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The False Currency of Shock: Why Mark Driscoll Gets Attention but Doesn’t Change Minds

It’s no secret to friends and regular readers that I don’t shy away from controversial topics. But talking about touchy subjects is a delicate matter, which I’ve learned primarily by bulldozing through and being blasted for it. Over and over.

The hardest thing for me to overcome is my love of shock-value. I don’t know why, but I’ve always had this idea that shock changes people’s minds. It seems like a great short-cut compared to the time it takes to reason and discuss and think and process and eventually change. What could be better than to just give people a little (or big) zap? *Presto* they’re on my side!

The problem is that while shock is an excellent attention-getter (Mark Driscoll is a master of this), it rarely causes people to change how they think about things. In fact, it often does just the opposite. And, as Driscoll illustrates nicely, it also gives ample fodder to your critics because shock is often misunderstood and offensive.

doll in the grip of a jumper cableComing on strong triggers people’s defenses. At least, it does mine. When I feel attacked, my knee-jerk reaction is to throw up barriers and shields, back away, and strike back. The last thing I want to do is listen.

While in the shower today (does anyone else do their best thinking in the shower?), I tried to think of an issue in which I’ve changed my mind because someone shocked me. I couldn’t. It may have gotten me to think about something again, but only when I sensed no trace of condescension. As soon as I detect someone patting me on the head and talking down to me, I check out.

Several weeks ago, I asked if male-led churches have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in their zeal to avoid the appearance of having women in authority. It was a follow-up to an earlier post critiquing Together for the Gospel, which raised the hackles of many of my friends. I knew I hadn’t hit the tone right, so I asked my husband to help me. I thought we went way overboard with the conciliatory tone. It didn’t have near the edge I wanted it to, but I decided to try it and see what happened.

It went over so well that people actually asked if I’d gone soft. Not quite the response I was expecting, and can we focus on the topic please?

But then, not two days later, I found myself on the other side. I attended a class in which we discussed a particularly controversial topic. Only one other person besides me disagreed with the discussion leader and the rest of the class. I was surprised at how difficult it was to listen to various people discuss their position, compare it to mine, and make observations about the consequences of getting this one wrong.

The criticism felt like being punched. I was shocked to hear them describe what I believe. They made sweeping generalizations, all of which I knew were false at least some of the time. They drew conclusions based on those sweeping generalizations, which in my Christian circle leads one to question the validity of a person’s walk with God.

I took it personally. I felt the unspoken accusations of being a bad Christian or not being one at all. I grew defensive, eventually asking the group to be more careful with their words because they could offend someone or say they aren’t Christians.

The entire group protested, saying, “We didn’t do that! We never said they weren’t Christians!”

They didn’t hear themselves. They had no idea how their words landed and how hurtful those broad generalizations could be.

I didn’t either. Until I was on the receiving end.

Those two experiences forced me to face the false value I’d placed in using intentionally strong language to shock people. Shock should be used like cayenne pepper – rarely, intentionally, and sparingly. We need to go far beyond what feels reasonable when talking about controversial topics. When we know people will disagree we have to overboard with peace in order for them to hear grace, not accusation. If we want them to hear us and consider changing their mind, our goal should be to further the conversation and keep people talking, not to drill our point home the fastest and hardest. (Interesting note: Driscoll has backed off from much of the shock-jockery he used to use, I assume because he’s also discovered the down side of shock.)

Shock may get attention, but when it doesn’t communicate your position in an understandable way, and especially when it offends and misrepresents, it has no value.

How do you react when you hear someone say something shocking? What’s it like to be the minority of opinion on something?

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  1. You so wise, joy. You so very wise. : )

  2. As for being in the minority on something, you know what my week has been like. But as for shock-value, I have been thinking lately that the danger of blogs is that we can easily create a single, ideal reader and write only to them. Or maybe we create two: the one that agrees with us and the one that disagrees and then converts after reading our words. I’ve been trying to balance this lately with remembering that Holy Ghost is the only one who changes hearts. Somehow our words play in that, but it’s mystery. What I can say is that, as much as you own up to moments past in this post, I count myself blessed to have glimpsed the moments where you have come out and said something was too shocking or went too far or was not clarified. It has taught me quite a lot and for that, for journeying temperance in a transparent way so that others could learn and have learned, I am very grateful, Joy.

  3. I totally agreement with you. I am on the other side of theological opinion from you. I said shocking things in my blog last summer. Where did it get me? Fired from the class I taught in my conservative church. Not because of what I said, but how I said them. I like the cayenne pepper analogy.

  4. I agree. Shock value does all the things you have said. There is a fine line between shock and a strong, prophetic edge, and I think it takes an expert (of something) to master it.

    Shock does work if you use it correctly. For example, I’m a veterinarian. Most people don’t care at all about dental disease in their cats, because cats are amazing at hiding pain and sickness. I often have to shock people into getting their cat’s teeth taken care of (usually by letting them know that dental disease showering their cat’s kidneys and heart in bacteria). In this instance, the shock leads to action – dental care – cats are healthier and live longer and pet parents are happier, even though they were shocked. I use the shock to get positive action.(BTW if you aren’t a cat lover, this doesn’t speak to you at all, lol)

    So how can we use shock in our writing to engage positive action that will lead to greater health of the church? (sparingly, I agree)

  5. Oh, YOU would say that! 😉
    Very wise…an awesome application of regarding others more highly than yourself. Also, yours is another post in a long list of posts that includes the topic of cussing lately (me included). This wil one day be known as the Cussing December of 2011.

  6. I’m trying to think and the best I can say is that perhaps my life and formation left me somewhat inured to shock. I can’t recall being “shocked” or finding very much “shocking”. Which might be odd.

    No, when I run across someone (in person or online) who seems to be trying to be provocative, if I’m interested at all, my first reaction tends to be to try to figure out why. They usually, though not always, have a goal beyond simply evoking a shocked reaction (or otherwise provoking a response).

    If I’m able to discern their motives, I’m not above sometimes yanking their chains. But I’m better at restraining myself than not.

    I guess I’ve also never been particularly concerned about being in the minority (in any given context) in my opinions. Nor does it particularly bother me to have others try to convince me otherwise. My mind is constantly deconstructing something I think I believe. Others can do no worse. As a rule, these days, I tend to be circumspect about pointing out the flaws in the arguments or opinions of others (at least in person) unless they are the sort of friend who think more like me and are comfortable picking apart ideas.

    I’ve learned over the years that many people tend to take such things as attacks — so I tend to reserve them for those times when I actually intend to attack. That’s less and less often these days, so I tend to stay relatively quiet in a group in which I can’t think of a helpful way to express my disagreement.

    • Scott, you express the place I hope to get to. And yes, I think shock can be used with decent motives — we all tend to get numb and need something to prod us awake. That’s usually why I try to use it, but it takes practice and I don’t think I’ve got the knack for it… yet.

  7. Good post. The one-line summary would be “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”, right?

    I’m not a big fan of shock talk myself, and I do tend to get defensive when it gets directed my way.

    On the other hand, Jesus did use shocking language and/or imagery on occasion – not cussing per se, but imagery that shocked and challenged the status quo in terms of people’s viewpoints.

  8. Some speakers use shock as a way to help listeners re-engage with the message after mentally drifting or even falling asleep. That could be Driscoll’s motivation, not sure. But just like someone who constantly yells, you learn to tune them out after a while.

    I heard Driscoll speak several years ago to a group mainly comprised of 20-something wannabe church planters. What he said there were a series of shocking statements, including:

    1. I make so much money now that I can buy my wife anything she wants.
    2. I just built a huge add-on to my house as an office with all the money I now make. It’s huge.
    3. I don’t particularly like people. They annoy me, hence the new office at home.
    4. You will never be as big as me, so don’t even try.

    My wife and I were indeed shocked as you might imagine. But we’ve known tons of preachers over the years, so this was nothing new. God is big enough to take care of His children, so we left the conference with no ill feelings towards the man. A few years later, I heard where Mark confessed to his church that he had long been influenced by an underground stream of pride that dominated his life and relationships. Perhaps the Lord used some “shock” of His own to get Mark’s attention. 😛

  9. Joy, I don’t want to ignore the heart-felt expression of your own experience with shock value, and the lessons you’ve learned from it. But the title of this post about the danger of shock value is shock value in and of itself.

    I’ll be straight with you, I love Pastor Mark. As you probably could have guessed given my TGC and Resurgence leanings. I wasn’t around for much of his earlier ministry, and have only come to listen to his messages within the past year and a half. That said, the first message that I heard was his Marriage and Men sermon, in which he blatantly calls some of the men in his congregation “cowards and fools.” And rightly so, given the context of his message.

    Shocking, to be sure. I never heard a pastor call his men cowards. Never heard a pastor tell his men so forcefully to repent for treating their wives wrongly, or for putting their hands all over their girlfriend. And I heard all of this after coming to the tail end of a season when I didn’t care at all about God, and I fell into the coward and fool category when it came to how I treated my girlfriend. So, this message hit home, and hit hard. And I thank God for it every day, because this shocking force was like a breath of fresh air amidst the staleness I’d come to experience growing up in the Bible belt.

    Can Driscoll go overboard with his tweets and such? Yes. Has he submitted to the authority of the church elders and repented publicly? Yes. Isn’t this the mark of maturity in Christ that we should all hope to see in our lives, and that of our pastors?

    Maybe I’m biased. I probably am, actually. But I know that Driscoll’s faithful, forceful preaching of the gospel did, in fact, change my life and mind. Obviously, it was the Holy Spirit using Driscoll’s words to pierce my soul, but I don’t feel it appropriate to neglect the means the Spirit chose to use to reach someone who very much needed to be shocked back into the reality of faith in and love for Christ.

    • Hi Don, thanks for your comment. When I say that Mark used shock more in the past, I’m referring to the days in which he was dubbed “The Cussing Pastor.” He’s dropped that, though obviously he still uses very strong and shocking language. I think you’re right — sometimes we need to jolted awake. But I think the one doing the jolting still needs to be careful. I know I can go off half-cocked in a misguided attempt to power my message through. The net result is that my message gets completely lost because people were too overcome by the format or the form. Does that make sense?

  10. Funny, my inclination is to be totally the opposite in my writing, even though I can be a pretty “shocking” person in conversation, quick with a zinger and a forceful opinion. My writing is extremely subdued, partly because I know that it is better for me to take my time and try to consider the opinions of those with whom I disagree, and partly because I really hate criticism. I’m a total “dish it out but can’t take it” sort of person. So I take my time to be really prudent and thoughtful on controversial topics because I don’t want to be disagreed with! That sounds so pathetic when I write it out. So for a not very noble reason I end up being more charitable and persuasive (perhaps I need to change my why??)

    Funny, the post that is being linked to this comment is one of my more opinionated ones. So I guess I’m not ALWAYS prudent.

  11. Hey Joy – Thanks for this post. I agree with it on an intellectual level, but not necessarily on an experiential one. Let me explain:

    In my particular area of blogging (feminism), I’m often perceived as doing and saying things “for shock value,” when it’s how I normally talk and write. My writing style doesn’t change from one subject to the other, but on more controversial issues, I’m suddenly writing just to shock people. Maybe this points to a pattern or style that I need to change, but to me that would be like willing my skin to change color.

    I do, when I recognize that I’m going to post stuff that’s controversial, attempt to strike a more irenic and compassionate tone, but the subject matter sometimes prevents that. And it’s frustrating, because I’m not necessarily purposefully trying to be shocking, but I sometimes end up coming across that way, just by the very nature of my subject.

    So I find myself giving up on trying to speak to those who will find me shocking no matter what I say – and maybe that’s where I find myself incredibly similar to Mark Driscoll. Which is a scary thought! So while I agree with you and I like what you have to say, I don’t necessarily think it’s applicable 100% of the time. There are always going to be people who see in your writing what they want to see, and catering to the LCD in that situation, I’ve found, ends up destroying the style that makes my writing mine. :/ So, I don’t know. I’m still working it out, but I do think there’s a difference between perceived shock on the part of the readers, and actual purposeful writing for shock value – the latter of which I do not do. So I’m with you there. 🙂

  12. As a pastor, I am intimately aware of the “effect” my speaking and writing has on people. Sometimes I listen to what they heard in a sermonor read in my blog (occasionally in Bible study, but we have time to work through that problem). It’s amazing what people hear/read vs. what I say/write.

    “Shock” is best when it is not necessarily offensive, but when it challenges our world. Yet most often shock is the result of the Law. Law can be effective in short term change, but not for lasting, internal change. Only the Gospel (what God does for us in Jesus Christ) can do that. In that sense, the Gospel is truly shocking. Sadly much of American preachers and teachers have moved away from the shock of the Gospel, but shock for change or shock for shock’s effect. Not a good move.

    As a seminary president/professor, I challenge the students to dig further into the text and let that be the shock, not novelty or crassness, vulgarity, or even imagery, etc.

    From an old codger who likes to shock with the Gospel.

  13. Great post (and I thought your complimentarian bath-water post was really thought provoking btw)

    I do think there is a place for shock – but it generally only works when you’re shocking someone out of apathy or ignorance (e.g. it took a tour through the concentration camps for many people to realise the horror their government had been doing in the 1940s). I think Driscoll, actually, uses shock well when pointing out the damage of pornography, for example (he’s also done shock very badly, and to his credit, does seem to take correction from his mentors)

    But you’re right.. sparingly. I certainly listen to people who I feel are trying to bring me on board rather than harass me.

    Of course, the danger with blogging and shock value is it’s usually good for traffic 🙂

  14. On one level, i think it’s sort of timely (and slightly ironic that this post coincides with the pre-release of some of the chapters of the Driscoll’s new book which I would argue is definitely designed to shock. But, that’s actually not what i wanted to comment on. I’m not inclined to write for shock value, it’s not my natural inclination. I feel like i’m being hyperbolic or philosophically deceptive when i find myself consciously doing so. When i read others writing to shock, i often have two responses naturally 1) I’m suspicious of whether they are purposely sensationalist and are doing so merely to evoke passionate response (great for traffic – not always great for moving the conversation forward) or 2) I’m made to stop and think – and while i’m often not totally persuaded as a consequence of the shock value, I am grateful that a topic/subject was approached in that way (even if I wouldn’t/couldn’t write about that topic in that way). That is, i’m often glad aspects of a conversation are opened up, that a dialogue can then occur. I really appreciate your own reflection on this, Joy. I’ve been sitting here thinking about whether I actually might be prompted out of my own considered carefulness and explore issues upon which I don’t have remotely settled ideas, in a public forum, just to try out those ideas. I’m still hesitant, but i think you’ve prompted me to thrown lines into the water in ways i might not have (who am i kidding? certainly wouldn’t have) 6 months ago. So, thankyou!