Professor Jessica Johnson doesn’t call herself a Christian. Yet, three to four times a week, every week for two years, she entered into the overwhelming, complex and often problematic world of a contemporary megachurch in Seattle, Washington. She did so not as a worshipper, but as an anthropologist, conducting what is known in her field as “participant observation.”
“You can actually invest in this place and people’s lives,” she said. “I started understanding on a deeper level how the church was organized in terms of its purview on Christianity.”
Over the course of two years, by sitting in the congregation and integrating herself into the community, Professor Johnson discovered a “network of control” within the church, a tangled web of financial corruption, psychological abuse and patriarchal oppression.
Professor Johnson thrives in the field, “on the ground,” as she described it. She defines her role as an anthropologist as one of embodiment. While studying Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Professor Johnson was in the thick of things. She could see, hear and feel her subject matter in the realest sense.
Now, the new Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies can be found tucked away in the attic of Wren. Her desk is nestled beneath peeling rafters in an office with one round window, which looks oddly lonely without a candle burning on its sill. The room overlooks not a raging city or a towering megachurch, but the Sunken Gardens. Yet, the quaint intimacy of the College is part of what drew Professor Johnson to William and Mary. Unlike her time instructing lectures at the University of Washington and Florida International University, she now teaches classes with as few as 18 students.
More than class size, Professor Johnson “wanted to get really invested in the local history and culture here.” For example, discussing the Wren cross controversy introduces her students to the concept of separation of church and state within education, while also grounding them in real time and space.
Of her experience at William and Mary so far, she said, “I’ve already thoroughly enjoyed my time with students here. We’re working very hard together.”
Beyond teaching, Professor Johnson is active in scholarship. Her research includes critical race, feminist and queer theory. She also studies political theory and its intersections with American religion and global Christianity. Her first book, Biblical Porn: Affect, Labor, and Pastor Mark Driscoll's Evangelical Empire, details her time at Mars Hill Church. Some of her scholarly articles include “The Self-Radicalization of White Men: ‘Fake News’ and the Affective Networking of Paranoia,” published by Oxford University Press in 2018, and “When Hate Circulates on Campus to Uphold Free Speech,” published by Studies in Law, Politics, and Society in 2019. Her upcoming book, with the working title The Radicalization of White Men: Conviction and the Networking of Online-Offline Violence, builds on issues of radicalization, hate speech and the role of social media in today’s political climate.
Professor Johnson is an anthropologist —she earned her PhD in anthropology from the University of Washington and her research focuses primarily on human politics. So, why Religious Studies?
“The intersections of religion and politics are very, very real,” Professor Johnson explained. “You just can’t get around thinking about what’s happening in our current climate politically without understanding religion.”
At the core of tragedies like the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, national security concepts like the War on Terror and the spread of anti-Muslim sentiment are the relationships between religion and human politics, Professor Johnson said.
“To be a good citizen is to understand those relationships,” she said. “Without understanding that, you can’t think critically about what’s happening.”