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News Seeking: Jesus, Smack Downs, and the New York Times

January 13, 2009

Evangelicals are scary, this I know. For the New York Times Magazine tells me so.

Molly Worthen’s feature last weekend, “Who Would Jesus Smack Down?” profiles Mark Driscoll, 38 year-old pastor of the Seattle megachurch Mars Hill Church. Worthen calls him “American evangelicalism’s bete noir,” a charismatic pastor who embraces cutting edge technology, explicit language, and vintage ball caps.

But that’s not all. WWJSD exemplifies how the mainstream media continues to politicize and stir up fear of Evangelical religion. And in focusing on bizarre, larger than life characters like Driscoll, the New York Times is helping create and sustain a politicized religious climate in America.

At first glance, Worthen’s feature is the classic soft news feature of the ‘not your father’s Fr.’ variety: an old religious message gets a bizarre or hip makeover. Usually, the religious makeover story is told as a sign of changing times or a show of the resilience of old time religion. This has been the angle of other excellent pieces covering Driscoll and Mars Hill on sites such as Salon.com or Crosscut.com.

Driscoll certainly works as an example of “revamp[ing] the style and substance of evangelicalism,” to use Worthen’s words. With weekly podcasts, popular youtube videos, and simulcasts, the Seattle pastor is tech savvy. Driscoll’s meta-church boasts an attendance of 7,500 across seven satellite locations. The use of simulcasting is a technological progression from the megachurches of the 90s: congregants get a dynamic speaker, a small local church community, without an enormous, costly facility.

But the more persistent message of Worthen’s piece is that these religious ideas of Worthen and others are inherently dangerous. Whether it’s bellicose, otherworldly, or downright backward, Evangelical religion is portrayed as a bizarre belief system to be reckoned with as a political entity.

Driscoll is once again a perfect subject for such a piece. With his alpha male personality and open disdain for platitudinous ‘feminine’ religion, Driscoll comes across as an overmasculine reactionary. His legendary machismo has even been the subject of Onion-esque Christian satire. Last July, The Wittenburg Door published a spoof story in which Driscoll beats himself up at a pastors conference, ridiculing “insulated coffee cups, haiku and dental floss as feminine while extolling athletic cups, tobacco spit and broken load-bearing bones.”

Not helping Driscoll’s case is his avowedly complementarian beliefs, meaning that Mars Hill Church teaches that men and women have different, prescribed roles in the church context. In other words, Driscoll’s successor won’t be a woman.

Online jabs at Driscoll are less subtle than the Wittenburg Door. “Mark Driscoll’s Jesus is a s***kicker who washes his hands with the blood of infidels and never has to tell his woman twice,” says Damon Agnos on a blog post for Seattle Weekly. Agnos even mistook the Wittenburg Door for a genuine piece.

For her part, Worthen neither ridicules nor vilifies Driscoll, but consistently portrays him as an alpha male hardliner with a paradoxically antiquated message:

what is new about Driscoll is that he has resurrected a particular strain of fire and brimstone, one that most Americans assume died out with the Puritans: Calvinism, a theology that makes Pat Robertson seem warm and fuzzy.

In mentioning Calvinism in the same breath as Pat Robertson and the Puritans, however, Worthen is deliberately playing on ignorance and fear and giving people like Agnos plenty of ammo.

Ah yes, Calvinism. Most Americans may assume Calvinism is dead, but you know what they say about what happens when you assume.

Truthfully, Calvinism is alive and well in a host of Presbyterian, Reformed, Anglican, and Baptist species throughout the world. As a family of belief systems, it never really died out. In Evangelical circles, Calvinism is particularly vital in an array of colleges and seminaries. Calvinism (or “Reformed” belief) has even spawned revered academics such as Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga, historian Mark Noll, and social movements such as the recent renewal of Evangelical concern for the environment.

As a form of Christian belief, Reformed theology has many attractive features to its adherents: an emphasis on intellectual coherence, a sense of personal purpose, without the (stereo)typical evangelical focus on end times. True, there are Calvinists who tend to be theocrats and reactionaries, but these are the minority.

Worthen’s portrayal of Driscoll as Calvin 2.0 is unnecessary and overblown, even according to the hipster himself. In a 2006 interview with Christianity Today, Driscoll called himself a “boxer, not briefs” Calvinist: “I am pretty laid back about it and not uptight and tidy like many Reformed guys.”

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