great book entitled In Defense of Charisma in which he argues charisma can be both democratic and authoritarian. If authoritarian, it uses this power to enflame desire already in its followers by keeping its devices invisible and thus reinforces its own social advantage to the detriment of others. It compels followers give up their capacity for judgment to the leader. In contrast, democratic charisma invites its audience to see their own fantasies at work, and instead of reinforcing centralized power, helps people shape a desire to nurture their own charisma (gifts). Democratic charisma is usually small scale and always contagious, and can be found in ‘the neighbour, the cousin, the colleague.’ It empowers others for ministry.

Charisma comes in many faces.

Charisma is not Just Celebrity

Let me engage this notion of charisma more closely. Charisma is not just celebrity fame, and I think future podcasts need to sharpen their use of the term. Charisma is a gift of grace, and it comes to everyone, in a variety of ways–not just to big personalities, and it is not just about leadership. According to St. Paul, they are for the building up of the body of Christ and his kingdom (1Cor. 12)–which isn’t just about the numbers in the seats but wider human flourishing and shalom.

A second view of charisma is also spiritual but comes through Max Weber’s sociological framework. His view of charisma had to do with a situation of cultural distress and a visionary person providing an imaginative way out. That’s contextual charisma and it focuses mostly on leadership, unlike the biblical notion.

There is a third, and rather crude form of charisma, and that is the contrived aura that seems to surround someone whose image and voice have been broadcast across the world. That’s charisma as media artifice, and unfortunately, that’s the focus of this podcast. Don’t be turned off from the idea of charisma and reduce it to celebrity flim-flam; but be wary, as giftedness can come as a servant and as a dictator.

I’ve noted two opposite reactions to the podcast on the internet. One says its not biblical enough, biased against gender complementarians, and tipped towards progressive Christianity and authors like Calvin University’s Kristin DuMez. The other view says the podcast doesn’t give enough voice to the victims, and that it triggers rather than treats their wounds. It doesn’t chastise the evangelical leaders who should have spoken loudly against Driscoll’s abuses, and it doesn’t dare deconstruct evangelicalism down to where it really counts–at the level of its exclusivist theology. Some say its just more of the same evangelicalism–a podcast hyped up just like Driscoll’s own media, and focussed on “how can we make evangelism better” rather than true gritty repentance. See a thorough critique here from Jessica Johnson, an academic who attended Mars Hill for a few years and wrote about it in Biblical Porn: Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Evangelical Empire (Duke 2018). I find her critique predictable and rather convoluted at times, but worth considering.

The podcast is certainly more for the toughminded than the tender-hearted. But the making of the podcast appears to be therapy for the producer Cosper, who went through a very similar church implosion himself. Nasty stuff that wounds the soul. We’ll see where the final episodes take the narrative. Maybe Driscoll himself will respond, although he shows no signs of true heart-felt remorse, let alone repentance, now that he has started another church in Arizona. Here he gets close to apologizing, but he sounds more like the victim.

Maybe the podcast will look at the contrasting story of Bruxy Cavey, the hippie pacifist and self-confessed beta male pastor, chronicled by yours truly in my book The Subversive Evangelical. He’s an unatheletic book reader and disc jockey geek who believes in gender egalitarianism and that Christians should stay out of politics. He challenges the manipulative Elmer Gantry stereotype of the evangelical megachurch pastor. In other words, Mark Driscoll doesn’t define the whole territory.

So beware. It’s an emotionally intense podcast that asks good questions. Is it sensational and unintentionally feeding a stereotype of right-wing Reformed Christianity? Yes. Is it a window into the deconstruction of American evangelicalism? Yes. Is it a revelation of the universal human capacity for self-deception? Indeed.

One thought on “A Train Wreck in Slow Motion: The Rise and Fall of Mark Driscoll’s Unbridled Charisma

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s