What to Read Next (No. 188): What are men good for, anyway?
When I was in college and trying to figure out what my faith meant in an independent and personal way—i.e., not influenced by my parents—I dove into the burgeoning world of watching online sermons from famous megachurch pastors: Craig Groeschel, Mark Batterson, Erwin McManus, Andy Stanley, and Mark Driscoll. For at least a few hours each week I’d sit in front of my computer screen and absorb the well-produced show that it was. It was entertaining! The last name on that list—Driscoll—is now a bit of a persona non grata in the church world. That story is covered masterfully in a new podcast from Christianity Today; I was, in fact, so enthralled that I decided to review the podcast in full—a first for this newsletter.
At the heart of the story is a boatload of truly toxic masculinity. That’s not a term I love using, for a number of reasons, but it was on full display at Mars Hill Church in Seattle.
Along similar lines, author Christina Sweeney-Baird (who spends most of her time lawyering) wanted to explore what the world would be like without men. So in her new novel, she kills most of us off! Ha!
Both are riveting stories that do plenty of exploring of masculinity, culture, and how people respond when things go south.
Let’s jump in.
The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird
Published: 2021 | Pages: 380
“Bad things and good things can coexist. And we have to find the good where we can.”
There’ve been a few pandemic novels published in the last year and a half. It was bound to happen—apocalypse is always a popular genre and there’s only so many ways to do it. Sweeney-Baird started this novel well before COVID, but of course it became eerily prescient.
Told from a number of perspectives, The End of Men explores what the world would be like if there were a virus that decimated only the male population (about 10% of men survive). Let alone the healthcare and familial crisis, male-dominated industries—government, law enforcement, trades of all kinds—are thrown into chaos and require new training/leadership. There’s even room to explore less critical questions, like what happens to dating norms in this new world.
Sweeney-Baird explores all of it from a variety of different lenses and over a long period of time. There’s obviously a lot of loss and grief, but also guilt, jealousy (at the fraction of families who remained whole), anger, and eventually, a newfound joy.
Before going through a pandemic first-hand, it would have been hard to imagine how realistic this range and rollercoaster of emotions would be; but now, it’s easy to see just how accurate the author was in imagining what this crisis would look and feel like. For some, it would explode their entire world; for others, it would be more of an inconvenient blip that sometimes actually worked to their benefit.
It’s hard to write from multiple viewpoints, especially when unequally distributed. Some characters narrate a dozen chapters or more, while others show up for just a couple. And while there are some characters that show up in other chapters, the narrative is more about the inner worlds of our protagonists in reaction to what’s going on around them. Sweeney-Baird pulls off this feat admirably and the voices of each are unique enough that the pages turned themselves without needing to flip back and forth to figure out who was who.
By the end, it was obvious that this novel was less about the disaster itself and far more about the thought experiment: What would the world be like with women in charge from top to bottom? How would things change if one gender were in an extreme minority? Which problems would go away? Which would, perhaps surprisingly, stick around?
Sweeney-Baird’s novel is certainly plenty sad (especially in the beginning when it’s all going down), but it’s still compulsively readable, even for people who wouldn’t think they’d enjoy the premise. If nothing else, she opens a can of worms that you’re bound to continue thinking about long after finishing the novel—which I did in about two days.
The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill Podcast
Published: 2021 | Episodes: 7 (for now)
As noted in the intro, I was heavily invested in not only Mars Hill, but online megachurch video sermons as a whole. That period of my life was deeply affecting for a number of reasons, which means I was intensely interested in this podcast.
Over the course of seven always-interesting episodes, host Mike Cosper delicately and compassionately brings us the story of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. From 1996 to 2015, it grew from a small, grunge congregation, to a massive, multimillion dollar platform that put Pastor Mark Driscoll into millions of eyes and ears around the world.
It didn’t take long for warning signs to appear though; Mark was a young, inexperienced guy when he started becoming a well-known name in churchy circles. His immaturity, anger, and performative pastoring started bubbling to the surface early on, but was mostly ignored not only because of Mark’s natural charisma and take-no-prisoners humor, but also because of the real change the church was bringing to people’s live. The tradeoff was worth it . . .
. . . until it wasn’t.
As one of the memorable soundbites opines: “A lot of pastors get fired. Mark got fired for being an a**hole.” Beyond that surface-level annoyance, though, much of the hurt and even spiritual abuse went much deeper.
The real strength of the show is the care that Cosper gives Driscoll and Mars Hill. It’d be easy to tell the story with no grace at all and lean on the tabloid stuff, but Cosper shows that it was a real confluence of historical trends and modern innovations/ideas that led to what happened in Seattle.
Really, the podcast touches on nearly every aspect of 90s/00s church culture: The rise of the megachurch. The leadership and guru-ization of pastors. The demeaning machismo of male-dominated congregations. The open, vulgar sexualization of wives (the “smokin hot wife” phenomenon). The rise of online media and how quickly fame can happen—even for the unprepared.
Ultimately, though, this show is about hubris and the dangerous allure of charisma. It’s about what happens to a church when a single leader’s vision, ideas, and wants/desires, are put ahead of respect, empathy, and good old common sense. Sure, there’s some schadenfreude at play, but there are also real lessons to be had for church folk and non-church folk alike.
I can’t recommend The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill highly enough.
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