Pastor Mark, Meet Father James

The saga of Seattle minister Mark Driscoll and the mega-church he founded and served as pastor for eighteen years has dominated the evangelical church press for far too long. I have written almost nothing about that situation, since, even with all the press coverage, I didn’t feel I knew enough about the particulars to add anything substantive to the discussion. A quick review of the archives for this blog turned up only one other reference to Driscoll, way back in January 2013 in one of the Arthur Chronicles, and there I simply listed his name along with several others associated, at one time or another, with the movement known as “emergent Christianity.”

In a Facebook status update on August 3 of this year, I drew attention to an article in USA Today, titled “Rock Star Pastors Lose Luster,” which used Mark Driscoll as an illustration and included his picture along with the article. About that article, I wrote the following comment on Facebook.

For the sake of the kingdom, I pray this is true. The main reason, by overwhelming proportion, that evangelical Christianity is in decline in the US is failed (incompetent, arrogant, greedy, shortsighted, materialistic) leadership. There will be no spiritual renewal among evangelicals until a wave of repentance, humility, and contrition sweeps over the leadership of the American evangelical Christian community. It is time for a return to the three ‘evangelical counsels’–purity (or chastity), simplicity (or poverty), and devotion (or obedience).

I was not criticizing Mark Driscoll personally, although the preponderance of the reporting in both the church and the secular press would suggest that there is merit to the accusations that have been leveled against him and other leaders of Mars Hill Church. It seems clear that at least some of the behavior by the Seattle pastor was more than mere bluster and bravado; it was abuse. Abusive behavior is unacceptable on any scale, but when it touches a great number of people in one context directly, and multitudes more through the media, it is especially egregious. (To read a brief but insightful article on this important subject, click here.)

John the Baptist once said, in reference to the relative insignificance of his ministry and influence by comparison with that of Jesus, “He must increase, while I must decrease.” One of Mark Driscoll’s best known sayings is “It’s all about Jesus.” As I have read the unending news coverage of the Mars Hill saga, however, I sense that it has been too much about Mark. (Driscoll has now resigned his pastorate at Mars Hill Church, but any idea that he plans to relinquish the limelight was dispelled when he showed up, less than a week after his resignation, on the platform of a major conference for evangelical pastors in Dallas.)

And then, just when I was beginning to despair that the most prominent portrayal of a Christian clergyperson in the media was one that pointed out some undeniable inclination toward megalomania, I met Father James Lavelle.

Upon the recommendation of a good friend, my wife and I recently went to see a movie called Calvary. I’m not sure I even knew about the movie until my friend mentioned it, but I’m quite sure I would never have seen it apart from his recommendation. I’m so glad I did.

Calvary is not for the fainthearted. It is not casual, escapist entertainment. There are a few humorous lines, but the general tone of the movie is dark and ominous. Set in a windswept rural village in County Sligo on the North Atlantic coast of northwest Ireland, the movie Calvary-Featuredtouches on themes such as suicide, prostitution, adultery, deceit, and sexual abuse. If you don’t finish your overpriced popcorn while watching the trailers for the coming attractions, you may not touch another kernel after you hear the movie’s deeply disturbing first spoken line.

The film opens with a scene in which the main character, Father James Lavelle, is about to hear what he assumes will be the confession of a parishioner seeking absolution for past wrongdoing. Instead he hears the voice of a man recounting his experience, as a child, of unspeakable sexual abuse by a parish priest and the lifetime of emotional pain he has been forced to endure as a result. The man’s trauma continues despite the fact that the guilty priest has, by this time, died.

The man then announces his plans to kill Father James, who is, by the man’s own admission, a good priest. His tormented mind has convinced him that, by killing a good priest, he will finally exact his revenge on a church that allowed him to be so grievously harmed by a really bad priest.

He tells Father James that he will carry out his gruesome intentions in one week’s time, affording the priest seven days in which to get his affairs in order and, we assume, say his goodbyes and make his peace with God. The story then unfolds like a book of seven chapters.

Day by day, Father James continues to fulfill his role as a faithful shepherd, caring for his motley flock of dysfunctional and troubled sheep, all the while wrestling privately with the burdensome question of how to respond to the threat hanging over him.

There is no need for a spoiler alert here. If you’ve not yet seen the movie, I won’t be telling you how it ends. The reason I mention it here is to draw attention to the personal integrity and the humble servant’s spirit so much in evidence in the pastoral ministry of Father James.

Don’t get me wrong. This priest is no Caspar Milquetoast. He came to the priesthood late in life, after the death of his wife, thus explaining the appearance of his young adult Father James (1)daughter, a prominent character in the film. He is a big, burly man with tousled hair whose rumpled cassock gives him the disheveled look of an unmade bed.

He lives in one small, unadorned room, apparently in the church’s rectory, and we get the impression that nearly everything he owns could quickly be stowed in a medium-sized suitcase. His life is completely devoted to God and to the small community of people whose spiritual welfare is his single, consuming motivation for living.

He can be gruff and profane, and he drinks too much, owing to some inner demons he hasn’t been able to shake off. But his heart is right, and his parishioners know him as a good, kind, caring, self-sacrificing pastor. He aspires to nothing more than what he is—a pastor whose life is devoted to his people with no concern for self-aggrandizement or promoting his own “brand.” He is, for all intents and purposes, the anti-Mark Driscoll, and, I would suggest, the difference is far deeper, more basic, and more profound than merely a difference in talent, gifting, or style.

On the drive home from the theater, my wife seemed surprised that I wasn’t glum and silent as I often tend to be after watching a movie with so much focus on the pain and despair and confusion that is too much a part of the human experience. Instead, I was, if not jovial, at least encouraged by what I had seen. I said to her, when she asked what I thought about the movie, “I want to be a pastor just like Father James.”

And I do.

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