01: The new book, T.D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher (New York University Press, $30) by Shayne Lee, is part biography and part social critique of one of the rising stars in the black church, or what has been called the “new black church.”
Jakes’ wide-ranging ministry personifies the new black church movement– charismatic, prosperity-oriented and focused on self-help rather than older black church models of social action. Lee traces Jakes’ beginnings from his poor childhood in West Virginia to his formative influence by “neo-Pentecostal power brokers,“ including such televangelists as Oral Roberts and Paul Crouch. Lee focuses on the therapeutic and consumerist appeal of Jake’s message, packaging psychology and inner-healing in a slick format that appeals to a rising black middle class.
His many books (including two novels), movies (most notably “Women Thou Art Loosed”) motivational tapes and speaking engagements on such secular subjects as economic empowerment and women’s sexual abuse suggests that Jakes has unusual crossover appeal. Lee is especially critical of Jake’s business approach to ministry, which, he charges, favors celebrity and prosperity over concern for the spiritual and social welfare of his followers.
Lee’s chapter on the “new black church” is the most interesting, as he suggests a close parallel between this new religious expression and the new paradigm megachurches, such as the Vineyard. Both stress informality, spiritual experience, contemporary music, team leadership (these black churches usually favor women pastors) and are increasingly using satellite churches, where pastors preach at several locations.
02: While How The Other Half Worships (Rutgers University Press, $49.95) has the appearance of a coffee table art book, with its hundreds of photographs of poor, inner-city congregations, author and photographer Camilo Jose Vergara clearly intends to chronicle this vast and understudied area of American religion.
With roughly half of the book including text, Vegara, who was trained as a sociologist, records much of the “material culture” of religion in the inner-city, its buildings, interiors, artwork and supplies, theology, devotional practices and even religious leaders themselves.
While these congregations, particularly storefront churches may give the impression of uniformity from the outside, Vergara’s photos and text reveal a world of particular institutions with unique practices and teachings (however, a popular urban church, the United House of Prayer for All People, does in fact operate as a franchise with even uniform interiors featuring a portrait of founder Sweet Daddy Grace).
Yet Vergara also finds patterns running through many of these congregations: struggling churches are more likely to display images of “a pale-faced Jesus with blond hair and blue eyes,“ while more established inner-city churches always feature Christ as dark-skinned; as in the suburbs, there is considerable criticism of inner-city megachurches by smaller churches, with the former viewed as too worldly and entertainment-oriented; heaven is the most popular image used in black preaching and folk art while hell, suffering and damnation figure more prominently in Latino churches; founders of these churches often become revered figures, as seen in the many portraits displayed of them. Prospective researchers hoping to survey or even count the number of these churches may be discouraged by the fact that most don’t answer their phone or have answering machines.
03: As its title implies, State, Market, and Religions in Chinese Societies, edited by Fenggang Yang and Joseph B. Tamney, (Brill, $69), looks at the current revival of the major faiths of China and related countries through the analogy of the marketplace. Such a model, known as religious economy theory, is built around the dynamics of competition and the free market in spurring religious growth and seems most suited to its American context.
However, the book’s contributors suggest that religion in Chinese societies may even function more as a marketplace than in the U.S. This is most clearly seen in the chapter on how competition, switching and choice drive the growth of Daoist and Buddhist temples, as well as such practical factors as location and innovation to interest potential visitors and worship.
The contributors stress that there is not one religious market in China. Rather, there is a “red market” of state-sanctioned religion, a “black market” comprising underground religious groups, and a “gray market” of legally ambiguous activities and groups. An introductory overview by Tamney notes that in China, Singapore, and Taiwan there are four (increasingly differentiated) religions– folk religion, Daoism, Buddhism and Christianity–competing for the allegiance of the Chinese people. Folk religion has experienced sharp declines (often involving ancestor worship) while Christianity and Buddhism seem to be on the upswing.
Tamney adds that the challenge for Buddhism (and to a greater extent, Daoism) is to modernize while Christianity has to become more indigenous. In a concluding chapter, Anna Xiao Dong Sun writes that while interest in Confucianism is growing on the mainland, it seems to be losing its appeal in Taiwan. But in both countries there is an intense debate on the religious nature of Confucianism, with Sun noting that there is an increase in visitors to Confucian temples in China where the worship of Confucius is evident.