Biblical Porn: Book Review

Johnson, Jessica. 2018. Biblical Porn: Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Evangelical Empire. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Reviewed by: Brendan Jamal Thornton (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill)

Depending on what you are looking for, the title of Jessica Johnson’s 2018 volume from Duke University Press may be a bit misleading: you need not be home alone or draw the curtains closed in order to crack the spine of this thoughtful text which is based on a decade of comprehensive ethnographic research on Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, and its shock jock pastor Mark Driscoll. From 1996 to 2014, Driscoll built an evangelical empire whose quick ascent to national prominence was matched only by its precipitous fall from grace following a series of scandals that would topple the church and sully its reputation. Distinguishing himself as a provocateur through controversial teachings on marriage and relationships, Driscoll’s relatively novel brand of mondo evangelical theology won him both celebrity and notoriety among white middle-class Americans who found his signature sermonizing on sex to be as compelling as it was titillating. According to Johnson, Driscoll’s appeal lay in his rhetorical talents and “gift” for hyperbole, skills that for over a decade routinely seduced audiences who were at once stirred and troubled by his unorthodox preaching on “biblical oral sex,” and other salacious topics.

Drawing insight from pornography studies, the anthropology of Christianity, and the literature on affect theory, Johnson explores the embodied and emotional dimensions of religious conviction at the heart of Mars Hill Church’s success (and eventual collapse). Through the mobilization of what she calls “biblical porn”—”the affective labor of mediating, branding, and embodying Driscoll’s teaching on ‘biblical’ masculinity, femininity, and sexuality as a social imaginary, marketing strategy, and biopolitical instrument” (7)—Johnson argues that Mars Hill Church interpellated large audiences into “sexualized and militarized dynamics of power” in the service of Driscoll’s ministry by way of sophisticated digital technologies fine-tuned for modern audiences. At its peak, Mars Hill Church claimed 13,000 followers across five states and fifteen facilities. In sermons such as “The Porn Path” and an e-book called Porn Again Christian, Driscoll used the topic of sex as an affective recruitment tool designed not only to arouse the senses and stir the interests of congregants, but also to discipline their behavior, ensure their steadfast commitment, and provoke the powerful sentiments that were crucial to his rapid rise to evangelical renown. By framing Driscoll’s message in terms of “biblical porn,” Johnson draws attention to the sensational, visceral, and physiological nuances of religious enthusiasm made especially potent through virtual engagements across a diverse range of digital media, highlighting what she calls the “carnal resonance” of conviction, and underlining the affective labor of Driscoll’s controversial theology of sex.

Biblical Porn offers a rich and fascinating look at both the dysfunctions and persuasions of a particularly alluring form of contemporary evangelical Christianity; it is a welcome addition to a growing trend of smart and probing work on gender and sexuality in the anthropology of Christianity that recognizes the dynamic interplay of doctrine, practice, power, and popular culture. More and more, studies of Christianity in the anthropology of religion and gender are deepening our understanding of these categories as co-constitutive and are helping to shed light on the many contexts where religion and spirituality provide important avenues for reproducing, contesting, and transforming various gendered aspects of social and cultural life. These areas of meaning are still too often overlooked by scholars, but as Biblical Porn and other recent works demonstrate, religious concepts and practices are almost always gendered and the gendered concepts and practices anthropologists encounter on a daily basis in their research are just as often as not imbued with religious meaning. For this reason, it continues to be crucial that ethnographers of religion do not ignore the gendered aspects of conviction or doctrine, especially since it is often the areas of gender and sexuality that believers themselves are so concerned with reforming and perfecting.

It is common, for example, for Christian groups to mark gender explicitly and to address it doctrinally; it is not as if the anthropologist has to do much abstracting from ritual practice or from everyday talk to see Christians doing gender work. Johnson illustrates clearly how incendiary pastors like Driscoll mobilize misogyny and invoke rigid gender dichotomies in their efforts to defeat sin and to win souls for Jesus. Driscoll’s evangelical project was directed as much at gender reform as anything else, and his teachings often dwelled on improving men and women spiritually by redefining what it means to be a man and woman of God respectively.

To explain what exactly was so attractive—but also so effective and ultimately destructive—about Driscoll and his message, Johnson employs affect theory, an increasingly popular analytic in anthropology, which she convincingly marshals to provide persuasive insights into the evocative dynamic between colorful/controversial preacher and rapt/loyal devotees. Johnson shows that Driscoll’s supporters were “affectively recruited” through a purposeful barrage of digital media technologies that worked at several levels to ensure a pliant and dedicated following—all while advancing the influence of the church. Of particular note here is Johnson’s analysis of the specific sexualized and militarized dynamics of power central to that recruitment—one that constituted members as “gender-specific sexual agents and sinners who were trained to normatively embody masculinity, femininity, and sexuality” in hetero-normative and decidedly white middle-class ways (9). Driscoll’s regular insistence that sex between a husband and wife should be “free and frequent” in order to combat porn addiction and resist the ills of a “pussified nation” is just one example of this. Traditional and misogynistic gender roles were affirmed, moreover, through frequent sermons on the sexual generosity women were obliged to show the men they marry along with the imperative to please them sexually as a function of their Christian duty. Wives were systematically shamed, Johnson says, “into feeling that if they did not have sex as and when their husbands wanted, they were not fulfilling their biblical roles as women” (112).

To be sure, anthropologists perhaps know better than anyone else that both Christian conversion and Christian self-making are gendered in fundamental ways that tell us a lot about what the faith means to those who claim it.  Indeed, conversion is just as much a gender project as it is an ethical or spiritual one.  For Driscoll and others, without a masculine revival there can be no religious revival.

In Driscoll’s mind, the most worrisome devils confronting the church were feminism, effeminate leaders, and a crisis of masculinity that threatened the very foundations of U.S. Evangelicalism. His attempts to combat this “crisis” took the form of concerted efforts to “remasculinize” or “mengineer” a new masculine identity for the Christian nation—efforts that predictably led to the further subjugation and demonization of women in the church, creating a particularly toxic environment for female members where concepts of sin and salvation were both feminized and masculinized in conspicuous and highly charged ways (104-105). Confirmed by means of interviews and testimonies of former members, Johnson shows how Driscoll’s preaching affectively impacted the everyday lives of female members through networks of shame, fear, and paranoia that would, in the end, spoil their fidelity to the church.

No matter the Christian group, again and again ethnographers are confronted with evidence that Christian agents are very much interested in constituting men and women as related, but ultimately different Christian subjects. In practice, this contradicts the egalitarian ethos and explicit discourse of many churches that proclaim equality in spirit (and in salvation) for those who join their ranks. Sometimes referred to as “complementarianism,” the gender doctrine taught at Mars Hill Church as well as other theologically conservative evangelical churches espouses that men and women are “equal but different” (61). For the faithful this means that gender roles and expectations can be radically dissimilar; the church defines Christian men and women as brothers and sisters in Christ who have distinct parts to play in God’s plan. Driscoll centered gender and sexuality in his ministry to the extreme, exaggerating differences between the sexes and promoting a biblical masculinity in manifold ways that can only be described, Johnson insists, as pornographic in its delivery and consumption. Through the use of a military lexicon and frequent invocation of combat metaphors to frame the church’s mission, Driscoll labored to define his brand of biblical masculinity against what he perceived to be the “benign patriarchy” of the Promise Keepers, a popular evangelical men’s organization that he viewed as unmanly and dismissed as “homoerotic” (52). His promotion of a “muscular Christianity” took the shape of rhetoric aimed at “combat readiness” and a conflation of spiritual and military warfare where masculine “citizen-soldiers” replaced “pussified insurgents” in leading the church’s mission of expansion and church planting at the obvious expense and dismissal of women (65).

Ultimately, Driscoll’s achievements were not due alone to his bravado or ability to connect with millennial audiences at a visceral level; he was assisted, Johnson tells us, by a highly profitable application of interactive multimedia technologies such as e-books, vodcasts, blogs, online forums, websites, and podcasts, that worked in tandem to engage global audiences while functioning as conduits for the affective influences of “biblical porn.”  His digital media savvy served to amplify his message and provide the virtual architecture for his own version of evangelical revival in the twenty-first century (119).  Thanks to Johnson’s keen insights, Biblical Porn is not just a book about the rise and fall of a modern church movement; it is also, valuably, a book about the success and propagation of contemporary religion in today’s vastly interconnected digital world.

The televangelist cynosure is one of the more fascinating topics in American religion and, despite a crowded intellectual field, Johnson’s combination of ethnographic insight and analytic acumen breathes new life into the subject (which she does, admirably, without recourse to theories of charisma) and joins several recent ethnographies of exceptional quality to address the religion of American Evangelicals. When discussing religions of emotion, moral transformation, and everyday struggle, anthropology has something crucial to contribute through ethnographic methods that open a window into the intimate worlds of believers. Ethnography, in particular, is especially equipped to address important questions of religious conviction and affect as Johnson so eloquently demonstrates in Biblical Porn.  Through close readings of sermons, blog posts, and other media, as well as interviews, participant observation, and productive reflections on her own affective responses to her research, Johnson shows how central gendered and gender discourses were to both the rise and fall of Driscoll’s evangelical empire while modeling a methodology and theoretical approach that is both timely and instructive for students of religion and professional anthropologists alike.

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