Holy Mavericks, Batman
by Ed Blum
Regardless of what recent survey results like the ARIS show, the quest to commune with God seems just as present in American society today as it has at any other time. Board any American airplane and you’ll probably see at least one white, middle-aged, slightly overweight evangelical reading William Young’s The Shack. In it, God reveals herself in a host of racialized forms to teach the protagonist new lessons of faith amid horrible life circumstances. And the main character’s life was pretty awful. His daughter had been murdered, the evidence left in some random shack, and God called him to converse at that location. The entire narrative is wrenching for the main character, from God’s racial manifestation, to the profane and sacred geography, to the loss of his daughter.
We can hear similar spiritual strivings if we listen closely to the sonic vibrations from the I-pod of the agnostic, freethinking, thin, and tattooed college student next to that evangelical. See her lips mouth the words, “I met God / on the corner of first and Amistad. / Where the west / Was all but won.” She is singing with the soulful beats of The Fray’s “You Found Me.” The song is asad one, where human misery once again forces the search for God. This God has no racial features, but He sits alone, “smoking His last cigarette.” God encourages the pained singer to “Ask anything.” A torrent of questions and accusations are flung at God. “Where were you, When everything was falling apart?” Why did You never call? Why did You never send letters? The end of the song shifts the location of holy finding. After the singer had lobbied everything he had at God, he now feels that God is the one who found him. “Why’d you have to wait? / To find me, to find me.”
Americans continue to search for a God to find them, to hear them, and to offer answers amid their pains and their tragedies. And for hundreds of thousands of American Protestants, five individuals provide the avenues to God: T. D. Jakes, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen, Paula White, and Brian McLaren.
In an amazing new book that had me feeling like I was sitting in the various congregations, hearing the sermons and being transformed by them, feeling the rhythm of the music, unconsciously absorbing the various means of media, sociologist Shayne Lee and historian Phillip Sinitiere show how these evangelical innovators recast traditional Protestantism for contemporary Americans who still want to find God (or be found by God). Holy Mavericks is a quick read and each chapter sparkles with close analysis of the main ideas and innovations of these pastors. It’s fantastic scholarship that runs from the sexualized presence of Paula White (who presents herself as vulnerable to speak to those with pain in their backgrounds) to the creepy smile of Joel Osteen (who has updated the power of positive thinking with amazing business and media acumen), from the stomping of T. D. Jakes (who has played both sides of the “gospel of prosperity” coin) to the goofy jokes of Rick Warren
(whose use of the internet is pretty savvy for a guy who wears plaid shirts reminiscent of the fictional character Al on Home Improvement). Holy Mavericks is a book not only for those who want to understand why these individuals have scored so well in the American marketplace of religion, but also for those who want to understand that marketplace.
I don’t want to bore readers here with a recitation of the theoretical underpinnings of Holy Mavericks (they have an excellent conclusion on the sociological theory that informs their analyses). And I don’t want to offer criticisms just for the sake of criticizing (an aspect of academic book reviewing I find as hackneyed as the “makes a significant contribution to INSERT FIELDS HERE” phrase that concludes almost every review). Oh shucks, maybe I do have one criticism in the form of a query. Why did Lee and Sinitiere compare the most politically liberal of the pastors and movements – Brian McLaren and the Emergent Church – to Al Qaeda, while Paula White is compared to Martin Luther, T. D. Jakes is understood through an analogy to jazz, and Osteen is likened to the “boy-next-door”? Perhaps this is just me being persnickety because when I had read McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian I thought it was nonfiction and searched for the fate of Neo. Alas, I’m off subject, but I would encourage readers to attend to the myriad analogies used in Holy Mavericks to see how Lee and Sinitiere make their case.
I do want to encourage the readers of this blog to get their hands on Holy Mavericks, enjoy a journey with the leaders of the evangelical masses, then return to “You Found Me” or to The Shack, and finally to ask whether the statistical data in the ARIS study is even worth studying. It may have you exclaiming, as I did, “Holy Mavericks, Batman, that survey data is as fishy as the Penguin.”