Review of Shayne Lee, T.D. Jakes, America’s New Preacher
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For close to thirty years, theorists have speculated about the reality of a postmodern condition. Thought to be evident in the break from modern European aesthetics, the dissolution of the divide between neat spheres of social life, a crisis of authoritative knowledge, and the proliferation of commodification as a cultural form, the postmodern inspires writings about everything from religion to politics to economics. But underlying the postmodern debate is the suspicion that the very idea of the postmodern does not mark some new condition, but suggests a shift in our perspective on processes embedded in modernity itself. Shayne Lee should be praised for addressing the phenomenon that is T. D. Jakes as some semblance of our postmodern age. In T. D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher, Lee offers an impressive analysis of Jakes’ ascent to the pinnacle of popular religious culture. Using a vast array of data—including interviews with Jakes’ associates and Jakes’ various media goods, including digital recordings, books, and web information—Lee not only delineates Jakes’ place in American Protestantism, but illuminates what he terms the “postmodern” means by which Jakes has achieved his status. Even more, Lee uses his examination of Jakes as a postmodern religious phenomenon to sketch a “new form” of the “black church.”
In a series of chapters beginning with Jakes’ modest beginnings as a small town Pentecostal minister in Charleston, West Virginia, Lee traces Jakes’ unconventional rise to celebrity as founder of the multimillion-dollar not-for-profit institution, The Potter’s House in Dallas, Texas. Jakes’ experience with poverty and his keen intellectual interest in human psychology enabled him to develop a ministry without regard to doctrine or racial politics, but with an emphasis on the existential needs of his burgeoning congregation. Without the backing of a family name or a formal education, Jakes rose through the ranks of the neo-Pentecostal movement by strategically positioning himself and his ministry in the movement’s commercialized media industry of books and television programming. With keen sociological insight, Lee argues that Jakes’ relationship to a neo-Pentecostal media conglomerate, rather than his denominational location, pushed Jakes to the forefront of American Protestantism. What is particularly “American” about Jakes’ ministry is not only its theatricality, passion, creativity, and uses of commercial media, but his “word of faith” sermons that teach parishioners to view their financial support of the church as investments in divine blessings.
While Jakes reaps tremendous financial rewards from sharply commercializing “spiritual commodities” such as books, films, and recordings, he invites criticism from [page 102] Christians who believe his association of religion and business is unethical. For Lee, this indicates one of many intriguing paradoxes of Jakes’ status as a postmodern, American preacher. But to make his case about Jakes’ postmodern ministry, Lee ironically frames African-American Protestant culture using insights from rational choice theory, a mode of thought that emerged as a critical response to the postmodern position on the supposed failure of rationality. While Lee sees Jakes as a creator of “spiritual commodities,” Lee turns to a rational choice paradigm to model Jakes’ ministry as offering consumers a tangible and appealing array of spiritual goods to satisfy their existential needs. Because Jakes’s ministry offers better goods, the logic goes, it threatens other ministries that remain wedded to anachronistic traditions in a spiritual marketplace. Lee sees Jakes as a metaphor of the postmodern, and a prism through which we can see the outline of a “new form” of the black church. This new form is identifiable in such trends as a greater acceptance of female pastors, sermons that emphasize subjective experience instead of doctrine, uses of contemporary secular music in neo-Pentecostal music not found in other denominations, and the growth of “celebrity preachers.”
Concluding his intriguing analysis of Jakes with commentary on a supposed “new black church” is curious given that Lee does not at any point discuss the marked cultural differences between black and white Protestantism, or the African-American roots of Pentecostalism. Nor are Lee’s prognostications of a new black church theoretically grounded in the vast tradition on the same subject, which includes Benjamin E. Mays and Joseph W. Nicholson’s The Negro Church, E. Franklin Frazier’s The Negro Church in America, and C. Eric Lincoln’s vast body of work that gave us the original moniker and theoretical description of the black church. Why Lee makes these interpretive choices is unclear, but even in omitting the literature from African-American Studies and African-American religious studies to frame his subject, Lee has clearly sketched a different condition in the American Protestant and African-American religious landscapes. The question of its “newness” continues to bedevil us, but perhaps that is precisely what the postmodern is about.