Sharing Many of the Same Flaws as its Subject ‘The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill’ Podcast Puts Blame Anywhere But Where It Belongs

Image: Mars Hill Church's defunct Flickr account.

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, a Christianity Today podcast hosted by Mike Cosper, begins with the query—”Who Killed Mars Hill?” This first episode ends by answering its own question, “we all did it,” upending the true crime genre its title suggests. There are no cliffhangers or clues, but an episode-by-episode autopsy of a dead-on-arrival corpse that represents more than a single body. 

“This is hardly an isolated phenomenon” Cosper notes, “Why do we keep doing this? Why are we regularly platforming people whose charisma outpaces their character and who leave devastation in their wake? Something attracts us, we buy in, and then we watch the collapse like spectators at a demolition derby. Understanding why this happens is really the purpose of this whole podcast.” Compelling as it sounds, there are problems with this framing, if the goal is to truly understand a broader phenomenon within the evangelical church writ large. 

First, the question that serves as the opening episode’s title suggests that Driscoll is no longer on the evangelical scene, when in fact the disgraced founder and lead pastor of Mars Hill continues to be platformed and preach. He regularly blogged on Patheos from 2017-2020, speaks at Christian events around the country, appears as a guest on secular shows such as Steven Crowder’s Ash Wednesday, and leads The Trinity Church, in Scottsdale, Arizona, which he founded in 2016. Trinity is now also beset by scandal over the same abuses in authority and control that led to Driscoll’s retirement from Mars Hill at the end of 2014. According to recent accounts his paranoia has intensified, not abated, to the detriment of many Trinity congregants who’ve come forward to tell their stories.

Second, the podcast begins with a question that implies blame and preemptively answers “us.” The aim to inspire broad introspection while directly pointing at listeners isn’t exactly the ideal set up to shine a light on and closely examine the theology, organizations, networks, platforms, and leaders that specifically enabled, defended, funded, published, and profited from the perpetual controversies Driscoll purposefully fomented to generate publicity, concentrate power, and reinforce his authority to great harm. 

By contrast my book, Biblical Porn: Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Evangelical Empire, is based on two years of ethnographic fieldwork at Mars Hill’s headquarters in Seattle from 2006-2008; the analysis of a deluge of teaching and media content; reams of blog material produced by the church and its critics; Christian and secular publications by and about Driscoll; and interviews with former members and leaders as the church formally dissolved. My examination serves as a case study that speaks to socioeconomic conditions, theological abuses, and authoritarian tactics that supersede a single church. 

After all of this research on Driscoll and Mars Hill, I know mimicry when I see and hear it; and the graphics, music, and method of storytelling that shape the narrative and experience of the podcast are clearly produced by someone familiar with the milieu in which Driscoll accrued followers and celebrity, while cultivating and capitalizing on its ethos (with some help from the blueprint my book provides, without crediting me beyond the two episodes—Four and Five—in which I briefly appear and Biblical Porn is mentioned in passing). 

Whereas my book chapters connect the dots between Driscoll’s preaching and leadership style, the church’s visual and digital culture, members’ testimonies to spiritual and emotional abuse, and events and scandals in descriptive detail, Cosper’s podcast lacks this flow and comprehensive analysis and often goes on unrelated tangents that distract rather than inform (e.g., comparisons to The Exorcist in Episode Eight or Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight in Episode Nine). But you don’t have to dig too deeply into Cosper’s background to get a sense of why he may not be the most reliable narrator for this particular story.

The podcast works the listener like Driscoll worked a crowd

Cosper was a worship leader at Sojourn, a church in Louisville, Kentucky, which adopted the same Christian counter-cultural style and GenX-indie atmosphere as Mars Hill, went multi-site, and was affiliated with the church planting network that Driscoll co-founded, Acts29, before starting their own. Cosper asks his audience why “we” platform and attach to leaders, becoming acolytes of and serving personalities “whose charisma outpaces their character,” when in fact he has first-hand experience in doing so himself in the case of Sojourn’s Daniel Montgomery, who resigned from his position as lead pastor as Driscoll did his at Mars Hill, after issues were raised concerning his leadership

The better way to frame a podcast whose aim is to imagine and enact cultural transformation for the sake of healthier ministry is: what structures and systems produce and perpetuate such idolatry to begin with—who profits from this platforming and the attachments that they cultivate, and how is their power reproduced? In this way, the critical lens of the podcast shifts its focus, from charismatic individuals and the positing of collective blame for their swift yet celebrated rise in popularity and subsequent dramatic falls, to substantive change for the better.

Tellingly, “charisma” is frequently attributed to Driscoll and taken for granted as a spiritual and secular value throughout the podcast, a presumed God-given gift of communication bestowed specifically on white male leaders. Of course Cosper, who is himself a product of the subculture that produced Driscoll, fails to interrogate this core concept in any meaningful way. A more productive approach would be to examine charisma itself as a manufactured commodity whose value must be reinforced by the labor of local congregants and online followers. 

Charisma is a term repeatedly used in relation to Driscoll, particularly in Episode Six—”The Brand”—but there’s no discussion of the work done to prop up and promote this charisma by the throngs of volunteers who provided free labor by serving the church as team members in worship; technology; media production; marketing and publicity; community groups; children’s ministry; women’s ministry; men’s ministry; security; building maintenance; facility multiplication; and hours spent outside of formal church service in a variety of ways and roles. None of the exploited labor extracted to support the seemingly natural, godly gifts of Driscoll is discussed at any length or with any depth in the podcast. Instead, charisma is assumed as a known quantity and supernatural quality bestowed by God and possessed by select, unique individuals—a blessing and a curse, according to the podcast’s narrative.

White male leaders in Driscoll’s orbit during the church’s rise and fall—those who enabled and capitalized on his appeal and popularity—are never questioned about their culpability with relation to the question, who killed Mars Hill? Instead, these men are provided yet another platform to take advantage of Driscoll’s name and their association with him, as their own celebrity, authority, and status within evangelicalism is showcased throughout interview segments and audio clips. 

Rather than admit any guilt or remorse concerning their contributions to the theological, cultural, political, and economic systems that allowed Driscoll to thrive in the face of so much harm, these men extol his gifts. Tony Jones of Emergent Village admits to the clickbait Driscoll’s name provided, funneling traffic to his blog; in the case of others, such as John Piper or Timothy Keller, they are unquestioned and tacitly given the chance to dodge any responsibility. 

The title of the podcast’s inaugural episode struck me as an odd choice because it plays off the true-crime genre that contributed to popularizing podcasts, drawing audience numbers up and generating social media buzz. Why use language like “kill,” suggesting a crime had happened, rather than control, authoritarianism, and/or megalomania? As The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill climbed the Apple charts, clocking in at number three on August 12, 2021, behind number one, “True Crime,” and number two, “The Daily” by the New York Times, this ranking was celebrated by fans who made note of the podcast’s popularity nationwide with pride, repeatedly commenting with admiration on its production value and the quality of its long-form journalism. Reading these reviews, I had a bad case of deja vu. As one of my friends, a former member of Mars Hill, sardonically texted, “I mean, the podcast is well made, and very successful, so clearly God’s doing something!!!”

The fact that the podcast’s many adoring fans don’t see the irony in fawning over a Christianity Today product for its marketing metrics and emotional pull, when the episodes are meant to investigate how these very same factors contributed to the real-life rise and fall of Mars Hill, means that the podcast by design sublimates self-awareness. It’s true that some have found the podcast helpful to work through their own issues with church communities and spiritual trauma or see it as a useful cautionary tale. Nevertheless, the podcast pulls punches when it comes to conveying the extent to which Driscoll instrumentalized language as a weapon and abused leadership strategies bolstered by the very complementarian theology to which many of the white male evangelical experts interviewed on the podcast still ascribe. 

By not sharing certain detailssuch as Driscoll’s posts under the William Wallace II pseudonym complaining that the nation had become “pussified,” which could have been supplied in the podcast notes if Cosper (understandably) were reluctant to read them aloud—the vitriolic impact of Driscoll’s misogynistic, homophobic, violent, combative posture in language is lost and drowned out by other content, such as the much lauded soundtrack. The only risks taken by the podcast are the inclusion of any material at all on Driscoll’s preaching on sex and its abusive effects, and the inclusion of academic experts who also happen to be women such as Kristin Kobes Du Mez and myself (automatic turn-offs for evangelicals who consider themselves the gatekeepers of “biblical” authority). 

The podcast’s catchy opening tune and priming of mood through narrative hooks works the crowd in the way that Driscoll did, creating a buzz out of controversy to the extent that it loses sight of its purported aim—healthy, substantive change in evangelical church culture and practices. Such transformation would require more truth-telling on the part of the enablers, apologists, and organizations, including Christianity Today, that elevated Driscoll’s brand name for profit despite the endless stream of scandals that he orchestrated to tangible harm.

Still, the guy saved a lotta souls

In 2007, the year that a pastor was fired for questioning changes that would ultimately lead to the concentration of Driscoll’s power (Episode 7—”State of Emergency”), Christianity Today published a glowing account of Mars Hill’s rise authored by Collin Hansen, who would later write the book Young, Restless, and Reformed (2008) detailing the Neo-Calvinist movement led by evangelical elder statesmen such as John Piper, D.A. Carson, and Timothy Keller. Hansen now serves as the Vice-President and Editor-in-Chief of The Gospel Coalition, a publishing network founded by Keller and Carson in 2005 that would give Driscoll a national platform among established leaders, along with the gravitas of their blessing and seeming mentorship. 

Hansen’s Christianity Today profile of Driscoll, “Pastor Provocateur,” starts with the premise that love him or hate him, Driscoll is bringing people to Jesus in one of the least-churched cities in the United States. This line is taken straight from Driscoll’s playbook, a claim that he would repeat often and loudly to pre-empt and drown out criticism of his misogynistic, homophobic, racist language on online forums such as the Leadership Network website or his Mars Hill blog. Hansen’s CT profile was published after two well-publicized controversies over Driscoll posts in 2006 that go unmentioned or are breezed over in the Rise and Fall podcast but that are covered at length in my book. 

First, Driscoll wrote a rebuttal in Christianity Today’s now defunct sister publication, Leadership Journal, to an article on the “homosexual question” by Brian McLaren, a vocal figure in what was then called the “emergent conversation.” Tellingly, evidence of Driscoll’s full response to McLaren has been scrubbed and edited (including, apparently, by Christianity Today), but I learned from early on in my research on Mars Hill that it was important to copy text and download media before it was erased or made more palatable later. Driscoll’s post has been edited for length below, but you can find a relatively intact version of it on the Wayback Machine here:

Well, it seems that Brian McLaren and the Emergent crowd are emerging into homo-evangelicals. Before I begin my rant, let me first defend myself…I planted a church in my 20s in one of America’s least churched cities where the gay pride parade is much bigger than the march for Jesus…I am myself a devoted heterosexual male lesbian who has been in a monogamous marriage with my high school sweetheart since I was 21 and personally know the pain of being a marginalized sexual minority as a male lesbian. 

And now the rant. 

For me, the concern started when McLaren the February 7, 2005 issue of Time Magazine said, “Asked at a conference last spring what he thought about gay marriage, Brian McLaren replied, ‘You know what, the thing that breaks my heart is that there’s no way I can answer it without hurting someone on either side.’” Sadly, by failing to answer, McLaren was unwilling to say what the Bible says and in so doing really hurt God’s feelings and broke his heart. 

Then, Brian’s Tonto Doug Pagitt, an old acquaintance of mine, wrote the following in a book he and I both contributed to called Listening to the Beliefs of Emerging Churches edited by Robert Webber and due out this spring: 

“The question of humanity is inexorably linked to sexuality and gender…Christianity will be impotent to lead a conversation on sexuality and gender if we do not boldly integrate our current understandings of humanity with our theology. This will require us to not only draw new conclusions about sexuality but will force [sic] to consider new ways of being sexual.” 

Although I am unsure exactly what Doug meant by this last statement for safety’s sake I would strongly recommend that all farmers, particularly those surrounding Minneapolis, lock up their sheep at night effective immediately. 

Gimlet-eyed readers who followed the link may have noticed that they couldn’t locate this last, most puerile sentence. It was removed, according to the editor, in order to “keep the conversation focused and on topic.” It would appear that ignoring the depths of Driscoll’s depravity is a pastime with a past. 

Indeed, Hansen’s CT article makes nothing but passing reference to Driscoll’s  theological conflict with McLaren and Pagitt. The CT profile, like the podcast, describes Driscoll emulating comedians like Chris Rock; his tone is dismissed as that of a “smart-aleck former frat boy,” a “sharp tongue” used in sermons and books as his “bad boy reputation” serves to spread the gospel. Hansen represents Driscoll’s split with the Leadership Network as amicable by quoting praise from Emergent Village’s Tony Jones, who “spoke highly of Driscoll’s leadership gifts,” although he hadn’t spoken to him in five years: 

“He is uncommonly intelligent. He is uncommonly articulate and humorous. He could have been a stand-up comedian. He could have been a great actor probably.” 

In the CT profile, as in the podcast, Driscoll’s humor is counted as one of the talents contributing to his charisma, simultaneously signaling his intelligence and appeal (at least to straight white Christian men). Looking at Driscoll’s rant against McLaren and Pagitt one can see that this humor isn’t reducible to sarcasm, but weaponized to create controversy using homophobic, racist language that dehumanizes. Driscoll feels that there is and justifies picking fights based on the growth of his church in one of the least-churched cities in the nation. Yes, Driscoll later apologized to McLaren, but he never repented or changed—another abusive pattern that would be repeated year after year.

Hansen also breezes over Driscoll’s blog post on Ted Haggard’s fall that led to the first protest organized outside of Mars Hill in the fall of 2006, affording him the opportunity to say that he failed to articulate his point well, which then stands unquestioned: “Christians should not have a false sense of security about their spouses’ fidelity.” As I discuss at length in my book and was able to state in the podcast, this burden was not directed at husbands but at women, to great detriment. Once again, to stop the protest at the final hour, Driscoll apologized. 

Towards the end of Episode One of the podcast, Ed Stetzer, Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, makes the case that the Internet is to blame for elevating pastors to megachurch-celebrity status before their character is ready:

“There’s a body count of young pastors whose ability rose them to prominence before their character was ready for it. Mark was and is a remarkably gifted person, and in some ways Mark was the first Internet age megachurch celebrity pastor and leading number one podcasts, number one sermon downloads, those kinds of things. So what that did is, elevated Mark to the stratosphere so quickly, whereas you might think…typically they may take 20-30 years of faithful ministry, but the Internet just propelled things with such rapidity, and the Internet only sees how you speak, that’s all the Internet is, it’s all about verbal articulation so it doesn’t say what’s your leadership structure, doesn’t hold an accountability with the local church, how are we living life on life, and so I think what we’ve seen since Mars Hill is that there have been others that have been elevated very very quickly and they’ve been elevated before their character was ready.” 

However, as my book points out and the evidence that I’ve shared here suggests, Driscoll’s “verbal articulation” online should have been alarming to many. Yet those who promoted and capitalized from the controversy Driscoll catalyzed through the digital medium not only agreed in principle with what he said, but they could exploit Driscoll’s self-proclaimed “riot evangelism” while maintaining a safe enough distance from the scandals and harm to remain clear of criticism themselves. 

No one acknowledges any of this dynamic throughout the podcast, yet it’s obvious to anyone who’s paid attention to Driscoll’s career and the way that the sycophants around him stood by as the vicious cycle of controversy-apology, controversy-apology, controversy-apology, endlessly continued. Meanwhile, Driscoll’s combative, controlling behavior and the verbal abuse he clearly and publicly doled out online was ongoing in his church on the ground, adversely impacting his ministry and tangibly harming staff without any oversight or repercussions, because it was too costly to those who profited from his sexist, homophobic, and racist antics, which they were far too often theologically, culturally, and politically aligned with in any case.  

The promotional advertising scattered throughout the podcast’s episodes ask listeners to subscribe to CT in order to be “part of this global movement to lift up the storytellers and sages of the church,” as though wisdom and storytelling were one and the same and echoing the rhetoric I would hear Driscoll use when stumping for tithes. The podcast presumes its narrative will cause reflection on the part of listeners, and from the comments I’ve seen on social media there has been some, but it’s also affirming a lot of previously-held convictions and stirring defensiveness. 

Unfortunately, those who contributed to the podcast failed to model self-reflection and wisdom in the name of truth and repentance, and those who could have done so were glaringly absent or were represented by heavily curated audio clips or name-drops. The Gospel Coalition and Christianity Today both played vital roles in providing Driscoll the platform, celebrity, and legitimacy necessary to continually apologize before moving on to create yet another scandal in order to inspire more criticism which, in turn, generated more downloads, traffic, and ultimately greater loyalty. 

Although reviewers on the Apple podcast site make frequent reference to its NPR-like, high-quality production value, “Mars Hill” is often criticized for being “woke.” Apparently, the mere inclusion of “non-Christians” during interview segments is a problem for this crowd; although I openly identified as a non-Christian on the podcast, I haven’t heard anyone else refer to themselves as such, so there’s no basis for the use of the plural form. 

Meanwhile, the invisible and invincible supremacy of whiteness goes unspoken but assumed and unquestioned throughout the podcast’s narrative. While the anti-woke crowd crows about “anti-white racism,” there’s no discussion of race or racism at all. Men’s voices predominate too, except of course in episodes that cover gender and sex, when women’s voices are given more airtime because those are topics that “concern women,” and yet survivors of abuse are not centered in these discussions. 

Episode Six—”The Brand”—directly follows the episode that tackles Driscoll’s teachings on sex, but there’s no segue into a discussion of how sex was used as a tool of branding, commodified and packaged to accrue publicity and men’s service to the church. Instead, Cosper begins the episode with an audio clip of John Piper’s “seashells” sermon at the Passion One-Day Conference in 2000, figuring him as the spiritual father of the Young, Restless, and Reformed. Its inclusion tells a good story about how the desire to “do something with your life” attracted young men to Neo-Calvinism at the turn of the 21st century. 

However, Cosper could have just as easily included audio of Piper’s response to the question of whether or not wives should endure abuse in marriage, captured in a video available here, where this member of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and supposed mentor to Mark Driscoll among other young church planters, describes how wives should submit to the verbal and physical abuse of their husbands in support of their “biblical” headship. 

Listening to Piper discuss how women should submit to verbal abuse “for a season” and to “getting smacked,” explains how Driscoll was permitted to preach such a spiritually and emotionally harmful theology of gender and sex from the pulpit and for online consumption. Piper’s “seashells” sermon may have catalyzed a Neo-Calvinist revival, but his promotion of complementarianism set up an abusive, authoritarian, heteropatriarchal church culture that took root and played a role in the downfall of many. 

As the episode winds down, Collin Hansen defends Timothy Keller, pronouncing him incapable of knowing or understanding the harm of Driscoll’s teaching and leadership. However, Keller himself alludes to such issues in a New York Times article on Mars Hill’s demise: “[Driscoll] was really important—in the Internet age, Mark Driscoll definitely built up the evangelical movement enormously. But the brashness and the arrogance and the rudeness in personal relationships—which he himself has confessed repeatedly—was obvious to many from the earliest days, and he has definitely now disillusioned quite a lot of people.” By Keller’s own admission, he knew what was wrong with Driscoll’s wielding of authority; he knew there was a pattern of interpersonal violence but implies that it didn’t matter over numbers and metrics that attested to growth. 

Evangelical identity politics and its imbrication with white supremacy, heteropatriachy, and neoliberalism are intersecting problems in a story that attempts to figure out who killed Mars Hill. The better question is: how do known abusive leaders such as Driscoll get a free pass to continue preaching in the pulpit and through online ministry? Charismatic spiritual fathers who sacrifice the vulnerable, while theologically justifying it as biblical, go about their business. This gaslighting at the scale of population isn’t simply harmful to individuals, it’s a systemic problem  for an insatiable evangelical industrial complex that makes new idols out of old and replicates divisive us-versus-them ideologies within and outside of churches. Asking the flagship publication of the evangelical industrial complex to examine itself may yield a slick new product, but it just replicates the same old problems.