By Josef Sorett, Columbia University
Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism
By Jonathan L. Walton
NYU Press (2009), 283 pp.
Earlier this year a new (yet familiar) debate broke out about the current state of “the black church” in the United States. What began as an essay on the Huffington Post by a Princeton University professor provoked a response from Christians around the country and turned into an online dialogue amongst academics. It then sparked a plethora of posts in the blogosphere, inspired coverage in The New York Times, and led to a number of news stories, including several radio shows on NPR.
From all of these activities, perhaps two key themes emerged as a near consensus. First, interlocutors seemed to agree that the terminology “the black church” should permanently be replaced with the plural descriptor “black churches.” That is to say, the singularity of the former concept obscures the reality of diversity that the latter suggests.
Second, the conversation called attention to the fact that the prophetic Christian witness of Martin Luther King Jr. has always represented a minority report in Afro-Protestantism. In other words, black churches (like churches, in general) more often than not are conservative institutions.
Some might suggest that the above issues reflect the bleeding of academic debates into the public square. Critics claim that, unlike such theoretical queries, churchgoers tend to be more concerned with seeking God for a strategy to, say, pay their bills or fix a broken relationship. The disentangling of academic and lay concerns is a topic for another occasion.
Still, the debate helpfully shed light on the ways that we often appeal to myths (i.e., most black churches are politically progressive) more than historical or statistical measures to make sense of complicated, constantly evolving, cultural phenomena (i.e., race and religion in the U.S.). At its best, insightful public scholarship invites a conversation about obvious truths that are often unwittingly ignored or deliberately overlooked.
One excellent recent example of such work is Jonathan L. Walton’s book, Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism, which extends a trajectory of research trodden by academics such as Marla Frederick (Between Sundays, 2003) and Shayne Lee (T.D. Jakes, 2005) earlier in the decade. While Dr. King may continue to dominate conversations — popular and academic — about African-American religion, these works call attention to the fact that megachurches and media ministries now compete with (if not trump) traditional black churches in their influence over American public life. Sunday morning may no longer be the ultimate moment of spiritual sustenance, as churches live stream sermons 24/7 on the Internet and over the airwaves.
Watch This! is the first book devoted exclusively to the role of televangelism in black life. In it Walton skillfully outlines a history of black religious broadcasting, beginning with Rev. Ike, the controversial “post-black” new-thought preacher who died in 2009. Then he traces the phenomenon up to the present moment, citing Carlton Pearson — whom he dubs the “pied piper of Neo-Pentecostalism” — as the figure who helped make black television ministries mainstream.
Next the author analyzes three of the most prominent black television ministers of the day: T.D. Jakes, Eddie Long, and Creflo Dollar, all of whom are also pastors of megachurches. Finally, Walton wades through the dominant themes that define each of these men and make their ministries distinct.
It is worth noting three things that Watch This! puts on the table, more generally. Even if readers don’t agree with the author, they are certainly topics in need of the critical engagement that Walton both provides and invites. First, in analyzing televangelism he demonstrates that cultural myths (i.e., the American dream) matter as much as — if not more than — sacred text (i.e., the Bible) in religious practice. More concisely, how we read Scripture can say as much about our context as it does about the text itself.
Second, by placing media at the center of his study, Walton reveals the way in which popular culture, and the prominence of Pentecostal-Charismatic worship styles, is pushing the agenda of black and white churches, both within and outside of traditional denominations. More pointedly, the dominance of charismatic forms of Christianity was enacted, largely, by an embrace of new media as a theological resource. Finally, in the self-reflexivity that it models, Watch This! reminds us that in our bids for respect, the very things we relegate to the intellectual margins are often central to our own identities. With Watch This! Jonathan Walton has made an invaluable contribution to academic and public debates about black churches — and the conversation is richer for it.
Josef Sorett is an assistant professor of religion and African-American studies at Columbia University. He is an interdisciplinary historian of religion in America, with a particular focus on black communities and cultures in the United States. His research and teaching interests include American religious history; African American religions; hip hop and popular culture; religion and the arts; religion, gender and sexuality; and the role of religion in public life. He earned his doctorate in African-American studies from Harvard University, and he holds a B.S. from Oral Roberts University and an M.Div. from Boston University. He is currently at work on a book project that explores the significance of religion and spirituality in debates regarding racial aesthetics.
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