(I recently submitted a book review of Jonathan Walton’s book Watch This: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism for publication. I rather enjoyed reading Dr. Walton’s book and equally enjoyed writing this review. In truth, the review is pretty favorable, and, shall I say, kind. That is to say that I chose not to be critical of the book in the review, though I indeed have some critical reflections on his overall ethical perspective. Hopefully I will get a chance to share my criticisms at a later date, but for now I’ll focus on the positive aspects of Walton’s landmark book. Enjoy!)
Watch This: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism
Despite the pervasive public scrutiny of televangelists, few have taken time to examine how many "televangelists are regarded by their followers as role models of effective ministry and the standard-bearers of a particular identity,” writes Jonathan Walton in his new book Watch This: the Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. Walton, Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at University of California/Riverside, has provided in Watch This a compass to examine the largely unexplored terrain of black televangelism; as a social phenomenon that occupies a great space in popular religious consciousness.
Walton’s aim in this book is to "evaluate ethically the social implications of African American religious broadcasting as a religious and cultural phenomenon against the professed theological, social, ecclesial, and social claims of leading African American televangelist.” Admittedly, Walton states that his primary reason for wanting to write such a work was ” to fill in the gaps of his religious academic training,” and to ponder why iconic popular ministers like C.L. Franklin, T.D. Jakes, and Creflo Dollar were not studied in the classroom, given the enormous impact these individuals have on local ministers and congregations. With this goal in mind Walton has written a unique scholarly religious work that is intended to forge a new mode of discourse and communicative exchange among those in the pulpits, pews, and classrooms.
Holding true to his stated goal to build a bridge between the academy and popular black Christian culture, Walton begins his scholarly work not with an introduction but with an invocation. However, Walton’s invocation calls upon no higher power nor invokes any otherworldly spirits. Rather, it summons the historical record of African American religious broadcasting, as a means of situating contemporary Black televangelism in its proper context.
After establishing the proper historical and sociological context, Walton proceeds to situate his ethical work in the context of three fundamental tasks: establishing the historiographical argument, providing a theological and phenomenological account, and offering an ideological critique of the dominant themes of African American religious broadcasting. It is within the framework of this threefold enterprise that Walton endeavors to interrogate and interpret the phenomenon of black televangelism in America.
In Walton’s first chapter titled “We Too Sing America” he endeavors to articulate a different narrative of African American religion in the twentieth century. Dispelling the myth that televangelism is primarily the domain of Anglo Saxon Christian fundamentalism, which Walton views as the prevailing narrative, Walton introduces the reader to numerous African American religious figures who have participated in the medium of religious broadcasting throughout the twentieth century.
In chapter two, titled “Something Within: the cultural sources of Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter ,” Walton informs the reader about one of the most iconic and controversial figures in the history of black religious broadcasting, the infamous Rev. Ike. Known for his flamboyant persona, extravagant lifestyle, and eccentric theology, Rev. Ike has been the poster child for both the lure and liability of black televangelism for decades. Interestingly, Walton’s analysis presents Rev. Ike as a connectional figure in religious broadcasting. According to him, it was Rev. Ike who first yoked together the emerging religio-cultural practices of the early twentieth century with the social and technological advances utilized by African Americans in the post-civil rights era.
In chapter three titled “Standing On the Promises” Walton transitions swiftly from historiography to the theological and phenomenological portion of the book. Within this section, perhaps the most significant portion of his analysis, Walton illumines the inner diversity of black religious broadcasting by proposing that there are at least three representative perspectives which constitute African American religious broadcasting in America: Neo Pentecostal, Charismatic Mainline, and Word of Faith. After delineating the distinctions between these three classifications, he further posits that popular televangelists Bishop T.D. Jakes , Bishop Eddie Long, and Pastor Creflo Dollar are the living embodiment of these distinctive classifications.
Having established the foundation of his theological and phenomenological argument, Walton in chapters 4, 5, an 6 tenders the principal producers of African American televangelism to be examples of the aforementioned classifications: Bishop T.D. Jakes (neo Pentecostal), Bishop Eddie Long (Charismatic mainline), and Pastor Creflo Dollar (Word of Faith). In each of the three chapters Walton commences with a biographical sketch of the televangelist and then offers insights into their personal theological beliefs, ministerial aims, and social outlook.
What is most striking about Walton’s analysis of these three religious/pop culture icons is his commitment to give them a fair hearing and not pronounce them guilty before considering the relevant evidence. In fact, the reader should be forewarned that Watch This is not a “dogmatic treatise” that lambasts or lauds the black televangelists. Rather, Walton’s text is a scholarly work intended to fashion a cogent ethical and cultural critique of African American religious broadcasting.
In the last two chapters of the book Walton transitions from theological and phenomenological analysis to an ideological critique of the three prevailing ideological streams of televangelism as he has outlined them. However, rather than jumping head first into an all out ethical and critical barrage of the ideological perspectives of televangelists like Jakes, Long, and Dollar, Walton first attempts to explicate the reasons that African American televangelism is as widely viewed as it is. He goes on to suggest that the popularity of African American religious broadcasting among its millions of viewers can be attributed to three cultural myths that the phenomenon promotes: the myth of American success (economic advancement), the myth of black victimology (the minimizing of race), and the myth of the “Strong Black Man” as savior of the race (Victorian ideals of family).
In the eighth and final chapter of Watch This Walton seeks to evaluate the three African American religious broadcasting myths in relation to Jake’s, Long’s, and Dollar’s explicitly stated aims of economic and social empowerment for viewers. In sum, Walton effectively reveals the faulty logic of televangelist myths when evaluated against the historical and social existential realities of black people in America. In addition, Walton also in his ideological criticism problematizes the three myths of black religious broadcasting as being tools used by televangelists to anesthetize their viewers to the unjust ordering of the larger society, even as persons seek to radically reorder their lives for the better. In the end, Walton proposes that the positive function of African American religious broadcasting as a ritual of self-affirmation is eclipsed by its controversial ritual of social accommodation which causes televangelists to be perpetuators of the storm their ministries endeavor to help people endure.
Professor Walton's exciting book is important on at least two counts. First, it provides scholars of religion and all interested individuals with a scholarly work in Christian social ethics, which evaluates ethically the social implications of African American religious broadcasting as a religious phenomenon against the professed theological commitments, ecclesial agendas, and social aims of leading African American televangelists, who are often rhetorically abused but rarely seriously analyzed by the academy.
Second, Walton’s book has the potential to ignite a much needed discourse between academic religious scholars and the popular religious broadcasters. To be sure, there is much to disagree about but our disagreements do not merit continuing to “ignore, glibly dismiss, and/or fear each other.” I submit that Walton’s text if taken seriously can help ameliorate the work of scholars of black religion by expanding their narratives of black religious life in America, and as a result make their work more accessible to the broader religious culture. In the same way, I think Watch This can benefit televangelists by providing them with an intellectual resource and analytical tool with which they can evaluate the effect their ministries are having on its adherents.
Compassionately and Critically yours, Billy Michael Honor Jr.