Book Review: Biblical Porn: Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Evangelical Empire | CBE International

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Book Review: Biblical Porn: Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Evangelical Empire

Few evangelical Christians have not heard of pastor Mark Driscoll, and few are therefore unaware of his scandalous history at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington. After building up one of the fastest growing church networks in America (see www.acts29.com) from the late 1990s to 2014, Driscoll was let go by the very fellowship of churches he helped build, on various charges of unethical behavior. Aside from some literal Bible-thumping at stadium altar-calls, threats of hellfire, calls for local spiritual revival, vitriolic homophobia, top-down hierarchies of power, constant intimidation of dissenters, cult environment, etc., his regime was known for its hyper-sexualization and endless commands to live a godly masculine or feminine life.

Jessica Johnson, an anthropologist with no religious affiliation, finds the ethos and orientation at Mars Hill as incarnating “biblical porn” (hence the title of her book). Two intersecting concepts explain what she means by this arresting designation. The first is “affective labor,” which is work intended to produce emotional experiences in people. The second is “biopolitics,” which generally refers to all of the power relations that relate to people’s bodies, their particular features, and their understandings of themselves and others—in this case, as sexual persons.

Biblical porn is not generated through sexual performances per se . . . [rather] “emotional and physiological energies, desires, and sensations” are created and capitalized on during the affective labor of its cultural production and mediation as a social imaginary, marketing strategy, and biopolitical instrument. . . . At Mars Hill, such affective labor entailed a variety of service opportunities that primed the church’s atmosphere and fostered networks of care, such as worship band, media production, security team, and children’s ministry. . . . Practices of confession and processes of imagination were bodily and virtually mediated and networked. . . . This religiously inflected form of biopower directed a collective sense of conviction in support of Driscoll’s vision for Mars Hill’s empire. . . . (8–9)

In other words, Driscoll intentionally capitalized on Christian men’s addiction to pornography to build up his own ecclesiastical kingdom. This came into fruition by preaching sermons and creating Bible-study series about sex and marriage that launched his material to the top of Internet and podcasting search results; that is, sexually explicit Internet searches began pointing toward Mars Hill Church. His teaching on gender and militaristic ethos—all supposedly licensed by God’s Word—also provided an army of deacons and sycophants willing to sacrifice themselves in order to further Mars Hill’s massive campaign of expansion.

In short, the regime was based on (1) the “spiritual authority” of the pastor that could not be questioned, (2) male headship (dominance), (3) sexually explicit discourse that created as much popularity as notoriety, and (4) a spiritual warfare model of the church, which legitimized aggression, verbal abuse, and a thick culture of fear.

Biblical Porn is an academic monograph and not a popular read. Other reviews (such as those on Amazon.com) point out the unnecessary wordiness and distracting, perhaps trivial, implementation of trendy academic ideologies. The work is also somewhat journalistic in the sense that (a) Johnson was a participant at Mars Hill and witnessed these dynamics herself, and (b) she conducted countless interviews and collected field research for the project. But the end result is still a success: an incisive and disturbing look at one of the most epic failures of complementarian ideology and church governance in recent times.1

Biblical Porn was truly a depressing, yet especially interesting, read. At least four reasons for this are evident. First, one realizes that the tragedy of the Mars Hill experiment is anything but unique. Undoubtedly, a number of other lesser-known churches have gone through similar convulsions, but because they lack popularity they will never receive the much-needed exposure to result in “regime-change.”

Second, not only is regime-change volatile—regimes should never exist in the first place, whether in churches, families, nation-states, or otherwise. Johnson gives a fair look at the conditions necessary for the disaster—which go far and beyond one man’s charisma, visions, and assertiveness. The problems are structural and systemic—they do not revolve around the one who occupies the top office of the hierarchy, but around the office itself. Johnson interacts briefly with Rachel Held Evans and Skye Jethani on this topic (144–47), concluding:

The evangelical-industrial complex thrived on Driscoll’s celebrity by perpetually monitoring and amplifying his controversial remarks in order to feed itself. Like the military-industrial complex, this “evangelical-capitalist resonance machine” infiltrates the logic of perception while inflecting economic interests, working simultaneously “on the visceral and refined registers of cultural identity” while requiring the self-sacrifice of all-volunteer forces to support increases in baptisms, sermon downloads, and weekly attendees. (147)

That is, Driscoll’s raw pursuit of profit, with its resulting capital projects—another thousand downloads, baptisms, attendees, etc.—was a system of mechanical feedback loops. Much like how Lockheed Martin and Boeing use the authority of the government to profit from perpetual physical warfare (thus requiring physical weapons), so Driscoll and others like him use the authority of the church to profit from perpetual spiritual warfare (requiring spiritual weapons like new book publications, Bible-study packages, conferences, etc.). Driscoll was not the engine. His role was to fuel the engine that his entire team built up over the years—though, simultaneously, he also functioned as the driver of this machine.

A broader and more interesting insight of Johnson’s study (leaning on Jethani’s response to Held Evans) is that megachurches are probably inherently unsustainable. They depend on a labor system of exploitation and on celebrity pastors—both of which are fundamentally at odds with a genuinely Christian ethos. If a church—or denomination, or business, etc.—becomes about a particular pastor or leader in that church, it is already on the path to decline.2 True, it would have been nice if Johnson made the fundamental distinction between crony-capitalism and capitalism when drawing these parallels,3 but her general observations on this point remain valid.

Third, it is deeply disheartening to think of how many thousands of people become disillusioned with Christianity in general after being played by con artists like Driscoll. The embarrassment goes far beyond Seattle. Driscoll, we ought to remember, wrote books endorsed by many other well-known church leaders, integrated with other ministries, and was widely represented by The Gospel Coalition. (This was no surprise since TGC prides itself on being complementarian, asserting strong spiritual leadership, not budging on certain conservative doctrines, etc.4) I can still remember cringing years ago while watching Driscoll continually interrupt Mark Dever in one particular TGC interview video which—along with all other materials—quietly disappeared from their website. (I spoke to one evangelical about this, for example, and she was surprised even to learn Driscoll had anything to do with TGC! The Internet scrub appears to have been successful).

Fourth, the particulars are disturbing. Driscoll counseled countless couples before and after marriage and regularly encouraged frequent, man-centered sex. Women were disciplined for lusts about men they never lusted after, for not being the porn-star they were supposed to be, and men were assured that they had a biblical license for sex-on-demand from their wives despite the pain it inflicted on women.5 Especially after such “demon trials,” women were regularly shamed, and as a result, they internalized deep spiritual worry about their souls because they raised questions about Driscoll’s sexual culture. Anyone—man or woman—who dissented was habitually called to repent, and if they did not, they were either shunned or excommunicated. And when it was all over in 2014, Johnson notes, Driscoll never did the thing he required of everyone else: repent of the specific, named sins he was accused of.

Johnson’s interview material and discussion relating to PTSD—especially in the process of being an insider and then falling outside the fold and being shunned—were also particularly troublesome. In fact, it invoked a little bit of PTSD in myself. At one point in my career, I was the assistant pastor of what can only be described as a miniature Mars Hill Church. Other than size and an absence of all the sexualizing, the fundamental dynamics were the same. The sole pastor had a specific calling from God that could not be questioned (and anyone who did was targeted for discipline, then excommunicated). Forming a cult around the charismatic preacher, the entire church ethos revolved around this “spiritual authority,” bolstered by proclamation of the Word. The model of the church was frequently depicted in terms of spiritual warfare. There was official adherence to various ideologies (e.g., Calvinism and complementarianism), deep admiration for evangelical celebrities such as John Piper, an economic focus on numbers (e.g., attendance, newcomers), a heavy cloud of anxiety and fear about being disciplined for imaginary sins of congregants, and verbal abuse behind closed doors. Then, the pastor resigned, only to do the same thing all over again at another congregation, leaving the first church traumatized and divided. (Johnson’s account of when Driscoll fired founding elders also struck a chord since I was fired in precisely the same kind of closed-door, heavy-handed manner.)

I wish I could say these kinds of scandals are over—or at least in decline. The curse of decentralized power, patriarchalism, and what can only be described as “toxic masculinity,” however, continues to damage churches large and small. In fact, Driscoll himself has found new fields to conquer at his growing Trinity Church in Tempe, Arizona. In June of 2018, he was featured at the Charisma2018 Conference in Orlando, Florida. “He’s a long way from The Gospel Coalition and Acts 29,” wrote Warren Throckmorton on this development, “Those were just seasons on the way to a new season.”6

Biblical Porn is journalistic writing mixed with detailed anthropological analysis, written with a clear intent to expose an ever-present moral failure in the world of organized religion. Tragedies like Mars Hills are carefully manufactured disasters produced by well-intentioned people, not flukes of chance and random, nefarious actors. It is difficult to say how much role ideologies like complementarianism play in comparison to other variables. However, it seems safe to say that the bulk of tragic events simply could not have occurred in the context of an explicit, well-reasoned ethic of self-giving love and mutuality.

Notes

1. I originally asserted that it may have been the most epic such failure, until being reminded of Paige Patterson, who was fired from the presidency of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in May 2018.

2.  It reminds me of the Austrian economic saying, “It’s the boom that should scare you,” or Warren Buffet’s saying, “be greedy when people are fearful, be fearful when people are greedy.” The general point is that the public appearance of wild success is the truest sign of upcoming failure.

3.  “Crony-capitalism” refers to that unfair relationship between private enterprise and government, whereas “capitalism” simply refers to the accumulation of capital in the process of private market exchange, voluntary trade, and the enforcement of contract law. The former is parasitic on the political apparatus; the latter does not even need a political apparatus. Johnson also misuses the term “NeoCalvinism,” which refers not to contemporary self-identifying Reformed pastors but to the specific Dutch Calvinism of Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and their successors.

4.  See https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/about/foundation-documents/.

5.  These are all documented facts, according to Johnson.

6. Warren Throckmorton, “Mark Driscoll Rocked the Charisma2018 Conference” (June 30, 2018). https://www.wthrockmorton.com/2018/06/30/mark-driscoll-rocked-the-charis....

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