My Bible in One Year (which is taking me considerably longer than a year!) has me struggling through 2 Chronicles. I’m nearing the end, and if I’m honest, I’m grateful! There have been beautiful moments and I’ve blogged about a couple of them. But all in all, I’ve found it hard going. And one of the reasons is that it’s not the most cheerful way to start my day!
1-2 Kings and 1-2 Chronicles depict the rise and fall of the Kingdom of David; from David’s ascendency, through the reign of Solomon, into the division of the Kingdom. From there, the southern tribes of Judah have 20 kings, 8 of whom are good (or if not wholly ‘good’, at least not completely dreadful!), and the northern tribes of Israel have 20 kings, none of whom are good! So reading these four books is a pretty relentless experience. First thing every morning I’m confronted with an endless cycle of failure; of idolatry, injustice, greed, violence, and abusive leadership, all dissected in great detail.
And then I eat my cereal and start my day.
At some point later in my day, I may stick on a podcast, and one of the ones I’m currently listening to is The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. It’s not too dissimilar an experience.
Hosted by Mike Cosper for Christianity Today, this podcast looks at the story of Mars Hill Church and its founder Mark Driscoll. The three episodes so far have explored the cultural phenomena that made it possible for a church like this to grow, and a ministry like Mark’s to gain the recognition and platform it did; some of the amazing triumphs of the church and their church planting network; and some of the issues that plagued the church and its leader, resulting in its very public and messy collapse. Much of my description of Kings and Chronicles could apply here. There are some amazing moves of God, but by and large it’s a tale of idolatry, injustice, greed, violence, and abusive leadership, all dissected in great detail.
To be honest, I’ve had relatively little to do with Driscoll or Mars Hill. I’ve attended one conference where Mark was a speaker, I’ve read two of his books, listened to a handful of his sermons and turned off a handful more. Many people I respect knew him, loved him, benefitted from his ministry, but I never really got it. Partly it’s a temperament thing – his style and approach annoyed me, and I suspected that everything I disliked about him, he would probably dislike about me in reverse. I met him once and we chatted for a short while. I recall he had a strong handshake, as you might expect.
But I never felt invested in his ministry enough to follow the ups and downs. So when things started to go sour at Mars Hill, I bowed out of paying him attention. I’ve followed very little of what’s happened at The Trinity Church until the last few weeks, though from time to time I would get a hint that Mark had done or said something because a decade-old post of mine would get a sudden upsurge in readers. Who would Jesus punch? remains one of my most read pieces. As Tony Jones commented on the first episode of the podcast, writing about Driscoll tends to bring in more readers than your average blogpost!
All that is to say, I wasn’t sure I wanted to listen to The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, and held off for a while, because I didn’t know how I felt about it. It’s not that I had major concerns about the project itself. Some people might question the motives of the CT team for producing it, or the way they’ve done it, but from what I knew about the people involved, I was fairly confident they would do a good job.
My hesitancy wasn’t because of them as podcasters, but because of myself as a listener.
‘There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open. Therefore consider carefully how you listen.’Luke 8:17-18
Whilst Jesus certainly didn’t have podcasting in mind, I’ve found that a helpful challenge. When a podcast, blog, or book brings concealed things into the light, it’s worth asking ourselves why and how we are listening.
There’s a way of listening which is to treat these stories as entertainment. A reality show. Spiritualised schadenfreude. No matter how well-executed and purely-motivated the podcast may be, if I the listener am listening with unhealthy curiosity, the effects will be negative.
There’s a way of listening which is to treat these stories as a boost for our own egos. To reinforce cynicism we already hold about particular individuals or ministries. To allow us to shrug with self-righteousness and say, “Well, I saw that coming.” Or “I’d never be so stupid.”
We must consider carefully how we listen. And I recognise both of those temptations.
But there’s also a way of not listening which is no better in the long run. Part of me just doesn’t want to know. I want to keep my head down, do a good job, not be distracted by stories about a preacher nobody in my circles is listening to anymore. And hope to God I will never have a podcast series made about my life’s work. Whilst some of those motives can be good, they can also be an abdication of responsibility. Wilful ignorance.
The truth is, I need to listen for the good of those I care for who have been affected more than I have by the ripples of fallen pastors. I need to listen for the good of those who will ask me what to make of it, and how to stop it happening again. And I need to listen for the good of myself, so I can spot where I am more like Driscoll than I dare to admit.
Same goes for Chronicles. Part of me would rather not start my day reading the gory stories of failure after failure, but skip over them and enjoy a gospel instead. Or when I do read these stories, there’s a way of reading them that makes me feel self-righteous, as if I would never have done what these kings did. I kid myself into thinking I’d be one of the 8 rather than one of the 32. But the truth is, I have the potential to be way more like these fallen kings than I dare to admit.
There’s a better way of listening and a better way of reading. It’s to brace ourselves, check our motives, invite the Spirit to search us, and engage with the humility to learn.
That’s the reason these failure stories are documented. That’s the reason they occupy such a large part of our Bible. It’s why they are worthy of being read, reflected on and prayed through. And it’s why there is real value in a podcast series like The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill. Paul wrote that the failures of Israel occurred ‘as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did’ (1 Corinthians 10:6). The relentless and detailed exposure of rise and fall stories is meant to make us look at ourselves honestly and shine a light on the parts we would rather keep hidden, so we can bring them into the light, and learn to live differently.
And supremely these stories are meant to point us to Jesus, the perfect King who is unlike any other. His is not a rise and fall story, but a fall and rise. His Kingdom is upside down. It began with a seeming defeat. A grain of wheat falling to the ground (John 12:24). Since Easter Sunday it’s all been rise.