Musings on Mandela and Driscoll
Here was someone articulating so much of what I felt but wasn’t always so good at expressing in terms of how the church should be doing mission in postmodern culture. I had never heard of Driscoll before, and he wasn’t a name any of my British friends were dropping, but within a few months of reading that book ‘Pastor Mark’ was suddenly everywhere, becoming one of the most influential voices in the church circles in which I moved. In 2009 I had the privilege of visiting Mars Hill with a group of British and South African pastors, and while conscious of some differences of emphasis between us, was truly blessed by experiencing that church. I felt Driscoll and his key leaders were men of integrity, generosity and – this may surprise some – humility. Since then, my sense of ‘some differences’ has grown, much of which would be summarised in Andrew’s review of Driscoll’s most recent book, but my appreciation for many aspects of his ministry remains.
When I was 18 I left home for the first time, got on an plane, and by a convoluted route involving Moscow, Aden and Mozambique, landed in Swaziland, where I planned to spend a few months working on a farm for a friend of a friend of my father’s. While there I attended a church service being presided over by Desmond Tutu, and was fortunate to speak to him briefly. He asked where I was from, which at the time was Brighton, and then made some pithy comment about the Conservative Party which was holding its annual conference in Brighton that week. This was in 1988, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, Nelson Mandela was in jail, and I was an ignorant young man.
My time in Swaziland was complicated, and I left rather more quickly than anticipated, eventually arriving, via another convoluted journey, in Cape Town. I learnt some important life lessons through these experiences, and did some growing up. I also learnt a lot about the reality of apartheid as my life developed a somewhat schizophrenic pattern, divided along racial lines. As an 18 year old white boy in Cape Town I enjoyed the privileges of white South African life, climbing Table Mountain, hanging out on the beach and generally ‘jolling’ with a fun group of University of Cape Town students. I also spent a lot of time going into the townships surrounding Cape Town, especially Khayelitsha, speaking to, and worshipping with, black Christians. I saw a side of South Africa which many white South Africans barely knew existed, thanks to the segregating efficiencies of apartheid. During that time I learnt that while white South Africans prayed for peace, black South Africans prayed for justice, and that one wasn’t really possible without the other.
In 1990 Nelson Mandela walked out of prison. By this time I was a student in Newcastle, and desperately wished I could have been in Cape Town that day. The path to ‘the Rainbow Nation’ was dangerous and difficult, but in Nelson Mandela it seemed that South Africa – and the world – had found a leader who embodied both peace and justice. This was most powerfully epitomized on that election day in 1994 when millions of South Africans, of all skin colours, queued to vote, and, for a few glorious hours, all crime and violence in the nation ceased.
You may not have been following the story (though I guess readers of this blog will have) about Mark Driscoll and plagiarism. A lot of people have waded in, perhaps unwisely. For my money, the sanest response thus far has been that of Douglas Wilson. Wilson writes far more eloquently and comprehensively than me, so I really have nothing to add to his post on the substance of the arguments. However, in observing some of the things that have been said about Driscoll, I have noticed some correspondence with the response to the death of Nelson Mandela. That correspondence is our human tendency to idolatry. Driscoll, in certain church quarters, and Mandela, near universally, have been credited with powers that far exceed the credible. Commenting on the Driscoll affair, Andy Crouch notes that, “the celebrity is actually a complex creation of a whole community of people who sustain the illusion of an impossibly productive, knowledgeable, omnicompetent superhuman. The real danger here is not plagiarism—it is idolatry.
The one globally respected leader of our age, Mandela was undoubtedly a great man, but not the flawless saint he is being presented as. While wanting to give honour to him to whom honour is due, I must admit to feeling a certain unease at the extent of the adulation being poured out on Mandela in recent days. It makes me begin to question just how genuine all that adulation is, and how much of it is a little stage managed – the response of a celebrity obsessed public trained in emotionalism. In this light, it was refreshing to see footage from Johannesburg of young South Africans celebrating, in contrast to British school children expressing their deep sorrow over Mandela’s death.
Mark Driscoll is also a leader of significant ability. Of course, to compare his leadership ability and impact with that of Mandela would be invidious, but to be surprised that Driscoll should be flawed is as naïve as the assumption of Mandela’s perfection. The criticism has been made that Driscoll is protected by the impenetrable shield of evangelical celebrity. There may be some truth in that, but it occurs to me that he is at least as much a victim of a culture that while idolising celebrities, also loves to smash them down. As Wilson observes, “In my (quite extensive) experience with this kind of thing, those who make allegations usually operate with significantly more freedom than is enjoyed by evangelical “celebrities.” Prominent figures in the religious world are regularly toppled, usually due to their own sin and folly, but not always, and they are hardly permanent fixtures in our heavenly firmament. False accusers, on the other hand, are very rarely toppled.”
In their way, both Mandela and Driscoll have influenced me profoundly, but the true measure of their faults and their greatness will only be revealed in time, and not in the instant glare of the media; nor by the pavlovian response of a celebrity shaped culture. To make an idol of either of them is folly - something with which I’m sure they would both agree. Driscoll is an unusually gifted preacher and leader, but he is not flawless, and we should not expect him to be. In apartheid South Africa whites prayed for peace, and blacks for justice: the greatness of Mandela was that he accomplished both. The universal praise heaped on him demonstrates the human desire for a king, but no man - not even Mandela - can be the perfect king. No man, but one.