Saturday, September 12, 2009

Acts 29: Butt rock pretending to be indie rock

This past Sunday night, I attended Praxis Church in Tempe, Ariz. for the first time in a while and what is likely to be my last time ever. Many who attend that church are good friends and acquaintances of mine (and one of them is my sister). One such acquaintance saw that I was wearing my Fuller Theological Seminary T-shirt and said, "You left-wing wackos!" And then in a mocking, high-pitched voice he exclaimed, "We love God and everybody else!"

To be fair to this acquaintance, he told me he was joking, but I still don't find it very funny and frankly, I think it pretty much encapsulates the Acts 29 theology. For those of you who aren't in the know (which may or may not entail being an unbeliever), the Acts 29 Network is a organization of neo-Calvinist churches founded by a certain Mark Driscoll. If you haven't heard of Mark Driscoll, I highly recommend familiarizing yourself with him so you can at least be aware of a ministry that I believe is hurting the Christian message.

Driscoll is the pastor at a Seattle-based church called Mars Hill, which in its 13 years of existence has grown into one of the more prominent mega-churches in the U.S. As was documented in an episode of ABC News Nightline, Mars Hill has a reputation of being a "hip," non-liturgical church where the pastor dons fairly casual wear, the congregation is mostly in the 18 to 30 age range and, by church standards, the music is very loud; think of a combination between Nickel Creek, Coldplay and, at its edgiest, Death Cab for Cutie and you'll get an idea of the worship band's style. This church conveniently offers coffee and free Wi-Fi to congregants whenever they are not listening to Driscoll drop terms like "dude" and "chick" and curse in the middle of sermons. In other words, Mars Hill is an indie rock church -- or at least it would like you to think it is.

Driscoll describes his church as "culturally liberal and theologically conservative," and the latter couldn't be any closer to the truth. Driscoll is a strict patriarch who discourages women from preaching and believes women's top priority must become submission to their husbands upon getting married. He is notorious for frequently talking about the do's and don'ts of sex during his sermons, and even more notorious for thinking pastors' wives should oblige to their husbands' sexual wishes more often to reduce the pastors' urges to screw around with other females and/or males. And on that note, he is a big homophobe -- I heard him once say in an interview that he considers Biblical figures like King David, Elijah, John the Baptist and St. Paul "rough" and "heterosexual" guys, and express distaste at the fact 60 percent of churchgoers are women and most men who do attend church are "chickified." There is nothing indie rock about Mark Driscoll -- he is 100 percent butt rock.

As I alluded to before, Praxis Church is part of the Acts 29 network. I have attended about six or seven of their services, and I think the pastor there is several steps above Driscoll. (For the sake of this post, I am omitting the pastor's name -- all of you who attend Praxis know who he is.) I would be lying if I said I did not find some his sermons very compelling, thoughtful and enjoyable in their own right. But from what I have heard within his sermons, read on his blog and heard about him from some of my friends who attend Praxis, he also seems to be a big fan of the patriarchal route. On one of his blog posts, he echoes Driscoll in explaining why husbands are supposedly the natural leaders in any marriage. I once heard him say during a sermon something to the effect of "Mary was a virgin -- yeah, right." A female friend of mine said she and her friends asked this pastor about joining a group where men undergo preliminary pastoral training, and he responded by reading a piece of Scripture as an excuse to keep women out of the program.

The thing that scares me even more than these views is the fact so many Acts 29 congregants seem to be more tuned into the "culturally liberal" aspect of this ministry than the "theologically conservative" one. I know quite liberal people who talk about this network like it is the most revolutionary Christian organization in existence and it's simply not true. I think a lot of this misperception has to do with presentation: Driscoll's preaching style, the Starbucks-style service and -- above all -- the music. Extremely fine-tuned but not overly polished, churches like Praxis are offering a variation of "The Word" in a style tailor-made for thousands of young folks who bliss out to the anomaly of "mainstream indie rock." It's completely understandable that people's choice of church is determined by the kind of music played within, but it's still disappointing to me. It's kind of like determining which person you would like to date based on that person's musical tastes: It might make for some enjoyable, revelatory conversations, but ultimately it's a shallow move. And in the case of Acts 29, I think it's a shameless, bait-and-switch marketing ploy.

One thing I take great offense to is the fact Driscoll paints Jesus as a macho dude-bro who would have watched football, shot guns recreationally or worked on his truck in this day and age. He denounces the most common portrayals of Jesus as a "hippie, diaper, halo Christ ... I cannot worship a guy I can beat up." I can kind of understand where he's coming from -- I do agree that Jesus tends to be sissified in much modern theology, and the fact of the matter is that the Messiah is a rebel who pissed a lot of people off, got killed and was resurrected for standing up for what was right. But Jesus was a rebel in the punk rock sense, not in the heavy metal sense. Jesus' authority cannot be measured by sheer volume or girth. He was not a bully, in spite of the often misinterpreted text in the Gospel of Matthew about bringing a sword to the world (which had more to do with triggering the Jewish and Roman authorities' wrath than conducting any of those horrible Crusades). Jesus did occasionally get angry -- especially when interacting with the Pharisees and the Temple's money changers -- but righteous anger was not the foundation of his ministry. He was not a "cool guy," as ABC Nightlife portrayed Driscoll; Jesus was a complete and utter social outcast and so were every single one of his disciples. To draw a comparison to the Sex Pistols, Jesus' ministry and message is his "God Save the Queen" -- banned by the BBC but ultimately a No. 2 single (though any Jesus Jam track is always No. 1 in my books). As someone who considers himself a sensitive, artsy, "chickified" nerd who has never felt entirely comfortable among anyone on this Earth, not least of all macho men, I can wholeheartedly identify with the Jesus Driscoll would probably assault.

But the thing that troubles me the most about what I've seen from the Acts 29 Network is that it is missing the Christian message's most vital ingredient: Love. I know there is little, if anything, warm and fuzzy about Jesus' love -- it's the brutally honest, consummately transforming and downright scary kind of love we don't deserve and are profusely thankful to have. But it is also forgiving, generous and blind to whether or not we are jocks, nerds, extroverts, introverts, liberals, conservatives, artists, engineers, men, women, heterosexuals, homosexuals, young, old, mobile, immobile, etc. No one is unworthy of performing "The Word." Like any good punk rock, passion is more important than precision.

But I'm convinced Acts 29 are the ultimate bitter, jaded, Pitchfork-style music critics, hanging every sour note you've ever played over your head so you'll never be able to play comfortably, even though you may sincerely want to improve your musical skills. I especially feel this way after reading the aforementioned Praxis pastor's blog post where he bashes on unmarried 25-year-olds who live with their parents, do not hold high-paying jobs and "suddenly" decide to go into ministry. I am 25, single (asking women out has never been my sharpest skill, frankly), live with my parents out of financial necessity and work part-time because it is relatively convenient for my school schedule. In spite of all this, I don't think there was anything sudden or insincere about my recent foray into ministry. I love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, mind and body and want to use my musical talents to glorify His holy name, and I don't think anyone's age, financial situation, marital status or even past mistakes should be used against anyone who wants to perform "The Word." Being a successful, married Acts 29-style macho man is not that easy for some of us.

Now with all this being said, there are some things I do like about Praxis and, to a lesser extent, Mars Hill (a church I've admittedly never been to personally, though I've read and viewed enough to decide it's not my thing). The pastors at both churches are intelligent, captivating evangelists in their own right -- as I've sincerely told the pastor at Praxis on several occasions -- and in spite of my beef with their patriarchal views on marriage, I'm sure they are wonderful husbands and fathers. I do like the fact Praxis is encouraging involvement in missional communities, which will ultimately become the future of the church as Christians move away from buildings and further into their various communities. And please note that this post is not necessarily a dig on the people who attend these churches. As I said earlier, I know a lot of them personally, and this past Sunday after church I had an amazing in-depth theological discussion with my wonderful sister and many of her incredible friends. Honestly, that post-service discussion (at Four Peaks Brewery, of all places!) felt more like church to me than the service itself.

But as Christians, we are in fact called to love God and everybody else, above any other commandment the Bible gives us. And if thinking that makes me a left-wing wacko, I'm OK with that. Larry Norman, the father of Christian rock, put it best: "You could shake hands with the devil/Or give your life to God on the level/But without love, you ain't nothing without love."

Mark Driscoll, please take note. The Kingdom of God is not biased toward butt rock.

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