Biblical Porn

Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll's Evangelical Empire

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Jessica Johnson
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , May
     2018.
     248 pages.
     $26.20.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780822371533.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

If, in Biblical Porn: Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Evangelical Empire, anthropologist Jessica Johnson had only provided a study of the once-great multi-campus neo-Calvinist Mars Hill Church, readers would have a lot to thank her for; however, she goes beyond this to offer an application of affect theory that can be usefully applied to institutions beyond Mark Driscoll’s church. That makes this book useful not only to scholars of congregations, but also to anyone who needs  help understanding how shame, fear, and bullying, as well as hope, can co-exist and invest people into institutions that, to an outsider, look clearly harmful to them. 

Mars Hill Church grew from its original Seattle location to fifteen campuses in five states from 1996 to 2014, its thirteen thousand attendees coming to hear pastor Mark Driscoll, the “bad boy of Neo-Calvinism” (30) known for his casual style, “penchant for derision” (52), cussing and use of sarcasm in his sermons, explicit sexual instruction in his sermons, and for the reinforcement of conservative gender norms that stressed women’s duty to perform frequent and adventurous sex for their husbands, and for men to be fueled by that sex in order to be dominant leaders. In this way, Mars Hill was both “theologically hardline but culturally hip,” (23), so that entering the sanctuary “felt like walking into a nightclub” (25), and also sexist and misogynistic, homophobic, and ableist. In repeating these teachings in sermons, classes, seminars, “training days” specifically for women to fight feminism, film discussion nights, and other settings, church leaders “affectively recruited” listeners into “sexualized and militarized dynamics of power through the mobilization of … biblical porn” (7; italics in original). For example, in a counseling session with a congregant, Driscoll prayed for the death of the man’s father after the father left his family for a same-sex lover; when the father died a few weeks later, Driscoll celebrated it in the sermon. He equated homosexuality and murder in ways that would have made even others on the Religious Right flinch. He frequently made lewd comments and gestures about women’s bodies. He identified “mantropy”—gender role confusion, as exemplified by effeminate men and women who have taken up the roles of protectors and defenders—as the major problem facing contemporary Christianity (33). During the sermons, those in the pews were encouraged to digitally submit their questions about sex into a system that projected them onto screens around the sanctuary; the result was a kind of public “sound-bite confessions to sins and desires” (7). Along with sexualized images, militarized ones infused the everyday teachings of the church, especially for men, who, Driscoll found, were energized by seeing themselves as warriors (58). Everywhere they looked, church members were told to feel shame, insecurity, and superiority about their sexual practices and desires. 

Many churches, of course, preach “Biblical complementarianism” and “spiritual warfare” and yet experience neither the dramatic growth or implosion of Mars Hill. Johnson argues that Mars Hills’ deployment of biblical porn brought people into an abusive system that was particularly invasive. “Biblical porn,” she argues, “was produced as a confessional discourse and surveillance technology that concomitantly titillated and monitored live and remote audiences who voluntarily subjected themselves to invisible practices of scrutiny by plugging into the Mars Hill experience” (133). But biblical porn at Mars Hill did more than ensnare congregants into this system: it made money for Driscoll each time controversial remarks were amplified (147). As with traditional pornography, biblical pornography has a profit motive. 

In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that Mars Hill would fly apart; the meanness of Mark Driscoll drew people to him, but it rarely makes for sustainable movements or institutions. Johnson lists a host of problems that emerge from a system in which a celebrity pastor can make a lot of money by speaking disrespectfully about the real problems of real people: “spiritual, emotional, and financial exploitation” (2); “bullying, micromanagement, and tactics of intimidation and social isolation used to suppress information and stifle dissent” (14); “demon trials” (186)—in which church members experiencing “oppression” had their demons put on trial, and then these “demons” reported on the worthiness of other believers; misappropriation of donations intended to support global churches (35); dishonest marketing ploys to increase the sales of Driscoll’s books (14); plagiarism (35); and noncompete clauses and nondisclosure statements (36) to prevent former employers from seeking pastoral work in the area or speaking about the church after departing. Despite all these problems, former members continued to express love for Mars Hill as, after they left, they called attention to the abuse in online settings and street protests. Johnson explains that, having spent 2006-2016 studying the congregation, she understands the affective appeal of Mars Hill. By the end, as Driscoll continued to attack his critics despite the credibility of the accusations against him, part of her, too, wanted him to be redeemed. “I had come ‘under conviction,’” she writes “but not of my own sinful nature and need for salvation. I did not become born-again in Christian terms, but I had to confront the troubling reality that I had deserted to believe in ‘Pastor Mark’” (5); out of this shared experience with the congregants, “I came to affectively, if not theologically, resonate with former church members” (21). 

It wasn’t possible for Johnson to write Biblical Porn before Mars Hill collapsed, of course, but I wish I had had it in my hands years ago, when friends whose family members had joined the church, knowing I have some expertise in Calvinism, sought me out for help understanding it—and, they hoped, extract their son and his family from the church. They called it “a cult”—speaking about it not just pejoratively but with real fear. They were worried about their son, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren, not just for their futures but for the ways that their way of thinking was being reshaped. And they were worried because they saw people they loved being emotionally abused. I wish I had had Johnson’s insights to share then, but I suspect that many readers will be grateful for them now.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rebecca Barrett-Fox is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Arkansas State University. She is the author of God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right (University Press of Kansas 2016), as well as articles about conservative religion and politics that have appeared in Contention, Youth & Society, Journal of Hate Studies, Religion and Popular Culture, Radical Teacher, and elsewhere. Her most recent article, “A King Cyrus President: How Donald Trump’s Presidency Reasserts Conservative Christians’ Right to Hegemony,” was published in Humanity & Society in October 2018. 

Date of Review: 
October 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jessica Johnson teaches in the Departments of Anthropology and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington.

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