Though Mars Hill disappeared from Seattle just four years ago, it feels as though the church never existed here at all. It’s been wiped clean from our civic memory — an aberration, a forgotten fever dream that broke and dissipated with the dawn.
It’s almost impossible now to describe the Mars Hill phenomenon to someone who is new to Seattle. Try to explain to them that it was a huge network of megachurches spread all over the region, and that Seattle was home base for a multi-state evangelical empire by one of the up-and-coming Christian leaders of our time, and they’d likely look at you as though you’d sprouted a third eye in your forehead. And then if you tried to get into the details of Mars Hill — that it began as a hipster church, with glowing national coverage of its young tattooed congregation, until the whole damn thing collapsed under the colossal ego of one douchey pastor — your audience might be inclined to accuse you of spinning a fiction, a screwed-up fairy tale.
But the fact remains that Mars Hill was until recently a major player in the city, and in the national evangelical scene. Pastor Mark Driscoll was one of Seattle’s most famous citizens, before he was forced to flee his empire in disgrace under a flurry of plagiarism charges and accusations of misused church funds. And Driscoll’s body of work — the sermons he seemed most proud of — consisted of misogynistic calls for wives to service their husbands above all else, lest those husbands be turned to Satan by pornography and masturbation and illicit affairs.
It’s all too batshit to be true. And yet it was absolutely true, and for many years it seemed as though Seattle would never be free of Driscoll and his Old Spice-scented air of toxic Christian masculinity.
That’s why I’m happy to have UW Professor Jessica Johnson’s scholarly study of Mars Hill, Biblical Porn: Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll’s Evangelical Empire on my bookshelf. Johnson’s book reminds us that Driscoll was real, that Mars Hill did loom large over the Seattle skyline, and that Driscoll’s liturgy was just as creepy and harmful as we remember it to be, if not more.
“The first thing that I want to tell you is that Jesus was a dude,” Johnson quotes Driscoll as saying in a sermon. Driscoll’s description drags on from there — lingering lovingly on Jesus’s callouses and his likely love of “pull my finger” jokes when he’s out fishing with the boys — but really it all boils down to that word: dude.
Driscoll, of course, is the textbook definition of a dude. During his time in Seattle, he embodied the spiky-haired, vertical-stripe shirted dudeness you would find in nightclubs around Seattle on a Saturday night. It’s probably not hard for a woman to picture Driscoll as the boorish jackass rubbing up against them during the Ludacris song at Throwback night. It’s not hard for nerdy guys like me to picture Driscoll snapping wet towels at them while firing off accusations of homosexuality in the locker room after gym class.
Maybe you think I’m being hard on Driscoll here, but that’s why Johnson’s densely sourced book is so valuable: she provides plenty of evidence for Driscoll's awfulness. During gay pride weekend one year, Driscoll made a point of mocking the festivities from the Mars Hill stage: “It is a myth that God is all about love, that’s the God up on Broadway for the parade...the fairy, hippy God...the pansy Jesus in a purple G-string.”
Johnson’s documentation is thorough and immersive. In the introduction, she writes:
This study is based on a decade (2006-2016) of gathering ethnographic evidence. From 2006-2008, I conducted fieldwork at Mars Hill’s headquarters in Ballard, a centrally located Seattle neighborhood, as the church began multiplying into satellite campuses throughout the city and its suburbs. I regularly attended not only sermons but also gospel classes required for membership; seminars on how to embody biblical gender and sexuality; a women’s “training day” called “Christian Womanhood in a Feminist Culture”; and Film and Theology Nights, when Hollywood movies were screened and discussed.
Make no mistake, this book is intended to be an anthropological text, and at times it descends into complicated academic jargon. This is not the general-audience history of Mars Hill that we've been waiting for. But even in Biblical Porn's most densely academic moments, Johnson is a capable and welcoming narrator. While the book doesn’t dwell much in the first person, Johnson’s accounts that do manage to sneak through are lucid and painterly:
Entering Mars Hill’s sanctuary felt like walking into a nightclub. The dimly lit lamps cast a dark glow from high-beamed ceilings that bore traces of the warehouse that it used to be, exposing guts of large tubes piping in data, electricity, and air. The black outer walls and dusky hue of the open amphitheater added breadth to its cavernous layout absent any windows or structural cushion to soften tone or image. An iron-wrought cross cast a large shadow against dark-red curtains behind the stage that served as a pulpit. There was a large sound and light board system in the middle of the room, where two DJs in headphones twisted knobs and muted the lighting still more, creating a cool ambiance of expectancy. The atmosphere of Mars Hill on Sundays felt like an extension of Saturday night.
Johnson’s description is immediately evocative of Driscoll’s vision of church as a kind of spiritual meat market — a place where women are put into service as spiritual and fleshly handmaidens.
In Driscoll’s version of Christianity, men are the prime actors — the dudes who fight for God — but they’re strangely powerless when it comes to sex. Men can’t control their urges, Driscoll warns wives, and so it’s up to women to keep men happy through constant sexual servitude. Here’s some advice he offers to Christly wives:
Take a Polaroid and snap a few shots in various states of marital undress and bliss and sneak them into his Bible so that when the guy sits down to eat his lunch at work and read some Scripture he has reasons to praise God...Or how about the occasional instant explicit message from his wife rolling across his screen giving him some reasons to expect that dessert will precede dinner that night.
Biblical Porn is crammed full of Driscoll’s evangelical erotica: he urges wives to give frequent oral sex, to flaunt their nakedness around the home, to offer sex to their husbands whenever they want it or need it. The implication is that if the wives are not continuously serving their men’s needs, the men will turn elsewhere to meet their dark sexual urges. And though Driscoll never comes out and says it in public, he seems to believe that behind every man who is tempted by Satan you’ll find a woman who didn’t work hard enough to keep that man happy.
Driscoll has a ton of issues with women. “What I find curious is that most of my demonic counseling work has been with women,” Driscoll says at one point in Biblical Porn. It is curious, but not for the reason Driscoll thinks that it is. He’s always finding women who’ve been overtaken by “sex demons,” and he exorcises those demons by shouting at the women, demeaning them, and cursing the sex demons out of their bodies.
Perhaps the most honest account of Driscoll’s misogyny comes from a now-infamous rant Driscoll issued on a message board under the anonymity of a pseudonym:
We live in a completely pussified nation...It all began with Adam, the first of the pussified nation, who kept his mouth shut and watched everything fall headlong down the slippery slide of hell/feminism when he shut his mouth and listened to his wife who thought Satan was a good theologian when he should have lead [sic] her and exercised his delegated authority as king of the planet.
That’s pretty much all of Driscoll’s targets in one juicy paragraph: effeminate men, slutty women who don’t know better, and a culture prone to elevating women beyond their station. This is the worldview that Driscoll preached from the pulpit at Mars Hill every Sunday for years.
Thankfully, Driscoll blew himself up. “By the summer of 2014, evidence had surfaced online that supported several accusations against Driscoll,” Johnson writes, “including the misappropriation of tithes intended as a ‘global fund’ for churches in Ethiopia and India.”
Driscoll left the church behind on the last day of 2014, and he’s barely even remembered as a footnote in Seattle history. Biblical Porn is important because Johnson's research and firsthand accounts remind us how far down the path this city followed a hypocritical, monstrous shyster before we were saved from his toxic ambitions. We need the memories and the moral strength of writers like Johnson to warn us away from making the same mistakes in the future.
Of course, anyone who has ever witnessed the fall of a prideful man of God knows that they always rise from their own ashes. Driscoll has set up a church in Arizona, and his website brags about all the media appearances he’s made through the years. And he's now blogging at Patheos, the evangelical blogging site that, ironically, hosted Warren Throckmorton — the watchdog whose intensive journalism helped bring Driscoll down years ago. (Many Seattle journalists and writers, including Stephanie Drury and Megan Seling, contributed to Driscoll's downfall.)
But Driscoll himself is looking worse for the wear in photographs these days: his hair is thinning, his smile is shallow, his eyes are pools of disappointment. He must understand on some level that any asshole can start a church in Scottsdale. Only one asshole could preach homophobia and misogyny from a pulpit in downtown Seattle — the middle of the devil’s den! — and turn that pulpit into the command center of an empire. But that asshole is gone now, and Seattle barely remembers him. It’s almost like he never existed.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant