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Mark Driscoll scares Churl here on A Christian Thing. In fact, Driscoll scares a lot of people. There are blogs all over the web like Mars Hill Refuge, Wenatchee the Hatchet, and The Wartburg Watch, most of whom hint that Mars Hill Church is cult-like (a thought recently seized upon by Seattle’s independent newspaper The Stranger).

I think that debating whether or not Mars Hill is a cult is unhelpful, though, and it isn’t entirely fair to Pastor Mark either. Sure, it might give some disaffected people some comfort that they’re justified in leaving Mars Hill without “drinking the Kool-Aid.” But we should remember that Driscoll does talk about how he deals with critics; following Billy Graham’s axiom to “turn your critics into coaches” (and not Jim Jones’s path of alienation), he reads his critics, even the most critical, as helping him improve his ministry by providing “trials and tribulations” through which he can grow (James 1:2). To talk about him and his church as a cult will only read like persecution, framing Driscoll as the oppressed crying out to God for vindication.

But if we are critics coaching Driscoll, I’d like to try another tack.

I do think that Churl has inadvertently hit on a key but unexplored part of the Driscoll complex with his call to revisit Trent. You see, “the world called Catholicism,” as Stanley Hauerwas puts it (Hannah’s Child, p. 95-121), is not something foreign to Driscoll. Driscoll grew up Irish American Catholic, “the oldest of five kids in a hardworking, blue-collar Catholic family near the airport in Seattle, Washington” (Radical Reformission, 11). He describes himself as a “moral religious boy from a Catholic home who, for the most part, stayed out of trouble despite a short wick, foul mouth, and bad temper that resulted in dolling out more than a few beatings to various guys–usually for what they were doing to women and children” (Real Marriage, 6).  Besides all the quips about growing up in a church with “a gay alcoholic priest” whose “life of poverty, celibacy, living at the church, and wearing a dress was more frightful than going to hell” (Real Marriage, 8-9), he has more than once aptly demonstrated his Catholic creds for his congregation, not least during a sermon on Mary in his Luke series where he says:

I’ll say a lot today about the Catholics, because I was one. And I don’t hate the Catholics, I love the Catholics, but when it comes to Mary, that’s sort of their specialty. I was raised as a Catholic boy and I went to Catholic school. We were O’Driscoll, full-blown Irish-Catholic mix. My grandma was in a lay order of nuns pre-Vatican II. Latin Mass Catholic, I went to Catholic school. Catholic with a side of Catholic and Catholic for dessert, that’s how I was raised.

He has also been known to recite the Hail Mary for a wildly applauding congregation.

The trouble, I think, is that everybody, likely including Driscoll himself, thinks that Driscoll had a full-blown conversion to Protestant evangelicalism when the words from Romans 1:6 jumped out at him that he was “among those called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Radical Reformission, 13; Real Marriage, 8), as if Romans were a Protestant-only epistle (see below for Driscoll’s reading of Luther and Wesley).

I’m more inclined to think of him as an Irish Catholic kid in a Reformed Protestant candy store.

Here’s a thought from Harry Cronin, a Holy Cross priest who did his doctoral thesis on how American playwright Eugene O’Neill was a lapsed Irish American Catholic and who currently writes plays about redemption in alcoholic and queer experiences. Cronin argues in his doctoral thesis, Eugene O’Neill, Irish and American: a study in cultural context, that though O’Neill publicly left the faith, he couldn’t divorce himself from a Catholic imagination of Eucharist, confession, and purgatory. The same goes for his plays like DooleyDark Matter, and Memoirs of Jesus where Cronin always seems to highlight the redemptive truth of the human experience most manifest in Eucharistic transubstantiations in the queerest of places.

Ditto early twentieth century Irish writer James Joyce’s sacramental modernism. Joyce publicly renounced Catholicism, a shift autobiographically fictionalized in the Stephen Dedalus character in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, yet in a letter to his brother, Joyce writes:

Don’t you think there is a certain resemblance between the mystery of the Mass and what I am trying to do?…To give people some kind of intellectual pleasure or spiritual enjoyment by converting the bread of everyday life into something that has a permanent artistic life of its own.

Ditto Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Lady Marchmain, the freakishly devout Catholic matriarch, is arguably worse than Driscoll’s “gay alcoholic priest who wears a dress.” And yet, one by one, each of the main characters, even the ones who have fallen the furthest from the Church because of Lady Marchmain’s overbearing conservative Catholicism, find their way back into communion because there’s just something about Catholicism they can’t shake. “I can’t shut myself out from His mercy,” one of the characters says at the end.

Ditto Jennifer Haigh’s recent 2011 bestselling Faith: A Novel, where a lapsed Irish American Catholic woman investigates in the wake of the 2002 Boston Globe Catholic sexual abuse scandal the claims that her brother, a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, sexually molested a young boy. There is a Lady Marchmain matriarch–a conservative, rosary-praying, priest-adoring Mary McGann–whose daughter Sheila is the protagonist lapsed Catholic, whose adopted son Mike marries a Protestant and struggles alone to raise their kids Catholic despite his own lapse, and whose her birth child–Fr. Art Breen–is the investigated priest. For Haigh, the draw for Catholicism is not so much the sacramental power of the Church (as in Waugh), but rather the pull of the Mary McGann figure for the children as they discover womanhood, the guys in the women they are attracted to, Sheila in the woman she becomes. And yet it makes me wonder, the sacraments aside, if Driscoll’s Catholic family, including the lay nun, has shaped the way that Driscoll sees the place of the church in the world, not to mention also his (in)famous understanding of gender roles. Move over, John Piper.

Ditto philosopher Charles Taylor’s reading of Charles Péguy, a French political philosopher who left the faith only to return again because he just couldn’t see how he could subscribe to a notion of freedom that was continuous with the tradition of the past without returning to Catholicism. Peguy coined the term réssourcement, to go back to the sources of the past for political mobilization in the present, a term that Swiss Dominican theologian Yves Congar says became the motto of Vatican II’s re-receiving of the biblical and patristic traditions (The Meaning of Tradition, 6). Says Taylor of Péguy:

And yet it wasn’t really surprising that Péguy, “mauvais sujet” though he was, returned to Catholicism. In a sense he never left it. Péguy hankered after a time of creative action, linking different periods together, but he had an acute sense of how impossible this was to attain humanly, in fact of the seemingly irresistible slide into the mechanical and the habitual, the punctual present which is determined by the past, but no longer in living relation to it. All this pointed towards a Christian idea of eternity. (A Secular Age, 750).

To put it bluntly, could it be possible that what’s happening is that Driscoll can’t shake his Catholicism? Churl thinks that Driscoll would really benefit from re-visiting the Council of Trent, submitting his authority to the Church and her living tradition. I think that Driscoll could do some soul-searching to discover how Tridentine he already is.

Let me give some tell-tale signs:

    • Mark Driscoll “sees things.” He sees his wife cheating on him in high school. He sees in lurid detail people getting abused in early childhood or having affairs. He casts out demons while doing biblical counselling, telling people with multiple personality disorders to “bring up the demon.” He tells stories of how his kids were scared in early childhood because they would hear horrible things from demons about the impending doom of the Driscoll family and church. This weirds people out. But would it weird the Catholic tradition out? With mystics like Bernard of Clairvaux, Teresa of Avila, and Julian of Norwich–or better yet, Bernadette Soubirous and Padre Pio–I wouldn’t think so. And so a Catholic probably wouldn’t try to discount Driscoll’s visions as fake. They’d say that he needs a spiritual director.
  • Mark Driscoll is said to be “obsessed with authority” and “church discipline.” Paul Petry and Bent Meyer were fired for questioning authority. Maddening stories have emerged onto the blogosphere about how ex-members were “shunned” when they questioned the hierarchy. This shouldn’t be the way, these people cry, in a Christian church. But haven’t they heard of “fortress Catholicism,” what with Leo IX fulminating in the Vatican about papal infallibility and the errors of modernism in The Syllabus of Errors and Vatican I, with Pius XII condemning the nouvelle théologie of Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Ratzinger, Jean Danielou, Marie Dominique-Chenu, Hans Kung, et al. for not subscribing to neo-Thomistic rationalism? Haven’t they heard of excommunications where you are “shunned” in the sense that you can’t take communion with the rest of the people of God? I’m not defending “fortress Catholicism” (or the Inquisition, for that matter), of course. In fact, in the current climate of the conservative turn of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the issue of the new Mass rites by the Vatican, I’d say that a lot of progressive Catholics are as disappointed as the Mars Hill Refuge with a shift back to the consolidation of the hierarchy. But isn’t it interesting, friends, that this Reformed Protestant non-denominational church with ostensibly zero connection to the Roman magisterium is doing the same kind of consolidation? Sure, Driscoll probably got this hierarchical idea from the “plural elder” model advocated in Wayne Grudem’s Vineyard charismatic non-denominational neo-Reformed Systematic Theology. But I still wonder if some of it is also from his Latin Rite Catholic background. Perhaps we should think of Mark Driscoll as a “bishop” or even “pope” of sorts with the “magisterium” existing not so much in the Church catholic but the church congregated. I mean this in the sincerest and least pejorative way I can.
(BY THE WAY: Neo-Thomism was a late 19th-century/early 20th-century reading of St. Thomas Aquinas that tried to extract from his work proofs for theological categories. What the nouvelle théologie, or new theology, people were trying to say was that this way of doing theology was just boring because you do a lot of abstract conceptualization to prove Christian theology right, but you don’t do much in terms of what Aquinas thought about being the Church and being captivated by God’s beauty. An example is the Eucharist. In neo-Thomistic thought, the idea was to prove that the bread and wine really transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. What Henri de Lubac critiqued was that if you look back at the Church Fathers like Augustine, they don’t really care about the bread and wine changing–it’s more of a matter of whether you change into the Body of Christ when you take them! In other words, for the nouvelle theologie, theology wasn’t so much about validating categories and proving concepts; it’s about the COMMUNION OF PERSONS!)
  • Mark Driscoll preaches gender complementarity in such a way that reinforces male eldership. Catholic feminists like Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Rosemary Ruether probably wouldn’t like to hear this, as they attempt to re-read the tradition and the sacraments with a feminist preferential option for the poor, but paralleling Mars Hill, the Church also proclaims a gender complementarity of sorts in terms of saying that Holy Orders belongs to a male hierarchy. Benedict XVI actually has a very interesting reply to Fiorenza: in an interview discussing the possibility of women’s ordination, then-Cardinal Ratzinger says that even Fiorenza is saying nowadays that ordination is not what women seek because to be in an ordo is to be under submission, which is precisely not what women want (The Essential Pope Benedict XVI, 130). Maybe we should arrange for Driscoll to meet the pope.
  • Mark Driscoll thinks in theological categories. On Mars Hill Refuge, this is called the “theological swordplay” of concepts that don’t seem to have much reference to Scripture. The authors of Mars Hill Refuge may be right to be distressed, but just going back to Scripture doesn’t do justice to the Mars Hill systematic theological method. Listen to or read Driscoll some time. His mind works in categories. There is a category called “sin” where there are a bunch of actions you do that are “sinful.” There is a category called “fornication” where sexual acts performed before marriage belong; after marriage, the category shifts into “visual generosity” and “loving servanthood,” complete with a taxonomy drawn from 1 Corinthians 6 categorizing sexual acts as “lawful,” “beneficial,” and “enslaving.” There is a category called “religion,” which apparently sucks and doesn’t save from the category called “sin,” and there is a category called “Jesus,” whose categorical “penal substitutionary” atonement both categorically “propitiates” the Father’s categorical wrath and categorically “expiates” the dirtiness felt by those categorized as “abuse victims.” Driscoll’s theology works with frozen categorical concepts, and doesn’t that sound just like the neo-Thomistic rationalism that Hans Urs von Balthasar hated so much that he put wax in his ears while listening to lectures in his Jesuit seminary? In fact, if Driscoll was wanting to get out of his frozen concepts and yet keep his strong emphasis on the cross and Christ, he could give von Balthasar’s dramatic understanding of theology a try, either in Mysterium Paschale or, if Driscoll had some time on a sabbatical, in Theo-Drama.
  • Sola Scriptura though he might claim to be, Mark Driscoll does use the Tradition in his theological method, that is, in the sense that “sex is gross” (Real Marriage, 114-118). He sees the Reformation myth of Luther marrying Katie von Bora, the monk who wrote On Monastic Vows as a critique of special vocations and marrying a nun to boot, as the liberating moment from the Catholic “killjoy” Church raining on the sex parade (Real Marriage, 19-23); that said, speaking Protestant-ly, he doesn’t quite know what to do with another moment in evangelical history, that is, the tragic marriage of John Wesley, a.k.a. the itinerant preaching founder of Methodism who was converted by “a strange warmth” when he heard Luther’s Romans being read (Real Marriage, 97-99). (Following the Protestant Romans riff on sex and marriage, one wonders what he would have done with Karl Barth and Charlotte von Kirschbaum’s non-marriage.) Driscoll also reads the Tradition’s emphasis on sex as procreative as suggesting that sexual pleasure is gross and sinful, and to wit, he quotes a Canadian Catholic bishops’ statement on chastity and procreative sex as the definitive word from the magisterium that “sex is gross” (Real Marriage, 116). Apparently, he doesn’t have much time for Augustine’s understanding of “concupiscence,” that sin sometimes is when you have too much of a good thing (which is a theme that John of the Cross interestingly carries into The Ascent of Mount Carmel where he says that too much spiritual reading is spiritual gluttony). But whether or not he gets concupiscence or not, Driscoll’s one major critique of the Church is just not entirely fair to the Tradition on sex, period. He doesn’t say anything about Humanae Vitae or Evangelium Vitae; conservative (and controversial) as these encyclicals are for their denunciation of contraception, their conservatism is actually based on a fairly intricate argument that sex is about unitive love in the way that God is love, and that is pretty pleasurable. Besides, for reasons that will become apparent below, Driscoll might actually really like these documents for their discussion of abortion and potential abortifacient contraception. But on the “sex is gross” thing, John Paul II does say in the Theology of the Body catecheses that he wants the Catholic faithful to see that “our human experience is in some way a legitimate means for theological interpretation” (TOB 4.4). Doesn’t that mean that, irony of ironies, Driscoll has some support from the magisterium for his promulgation of sex for unitive pleasure?
  • Mark Driscoll has a fairly strong Mariology, which leads him to some fairly Catholic sexual ethical positions. Driscoll had a really blunt statement on the Virgin Birth for John Piper’s Desiring God conference on Christianity and post-modernity: “If the virgin birth of Jesus is untrue, then the story of Jesus changes greatly; we would have a sexually promiscuous young woman lying about God’s miraculous hand in the birth of her son, raising that son to declare he was God, and then joining his religion. But if Mary is nothing more than a sinful con artist then neither she nor her son Jesus should be trusted. Because both the clear teachings of Scripture about the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life and the character of his mother are at stake, we must contend for the virgin birth of Jesus Christ” (The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World, 136). Driscoll’s denial of the Perpetual Virginity, the Assumption, and the Immaculate Conception aside (and don’t bring up “Co-Mediatrix”–remember, he thinks he’s Reformed!), this is pretty much the fairly standard Catholic (*cough*, “ecumenical”) idea that you don’t have Jesus as God and Man without a mother. This leads to a fairly strong anti-abortion stance. Aside from claiming Catholic creds, it is also telling that his sermon for the Luke series on Mary and Elizabeth was about abortion and his conversion from being pro-abortion in high school as a lapsed Catholic to being a Reformed Protestant pro-lifer who sees abortion as murder. It’s also interesting, good Catholic that Driscoll is, that while he’s supportive of non-abortive birth control measures, he converges with the magisterium in calling “the Pill” a potentially abortive contraceptive device because one of its three functions is “that it seeks to disrupt the ongoing life of a fertilized egg” (Real Marriage, 197). One could make the case, of course, that in general, Catholics and Protestant evangelicals are on the same team against abortion; witness, for example, even Stanley Hauerwas’s support for the generally fundamentalist Operation Rescue, and to boot, there is a whole spectrum within Christianity as to why we’re opposed to abortion, from the people who think of Mary as a symbol of virgin Church power that Rosemary Ruether critiques in Sexism and God-Talk to the more moderate Consistent Life Ethic fans of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s collegial reconciliation of conservative and progressive Catholics. But to make the jump from the Mary and Elizabeth story to abortion? That’s a move worthy of the conservative end of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
  • Believe it or not, Mark Driscoll has a “preferential option for the poor,” especially women and children who have been abused. This should be a compliment to the unintentional Catholic genius of Driscoll because unlike the Church with its sexual abuse fiasco, Driscoll is encouraging people with abuse histories in his church (including his wife) to talk openly about them because they are the poor and the marginalized. He’s doing precisely what Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston had trouble doing, not to mention also what the Vatican had trouble doing during its long delay in investigating the claims that the founder of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, Fr. Marcial Maciel, was a serial sex offender. What’s Driscoll doing right by the Church? Letting the victims speak out of a preferential option for them, not shifting around the hierarchy that perpetrated the abuse. (Mind you, we’re talking about sexual abuse here, not the disaffected ex-members on the Mars Hill Refuge discussing church discipline abuse.) In fact, going back to Cardinal Bernardin (who was the Chicago archbishop incidentally cleared of all sex abuse charges and is not to be confused with the Boston archbishop Bernard Law that is pictured below), this preferential option for the abused isn’t just a Consistent Life Ethic–it’s a Consistent Sex Ethic from womb (anti-abortion and anti-abortive contraception) to tomb (sex abuse victims and sexual abuse perpetrators, speak out and confess!). In so doing, Driscoll is also trying to re-imagine what it would be like to be in a patriarchal community, that the hierarchy serves the laity in helping them confess their sexual sin and be free to have free married sex. This too, I submit, is a very Catholic idea that goes back to Gregory the Great, “the servant of the servants of God.” While Rachel Held Evans would critique this as unqualified sex therapy, in Driscoll’s world, it would seem that such is the nature of servanthood to the least of these.

In short, Driscoll isn’t just any kind of Catholic, if he were to be labeled as such. He sounds more like a conservative Vatican I neo-Thomistic “fortress Catholic” whose theological method interestingly might converge with that of his pre-Vatican II grandmother. The trouble is that because Driscoll is so brash about his Reformed inclinations, we too are inclined to read him through Protestant lenses. That’s why there are calls for transparency, democratization, and the abandonment of what many people call the “cult” of the Mars Hill world. These are very Protestant, if not secular, terms.

But if there’s anything I take away from the stories of Péguy, Joyce, O’Neill, and Waugh, it’s that there is something humorous about “fortress Catholicism.” It’s this: much as you revolt, revolutionize, and reform against all of the authoritarianism, patriarchy, and sacramentalism of the whole thing, if you’ve been in it, you can’t shake it. I would submit that–far from being a cult (unless you’re with Walter Martin in The Kingdom of the Cults where everything that isn’t his brand of Protestant fundamentalism is a cult)–Mars Hill should be credited as a congregational microcosm for what the Catholic Church has looked like–good, bad, and ugly–because of the inadvertent Irish Catholicism of its key founder (one wonders if Lief Moi and Mike Gunn had similar backgrounds). Indeed, though Mars Hill was founded as independent, non-denominational, non-liturgical, and sola Scriptura, what’s funny about the whole thing is that it all sounds very fortress Catholic.

So perhaps the critics should not be calling for democratization at Mars Hill, as if it were really a Protestant church. What they can’t seem to see is that Mars Hill is more Catholic than they think. It may follow, then, that what they want is a Vatican II. But Driscoll’s got that one too: it was called “bylaw revisions and elder restructuring.” Just like it was across the Tiber, sounds like the progressives here also got the stiff end of the rope from this reform.

A better tack, then? Give Driscoll a break and a new reading list. Put some Péguy, Joyce, Waugh, O’Neill, and Chesterton on there. Throw in some Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, and Shusaku Endo. Make him read and re-read Haigh’s Faith. Get him the full set of von Balthasar’s triptych to wean him off neo-Thomism while preserving a vital Christo-centrism. Make him learn French so that he can be blown away by de Lubac’s Surnaturel. Let him discover ressourcement as he reads up on Yves Congar’s Tradition and Traditions and Lay People in the Church. If he’s into doing theology from the perspective of the abused, maybe add a womanist theologian, say, Katie Cannon, or staying consistently Catholic, there’s the legendary Toni Morrison. Give our brother some mystical breathing space and maybe hook him up with a spiritual director. And finally, suggest the RCIA in the parish down the street.