|Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash|
The first was a documentary podcast series from Christianity Today called, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill.” Over thirteen episodes (plus two bonus episodes), the series traced the ministry of a mega-church in Seattle and its “young, restless, and reformed” lead pastor, Mark Driscoll. Mars Hill became one of the largest churches in America, appealing especially to young adults and men in a notoriously unreligious city. But, as the name suggests, the church fell apart publicly and suddenly when Driscoll resigned in the wake of an investigation into his leadership that alleged abuse and bullying.
The second series was "Midnight Mass," a Netflix horror series that was the most popular streaming show in the country for a few weeks. (Note: NO spoilers ahead.) Normally it never would have been on my radar, but three different sources offered the same basic review: "I normally don't like horror, but this was different and it raised a lot of questions about religion that made me think, but I think it would offend a lot of Christians, and I really want to talk about it with someone." With that intriguing trinity of recommendations, I started watching it and ended up binging it with my spouse and daughter who wandered in while I was watching. And talk about it we did!
It's the kind of show that is difficult to say anything about without giving away spoilers, but the basic premise is that a small fishing village on a New England island is dying. After a new priest unexpectedly arrives at the Catholic Church that serves as the heart of the community, strange things begin happening -- some terrifying and some miraculous -- and there are disagreements about what they mean. Once you learn what is happening and why, but you are left wrestling with questions about ends justifying means, the difference between faith and cultishness, the meanings of love and life, and so much more.
It was these nagging questions that form the bridge between these two series. Both are asking deep questions about one central question: When does religion move from being a medicine to being a disease?
In the case of Mars Hill, the host tracks the way the church helps many people develop their faith and become better people, but often does so with methods that are antithetical to the character of Jesus. Despite narcissistic, dishonest, and vengeful behavior, Mark Driscoll grows in power and people that get in his way become "bodies under the bus" as he says in one infamous conversation. As long as the church is growing, people believe, Mark must be correct. Over time, the church becomes focused on promoting Mark Driscoll instead of Jesus, while the differences between the two are ever more stark.
Likewise, in "Midnight Mass," there are people who are willing to defend and overlook what should be objectively evil as long as it also brings blessings and miracles. In both cases, people will use scripture and theological language to excuse bad behavior or attack those who are trying to speak the truth.
I found myself feeling very uncomfortable on multiple occasions in both series as I would hear Mark Driscoll or a villain in the fictional series use theological language and Bible lessons that I largely agree with (and have at times used myself), only to have them land on a conclusion completely opposite of what I believe.
On hearing and seeing how people are wounded by those words, I had to think deeply about my own vocation and the authority I have as a pastor to shape what people believe is true. I was reminded of times I have been less than Christ-like in my leadership or hurt people in the name of my higher priorities.
Both series are powerful because they make the audience stare at the worst of religious extremism and abuse, but neither one is really anti-religion. They also celebrate what is beautiful and life-giving in religious practices. They offer compelling examples of how faith brings out the best in people, even in the worst of times. They are haunting and compelling because they show how thin the line can be between good and evil, how good intentions do not guarantee virtuous outcomes, and how easily we can deceive ourselves into thinking we are on the side of God as we banish God from our presence, just as the religious leaders of the Gospels crucified Jesus in the name of defending God.
I highly recommend both series to anyone who likes to think or who wants to wrestle with the questions I've outlined. I'm still thinking about these months after finishing them. Be warned that you will really want to talk to someone about them. I'm available if you know how to reach me.
From the Gray,
“Bad decisions, they don’t feel bad at the time; consequences, they don’t always fit the crime.” -NEEDTOBREATHE, “Riding High”