• Aarik Danielsen

Man of War

Someone depresses a piano key over and over, as far as it goes, and I choke back tears. Every week.


The instrument signals the beginning of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, the buzzworthy new podcast from Christianity Today. Host Mike Cosper ushers listeners through the saga of a once-dominant Seattle church and its charismatic pugilist-pastor, Mark Driscoll.


With the set pieces of an epic and omens of a tragedy, the story exists at a precarious Four Corners. Soul care, celebrity culture, self-destruction, and the insatiable need to control everyone and everything meets, rubbing one another raw.


A strange antiphony opens each episode. The theme song via Kings Kaleidoscope calls out and soundbites respond. Devastating lyrics relate pledges of allegiance and compromises of convenience, then meet their match in lament, reflection, rebuke, and the sound of a pastor’s jaws unhinging in real-time.


Forty years, something like 2,080 weeks, of heading to church and failing to divide my understanding of God from my experience of people. I hear my own story, for better and worse, in those opening seconds.

Without fail, my body becomes a single, tingling nerve. I almost blame Cosper and his team’s skillful production. Perhaps, as in a movie’s climax or a power ballad’s crescendo, each element is designed to pull something out from inside me.


I wouldn’t mind so much. For all the times a church or chapel service perfectly played my emotions, I can yield the hidden places to an unflinching portrait of the American church itself. But something else is at play.


The show dredges the depths of a life spent splashing around in baptismal pools. Forty years, something like 2,080 weeks, of heading to church and failing to divide my understanding of God from my experience of people. I hear my own story, for better and worse, in those opening seconds.


At least three emotional circles radiate. First, sympathy for all those who bear scars from their season at Mars Hill—or any church sharing its shape. No one heals or wounds quite like God’s people; no place offers more glory or anguish than the houses we build in his name.


Driscoll’s story calls to mind all the so-called shepherds who, somewhere along the way, confuse their commission. Sniffing out wolves becomes more important than feeding lambs. Anyone beyond the pen is treated with suspicion; one lost sheep living on the outskirts of the 99 eventually becomes indistinguishable from a panting predator.


Real people bruise when priests start swinging their fists at people on the lip of the confessional; no matter how ill or true the intent. My pain blurs with those still wincing at the memory of those blows.


Next, gratitude for the slow, squiggly arc of my church, one influenced and helped by Driscoll while its foundation dried. Miles from perfect, our church would no doubt take some situations—and people—back if possible. But the seed of God’s word falls on softer, not stonier, ground with each new season.


I write this without pride, only slow and labored breaths. Who knows how one church sifts the loamy soil of grace while another becomes a hill to die upon? No outcome is guaranteed, and seeing what’s possible makes me thankful for today and eager to plead for tomorrow.


Closest to the center of the chest, something like the feeling of divine approval. All the emotion rushing through the podcast rounds into the word “beloved.”


I never fit Mark Driscoll’s mold of manhood. I know myself too well—a lover, not a bare-knuckle boxer; more acquainted with metaphors of creating and cultivating than words of warfare. I mean, I like “Fight Club” but I know it’s satire.

I never fit Mark Driscoll’s mold of manhood. I know myself too well—a lover, not a bare-knuckle boxer; more acquainted with metaphors of creating and cultivating than words of warfare. I mean, I like “Fight Club” but I know it’s satire.


But for a time, more than a decade ago, I thought I must be a Driscoll in order to make any discernible spiritual difference. I craved fire in the belly, the same gravel in my throat. Instead, when I filled the pulpit, friends commented on my “NPR voice.” What now reads as a compliment once made me feel like a failure.


I came closest to thunder and Thor when a trusted brother described my preaching style like a “velvet hammer.” More an artist’s implement than a wrestler’s calling card.


Now I know I couldn’t be Driscoll if I wanted to. Life conspired to show me where home was. Experience made me throw in with the Eugene Petersons of the world, saints who rationed their steps for a longer obedience. I mouthed along to the dizzy words of Brennan Manning, who pointed first to his own flaws, then to the God who drowned them in oceans of his grace.


The confessions of rocker and raconteur Nick Cave, hardly a man of orthodoxy, echoed in my soul louder than any sweaty, shouted sermon:


I slowly reacquainted myself with the Jesus of my childhood, that eerie figure that moves through the Gospels, the man of sorrows, and it was through him that I was given a chance to redefine my relationship with the world. The voice that spoke through me now was softer, sadder, more introspective.


Tending to the voice God gave me, and spying the fates of “model men,” I cared less about being someone else, surrendering to the way I was made. And with surrender comes a series of recognitions.


Most people who fancy themselves prophets are just bullies or puffed full of their own good press. Many calls to bold, Biblical manhood flatten the very experience of the prophets. They overlook Jeremiah, who wept; Hosea, who waited up for his wife to come home; Isaiah, who had his lips burned clean.


Often, I learned, poets best fulfill the role of prophets—lending us the language of revelation, quietly erasing every word that isn’t God and tenderness and light.


The still and true path revealed my complete inability to affect spiritual change in anyone; especially if changing myself was the means to that end.


My need for certainty died along with a one-size-fits-all vision of manhood. Some spiritual truths serve as bedrocks, but I comprehend two percent of what I accept with 98 percent confidence. Any interest in transferring my convictions to another soul fades out like a radio song.


The Mars Hill story reminds us our initial sense of self isn’t always right and the majority doesn’t always rule.

There will be as many experiences of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill as listeners. Some house sympathy for Driscoll; others wouldn’t spare a splash of water if he walked by ablaze. I imagine most listeners, like me, experience three or more emotions at once.


And this comes as a result of common experience—anyone who walks into a church wants to be seen, to be used, to be accepted. By a pastor and by God. The Mars Hill story reminds us our initial sense of self isn’t always right and the majority doesn’t always rule.


I house many regrets from the former days. People I tried to fix and lost sight of. Better conversations left on the table in favor of questions designed to induce right—or damning—answers. But I no longer regret my wiring as a particular sort of man enveloped by the image of God.


What we worship matters. A God of war produces a man of war. But a God who lavishes love beyond language or imagination redeems people to become most themselves. Such reality heightens my emotions, and it changes everything.



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