by Ed Blum
The West coast will miss Jonathan Walton. In the same week that we cheered the tremendous new resources for the study of religion in the American West, we now boo the fact that Professor Walton will trek from Riverside, California, to Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, he’ll be a new professor at Harvard Divinity School. Just as in the world of sports media, it appears that an east coast bias has once again carried the day. I hope Professor Walton appreciates the nod to sports media, because in those two arenas, Walton has demonstrated his remarkable abilities to bring top notch thinking to multiple publics. Whether addressing scholarly and religious communities with his amazing book Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism, whether blogging about current trends in American and African American religion at Religion Dispatches, or whether discussing links between televangelists and professional athletes on ESPN, Walton has become a leading public voice in American religious studies.
The move to Harvard Divinity School comes a year after the publication of Watch This! I’ve been meaning to blog about this book for months (and even started crafting an entry about it and his University of California, Riverside, colleague Jennifer Scheper Hughes’s Biography of a Mexican Cross to highlight the great work coming from UCR), but kept forgetting, or putting it off, or not wanting Professor Walton to have even more great press coverage. It’s hard not to praise this work. It’s an in-depth study of black televangelists – particularly Bishop T. D. Jakes, Bishop Eddie L. Long, and Pastors Creflo Dollar and Taffi Dollar. Walton shows that to understand these televangelists, we need to move beyond a number of interpretive paradigms. First, we cannot fit them into the mold of “progressive” or “otherworldly” black religious history. Not all of African American religious history is progressive, Walton shows. But there is more to these televangelists than an otherworldly framework that forsakes the earth for heaven. Second, we cannot fit these televangelists into previous studies of religious broadcasting and the megachurch movement, because those two phenomena have often been construed as white. By using innovative media technologies to advance not-necessarily-progressive agendas, these religious leaders stand beyond our usual ways of thinking either black religion or religious media.
To analyze the place of Jakes, Long, and the Dollars in both black religious history and new movements in religious media, Walton turns to ethics and aesthetics. He shows, in fact, that the aesthetics of their ministries provide a window into their ethics. Walton showcases the ingenuity of their aesthetics – T. J. Jakes’s sanctuary is a television studio with paintings of clasped praying hands over broken water vessels, Eddie Long’s sanctuary is a theater which regularly has celebrity music ministers, and Creflo Dollar prints “Creflo Dollard, PhD” on the cover of his books to present a sense of authority and expertise beyond the ministry. All of them present themselves and their families as financially successful and overflowing in material abundance. But for all over their media savvy, Walton is deeply troubled by their social and political agendas. He finds that they are committed to hyper-American patriotism, free-market capitalism, and patriarchal conceptions of society’s ordering. By coupling conservative social messages to employ new and modern technologies, these ministers follow the examples of Oral Roberts and Aimee Semple McPherson, two prominent white evangelists and institution builders.
Walton’s study is wonderfully written, engaging, and offers religious historians new approaches to media studies, ethics, and African American religiosity. My graduate seminar had a robust conversation about each televangelist, and we contemplated new ways to study these ministers – whether from Youtube presentations to images on their websites.
To honor Professor Walton’s new venture to Cambridge, though, I wanted to pose some points that perhaps could have come at the famous “sherry hour” portion of Harvard Divinity School interviews (where candidates drink sherry after their job talks and try to answer sophisticated questions that they may or may not understand while getting slightly intoxicated). Is it possible that Professor Walton’s ethical critique of these televangelists is far more rooted in the material world than their preaching? At the end of Walton’s book, he chastises their presentation of material prosperity because it does not fit with the actual social and economic experiences of everyday African Americans. Ethics of consumption are not ethical for African American communities, Walton seems to suggest. He relies upon the sociological work of Thomas Shapiro and William Julius Wilson to show that black Americans are not accumulating wealth at the rate of white Americans – and wealth, not income, should be the measure of growth. Yet is this an appropriate ethical measure? Is it possible that psychological or emotional or even spiritual capital is being accumulated through these economic teachings and presentations? Is it possible that another form of ethical judgment – one not rooted in material gain itself but in other measures – would give us a better explanation for why so many thousands follow these preachers?
And this speaks to another problem with Walton’s Watch This. It is fundamentally a book evaluating these televangelists. It is not a book about why everyday people – men and women all over the country and world – find their teachings compelling, so compelling that they buy their books, watch their television shows, attend their conferences, and get glad when they succeed. For more on the everyday viewer, one would need to turn to Melissa Victoria Harris-Lacewell’s fantastic Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought. If Walton had spent more time with everyday viewers and consumers, he may have found different resources than financial ones being accumulated through the material aesthetics of these televangelists.
If you know Professor Walton, then you would know these are the kinds of debates he tackles and loves. He’s the kind of professor who wants to struggle with the highest of intellectual thought and the depth of everyday culture. He endeavors to be a public intellectual whose ideas can be intelligible to those who walk within the ivory tower, kneel within their sanctuaries, and stomp along the gridiron (if you can’t tell, I’m already pining for football season!) Professor Walton, enjoy the East coast. The West will certainly miss your presence, but will continue to read your blog entries, watch your television interviews, and wait for that next great book.