Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Pastor M Gets Heckled

BACKGROUND: What follows is inspired by recent events in the world of mega-church evangelical preachers and their more progressive Christian critics. For those unfamiliar with these events, here's the lightning speed recap: Mark Driscoll, founding pastor of of the enormous Mars Hill Church (not to be confused with Rob Bell, founding pastor of the enormous Mars Hill BIBLE Church, which is entirely unrelated) posted a Facebook status update inviting people to recall the most effeminate "anatomically male" worship leader they know. Rachel Held Evans, an articulate Christian writer (author of Evolving in Monkey Town), posted on her blog a forceful indictment of what she saw to be Driscoll's pattern of bullying behavior. She also encouraged her readers to write letters to the Mars Hill deacons, expressing concern over this pattern of behavior. Apparently the strength of the response prompted a meeting between the deacons and Driscoll. Driscoll has since issued a nuanced statement which, while not exactly an apology, acknowledges the complexity of the Christian debate concerning gender, and promises more sensitive engagement with these issues in the future.

DISCLAIMER: What follows is a fantasy and a satire. "Pastor M" should not be construed as a fair portrayal of the real, complex person who is being caricatured. Among other things, Mark Driscoll's actual reaction to the critical response was far less pompous and far more thoughtful than "Pastor M's" reaction. Nevertheless, there can be value in caricature. And these events give me a chance to share in a less dry way some ideas about the Bible and gender hierarchies. 

A strange hush fell over the people in the pews as Pastor M--founding pastor of an enormous complex of churches that have absolutely nothing to do, thank you very much, with a similarly-named enormous church founded by a heretic who hates God so much he is prepared to insist that God is radically and extravagantly loving to the point of, maybe, but probably not, bringing all humanity into His eternal embrace--as I was saying, a hush fell over the gathered congregants as their leader (his chest almost popping the buttons of his flannel shirt) walked onto the enormous TV screen (with only an abbreviated electric guitar intro) and prepared to deliver the message which was about to be broadcast into church campuses all across Washington State (and one in the deserts of the southwest for reasons nobody is quite sure of--but absolutely NOT one anywhere in Michigan).

(Yes, that was all one sentence. Sort of.)

Although Pastor M still looked manly (how could he not, given his testosterone levels?), it became immediately clear to those who loved him best (namely Mary Little and her BFF Sarah Iverson, who were sixteen and had birthdays one week apart and practically swooned every time they caught sight of Pastor M from a distance) that something had changed. There was, it seemed, an air of humility about him. 

This caused a collective gasp. While the fine folks of the mega-church were used to seeing feigned humility in their beloved celebrity pastor, the slight bow of his head on this day--and the even slighter frown, the softness in his downcast eyes, the extra-scruffiness of his five o'clock shadow--all of these things suggested either real humility or an even better pretense than usual.

The last time they'd seen anything like this on his face was when he publicly apologized for suggesting that a televangelist's dalliances with gay prostitutes were to be blamed (in part) on the man's wife for letting herself go and not putting out (in other words, for her failure to be a sufficiently godly wife). But all speculation ended abruptly as Pastor M began to speak.

"Not long ago," he began, "I posted the following words on Facebook: 'So, what story do you have about the most effeminate anatomically male worship leader you've ever personally witnessed?' This seemed a great idea. After all, I've built my ministry on reaching out to manly-men, showing them that there is a place for cage fighters and would-be professional wrestlers in God's family. And to be a manly-man means ridiculing those men who aren't. You can't be a manly-man if you think it's okay not to be one. And so, for my ministry to really draw in manly-men and teach them that there is a place for them at the Lord's table, I had to make it clear that there is a place at the Lord's table for those who want to kick effeminate men out on their wimpy a##es."

At this point Pastor M paused. He turned away, swallowing back emotion. When he could finally speak again, his expression was pained. "But I've been singled out for abuse BY A WOMAN, who's likened me to a high school bully. Can you believe it? She is calling me a bully just because I will not tolerate girly-men! Just because I do what every God-fearing man ought to do: ridicule those who are anatomically male but behave like the inferior sex.

"And yes, there are clear gender-specific behavioral guidelines that you must follow if you want to honor the gift of masculinity that God has bestowed on you--or, if you're a woman, honor the masculinity that God has bestowed on your husband. The rule book is RIGHT HERE!" He paused to dramatically pull forth a book. It was quickly plain he was holding up an old home economics textbook. "Right here, in verse--" Pausing, he began to leaf through the pages of the book. His expression went from puzzled to exasperated. He sighed. "Okay, who's the joker?"

A sudden snort of laughter came from off to the left. "Sorry! Little joke." A man in an oxford shirt dashed up to the podium, smiling sheepishly as he traded out the old textbook for a Bible.

Shaking his head, Pastor M went on: "As I was saying, it says here in God's word...hang on here, I've got it bookmarked...Yes, here in... First Timothy 2:12... it says, 'There is neither Jew nor--'" This time he was interrupted by a explosive guffaw from off to the left. Pastor M looked off in the direction of the practical joker. "Wait. This is Galatians. You moved the bookmark, didn't you?"

"Sorry! Couldn't resist!"

"Oh, never mind. Just trust me. The Bible says women should shut up and let men be in charge. But this woman has started a movement against me. As if a woman has the right to chastise me, not just a ROCK STAR mega-church preacher with thousands of loyal followers, but a man!" He almost roared the last, as if all the dignity of being human resided in the possession of his maleness; as if all those men who weren't sufficiently male were failing to affirm this fact; as if all the women who failed to bow and scrape to their husbands were failing to acknowledge the rock-bottom principle upon which Pastor M had made his self worth hinge, as if...sorry. Launched into thinly-disguised progressive philosophizing for a moment there.  Returning you to Pastor M's sermon, now.

"I mean, who does she think she is?" he bellowed. " I've got theme music! What does she have to compare to that? Some little memoir? I bet you she's--excuse my language--a FEMINIST! And if there's anything that's clear as punch in the Bible, it's that God hates feminism."

"Punch is cloudy!" shouted the voice off to the left.

"If you don't shut up, you'll see how clear a punch can be!"

"Yeah. Sure. You're no bully."

Pastor M paused, quirked a lopsided smile, and shook his head. "Don't let anyone tell you we don't have a sense of humor here at Mars Hill."

"Hey, I'm being serious!" said the voice from the left. "I mean, what do you do with Galatians 3:28?"

"How about I give my next sermon on that?"

"Do it! I'd love to see you flail about with that text. I mean, let's be serious. If it's right that in Christ there's neither male nor female, doesn't that mean that within the church, the body of Christ, gender divisions and hierarchies are erased? How do you reconcile that with all your emphasis on masculine and feminine gender roles, with your idea that God wants men to fit some 1950's era masculinity template and avoid at all costs any girly traits? If God wanted THAT, would he inspire Paul to say that in Christ--in the community united by Christ, the BODY of Christ--gender becomes meaningless?"

 As Pastor M stared, dumbstruck, his heckler (another minister, perhaps?) leapt into the silence: "I mean, let's think about this for a moment. Sure, the Bible's full of traditional patriarchal stuff, stories and messages that put all this importance on gender and traditional gender-based hierarchies. But then you also find this luminous passage that says gender and other divisions don't matter for those who belong to Christ." 

"Paul isn't talking about this life," Pastor M cut in, finally finding his voice. "He isn't saying that people in the church should act as if there weren't any difference between men and women, let alone that women shouldn't submit to their husbands. Women submitting to their husbands in Christian marriage is the very definition of there being neither male nor female in Christ!"


"Oh, come on. You really expect us not to pay attention to gender?  That would be nutty! Men are men and women are women!"

"Yeah. But then there's that little verse about God choosing what is foolish in the world to shame the wise." 

"Oh, come on. The Bible's full of stuff that makes it clear that women are subordinate to men, that men are supposed to be one way and women another, and on and on. And there are at least half a dozen ways to interpret the Galatians verse to make it fit with all of that."

"Of course. But don't all those interpretations just sort of, well, do violence to that shining passage in Galatians? It's like you come across this brilliant flower growing out of the dirt and you just crush it underfoot so that it becomes indistinguishable from the dirt.

"Think about it this way." And at this point the interlocutor rose to his feet and stepped onto the raised platform from which Pastor M was used to holding forth alone. "Of course the Bible's going to be full of patriarchal stuff. Every single freaking biblical writer lived in a patriarchal culture. They sucked in patriarchy with their mother's milk. It wouldn't take a divine revelation to inspire them to endorse patriarchy. They'd be writing patriarchal stuff whether or not God had anything to do with the Bible. What would take a divine revelation is getting some biblical writer to BUCK the patriarchal norm. If you have to choose between them--the patriarchal stuff and the Galatians passage--it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out which one is more likely to spring from an encounter with the transcendent God, and which is more likely to be nothing more than a regurgitation of the dominant mores of the time."

"Are you suggesting it isn't all inspired by God?" 

"Well, if you're going to insist on that doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration--which, by the way, wasn't invented until after the Protestant Reformation; or, better yet, if you're going to insist on the adulterated version of that doctrine, born out of the fundamentalist movement--well, to put it bluntly, it seems to me that insisting on that doctrine will force you to crush the flowers of divine revelation underfoot in order to make them fit with all the other stuff that's in the Bible.

"But suppose I'm wrong about that. Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm wrong. Either way, you can't pretend that it's only those who challenge the doctrine of literal inerrancy who risk missing out on God's self-disclosure, while those who insist on inerrancy face no risk of distorting or dismissing divine revelation. If, in one way or another, God has communicated to us through the Bible, then whatever your theory of the Bible you're taking a risk of getting the Bible--and God--wrong.

"If you don't like the flower metaphor, take the one that Martin Luther used. You know Martin Luther, the guy who came up with 'sola scriptura'? He likened the Bible to the manger in which the baby Jesus lay: It contains the gospel, but it also contains straw.

"At one point Luther called the entire epistle of James 'an epistle of straw.' Sure, if inerrantists are right then those who agree with Luther might dismiss as straw things that aren't straw. They might throw out the baby with the bathwater. Maybe they mistakenly think there is bathwater when it's really all baby. (Sorry, shifted metaphors again there.) But if inerrantists are wrong, they risk putting the bathwater in bed with the baby! And they risk not noticing the baby at all amidst all that water. They risk thinking the bathwater is the baby, and so getting everything all confused.

"So here's my challenge to you, Pastor M: Are you prepared to admit that you're taking a risk with your theory of the Bible--that you might just be wrong about the Bible and God, about men and women, about those who don't fit into our gender boxes? Or are you going to live up to the rock star theme music at the start of all your video-taped sermons?"

At this point it became clear to everyone present that what they were witnessing was entirely fictitious, since Pastor M would never have permitted this heckler to go on for so long. And so everyone stopped listening and went home.

No comments:

Post a Comment