The Evangelical Celebrity Machine

Janet Mefferd accused pastor Mark Driscoll of plagiarism then deleted all her proof. Why’d she back down?

Pastor Mark Driscoll as a guest on "The View," March 7, 2012.
Pastor Mark Driscoll as a guest on “The View,” March 7, 2012.

Photo by Donna Svennevik/ABC via Getty Images

When the evangelical radio host Janet Mefferd agreed to interview Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll on her syndicated talk show the week before Thanksgiving, she warned his publicist that she would be asking some tough questions. Mefferd, a former newspaper reporter and editor, wanted to ask Driscoll about a recent incident where he’d shown up uninvited at a conference and handed out copies of his new book in the parking lot until security asked him to stop. The bizarre encounter had become a minor brouhaha within the evangelical community. In preparing for the interview, however, Mefferd found a bigger story: evidence, in her view, of plagiarism. She confronted Driscoll on air on Nov. 21, and the fallout of their contentious interview has turned into an ongoing controversy that is raising questions about plagiarism, power, and what Mefferd’s former producer—who resigned last week—calls “the evangelical industrial complex.”

Driscoll is a powerful and controversial figure even among other conservative evangelicals, promoting a masculine vision of faith that strikes some Christians as crude and wrongheaded. (In October, for example, he wrote, “Jesus is not a pansy or a pacifist.”) And he leads his growing network of churches with an unusually strong hand. Last year, I reported on an incident in which his church harshly shunned a young member deemed insufficiently repentant. Driscoll wears hoodies and jeans, but do not mistake him for a laid-back guy when it comes to theology. Driscoll holds traditional conservative views on issues like homosexuality and gender roles. His new book, A Call to Resurgence, laments America’s “post-Christian culture,” marred by gay marriage, legalized marijuana, paganism, and a trend toward increased hostility to the faith. It’s a theme Mefferd is sympathetic to: Her show, heard on more than 100 stations across the country, is billed as “a distinctively Christ-centered look at the news and events of the day.” Tuesday’s show included sympathetic interviews with the founder of the Creation Museum and a lawyer representing the Colorado baker facing fines for refusing to make a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding.

But Mefferd was bothered that Driscoll barely credited the work of a theologian named Peter Jones. She flagged about 14 pages of Driscoll’s book that seemed to draw their ideas and themes directly from Jones, with only one vague endnote mentioning him as an “example” of Driscoll’s point. She confronted Driscoll about it on the air, and the interview quickly turned testy. “You’re being accusatory and unkind,” Driscoll told her. “It seems like you’re having sort of a grumpy day.” He emphasized his longtime friendship with Jones, and accused Mefferd of being “un-Christlike.”

Mefferd has been largely quiet since the interview, but she agreed to answer my questions by email. She says she wasn’t expecting the original radio interview to become so hostile. “I was really hoping for some honest repentance,” she said. “I was hoping that if I pointed out that he didn’t properly cite Jones in the book, he’d say something like, ‘You’re right. I should have done a better job of footnoting those sections. You know what? I’m going to go back to my publisher and make sure that gets fixed.’ Instead, he said he’d apologize to Peter Jones ‘if’ he made a mistake and stressed how many times he’d had dinner with him. But a personal apology isn’t a sufficient response when you’ve appropriated someone else’s ideas and insights without proper citation; you also have to make things right.”

After Mefferd’s interview with Driscoll concluded, things turned uglier. She said that he had hung up on her on the air; his publisher distributed an audio recording of his side of the call that seemed to prove her wrong. (She says she couldn’t hear his final statement on her end of the line, and calls the mix-up “the perfect red herring to change the subject away from plagiarism.”) Driscoll’s publisher, Tyndale House, released a statement tut-tutting Mefferd’s “belligerent tone,” and later said the book’s citation “conforms to market standards.” (Driscoll is an important part of Tyndale’s business: A new imprint called Resurgence Publishing, announced earlier this year, will publish all Driscoll’s work starting with A Call to Resurgence, along with five to seven books a year written by Driscoll-approved authors. The pastor’s last book, Real Marriage, became a No. 1 New York Times best-seller.)

For a guy known for his aggressive leadership style, Driscoll is also a master of passive-aggressive behavior. Two days after the radio interview, he posted a long essay about lying on his website. Though he didn’t mention Mefferd by name, it is hard not to see her in the section on “Slander/Libel”:

Case-builders collect information like stones to throw at somebody—just waiting for the right opportunity to impugn and attack someone’s character and integrity. If you’re a case-builder, you’ve decided that someone is your enemy and then justify sinful slander as righteous aggression.

But the “case-builders” continued their work. Mefferd soon posted PDFs online that showed other examples of apparent plagiarism, including paragraphs from an older Driscoll book that were almost word-for-word quotes of material from a relatively obscure Bible commentary—a more serious charge than the accusation that he had improperly credited another writer for using his ideas. Soon, two widely read evangelical bloggers, Warren Throckmorton and Jonathan Merritt, began covering new developments almost daily. Collin Garbarino, an assistant professor of history at Houston Baptist University and a blogger for First Things, wrote, “I’ve failed students for less flagrant plagiarism. So, it’s my duty, as a member of my professing profession, to give Driscoll an ‘F.’” On Monday, another publisher told Christianity Today magazine that paragraphs from its Bible commentary “improperly appeared without quotation or attribution” in Driscoll’s work.

Mefferd broke the story, and it would be natural to assume she would have continued leading the charge. But last week, in what Throckmorton called “a stunning about-face,” she removed the interview and the evidence of plagiarism from her website, and apologized on air for how she handled the issue. “I now realize the interview should not have occurred at all,” she said on the show. “I never should have brought it to the attention of listeners publicly.” Saying that she should have raised the issue privately with Tyndale House first, she apologized to Driscoll. (As of this writing, the PDFs are available on at least one blog, and audio from the interview is on YouTube.)

The book of Matthew lays down guidelines for how Christians should confront one another about sin: start with a private confrontation, then return if necessary with witnesses, and make your case publicly only as a last resort. That is the context in which many Christians may have interpreted Mefferd’s apology. But to many observers, something smelled fishy about her sudden removal of evidence from her website. The next day, a part-time producer named Ingrid Schlueter resigned suddenly, posting comments online suggesting that Mefferd was strong-armed. “All I can share is that there is an evangelical celebrity machine that is more powerful than anyone realizes,” she wrote. “You may not go up against the machine. That is all. Mark Driscoll clearly plagiarized and those who could have underscored the seriousness of it and demanded accountability did not. That is the reality of the evangelical industrial complex.”

Mefferd wrote to me that she removed the materials from her site because they had already been widely disseminated, and she wanted to be responsive to those who had criticized her tone and approach.

But she says her apology shouldn’t be mistaken for a recanting. “I stand by my allegations of insufficient sourcing, absolutely and unequivocally,” she said by email. “His plagiarism is a very serious ethical and moral breach. Academics and journalists alike have lost their jobs over less than what Mark Driscoll has done.” Mefferd says that “no attorneys were involved in this situation” and that no one at Mars Hill Church, where Driscoll is pastor, suggested she remove the materials.

On Monday, Mars Hill made its first explicit comment on the issue since Driscoll’s original interview. In a corner of its website devoted to the Driscoll book with several paragraphs apparently copied wholesale, the church posted a statement blaming a research assistant for “citation errors”: “During the editing process, content from other published sources were mistaken for research notes.” The head of communications at Mars Hill did not respond to an email and direct messages on Twitter requesting comments from the church or from Driscoll.

Mars Hill’s partial, passive-voice acknowledgement of wrongs, blaming an unnamed researcher, is unlikely to satisfy his critics. The drumbeat of criticism and reporting coming from within the evangelical community shows no sign of letting up. Mefferd, who is sympathetic to Driscoll’s worldview, isn’t satisfied with his silence. “I wanted to behave in the godliest way possible, and I opted to apologize for my tone and approach,” she said. “Why doesn’t Driscoll apologize himself?”

In A Call to Resurgence, Driscoll writes, “I have been hated, protested, despised, lied about, threatened, and maligned so many times and in so many ways I could not even begin to recount them all.” For a powerful leader, he is unusually attuned to his critics, and for a man who promotes the virtues of strength, he is quick to emphasize his victimhood. He tends to wear the attacks against him as a badge of honor, proof that he is speaking the truth that others are afraid to. On Monday, as the Mefferd dispute continued, he tweeted, “No leader is perfect. Actually, there was one…but we killed Him and we still argue with Him.”