The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, Wil Wheaton, and Knowing Christ

TL;DR: If you are someone who’s relationship to Christ has been damaged by “the hype, entertainment, and expressions of power that drive evangelical life”; if you are someone who wants to know who this person Jesus of Nazareth really is, and what he’s really about; if you are a non-believer as a result of experiencing ways in which Christianity appears to have caused harm rather than blessing to others – please, let me invite you to experience the pursuit of the knowledge of and unity with Jesus Christ by way of a medium that may appear somewhat foreign, antiquated, overly complicated and/or overly simplified, but unquestionably beautiful: the Orthodox Church.

I’ve been listening to a podcast called “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” written and narrated by Mike Cosper and published by Christianity Today. Here’s how the podcast is described on its website:

When Mars Hill Church was planted in Seattle in 1996, few would have imagined where it would lead. But in the next 18 years, it would become one of the largest, fastest-growing, and most influential churches in the United States. Controversy plagued the church, though, due in no small part to the lightning-rod personality at its helm: Mark Driscoll.

By 2014, the church had grown to 15,000 people in 15 locations. But before the year was over, the church collapsed. On January 1, 2015, Mars Hill was gone.

Hosted by Mike Cosper, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill explores the inside story of this church, its charismatic leader, and the conflicts and troubles that brought about its end. You’ll hear from insiders and experts, tracing the threads of this story to so many others that shape the church today.

The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill: Full-Length Trailer

The podcast is very well done, although it is unapologetically one-sided – there is little to no defense of Driscoll’s cult of personality (although Cosper continues to invite Driscoll to come on the podcast, to no avail). There is an assumption that the way Driscoll handled things was wrong, and this is not really questioned (to be sure, the evidence presented in the podcast indicates that this assumption is correct). The bigger questions are why Driscoll and the folks at Mars Hill did what they did and made the decisions that they made, how they justified those decisions, how the congregation responded to those decisions, and how these actions conform to a pattern that can be seen in the wider evangelical world.

The podcast is a microcosm of many of the problems currently facing American evangelical Christianity. The podcasters are clearly seeking to learn from these mistakes and to apply these lessons so as to correct for the deficiencies and red flags that become apparent in hindsight following what happened to Mars Hill and the like.

As I’ve been listening to this podcast over the last few weeks, I also encountered a post on Facebook by Wil Wheaton, an actor who played Ensign Wesley Crusher in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and whose career was revived when he began playing himself in The Big Bang Theory. Wheaton’s politics and worldview are largely typical of your standard celebrity; I follow him because of his pop culture posts, nostalgia (he also played the lead in the 80’s coming of age movie “Stand By Me”), and because he often posts about board games.

Anyway, on October 2, 2021, Wheaton posted this “photo” of Jesus of Nazareth, which has been making the rounds on social media, created by Dutch photographer Bas Uterwijk using digital technology called Artbreeder, which takes data like geographical and temporal information into account when creating an image. Wheaton used this “photo” to contrast who Jesus actually was with his own perception of how Jesus has been portrayed by American Christianity – especially through the lens of his own personal experiences at parochial school:

I am an atheist. I do not believe in god, or the devil, or heaven, or hell. But I like and respect this guy. He was a rebel, he was an antiauthoritarian, he dedicated his life to helping the poor, the sick, the indigent, the people who were discarded and rejected by society. He hung out with sex workers and lepers, and gave comfort to the sick and suffering, and he loudly and relentlessly called out the hypocrisy of the church and its leaders. As I understand it, he was like, “Hey, you’re a sinner. That’s a bummer. Let me help you be a better person. No, I don’t expect anything from you for that. I just want to be as loving as I can be.” He was a really cool guy.

Now, as someone who has spent countless hours studying how words are used (especially words used to describe God), my first inclination is to correct the places in Wheaton’s comments where his wording might be less than accurate. However, when I stop and look at his words through the lens of someone who believes they’ve been burned by “American Christianity” and as a result has probably never been motivated and able to learn about who Jesus really is, Wheaton’s description makes sense. And most importantly, Wheaton’s portrayal describes someone he wants to know. And where he’s off the mark, the correct wording doesn’t necessarily change that. Jesus is someone whom this atheist – who has nothing but negative associations with Christianity – would nevertheless like to know. That’s actually incredible!

What if there was a community whose purpose was to know Jesus and to become more like him in the ways in which atheists like Wil Wheaton are drawn to him? To show the world who he is in a way that manifests him in beauty, goodness, and truth? What if this community didn’t come with the baggage that burdens much of Western Christianity (see, however, the crucial caveat below)?

Episode 8 of “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” is entitled “Demon Hunting”:

Using the lesser-known Mars Hill “demon trials” as a backdrop, Cosper explores the Pentecostal origins of Driscoll’s deliverance ministry, examines the extrabiblical rules that governed Mars Hill spiritual warfare, and considers our longing to hear from God and see him move in our midst.

The narrative of the podcast is often interspersed with music that fits the mood of the message that the narrator is seeking to convey. As I was driving to work earlier this week, and as Episode 8 was wrapping up, I was surprised to hear an Orthodox setting of the “Our Father” (The Lord’s Prayer) playing. Cosper’s voiceover bowled me over:

A few years ago, a friend of mine captured this audio in Sitka, Alaska. It’s from a monastery where throughout the day the monks gather to pray the hours, and are often joined by members of the community. Their lives are a day-in, day-out rhythm of work and prayer, full of the normal human drama that we all have, along with their vows. I think of it when visiting this story, because it’s such a contrast. It’s a life designed in many ways to eliminate hype and spectacle, because while these chants are beautiful, they’re simply a routine. The heart of the community is the rhythm, the desire to place your life before God at a steady pace, and to trust he’s doing work over that long, slow obedience. I don’t think we should all become monastics, but I think that along with the imagery of Revelation 12, the imagery of the monastery, and the rhythms of the hours, the commitment to a way of life is a provocative contrast to the hype, entertainment, and expressions of power that drive evangelical life.

Photo taken at St. Katherine Orthodox Church in Carlsbad, CA

I was shocked to hear Cosper offer this as the alternative to the dumpster fire that he’d been describing for the past eight episodes. Not shocked because it’s wrong, but because it’s exactly right. “The imagery of Revelation 12, the imagery of the monastery, the rhythms of the hours, the commitment to a way of life…”; this is the Way that I discovered in the Iraqi desert in the spring of 2009! We don’t all become monastics, but this Way has gleaned and granted to its members over 2,000 years of experience in how to apply this “monastic” way of living to the world of families, children, work, distraction, temptation, and the rest. Cosper hits the nail right on the head: “The heart of the community is the rhythm, the desire to place your life before God at a steady pace, and to trust he’s doing work over that long, slow obedience.” This is exactly what the Orthodox Church offers its members; this is what drew me to the Church.

Please note that this is not directed towards those of you who are members of communities that effectively enable you to grow in Christ. This post wasn’t written to encourage anyone to leave a church where they are being led to know Christ and be united to him. This post is for those who don’t feel like they fit into an American Christian community because of past experiences or cultural hangups. Let me assure you (and here is the caveat mentioned above) that my Church, too, is made up of sinners, and that we have our own baggage (and in some cases, baggage that has resulted from our encounters with American Christianity).

But the way in which we approach knowing Jesus…! If this is something you want, but have been burned by a Mars Hill-like experience – let me encourage you to discover the Orthodox Church and our steadfast dedication to better answering the question “What think ye of the Christ? Who do you say that I am?” Wil Wheaton says, “He was a really cool guy.” It’s a start. But there’s so, so much more.