The fall of Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll and his Mars Hill Church has been a huge event in the Evangelical world. From the Seattle Times:

For years the edgy, blue-jeaned, hipster preacher used charisma and combativeness to barrel through turmoil, once bragging that he’d mow down all who questioned his vision: “There is a pile of dead bodies behind the Mars Hill bus, and by God’s grace, it’ll be a mountain by the time we’re done,” he once said in a meeting. “You either get on the bus or you get run over by the bus.”

Behind the scenes, former church members said, Driscoll could be vicious, abusive and controlling. Some charged that he refused to promote an overweight elder because Driscoll said his “fat ass” would tarnish Mars Hill’s image.

But for years, Driscoll’s outward style charmed many. He was dynamic and funny, with a potent mix of reverence for Jesus and irreverence for every­­thing else. He drew pierced-and-tattooed congregants from Seattle to a church that espoused a conservative Calvinist doctrine cloaked in indie-rock, big screens and a worn pair of Chuck Taylors.

Mars Hill grew to 15 branches in five states with 13,000 visitors on Sundays. Driscoll appeared on Nightline, preached at Seahawks stadium, threw out the first pitch at a Mariners game, and founded a network of evangelical leaders who started hundreds of other churches.

But after 18 years of stunning growth, an escalating string of bad news finally started driving churchgoers away. Mars Hill leaders last Sunday said attendance and giving had plummeted so fast that it would have to close several Seattle branches and cut its staff 30 to 40 percent.

Evangelical blogger Warren Throckmorton has been all over the Driscoll scandal for a long time. If you want to know more, check out his archives at Patheos.

It turns out that a lot of people within the Mars Hill world knew that Driscoll was an abusive, egotistical cretin, but they looked the other way. Rob Ashgar, who calls Mars Hill “the Enron of American churches,” condemns what he calls the “rush to innocence” among Driscoll’s defenders. He asks why do so many people who ought to know better defend leaders (of religious organizations or any other organization) who are blatantly corrupt or abusers of power. Excerpt:

Some years ago, former Los Angeles Times religion writer William Lobdell wrote about his experiences covering the sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church. Lobdell shared that what broke his spirit wasn’t the way the church leaders refused to see the truth, but rather the way the ordinary laypersons refused to see it–how they shouted down peers bold enough to speak honestly about their traumas, how they sought to rationalize any evil done by their beloved leaders.

That’s one crucial aspect of the link between toxic leaders and followers. In the case of megachurches, there’s also the appeal of protecting one’s part in a big, impressive show — like being a regular at the cool club that everyone talks about. The star of the show is usually an uber-charismatic, dramatic salesperson. Like the brash and humorous Driscoll.

Before we move on, I want to draw your attention to a very long 2007 Los Angeles Times essay written by William Lobdell, in which he describes how he went from an enthusiastic Christian believer into an unbeliever as the result of covering religion scandals (Catholic, Protestant, Mormon). In this excerpt, Lobdell writes about how he initially thought that sexual abuse victims were stuck in the past, and needed to get over their childhood traumas. A Catholic priest friend had advised him not to let a few bad priests destroy his faith:

But then I began going over the documents. And interviewing the victims, scores of them. I discovered that the term “sexual abuse” is a euphemism. Most of these children were raped and sodomized by someone they and their family believed was Christ’s representative on Earth. That’s not something an 8-year-old’s mind can process; it forever warps a person’s sexuality and spirituality.

Many of these victims were molested by priests with a history of abusing children. But the bishops routinely sent these clerics to another parish, and bullied or conned the victims and their families into silence. The police were almost never called. In at least a few instances, bishops encouraged molesting priests to flee the country to escape prosecution.

I couldn’t get the victims’ stories or the bishops’ lies — many of them right there on their own stationery — out of my head. I had been in journalism more than two decades and had dealt with murders, rapes, other violent crimes and tragedies. But this was different — the children were so innocent, their parents so faithful, the priests so sick and bishops so corrupt.

The lifeline Father Vincent had tried to give me began to slip from my hands.

I sought solace in another belief: that a church’s heart is in the pews, not the pulpits. Certainly the people who were reading my stories would recoil and, in the end, recapture God’s house. Instead, I saw parishioners reflexively support priests who had molested children by writing glowing letters to bishops and judges, offering them jobs or even raising their bail while cursing the victims, often to their faces.

On a Sunday morning at a parish in Rancho Santa Margarita, I watched congregants lobby to name their new parish hall after their longtime pastor, who had admitted to molesting a boy and who had been barred that day from the ministry. I felt sick to my stomach that the people of God wanted to honor an admitted child molester. Only one person in the crowd, an Orange County sheriff’s deputy, spoke out for the victim.

Lobdell goes on to talk about how he started covering the massively successful Trinity Broadcasting Network, and uncovering evidence of grotesque luxuries and abuse of power, including taking advantage of true believers. People within the TBN world knew what its leadership was doing, but said nothing. Lobdell writes:

I tried unsuccessfully to get several prominent mainstream pastors who appeared on TBN to comment on the prosperity gospel, Hinn’s “faith healing” or the Crouches’ lifestyle.

Like the Catholic bishops, I assumed, they didn’t want to risk what they had.

Read the whole thing. It’s a heartbreaking document.

They didn’t want to risk what they had. It happens with all kinds of institutions. I’m familiar with a school in which the real problem with bullying there, in the eyes of parents who sent their kids there, was the naysayers who were trying to tear down a great institution by making a big deal out of kids just being kids. It happens in families. Uncle Buddy can’t be molesting the cousins because if that were true, then our family is not what we think it is, and that would be bad. And on and on. You see what I mean.

We all understand, I think, the problem with leaders not wanting to lose what they have: power, wealth, fame, etc. The more difficult problem is explaining why people much farther down the power structure — specifically, those who are being exploited by the leadership — are willing to cooperate in their own exploitation. They too are unwilling to risk what they have — but what do they have, really?

Here’s an answer. The dynamic behind this phenomenon is what the Polish dissident writer Czesław Miłosz, in his classic study of intellectuals under Polish communism, The Captive Mind, called “the Pill of Murti-Bing.” The concept comes from a 1927 dystopian novel by Stanisław Witkiewicz in which an Asian army overruns Poland, and conquers its people in part by giving them pills to assuage their anxieties over their condition. From The Captive Mind:

Witkiewicz’s heroes are unhappy in that they have no faith and no sense of meaning in their work. This atmosphere of decay and senselessness extends throughout the entire country. And at that moment, a great number of hawkers appear in the cities peddling Murti-Bing pills. Murti-Bing was a Mongolian philosopher who had succeeded in producing an organic means of transporting a “philosophy of life.” This Murti-Bing “philosophy of life,” which constituted the strength of the Sino-Mongolian army, was contained in pills in an extremely condensed form. A man who used these pills changed completely. He became serene and happy.

For Miłosz, Polish intellectuals who capitulated to communism and Soviet rule had taken the pill of Murti-Bing. It was what made their condition bearable. They could not stand to see reality, for if they recognized what was really happening in their country, the pain and shock would make life too much to take.

This is why people who have no financial or status tied up in protecting abuse of corruption within an institution can nevertheless be expected to rally around that institution and its leaders. Those who tell the truth threaten their Murti-Bing pill supply, and therefore their sense of order and well-being. To them, better that a few victims must be made to suffer rather than the entire community be forced to wean itself from Murti-Bing.

I want to thank the Catholic blogger Kevin O’Brien for suggesting this topic to me. In his recent blog post, he lists people he knows personally (concealing their names) who have, in their own particular situations, succumbed to the allure of Murti-Bing, because reality is too painful.