The research backgrounds for concerns about Mark Driscoll’s behavior, Part Two

Between Warren Throckmorton’s investigative reporting on Pastor Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church and Wenatchee The Hatchet’s ongoing coverage, a picture of unhealthy and misleading authority has emerged.

For decades, psychologists and sociologists have been researching social dynamics, leaders, persuasion, religious organizations, personality, and cults.

To make sense, the research needs some quick context which does not relate to Driscoll.

One unavoidable problem of idea-driven or God-focused organizations is any given group’s appeal to invisible or abstract things must coexist with the need for visible or concrete things.

For example, a group might believe that God will speak to everyone’s heart when congregants gather in a specific sanctuary, but the somehow the group has to manage funds to pay the light bill and to keep the sanctuary in functional condition.

The invisible focus (God speaking to human hearts) also involves visible conditions (a sanctuary that needs electricity).

However, real problems arise when people are distracted from visible, concrete, or measurable problems by the use of language that references invisible and abstract qualities.

For example, within a group, a confrontation might go as follows.

Group member: “I don’t think that project was an appropriate use of money.”

Group leader: “That is just the spirit of rebellion in you.”

That’s a harsh example, although such an exchange is typical of certain kinds of groups.

(I strongly recommend I Escaped A Cult, which documents both Mormon and Protestant cults, and is available for streaming on Netflix. I also recommend I Can’t Hear God Any More: Life In A Dallas Cult, a book by Wendy Duncan, who survived a noble-sounding, fascinating attempt at Early Christian church life.)

So, a visible or measurable problem is covered-up with the use of language that points to invisible or tangible things.

Now, to the research.

To avoid dangerous leadership, Dr. Philip Zimbardo and Dr. Susan Andersen write, each person must remain “vigilant to discontinuities between the ideals people espouse and their concrete actions.”

They go on to say, “Separating the preacher from the practice, the promise from the outcome, the perceived intention from the consequence is at the crux of resistance — precisely because it is so easy to mistake labels for the things being described, to deal in symbols and concepts instead of people and their behavior (Lutz, 1983; Schrag, 1978).”

Zimbardo and Andersen later write, “We are often dissuaded from probing beyond surface illusions of meaningfulness by letting symbols substitute for reality, abstract maps for concrete territories.”

And later, “As thinking beings, we can resist the lure of engaging in the ‘cardiac comprehension’ proposed by cultic leaders, of listening and evaluating with one’s heart, not one’s mind (Adler, 1978; Barker, 1984; Bowers, 1984; Johnson & Raye, 1981).”

I think you can find plenty of examples of Driscoll’s and Mars Hill Church’s behavior on Throckmorton’s site and Wenatchee The Hatchet demonstrating a tendency to emphasize ideals and abstractions while tightly controlling information about acknowledged and alleged wrongdoings.

Call that cultic, or call that the style of a corrupt presidential administration — either way, it’s supremely dishonest and manipulative.

Even radio show host Janet Mefferd’s initial confrontation with Driscoll about his plagiarism had this very flavor.

Driscoll took the emphasis off his concrete, material plagiarism and focused the attention on Mefferd’s allegedly unruly invisible spirit.

Eventually, Mefferd was proven right, several times over, but not before caving to pressure and apologizing for exposing plagiarism — which says a lot about evangelical media’s love of money.

Here’s the takeaway:

Narcissistic religious authorities will use mystical language to make questioners feel guilty, and to change the subject from any criticism regardless of validity. 

The narcissistic minister is perceived to have special insight, and with a confident stance and a language that references invisible realms, he can control information, attitudes, and emotions.

Manipulation covers a multitude of sins. 

The above Zimbardo and Andersen excerpts appeared in “Understanding Mind Control,” a chapter in Recovery From Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse, edited by Michael D. Langone, published by Norton, 1993.

In the above excerpts, Zimbardo and Andersen cite the following (in the order in which they appeared in this post):

Lutz, W. (1983). Double-speak: From “revenue enhancement” to “terminal living.” New York: Harper & Row.

Schrag, P. (1978). Mind control. New York: Pantheon Books.

Adler, W. (1978, June 6). Rescuing David from the Moonies. Esquire, pp. 22-20.

Barker, E. (1984). The making of a Moonie: Choice or brainwashing. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell.

Bowers, K.S. (1984). On being unconsciously influenced and informed. In K.S. Bowers & D. Meichenbaum (Eds.), The unconscious reconsidered. New York: Wiley.

Johnson, M., & Raye, C.L. (1981). Reality monitoring. Psychological Review, 88, 67-85.

Also see:

Andy Crouch’s ideological alchemy: turning facts into abstractions

A few more-recent assessments of brainwashing and its relationship to evangelicalism in the U.S.


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