“Biblical Porn” at Mars Hill Church

Chris Burlingame
May 26, 2018 · 13 min read

Author and UW lecturer Jessica Johnson talks about her new book on Mars Hill Church’s and Pastor Mark Driscoll’s evangelical masculinity

Photo by Paul VanDerWerf, from Wikicommons.

The rise and fall of Mars Hill Church and its outspoken pastor, Mark Driscoll, is, I think, one of the most interesting stories in the Pacific Northwest over the past several years. Starting as a home bible study in 1996, it had grown to fifteen branches in five starts and had an average attendance of about 12,000 weekly churchgoers. In 2013, it was named, by The Church Guide, as one of the “Top Churches to Watch in America,” and on January 1, 2015, it was officially no more. Eleven of the fifteen churches had become independent and the remaining churches dissolved.

Driscoll built his reputation on projecting hyper-masculinity and unwavering adherence to Evangelical Christian doctrine, even when he crafted a persona around wearing jeans and a seemingly-permanent, five o’clock shadow. He made headlines by, among other things, saying that disgraced Pastor Ted Haggard’s infidelity with a male prostitute was, in so many words, due to Haggard’s wife possibly being “a wife who lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband in the ways that the Song of Songs is so frank about.” He was also dogged by accusations of plagiarism, and his image began to publicly unravel when it was reported that he paid $210,000 for a PR campaign to astroturf his book Real Marriage onto the New York Times Bestseller list.

Driscoll’s brash demeanor raised a lot of eyebrows and generated countless takes and think pieces when his writings included referring to women as “penis homes,” which was consistent with his patriarchal worldview. His sermons and writings encouraged women to be as sexually available to their husbands as those husbands desired. This obsession with the sex lives of Mars Hill members led to dozens upon dozens of abuse allegations.

The language that Mars Hill and Driscoll use, and its focus on sex, though, had some very real and very violent implications. For example, Driscoll has told women, including many abuse victims, that he could sense their sexual sin.

This is all explored in a great new book called Biblical Porn: Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Evangelical Empire (Duke University Press) by University of Washington lecturer Jessica Johnson. Johnson teaches in UW’s Departments of Anthropology and Gender, Women, and Sexual Studies. Biblical Porn is an engrossing book that shows the lineage between Driscoll’s sexist take on Christianity and what impact it has on its community inside and out of the church. It’s an incredibly important book for many reasons, for example, how it details the ways in which Mars Hill and Driscoll paved the way for this current, political climate and public discourse.

I spoke with Jessica Johnson by phone about her new book for almost an hour. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Photo from washington.edu.

First, let me ask what was it that made you interested in Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill?

Driscoll wasn’t preaching as strongly against gay marriage politics as one might think. He wasn’t Jerry Falwell or, at that time, Joseph Fuiten at the (Cedar Park) Church out in Bothell was very active politically in the gay marriage scene in Washington State. Antioch Church was another church that was anti gay marriage and having protests against it.

But Mars Hill wasn’t having protests and Driscoll wasn’t preaching against it. Although once I went online and did a little bit of research, I started seeing fissures to this and that he would start to speak pretty openly against gay marriage but in ways that were actually particularly damning when it came to what would be called the homosexual lifestyle or homosexual practices or whatever. Anything other than an identity that could actually be legitimate.

He would preach about homosexuality as sin but as though he was not a Jerry Falwell figure, he was not a James Dobson. And one of the ways he would get around that and still preach a theologically conservative worldview is by saying things like “well, at Mars Hill we don’t consider homosexuals any worse than we would murderers.”

Oh, gee, thanks.

So it’s like, okay, you’re equal opportunity when it comes to sin, I guess. But at the same time couching those sins in the same kind of vernacular doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re more open or welcoming when it comes to what it is to be gay. Mars Hill didn’t have an ex-gay ministry but grace groups that were oriented towards people struggling with same sex attraction.

Mark himself would make it very clear that he was against any pastor preaching on the acceptance of homosexuality on any level. It was always sin. That was very clear. But he wasn’t as politically overt in the kinds of activities or the kinds of sermons that he would preach on the issue of gay marriage per se.

But it would come up in other ways that were, I would argue, more violent and pernicious. There’s a story in the introduction to my book where he preaches on the fear of God and repentance in particular. And this is one of the times where I started realizing that repentance, while a rich theological concept, is also one that can be weaponized. And one of the ways that I started to glean this was through the ways in which Mark would talk about repentance in terms of fear of God. In this particular story, it was about a dad who had a homosexual or a gay affair with someone. [Driscoll] was ministering to his son.

The family was on a mission in the Philippines and the father had this affair with another man. Mark is helping the son to process this in his story that he’s telling from the pulpit and comes out and says something to the effect of “well, I prayed with him for his father to repent or die and feel God’s wrath.” And then the punchline to this story is that the father winds up having a heart attack and dying.

I mean that whole theological understanding of fear of God it is something that I was dealing with, trying to wrap my head around how that could be a valuable orientation of faith. But at the same time aside from that part when I heard stories like that and seeing it being used and articulated in such a manner, it just struck me as a very abusive way to couch such a theological understanding.

Another thing was some of the anti-Islamic rhetoric that would come up just off the cuff in his sermons that would be very easy to ignore or just passively take in without really thinking it through because it would be asides or they would be couched in terms of jokes. Mark was very good about walking back from anything that would sound perhaps overtly offensive or overtly violent but because of the ways that he would say things, they would then elicit a certain kind of laugh or elicit a certain kind of reaction.

And this is why affect comes up to my book so much because affect is not just about an emotional response it’s also a bodily response we’re not always aware of or can’t really make intelligible to ourselves. And there’s a real rich, nuanced and insidious kind of power to that. Mark was very good at setting off buttons in ways that we see now in our political climate and the ways that social media is used, the way that trolling has come to be.

Driscoll was an OG troller. I’m sure you’re familiar with “Pussified Nation.” It comes up in my book and it was one of the splashes made online where he’s talking about women being penis homes. I think that’s one the more popular phrases when people reference that text. But there’s so many other elements to that text that are equally disturbing. Just the way that he would couch his language in terms of a masculinist ideology.

But the book’s not just about him, right. He comes up in the book because I think that it’s an interesting study in how language has a physical effect, how rhetoric can be violent. I also think the book speaks to a lot of the debates that are happening now around political correctness, free speech, issues raised by the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos. I think he’s a precursor to a lot of the divisive political climate that we find ourselves in now, unfortunately.

Yeah absolutely. That’s one of the things that I really liked and what I was interested in because, like you said, we are seeing things playing out now with Milo and how language is used so violently …

Jordan Peterson. He’s another one right?

Oh yeah, absolutely.

I think that Jordan Peterson is someone else now who has hit a certain nerve on the basis of discussing masculinity that it is very seductive and appealing to a certain demographic, a certain kind of… not just men but I think predominantly men but women too, who are very enamored with a certain understanding of what meaning is, what truth is, and then how it plays out in terms of masculinity in particular.

I don’t really like the term “toxic masculinity” because I think it’s thrown around a lot on social media as a weapon. But he’s the definition of toxic masculinity. You don’t need to write a definition or a think piece, just show a video of him talking. But then he also calls himself a male lesbian.

That’s the kind of language that just … to me that’s really violent, super violent and he was able to say such things very openly and publicly.

But that was the conversation he was having with Brian McLaren on Leadership Network. That’s where that comes from. That’s the part that really burns me up is that he was arguably always divisive, aggressive in these masculinist kinds of ways that I think would have set off alarms for most people in leadership in a church. But then he was not only allowed to continue with that, he was actually celebrated and encouraged, it invited people who perhaps themselves wouldn’t have said such things but were definitely riding on his coattails when he did, like the Desiring God people, John Piper, Tim Keller.

It really irks me that he was able to retire in somewhat good graces. I know that the church dissolved and it’s not like he was able to just pick up and start another ministry immediately. But it was pretty quick that he opened up a church after Mars Hill fell apart. And he left without any sort of official indictment. He didn’t even get a slap on the wrist. It really was like, he’s Mark and he’s sorry and he was sinful as a young man but he’s growing out of it now and he’s growing with Jesus. But he never repented and I still haven’t found one person from Mars Hill who has actually told me “Yes, Mark repented.”

You also quote a man in the book as saying that Driscoll had such a control over his marriage that his wife was more concerned with trying to earn Driscoll’s approval than tend to the needs of their marriage.

Yeah. This is where the circulations of those emotions in my book come into play. The fear, shame, and paranoia that was very alive and active in people’s orientation to the world and themselves and relationships with others is really sad. The fact that then this had that supernatural component to it such that people were literally being told that Satan will be sleeping in between you and your husband if you’re not sexually pleasing him as regularly as he would like.

And if you don’t please him then you shouldn’t be surprised if it infidelities occur, putting all that responsibility and blame on a wife in a marriage based on … I mean literally based on what he would call sexual freedom, no less, right? It’s no wonder that people would be paranoid, especially around sex.

So people, especially women, were constantly challenging themselves, “am I pleasing my husband enough? Am I pleasing him in the right ways? Am I doing the right things so that he won’t leave the marriage or be tempted outside of marriage?”

And again this is Driscoll’s own kind of theological truth. He actually claimed to have this gift to be able to see sexual sin in the hearts of others. So all of a sudden your pastor is telling you, by the way, I know when you sexually sinned, just by looking at you.

Unsurprisingly, that’s not really a healthy environment. Security plays a big part here, playing off of so many different kinds of insecurities, whether they be about sex or finances, the ways in which staff members would have to serve Mark’s desires when it came to his vision for the church. This onus to continue to grow and grow and grow while Driscoll continued to stir up and amplify controversy.

That’s what Mark called riot evangelism. He wrote a blog on in which he says I’m not a relational evangelist, I’m a riot evangelist. I think generating controversy and feeding it and wanting to exploit it as much as possible was definitely a strategy. I mean he was very well aware of what he was doing. At what point was he aware of it? I’m not really sure. But that was definitely a part of his orientation and his disposition.

I don’t think it’s something that he would ever say now, but I don’t think that necessarily means that he’s actually changed as a person. I just think he realizes that his image needs re-branding. And even before he left Mars Hill he was already talking about becoming a spiritual father to people. So I think he’s really taken up that kind of spiritual father image,.

Right. When he wrote “Pussified Nation” you write in the book that his targets were Promise Keepers and Focus on the Family and those other evangelical organizations. I wasn’t following it terribly close but I remember he always struck me as just kind of a doctrinaire right winger because of his comments about Ted Haggard and President Obama

The Ted Haggard story is an interesting one, in part because that happened while I was investigating gay marriage politics. As I said that’s why I started going to Mars Hill to begin with. And so when that happened that was around the time when I first started going around 2006 in the fall. I wasn’t very happy with the discussions around him. Dan Savage calling Ted Haggard a gay hypocrite or how conservative evangelicals like Dobson were calling Haggard 100 percent heterosexual within like a month. This constant battle for which category he was supposed to fall in when it came to his sexuality and his religion and how those were intertwined or separated out depending on who you were talking to and whatever their own political agenda was. He couldn’t just be queer, he couldn’t just not fit into a box of any certain kind.

And Driscoll’s take on it was fascinating, he framed the issue of Haggard’s sexuality so that attention was again trained on women, women’s sexuality, women’s bodies, women’s attention to their men sexually. Whatever opportunity could arise in order to re-frame any discussion or debate towards orienting the lens on women was really was fascinating to me. That and the fact that he was talking about sex so openly from the stage-slash-pulpit at Mars Hill at a time when I’m investigating gay marriage politics.

Mark was talking about sexual freedom in a way that nobody within the gay rights activism world was at that point in time, or even could, because the movement was so fixated on marriage. I was interested in how this theologically conservative church could talk about sex and sexual freedom in such a manner at a time when marriage was such a hot issue and all definitions thereof were being contested.

Absolutely. And in your book you talk about him blessing certain sexual acts as biblical, and therefore okay to engage in. I had this image in my head reading that about men lining up to get their particular fantasies blessed by Driscoll.

Yeah. “Is anal sex biblical?”

Are threesomes biblical?

Yeah, Mark was so invested in framing himself as a lot more open than most Bible teachers, and in fact, would say that the Bible is much more open than Bible teachers when it comes to sex.

So he was constantly positioning himself and what he was preaching in terms of biblical truth that other pastors just weren’t getting. And at the same time he was doing that he was couching himself as a rebel, particularly in the ways that he would position himself as a manly man who’s working against the “chickified” culture of mainstream Christianity. With that language, I mean, it’s so violent and pernicious and the way it frames what masculinity is supposed to be and look like.

Facebook says that we’re mutual friends with Stephanie Drury, who runs a Twitter account called @fakedriscoll that, I think, is hilarious because you often can’t tell initially what’s a parody of his masculinity and what is his carefully-crafted persona.

Absolutely, because he reveled in being outrageous and anti-PC. So, yeah it’s interesting how that attitude has become amplified by the likes of Milo Yiannopoulos or Jordan Peterson.

The joke you hear on Twitter is “doing blank to trigger the libs,” the liberals. And I feel like that was always his thing, I mean first with “Pussified Nation” and using terms like penis home. He’s always viewed women very regressively. I think you quote him saying the church planter’s wife has the most important job because she has sex with the church planter.

Totally. And the thing is how are men processing that? It comes up in the book because I would have to re-listen to things in order to transcribe them. So I would re-listen to these sermons or these segments of lectures or whatever they may be. And again, the laughter was the part that always… or at least started to become very pronounced to me as an active form of power.

I teach on critical media, so I know you can’t just sit there and take in a message and be completely immune to what it is actually doing to you. That’s just not feasible. So I think that a lot of these instances like the one that you just mentioned, I wasn’t in the room at the time because that was an Acts 29 boot camp. But even just listening to it online and listening to people’s laughter or sometimes even the pregnant pauses between things, that then Mark would still make a joke out of somehow. He was very, very good at that.

He was very good at using pacing, at using gestures, at using not just rhetoric but intonation to really capture and create a space, an affective space for people to bodily respond to him in ways that I think not only we’re not always privy or intentionally agreeing to but at the same time invested in. It’s just impossible not to be.

Biblical Porn: Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Evangelical Empire is out now from Duke University Press.

Journal of Precipitation

A blog about the Pacific Northwest.

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