Thursday, September 14, 2006

The Mars Hill Church

What an appropriate name for a church treasuring the submission of women. Though I doubt that its fundamentalist pastor would appreciate the pagan connotation. Or perhaps he would; he seems to find himself a really cool guy:

It's Father's Day and Mark Driscoll is blessing babies. A stocky, square-headed figure in a black shirt and jeans, with a leather cord around his thick neck, Driscoll stands against a backdrop of a giant brushed steel cross and a phalanx of electric guitars, praying over the "lovely wives and godly husbands" lined up on the stage of Mars Hill Church. Located in a former warehouse in Seattle's hip Ballard neighborhood, where drive-through espresso joints out-number churches ten to one, Driscoll's megachurch is a sprawling industrial space of corrugated steel, painted charcoal and muted taupe. Inside, the walls are hung with a member's graffiti art, lit by Starbucks-style colored glass fixtures blown by a congregant.

In a husky voice, the 35-year-old pastor prays for the continuous fertility of his congregation. "We are in a city with less children per capita than any city but San Francisco," he declares, "and we consider it our personal mission to turn that around."

The way Driscoll sees it, the more babies his conservative Christian congregation can produce in this child-poor city, the more they can redirect local politics, public education, and culture in one of the liberal capitals of the world. To complete his trifecta of indoctrinating, voting, and breeding, Driscoll has developed a community that dwarfs any living experiment of the '60s. To say that Mars Hill is just a church is to say that Woodstock was just a concert.

Mars Hill wrests future converts searching for identity and purpose from the dominion of available sex and drugs that still make post-grunge Seattle a countercultural destination. Driscoll promises his followers they don't have to reprogram their iTunes catalog along with their beliefs -- culture from outside the Christian fold isn't just tolerated here, it's cherished. Hipster culture is what sweetens the proverbial Kool-Aid, which parishioners here seem to gulp by the gallon. This is a land where housewives cradle babies in tattooed arms, where young men balance responsibilities as breadwinners in their families and lead guitarists in their local rock bands, and where biblical orthodoxy rules as strictly as in Hasidism or Opus Dei.

Sounds like a great deal, doesn't it? You can combine the fruits of modernism and the fundamentalism of your fathers, to make something that really is just the same old fundamentalism in drag. And only one group will not have much fun in doing these combinations: the women:

Following Driscoll's biblical reading of prescribed gender roles, women quit their jobs and try to have as many babies as possible. And these are no mere women who fear independence, who are looking to live by the simple tenets of fundamentalist credo, enforced by a commanding husband: many of the women of Mars Hill reluctantly abandon successful lives lived on their own terms to serve their husbands and their Lord. Accountability and community is ballasted by intricately organized cells -- gender-isolated support groups that form a social life as warm and tight as swaddling clothes, or weekly coed sermon studies and family dinner parties that provide further insulation against the secular world. Parents share child care, realtors share clients, teachers share lesson plans, animé buffs share DVDs, and bands share songs.


Like every woman I've gotten to know at Mars Hill, Sarah talks about her appointed role within the church not in terms of subjugation but in the language of difference feminism. She tells me a sisterhood forms between women who celebrate their domestic roles and talents as offered from God, delivered unto their children, marriages, and community as part of his "perfect plan."

At the end of the evening, when I go into the kitchen to help Sarah with the dishes, she confesses that she'd love to go back to school for her master's degree, but she just can't see finding the time. "I guess it's just not part of the plan," she says in a soft, distracted voice. It's hard to imagine that just a few years before, Sarah was a single girl tooling around the Seattle rock circuit in an old MG, spending her days studying Carol Gilligan. These days, Sarah's old copy of "In a Different Voice," a text you'll find on most women's studies syllabi, gathers dust on the secular bookshelf (Penguin classics and psych textbooks) that faces off against the Christian bookshelf (Bibles and theology textbooks) in the living room.


Abolafya's conversion was a total surprise to her. She was a nonbeliever who accompanied her husband, Ari, to a service at Mars Hill -- he was curious to check out the "tattooed punk-rock church" he had heard about. That Sunday, one of the church's worship bands was playing an electric version of "Amazing Grace" toward the end of the service, its loud and powerful sound filling the giant space. Suddenly Abolafya realized she was sobbing and couldn't stop. That night she gave her heart to Jesus. "It wasn't like I was looking for a solution, or that my life was a problem in any way," she explains. In fact, the problems were just beginning.

At a weekly Bible study class at a Mars Hill pastor's home, Abolafya first heard about the doctrine of wifely submission. The pastor's wife gave Abolafya a book to study called "The Fruit of Her Hands," which can essentially be summed up in Ephesians 5:22: "Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord." When Abolafya stretched out on her couch one evening to read the first chapter of the book, she screamed and threw it across the room. But she prayed to God and was led back to the Bible, to understand Wilson's perspective. In the Bible, Abolafya found story after story about women being willfully deceived, following their own desires, wreaking travesty in their relationships and homes. In these stories she saw signs of her own past, her mother's behavior, her friends' actions. She began to submit to Ari about purchases and plans she wanted to make.

Mmmm. Judy Abolafya found this interpretation of her views wrong and wrote a statement about it (via commenter car on Pandagon):

Secondly, there is no reason for anyone to feel sorry for me. I am not a woman who has been put in a cage only to be let out for procreating and to fix dinner.

To suggest that I am at the effect of a misogynist husband and church is hilarious when you consider the real sexism that I experienced in the music industry as a single woman. I toured with a band once whose tour manager used to make jokes that I should play "bunk roulette" with the guys on the bus. I got kicked off a tour for the simple fact that I was a woman because the drummer's girlfriend thought he'd hit on me. And I couldn't go to a venue without local security guards assuming I was a groupie or that one of the guys in the band was my boyfriend.

This statement reminded me of other defenses of the voluntary submission of women I have read on my tours of Christian Lady blogs. The basic idea is that women must make a bargain with the sexist world: either you will be molested and treated poorly by most men out there or you can choose one husband to obey and he will protect you. But in either case you submit, really. That there might be a third alternative for women doesn't enter the discussion at all.

All this is quite saddening. The idea of the Bible as the inerrant word of God, together with interpreting this inerrant word in ways that I can't see in the Bible however I try to interpret this. For example, there is nothing in the Bible about women not being allowed to work for money, nothing about men having to be the sole breadwinners, nothing at all! Yet practically all the most extreme fundamentalist sects in the three largest monotheistic religions insist on women not contributing to the household financially.

Why do you think that is? It's something not in the Bible, yet it's an integral part of so many fundamentalist dogmas. Is it that the men will feel better about themselves under the gender-segregated and hierarchical system? Is it that women without jobs are less able to leave really bad situations? Or is it ultimately all about babies-as-a-weapon and women as the babymakers?

I find this saddening and frightening, too. Indeed, I find those who interpret the Bible literally despicable when they only pick those parts of the Bible that they like. If the Bible really is the inerrant word of God, then everything in the Bible is equally true, including the internal contradictions, and everything should be obeyed, not just those verses which favor patriarchy. - Not that I believe the literal interpretation of the Bible, but perhaps this is because I have actually read it several times.

Sigh. I'm getting sarcastic here. Still, there is a smell of a cult about this Mars Hill Church, and I hate cults. I also wonder how the members of the congregation manage to support their very large families with just one person working. And I wonder how much the leaders of the Church are earning out of all this.

The Mars Hill Church indeed. Talk about phallus symbols.