On the 49 from Northcote, a young woman sits. She folds her hands, hangs her feet, and lets the world without slip by – grey granite yielding to gleaming glass, verdant green disappearing behind the whorls of potted plants. Somewhere outside, the river wends its way across the plain. Above, in a fleeting moment a giant clanging bird roars. Somewhere on the corner of Shepherd’s Bush and King’s an old man, wraps his hands around himself as his breath draws wisps in the winter wind. As it was in the beginning and now is the river remains. We all like small lights flicker, and then are gone.
Over the past four or so months, I have listened with rapt attention, waiting for the next episode drop of the Christianity Today podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. For the uninitiated, it chronicles the story of Seattle megachurch, Mars Hill and its founder Mark Driscoll. It first came to my attention, if memory serves me right, when its host, Christianity Today‘s Mike Cosper, popped in to the Holy Post podcast for a conversation with Skye Jethani. That interview, and the end of the first episode, go some way to lay out the team’s reasons for exploring this story and what lessons they hope to tease out as they go along. As expected, Mark Driscoll looms large over the series – which has one final episode to go. Alongside him, making appearances and/or being named checked are a slew of other heavyweights in the evangelical space, thanks to his involvement in two organisations like The Gospel Coalition and the Acts 29 network.
Listening to the podcast has been a trip down memory lane for me of sorts, back to the mid 2000s, a time when I was deeply wedded to the Pentecostal cause back in the old country. I was two years into a move to a different city for work, had home internet – even slower than dialup – for the first time and had gotten myself a laptop to boot. At the same time my friend A had just gotten a copy of Joshua Harris’ I Kissed Dating Goodbye as well as mp3s of the three-part series Harris preached at the Covenant Life Church’s singles ministry meetings. The outcome of all of this – and the advent of Apple podcasts – was to open my eyes to the wealth of resources on the internet – SermonAudio & Boundless to name a few. This was my path to coming within the Driscoll orbit, from a distance as it were. With the benefit of hindsight, the folk I listened to a lot then were an interesting bunch – John Piper, CJ Mahaney, Joshua Harris, Al Mohler, Mark Dever, Bruce Ware and the others who turned up regularly to the defunct New Attitude Conference to name a few.
By all accounts the failings at Mars Hill were due to a the failure of governance with a hyper powerful central figure whose brand became the focus of everything, or the results of the scheming and conniving of few disgruntled elements seeking power, if the alternative narrative is to be believed. The strong powerful central figure trope though is one that persists, particularly in its exported form in churches in my other country. I have vivid memories of spiritual fathers insisting on ‘seeds’ and ‘offerings’ and laying down the law as to what should happen in people’s home as part of adjudicating matters. Not too long ago, a certain Nigerian MOG spouted some 5G and COVID conspiracy stuff and got his followers – some of whom are very bright and otherwise intelligent people – deferring to his opinion on the subject. That he did seem to offer a retraction seems to carry less weight with the one or two of those I know, who I have since deleted and blocked off Whatsapp, that cesspool of misinformation.
At its peak, Mars Hill attracted close to 15,000 people over five campuses, which perhaps begs the question of what attracted them. If my experience is anything to go by I sense that most people want a strong central authority in their lives, want clarity, and if they are of a religious bent, want access to people who are close to the Divine and who can say with (misplaced?) confidence that God told them some hidden and arcane reason behind something out in the world.
It seems to me that Cosper and co went to great lengths to present both sides of the Mars Hill story – the real hurt to people but also the real lives helped. Balancing these two narratives was always going to be a big difficulty with a project such as this though in my view, they did do very well in that regards. I am looking out for the final episode, hopefully it ties all the various strands of the narrative together nicely as well as addresses some of the criticisms others have levelled at.
Before you call me by this name and shrink the sum of all my days down to this facade, this still-life of sepia pixels flickering like daylight disappearing before the force of dusk;
Before you place the burdens of history around my neck, till it begins to break beneath the weight of expectation, you must know that this name is one of a myriad, each bequeathed by the ones who came before, a prayer that we might see, the small lights in our being.
Of the things that still irk me, more than a year into my Arabian Odyssey, the sheer inefficiencies which seem baked into the system stand out for particular ire. Case in point: this past week to spend ten minutes picking up a letter from my employer and then delivering it at a government office fifteen kilometres away, I had to drive 250+kilometres. To my mind, it is something that can and should dare I say, be managed via an online portal but I found to my pain that this was not the case. It is no wonder then that in the short space of over a month I have driven just shy of three thousand kilometres, mainly between my outpost in the middle of nowhere, work (twice), the big city next door (multiple times) and the occasional trip to the provincial capital for some government thing or the other twice too.
One of those trips put into context why choosing not to buy a 4×4 wasn’t the brightest of ideas. Having taken a wrong turn off a certain road, I found to my chagrin that it soon dissolved into desert sands and nothing more. It was in trying to turn off it into the other side of the road to retrace my steps that trouble struck. My puny rear wheel drive, 1.6L engine, subcompact got mired in the sands which had accumulated on that section of unused roads. Several attempts only managed to get me firmly stuck with no seeming route to recovery. It didn’t help that I had left L and S at home with a view to dashing into the next town to grab some supplies and then return. My salvation came in the shape of two men who spotted me whilst driving their pick up truck across the sand on the other side of the road. After some frantic hand waving on my part to attract their attention, they came to a stop across the divider of the road as we tried to communicate my predicament. My Arabic is nonexistent as was their English but the one word we could both understand was ‘Help?’, to wish I nodded frantically. They promptly disappeared for a bit in a cloud of sand only to reappear at the bend where the road turned to sand. The younger of the two was dressed in full regalia, thobe and head gear included whilst his older companion had threadbare jeans and a denim shirt rolled up at the sleeves. Ten or so minutes afterwards, I finally came unstuck thanks to the younger getting into my car and proceeding to attempt to reverse out of the rut i had sunk into whilst his companion and I pushed. Not in a very long time, and I suspect/hope not in a long time in the future, have I felt such relief at seeing a stranger’s face.
Driving out here was one of the things I dreaded the most, given the stories of texting drivers and general disregard for other road users which were drummed into us during our orientation. Bar a couple of near misses where tailgaters have almost forced me off the road at 120km/hr, nothing much of note has happened. That, and the sense of habituation which has made the 60km trek to the next town feel normal are things to be thankful for.
Every waking minute of the past few weeks it seems has been filled with some nursery rhyme or the other, so much so that deep in my less wakeful moments, I have caught myself humming along to some tune or another. Chief of them has to be the ten in a bed one where a particularly bossy kid shoos off the others who end up in a pile beside the bed nursing various bumps and scrapes. Sometimes it has felt like there are an infinite number of ways this can happen, although the mathematics suggest that there is only one way to do that, if that particular order is maintained. All of this is long way to say that L is very much at the centre of things with sleep, if I can go out for a run in the morning and other such mundane things very much dependent on what state she wakes up in.
I would like to think that being the well adjusted, finely tuned primate that I am makes me the very epitome of a caring parent but the truth is that there are days when all I want with every fibre of my being is to ignore whatever plea for help is emanating from her crib and get some extra precious minutes of sleep, particularly on work days. Most days I don’t yield to my internal lazy boy but what I will admit is that I have begun to look forward to my forty-minute commute to work on the bus. That has begun to feel like an island of sanity, keeping the chaos of home away from the madness of work. Small mercies.