Big Preachin'

With this book -- a sort of sociocultural biography -- Shayne Lee, an assistant professor of sociology at Tulane University, provides the first critical examination of the most influential African-American preacher of our time. The author skillfully 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 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 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 mainline churches decline in this post-denominational era, we have more conservative messages transmitted via ultramodern formats -- think Norman Vincent Peale on "Dr. Phil," or William Seymour preaching at AZUSA via webcast.

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 burgeoning -- largely conservative -- faith industry.

It's not so much about belief as it is packaging and promotion, the author contends. In the book's second chapter, Lee traces the tradition of Pentecostal packaging and capitalist promotion back to Oral Roberts and through the ministry of Bishop Carlton Pearson in Tulsa, Okla. The author hits his stride here. With vivid imagery and descriptions, 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 (I couldn't believe it either.)

Describing Jakes' explosion within the religious "marketplace" of America, in the third and fourth chapters the author pushes us to respect Jakes' talent and entrepreneurial skill -- even if we don't agree with it. Lee offers neither an apologetic biographical account nor a surreptitiously packaged theological diatribe; 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. Lee seems to be thinking, "Don't hate the player, hate the game."

Which isn't to say that Lee fails to call Jakes out on his many contradictions. Later in the book, the author tackles the issues of class, gender and business ethics. 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, or as "Daddy's little girls," Jakes promotes patriarchal understandings of masculinity and femininity. (So I appreciated the author's questioning of where Serena Williams or Laila Ali would fit into Jakes' world of "loose women.")

While I believe we should sing Shayne Lee's praises for this text, there are some problems. For starters, I am unsure about the author's excessive use of the term "new black church;" 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, and there has never been a time when black preachers haven't been regarded as celebrities in the black community. Finally, levels of professional technology can be identified from traditional mainline denominations (most notably with C.L. Franklin, whom I can't believe was not mentioned in this book) to Pentecostal movements with radio, and movie personalities such as Elder Solomon Lightfoot Michaux in the 1930s.

But to be fair, Lee is a sociologist, not a church historian, and here he has written an entertaining, informative, accessible text that's certain to have mass appeal.


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