The Postmodern Preacher: The Rise of Bishop T.D. Jakes by Shayne Lee
I get the sense Lee is saying, 'Don't hate the player, hate the game.' In other words, ye among us who would not accept multimillion-dollar book deals, recording contracts and public acclaim cast the first stone.
Shayne Lee, an assistant professor of Sociology at Tulane University, has provided us with the first critical examination of the most influential African American preacher of our time. A socio-cultural biography of sorts, the author examines T.D. Jakes rise to prominence from the hills of West Virginia to multimillion-dollar religious corporate enterprise. But this book does more than follow the development of T.D. Jakes and his ministry. As the author puts it, Jakes becomes "a prism through which the reader may learn more about contemporary American religion." Lee contends that Jakes is an embodiment of traditional American cultural ideals and the postmodern features that inform what it means to be American in this contemporary moment.
According to the author, Jakes' ministry, and the brand of "postmodern evangelicalism" he represents, reflects a reliance on traditional sources of authority that are diffused through advanced technological forms into an expanding consumer market. Thus, as the mainline churches decline in this post-denominational era, we have more conservative messages transmitted in ultramodern formats -- think Norman Vincent Peale on Dr. Phil or William Seymour preaching at AZUSA via web cast. Such a phenomenon has created a conundrum for traditional communities of faith that cannot understand why their "progressive beliefs" do not stand up against this bourgeoning, largely conservative, faith industry. It is not so much about belief as it is packaging and promotion the author contends. In the words of the great American salesman P.T. Barnum, "without promotion something terrible happens... Nothing!"
In the second chapter Lee traces this tradition of Pentecostal packaging and capitalist promotion back to Oral Roberts and through the ministry of Bishop Carlton Pearson in Tulsa, Oklahoma. To be sure, the author hits his stride here. With vivid imagery and journalistic description, Lee paints an entertaining picture of the AZUSA Fellowship Conference where the original cadre of neo-Pentecostal superstars, including T.D. Jakes, were born. Likening those assembled at AZUSA to the crowd at a heavyweight championship fight, the author captures the glitz, glare, social posturing and even sexual tension that are prevalent at such events. The storyline is colorful and engaging in such a way that the author even overcomes the cheesy Eminem quote he uses as an epigraph; You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow... (Yes, I couldn't believe it either!)
The third and fourth chapters offer more of the same. Describing Jakes' explosion within the religious marketplace of America, the author forces us to respect Jakes' talent and entrepreneurial skill even if we do not agree with it. Lee offers neither an apologetic biographical account nor a surreptitiously packaged theological diatribe. This is to say, the author does not steer clear of the problematic aspects of Jakes' ministry or bore the reader with a gazillion irrelevant reasons why Jakes does not represent the "true gospel" message. He simply situates Bishop Jakes within American culture in such a way that even Jakes-haters should walk away with a better understanding of this quintessentially American preacher. I get the sense Lee is saying, "Don't hate the player, hate the game." In other words, ye among us who would not accept multimillion-dollar book deals, recording contracts and public acclaim cast the first stone.
This is not to say that Lee does not call Jakes out on his contradictions. In the subsequent three chapters the author tackles the issues of class, gender and business ethics, respectively. In chapter six, "Woman Art Thou Really Loosed?" Lee demonstrates that though Jakes has packaged himself as in touch with and empathetic toward the pain of women, the evangelist often reinforces essentialist notions of gender that preclude opportunities for female self-actualization. By describing women as soft, tender, and/or as Daddy's Little Girls, Jakes promotes patriarchal understandings of masculinity and femininity. I appreciate the author's query concerning where Serena Williams or Laila Ali would fit into Jakes' hyper-essentialized world of "loose women."
While I believe we should sing Shayne Lee's praises for this very fine text, there are some questionable areas. For starters, I am not quite sure about the author's excessive use of the term "new black church". Other than the dynamics already discussed, what makes it new? Are they the categories the author posits in chapter eight? If so, these are easily disputed. Megachurches date back in mass to the first quarter of the 20th century with the Great Migration. Iconoclastic preaching is found with each emerging generation. The theme of personal empowerment antedates Booker T. Washington. The music of the black church has always been ahead of the cultural curve in America. There has never been a time where black preachers have not been regarded as celebrities in the black community. And, finally, levels of professionalism and technology can be identified from the traditional mainline denominations (most notably C.L. Franklin who I cannot believe was not even mentioned in this book) to Pentecostal movements with radio and movie personalities such as Elder Solomon Lightfoot Michaux in the 1930s.
In my view, T.D. Jakes only represents a "new black church" to those with a narrow view of black religious history. To be fair, the black religious academy contributes to the perpetuation of this narrow historiography by privileging the narratives of progressive, black mainline denominations. This is why Lee's work is so important. Besides, Lee is a sociologist not a church historian. So even though such phrases as "new black church" should be left to the writers of Ebony, the author deserves a pass on this one. He has written an entertaining, informative, and accessible text that is certain to have mass appeal.