For many of us, refreshing our podcast feed to see if the latest episode of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill has dropped is an exciting, if bracing, weekly ritual. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found processing the whole thing complex and difficult. For what it’s worth, here are some notes around two questions I had. The first is historiographical, the second spiritual. The first: what is it doing? The second: what am I doing? I hope they are helpful.

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Podcast

In case you missed the memo, TRFMH is a Christianity Today podcast in which the absurdly talented Mike Cosper takes us through the story of the spectacular growth and stunning implosion of Mars Hill Church, Seattle, and its senior pastor Mark Driscoll. For anyone in my theological neck of the woods (reformed, evangelical, complementarian) it’s compelling stuff.

First question: What is it Doing?

TRFMH is a journalistic history of Mars Hill Church: not just an account of “what happened”; it wants to explore the reasons for what happened. Good history is about establishing causation.

Part of the thesis is that Driscoll’s leadership posture was caused by a complex web of 1980s to early 2000s cultural forces.

TRFMH is about what caused the rise and fall of Mars Hill. Part of the thesis so far is that Driscoll’s leadership posture—his reformed theology and his complementarianism—wasn’t simply caused by a plain reading of the Bible, but by a complex web of 1980s to early 2000s cultural forces, filtered through some personal psychology.

This is how all good history works. It postulates causation and then argues the case. It can be disconcerting for this reason—because it shows that things we thought we believed for simple reasons are actually complex in origin.

For example, what caused the reformation? We’d like to think it was a rediscovery of justification by faith—a doctrine hidden in plain sight in Romans, waiting for Luther to unearth it. It can be unsettling to learn that there were other causes at work too: Technology (via the invention of the printing press); politics (changes in Northern European feudalism); intellectual fashions (such as the emerging humanism). Without these, it is unlikely the reformation would have happened.

Similarly, then, it’s also completely valid to ask what cultural and political forces might have shaped evangelical complementarianism in the 1990s to 2010s. Did the Cold War have something to do with it? John Wayne? The events of September 11, 2001? They are all questions worth asking. The answer will be more complex than a “1 Timothy 2 caused complementarianism.”

The answer will be more complex than a ‘1 Timothy 2 caused complementarianism.’ 

But it’s also true that something is causing this podcast. Indeed, something is causing the recent spate of books against complementarianism, just as something is causing the wider flood of toxic leadership exposés.

In episode five, Cosper ponders this very question. He wonders whether this cultural moment is an unveiling—a God-ordained apocalypse sent to chastise the church, fostering an earnest and godly repentance. Maybe. Quite probably this is part of what is going on. But one day, future historians will set themselves the task of answering the question, “what caused The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Podcast?” Those future historians will note that a wide variety of analogous forces were at work in the corporate world; in industry, journalism, and the academy. They’ll seek to understand Christianity Today’s editorial stance, the podcast itself, and the books about the shortcomings of complementarian theology, as themselves historical phenomena. “Romans 16:7 caused the reaction to complementarianism” will not be a sufficient answer.

The Mars Hill Podcast and the Spiritual Value of a Bad Example

My second question is a spiritual one.

What is the podcast doing to me?

What is it revealing about me? Why do I anticipate it in the way that I do? What posture should I have toward this weekly invitation to inspect the aftermath of a theological train wreck?

This voice positions us, the listeners, virtuously … but what other mixed forces might be at work in us?  

Perhaps, when controlled by the better angels of our nature, the spiritual import is all for the good. Perhaps each week, we are prayerfully and with broken hearts pouring over this tale of destruction, praying for its many victims and earnestly seeking to amend our own lives where necessary. At the start of each episode, one of the voices in the opening montage asks, “why aren’t we looking at the deep-seated reasons for this?” This voice positions us, the listeners, virtuously. We are those who have tuned in as earnest seekers of the truth; the ones who are prepared to take a forensic deep-dive into the mess. We are the ones willing to look at the deep-seated reasons for all this.

Perhaps. But maybe other, darker, motives are also at work. The forensic investigation of a bad example can be all about exposing the deeds of darkness—I’m sure that’s the intention of the podcast itself. But what other mixed forces might be at work in us, the listeners?  

The Golden Calf

Consider the biblical paradigm case of the moral-theological train wreck: the story of the golden calf (Exodus 32). This is the case where God’s people got it wrong in a jaw-dropping, stomach-churning, gasp-inducing way. It’s All The Things: a leadership failure, a moral failure, a religious failure, a covenant failure, a sexual failure, and a relational failure.

The Bible refuses to allow us critical distance … It forbids a posture of incredulous horror.

What does the Bible do with this story? 

It certainly doesn’t cover it up. This is no tale buried in the archives, it is told and re-told. The instinct to cover up the failures of God’s people is not a biblical one.

However, the Bible also refuses to allow us critical distance from the story. It forbids a posture of incredulous horror. It disallows the therapeutic catharsis of a manifestly bad example. Consider Paul’s use of the story in 1 Corinthians:

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.
(1 Corinthians 10:1-5)

Notice what Paul does. The temptation in Corinth is to stand at a distance; to emphasise how far from that generation they are. Paul does the opposite. He emphasises how like them they are.

“But Paul, we are baptised!”

“So were they.”

“But we have the Lord’s table!”

“So did they.”

“But Paul, we have Christ!”

“So did they.” 

Paul does all he can to make them see how much they share with the wilderness generation. They had the same spiritual advantages, the same temptations, the same possibility of catastrophic failure. Paul uses the story to shake their confidence. He uses the story to open their imaginations to the very real possibility of their own temptation to fall just as they did.

Beware the therapy of an outrageously bad example. The temptation is to adopt a posture of incredulous outrage, of secretly hoping that juicier and more jaw-dropping revelations are still to come. The worse, in a sense, the better. The worse they are, the more distance I can establish between what is within me and what went down over there.

But there but for the grace of God, go I. Sin gets in everywhere. It got into Mars Hill. And no doubt it can get into my response to Mars Hill.