The Chronicle of Higher Education
December 12, 2010
In December 2003, at a national conference on religion and undergraduate life in New Orleans, a representative of a major donor to higher education asked how many of the hundred-plus professors and administrators in his audience had heard of Rick Warren. One hand started to go up, tentatively, then drew back. The rest of us were blank, including me. Warren's book, The Purpose-Driven Life, published a year earlier, was already well on its way to becoming the best-selling hardcover in the country's history, having been on The New York Times ' best-seller list for hardcover advice books for 46 weeks and at the top of the Christian Booksellers Association best-seller list for over a year. His Purpose-Driven Ministries, a church-development organization based on his 1995 Christian best seller, The Purpose-Driven Church, was already well known among hundreds of thousands of pastors and lay people, many thousands of whom attended the annual conferences he hosted at Saddleback Church, his Orange County, Calif., megachurch. Yet his name hardly rang a bell.
No doubt many other huge names in evangelical Christian circles — T.D. Jakes, Max Lucado, or Joel Osteen, for example—would have met similarly void looks from that audience of academics, though it was brought together by a shared interest in religion's changing role in the social and cultural landscapes of our campuses. And no doubt those names would have gotten the same nonresponses from most of our colleagues at our home institutions.
Not that scholars of religion had been ignoring roots and branches of the various revivalist, fundamentalist, and charismatic movements that feed into contemporary evangelical Christianity, a broad movement that centers on personal conversion to a "born again" experience of faith in Jesus Christ, a missionary zeal to share this faith with others, and a high regard for the authority of the Bible. For more than two decades, historians of religion like Randall H. Balmer, Joel A. Carpenter, and Mark A. Noll had been exploring these dimensions of American Christianity. Balmer's now classic Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey Into the Evangelical Subculture in America (1989), which explored a variety of evangelical movements and communities in a way that both historicized and personalized each, has been especially influential, reaching far beyond the rather narrow audience of American scholars of religion. Carpenter's Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (1997), which unpacked fundamentalism's sectarian withdrawal in the early 20th century and its postwar popular revival in the form of neoevangelicalism, drew our attention to the movement's rapid adoption of new media formats, like radio and television, and its imitation of popular trends in the secular entertainment industry.
Still other scholars of religion had undertaken influential social-scientific studies of particular aspects of evangelical Christianity. Nancy T. Ammerman's pioneering field studies of fundamentalist and evangelical churches in Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World (1987) and Congregation and Community (1997), for example, not only illuminated the cultural identities, social organizations, and worldviews of particular congregations but also provided an enduring model for subsequent work in congregational studies. In a similar vein, since the late 1990s, Vincent Wimbush and collaborators at the Institute for Signifying Scriptures at Claremont Graduate University have drawn particular attention to scriptural-interpretive practices among African-American groups, even while pushing biblical scholarship more generally in the direction of sociological and cultural analysis of other "Bible believing" communities.
In another direction, Robert Wuthnow's quantitative analysis of the rise of small groups in Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America's New Quest for Community (1994) demonstrated the increasing importance of evangelical Bible study and fellowship groups in the changing landscape of American religious life. And his edited collection of qualitative small-group studies in "I Come Away Stronger": How Small Groups Are Shaping American Religion, published the same year, emphasized the ways such groups create space both for individual expressions of personal faith and for the collective process of exploring and articulating a shared experience of communal faith. Moreover, along with Wade Clark Roof, the University of North Carolina professor of religious studies and author of Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (2001), Wuthnow emphasized the ways evangelical leaders and churches are engaged in a highly competitive market for religious consumers.
Still, such academic studies of American evangelicalism and related movements have been fairly few and far between compared with those of other religious subjects—such as early American religious history and religion and politics—and their authors have written primarily for audiences of their disciplinary peers. More recently, however, there appears to be a growing intellectual interest in the subject among nonevangelical readers and outside academe. Some of the most popular trade books on the subject are first-person accounts of non-Christians who have immersed themselves in particular evangelical or fundamentalist communities. Most notable are Jeff Sharlet's remarkable exposé, The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power (HarperCollins, 2008), and Kevin Roose's The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University (Grand Central, 2009), that is, Jerry Falwell's Liberty University. Sharlet is a religion scholar and journalist, and Roose is a former Brown University undergraduate and now a writer.
At the same time, field researchers in the social sciences, both within and without departments of religion, are becoming more interested in things evangelical. Particularly striking are the number of books by first-time authors, most of whom are indebted to the pioneering work of senior scholars like Ammerman and Wuthnow. It appears that American evangelicalism is finally coming into its own as a subject of social research and academic attention well beyond the scope of those who identify with it as insiders. It seems we now realize there is more to know than what we learned from the Simpsons' neighbor Ned Flanders.
Yet as soon as evangelicalism becomes a subject, it splinters and splits. Indeed, taken together, recent studies by more-or-less outsiders show there is no such thing as evangelicalism. The term represents a broad range of significantly different theologies, practices, and religious movements within Christianity, and there are often tensions among and within them. Which is no revelation at all to most more-or-less insiders, who call themselves evangelicals, however qualified, and who argue as much with others who do the same as with those of us who don't.
Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (NYU Press, 2009), by Shayne Lee and Phillip Luke Sinitiere, turns critical attention to five of today's most well-known celebrity "evangelical innovators," namely T.D. Jakes (the subject of Lee's first book), Brian McLaren, Joel Osteen, Rick Warren, and Paula White. Heirs of the religious-economy approach of Roof, Wuthnow, and others, Lee and Sinitiere—an associate professor of sociology and African diasporic studies at Tulane University, and a visiting assistant professor of history at Sam Houston State University—see these five figures as supply-side free agents who succeed not because of their status within a particular ecclesiastical hierarchy but because they are able to market their content, indeed themselves, in ways that embody changing American sensibilities.
Their approach challenges the "strict church thesis" of earlier sociologists of religion, which argued that conservative, hard-line suppliers of religion (fundamentalists, conservative evangelicals) thrive, while lenient ones (liberals, progressives) decline. On the contrary, these five profiles suggest that the key to success is not theological or political strictness but effective marketing. Indeed, part of what allows these evangelical innovators to be so successful is that they find ways to "overtly avoid (yet subtly address)" potentially controversial issues among their constituents, Lee and Sinitiere write. One of the big take-aways from their research is that the evangelical movement is, they say, "far more elastic, far more complex, and far more contradictory than what popular accounts reveal."
A hallmark of American evangelicalism, at least since the 1940s, has been its ready willingness to adapt its theological content to new media technologies and popular trends in the entertainment industry. Implicit in that openness is an evangelical counterdeclaration to Marshall McLuhan's: The medium is not the message; the message, or the Word, transcends whatever media are used to convey it. But in the long run, is the constant evangelical adaptation of the Word unwittingly proving McLuhan right? I think so. That is partly why we find so little coherence within and among the various groups and movements and productions that pass as evangelical.
Indeed, it's impossible to imagine the likes of Osteen or Warren or Jakes without the teams of creators, editors, and marketers who publish them beyond their home churches, in books and on the radio, television, and Internet. It is not too much to say that their media producers actually create and sustain them as pop-culture icons. Their relationships with their publishers in the production of both medium and message are not unlike those of pop-music stars with their labels. Lady Gaga has Universal Music and Max Lucado has Thomas Nelson.
In that light, Jonathan L. Walton's social-historical and theological-ethical study of African-American religious broadcasting in Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism (NYU Press, 2009) is an especially welcome recent study. Since the early 20th century, black evangelists have often been on the cutting edge of media history, adopting and creatively adapting new electronic technologies in keeping with trends in the entertainment industry. Yet they have been largely ignored by African-American religious historians, who have treated them as unworthy of serious attention, and by media theorists, to whom they have been virtually invisible.
Walton, an assistant professor of African-American religions at Harvard University, draws critical attention to this important yet often ignored aspect of black religious history and media studies. As a theologian and cultural critic, he offers rich semiotic analyses of three contemporary black televangelists (T.D. Jakes, Eddie L. Long, and the married team of Creflo and Taffi Dollar) and their television shows as rituals in and of themselves, rather than simply as audio-video recordings of actual, "real" services.
The megachurch service, he argues, cannot be separated from its broadcast. The mass-media production of the megachurch event is not supplemental to the event itself but symbiotic with it. The worship experience resides as much in the editing and production of the show—in the "slow-motion images of a pastor laying hands on the heads of parishioners and zoom-in shots of a parishioner feverishly taking notes during the sermon"—as it does in the service or the evangelist. Indeed, the megachurch event is rendered an "incarnation" of the television show. The event is designed to approximate the show even as the show is designed to create an idealized reproduction of the event—a McLuhanian illustration if there ever was one.
Walton goes on to reveal how the "constructed spaces" created by televangelists and their production teams play host to ritual events that embody deep religious tensions between liberation and repression in the lives of participants. On the one hand, as "rituals of self-affirmation," the events speak directly to the realities of unjust suffering endured by African-Americans. On the other hand, as "rituals of social accommodation," they distract participants from critical examination and transformation of those unjust systems, encouraging them instead to find hope in common cultural myths, namely: American success and the self-made man, black victimology in a supposedly postracist society, and the "strong black man" as the savior of black family and society.
Those pervasive, broadly popular myths, the author argues, not only "anesthetize" participants to systemic social injustice but also "flatten internal contradictions" among African-American Christians, thereby creating a false sense of commonality within and among otherwise diverse communities. Here again, as in Holy Mavericks, the closer we look, the more contradictions emerge, and evangelism begins to seem at least as much about playing down tensions and avoiding potential conflicts as it is about spreading the Word.