Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Mefferd - Driscoll Word War Speaks Volumes

I'd heard of Mark Driscoll.

But I'd never heard of Janet Mefferd.

Driscoll, of course, is the often acerbic and occasionally belligerent evangelical preacher in Seattle, Washington.  He likes to brag about how satisfying he finds his wife, how his testosterone-fueled ideas of masculinity are superior to those of more effeminate men, and how the Trinity-denying T.D. Jakes, a prosperity gospel pastor, is a brother in Christ.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Driscoll has managed to forge a popular teaching ministry that appeals to a gritty range of both male and female "new Reformists."  He's become an entrenched member of our vast evangelical industrial complex as a prodigious author and sought-after conference keynoter.  His latest book, A Call to Resurgence: Will Christianity Have a Funeral or a Future?, was published by Tyndale House on November 5.

It was ostensibly to conduct a promotional interview for his book that Janet Mefferd, who I recently learned is an evangelical personality in her own right, welcomed Driscoll onto her Christian talk radio show November 21.  Mefferd launched her line of questioning by asking Driscoll about the morning he crashed a conference being hosted by yet another evangelical celebrity, John MacArthur, that was serving as a publicity event for his new book that was competing against Driscoll's.  The topic of these two books is whether or not the Holy Spirit still exercises His demonstrable gifts - such as healing and speaking in tongues - in our modern world.  Driscoll says He most certainly does, while MacArthur says those gifts were intended for times and places that have long since passed.

Okay.  Are you still with me?  Sometimes I grimace with incredulity when evangelical Christians wonder why we don't have more evangelical Christians on this planet.  Like all of this I've written so far - which demonstrates the energies upon which many of us evangelicals spend our emotions, time, and finances - really has commensurate eternal influence on our glorification of God and and being salt and light within our spheres of influence.

At any rate, it didn't take long for Mefferd, the radio talk show host, to apparently corner Driscoll into uncovering a lie.  There has been a tempest in a teapot over allegations Driscoll's team initially made regarding MacArthur's security detail, and whether or not they maliciously confiscated Driscoll's books that he brought onto the campus of MacArthur's California church during his conference.

A conference, remember, that was at odds with the thesis of Driscoll's new book.

Talk Radio Balk

Mefferd eventually gets Driscoll to admit that what his office first claimed about the book confiscation really didn't happen.  That wasn't surprising to me, but then again, I didn't pay much attention to the incident when Driscoll's people started making a fuss over it.  When pressed by Mefferd, Driscoll seems to strike a conciliatory tone regarding the brashness with which he first criticized MacArthur's people, and I wasn't sure why it seemed like a big deal.

Remember, too, that the only reason I was listening to the tape was because the fallout from her live interview with Driscoll continues to spread like wildfire across our evangelical industrial complex.  More and more people are writing about it, arguing over it, and taking sides over it.

Being unfamiliar with Mefferd, I don't know if her tactics in this particular interview are representative of the way she typically interviews her guests, but her tone of questioning only goes a bit farther before Driscoll starts complaining that she seems to be staging a "gotcha!" campaign against him.  And frankly, I found myself agreeing with him.

Hey - we all know Driscoll likes to play some sort of sanctimonious bully against a conventional archetype of the kindly, gracious pastor.  He likes to swagger, he likes to catch people off-guard, and he seems convinced that notoriety and respectability are the same thing.  But both Driscoll and I were under the impression that this was supposed to be an interview exploring the validity of the claims and theology Driscoll presents in his newest book.  I wouldn't expect Mefferd to do a fluffy, puff piece of entertainment journalism, or a goofy late-night talk show PR segment, but it seemed an odd venue to press Driscoll on his attempt at upstaging MacArthur.

Indeed, instead of an interview, it soon sounded like an inquisition.  Mefferd got pretty direct, and accusatory, because she didn't leave it at Driscoll's conference-crashing.  She switched to a part of his book where she recognized some of his content as being something written by another theologian, Dr. Peter Jones.  Driscoll gives a sloppy and incomplete reference to Jones' work at the beginning of this section of his book, but he then goes on for several pages without clarifying that what is being presented as his writing is actually Jones'.  Which, in the hotly-contested world of intellectual property law, is considered plagiarism.

At first, Driscoll offered Mefferd a pat apology, and mumbled something about how footnotes can get mistakenly omitted as manuscripts shuffle multiple times between an author and his publisher.  He also apologized for having a cold, being stuffed up, and sounding lethargic over the air.  So maybe he was realizing he was conveying the impression that he wasn't taking these accusations as seriously as Mefferd wanted him to.

And boy, she kept poking him with that plagiarism stick.  Over and over again, awkwardly, even as Driscoll began to plainly protest.  He told Mefferd he was doing her a favor by letting her interview him, and this was supposed to be about his beliefs about the gifts of the Spirit, and not about legal stuff like how many times he credits another author.

For her part, Mefferd reminded him that this wasn't just some exercise in petty grammatical formalities.  All of Driscoll's own ministry material, online and otherwise, is lathered with warnings about copyright laws and plagiarism.  No publisher wants to be caught red-handed selling books with unattributed content in them.  This is a legal issue, Mefferd cautioned Driscoll, and it's also a moral issue.  Why should the church expect the world to exhibit morality when we treat it so cavalierly ourselves?

All excellent points, of course, and right on the mark.  But while it was appropriate for Mefferd to point these out, was it appropriate for her to lambaste Driscoll with them on the air?

Driscoll's fans across our Christian ghetto have been rallying to his defense, saying this was typical "gotcha" journalism that is out of place in an evangelical environment.  Meanwhile, other evangelicals are coming out in support of Mefferd, complaining about how tiring Driscoll's arrogance has become, and the arrogance other of preacher-leaders in our evangelical industrial complex who seem to have appropriated their own standards of conduct apart from those they expect from the rest of us.

Reception Interference

However, there's more to this than that, isn't there?  For example, if Mefferd really wanted to confront Driscoll on plagiarism, shouldn't she have done it privately, instead of live on the air?  I sometimes take evangelical celebrities to task here on my blog, but I usually either omit names and other identifying details, or I write about widely-known disputes, such as this one, that are ensconced in the public domain.  The Matthew 18 process for resolving church conflict isn't invalid in these cases, but in our digital age, it's more effective when pursued by people who have a personal relationship with the conflictee.

This whole kerfuffle also calls into question the integrity of the "publish or perish" mantra that has captured the evangelical church.  Everybody has to write a book.  And not just one.  They have to write a book every year or two.  That's how they stay in the limelight.  It's how they maintain their credibility, and perpetuate their appeal as conference speakers.

Meanwhile, however, do we really need all of these conferences?  And do we need all of these books?  How many of them are redundant?  If Driscoll really plagiarised, doesn't that mean his content really wasn't all that original to begin with?  Apparently, he didn't have anything new to contribute to our evangelical dialog on the Holy Spirit.  If a respected theologian had already written on the subject, why not simply tell your followers, "hey, read so-and-so's book, and I won't have to write one."  Not exactly an attitude Christian publishers might embrace, perhaps, but, "of the writing of many books," might restraint be sometimes prudent?  After all, can't publishers usually run a re-print of an old book that has stood the test of time and theological scrutiny?

Then, too, when your stock-in-trade is based on animosity, as Driscoll's is, shouldn't you be prepared for times when other people try and pitch you a bit of your own medicine?  And if, as her choppy interview lurched along, Mefferd adopted the notion that this was likely the only time she'd be able to pin him down on the subject, might that justify her willingness to provoke his churlish side on the air?

Not that when you do something wrong, it's wrong to call you on the carpet.  My opinion of Driscoll wasn't terribly high before all of this broke loose, and it doesn't help his case that, despite the venue, his graciousness when being corrected (by a woman?) was paper-thin.  And since this is my first time learning about Mefferd, who she is, and how she operates, I can't say my first impressions of her are stellar, either.  Even if, technically, everything she pointed out was correct.  But then again, maybe people read what I write, and lump me in with both of them, because at their core, everything that this debate stems from is the drive that the three of us feel - individually - to set the record straight about what we believe, and why we believe it.

That's why, for my part, at least, I'm using this as a teachable moment for myself.  Because if there's anything this teaches me, it's that having a viewpoint isn't what's wrong.

It's how you communicate it that might be.

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