By Keri Day, Ph.D.,
I had no intention of writing about the Preachers of LA. However, I felt compelled to write after watching an episode recently. But I am not writing for the reasons one might suspect. It seems a certain presupposition is operative in a number of conversations over this series: that the question revolves around whether this TV series should be on the air. So many Christians are concerned that this show will cause people to equate all clergy with the show’s preachers. I think this is an inadequate question, perhaps even the wrong concern.This question is simply too easy. The concern is too credulous. From the ridiculous bling-bling accouterments that accompany many of these pastors to the erratic, disjointed theological positions they offer (Bishop McClendon claims that he needs to travel with three or four men just to be effective in his ministry of preaching and healing), many are easily concluding that perhaps this series was better left unproduced.
Growing up in a charismatic tradition, I am experiencing a number of long-standing neo-Pentecostal people and clergy who are beginning to question some of the core values they have come to embrace in relation to theologies of prosperity when watching this show. It is something about the “cirque de soleil” performance of these preachers that magnifies just how problematic these ways of thinking are for many churchgoers. However, I think there is something timely about this series as the spiritual sensibilities reflected in this program have captured the religious imagination of a growing segment of evangelicals not only in the United States but also around the world.
In my estimation, the more productive question might be: Why do the religious sensibilities represented in this show resonate with a growing Christian evangelical segment? What does this show teach us about a growing influential religious experience here in America? It is important to note that the history of “prosperity gospel” within charismatic, neo-Pentecostalism is deeply tied to a growing middle class’ need to legitimate their economic wealth and the meritocratic ideologies that under-gird their material pursuits. As I discuss in my book Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Struggle to Thrive In America, the prosperity gospel movement partly emerged as a reflexive act among neo-Pentecostals and “Word of Life” preachers as they attempted to render spiritually meaningful their pursuit of the American Dream, which had been denied to previous generations within their families.
In fact, the early Pentecostal demographic was primarily poor and working-class people, often inhibited from socioeconomic upward mobility. The quest for wealth and health within neo-Pentecostal circles then was simultaneously a quest to find greater human meaning and worth within previously unjust economic systems and arrangements that denied such marginalized groups meaning and worth. It was a spiritual move to secure hope through one’s financial status and social visibility within an economy that ascribed worth through material things.
Which brings me to this point: We are merely looking at the LA preachers’ erroneous worldviews instead of investigating and deconstructing the institutional discursive practices and economic conditions that give rise to such distorted religious worldviews. We need to turn to neo-liberal systems that are reconfiguring many of our institutions (including educational, political, social, and religious), causing the means and ends of our institutions to be oriented toward crass materialism rather than deeper ideals related to human flourishing (love, joy, peace, friendship, etc.). Neo-liberalism sees the acquiring of material things as the basis of human identity. We must understand that the producing of the “religious” within prosperity movements must be seen within the demonic circuits of global capitalism and the neo-liberal values that inform these religious institutions.
It is easy to interpret these men as predatorial free-market opportunists attempting to exploit vulnerable populations. It is more difficult to offer alternate interpretations of these men as products of neo-liberal forces that shape their consciousness, sense of identity and practices. This is why their actions become so deeply pathological. While some prosperity preachers are simply using religious ministry to exploit vulnerable populations, other clergymen actually believe their theological interpretations of prosperity are right as their interpretations resonate with the broader materialistic culture out of which much of human meaning derives its grounding. These men possess a “neo-liberal sickness” yet do not even know it. This is the ultimate tragedy.
Yet another observation: The LA Preachers are men. This series perhaps will rouse people to deconstruct the profound patriarchal privilege that lies at the heart of Christian experience among a growing group of neo-Pentecostals. Patriarchal masculinity is deeply wedded to global capitalist processes as heteronormative values deeply affect women (such as women who receive lower pay than men around the world for not being “heads” of households). For instance, in the series, we watch as the preachers’ wives simply function as a mere ornamental backdrop, an “empty space” that is filled through the words, actions, and movements of these men. In this case, we watch the performance of a hyper-masculinity among these preachers in which their wives’ agency is merely made visible in and through the subjectivity of these men.
Yet, the invisibility of women preachers is most palpable. Interestingly, it is the Pentecostal movement at the beginning of the 20th century that provides a rich history of women who pastored and preached in a social milieu where major denominations would not accept women as preachers and pastors. This series undermines the very history that makes Azusa street (where US Pentecostalism was founded) so powerful as Pentecostalism’s origins reveal and promote social justice sentiments and egalitarian practices. This oversight probably remains one of the most tragic and unfortunate results of this TV series but also discloses the precarious position of women in this neo-liberal moment.
For me, there is something right about this series because it provides a “teaching moment” that is long overdue. It is causing people to begin thinking critically about their practices of blind obedience to clergy figures and the distorted prosperity notions that inform clergy practices. Perhaps, this show reveals the absurdities of prosperity gospel leaders, a necessary ingredient to create a different, more fruitful dialogue on why such practices are so deeply pathological and problematic (as well as the socio-economic conditions that give rise to these practices). So often these religious leaders and their power go unquestioned and unchallenged. One only needs to remember the Eddie Long debacle, in which an entire church rallied behind him as accusations about rape began to surface. Parishioners immediately believed Long’s innocence. He was the “man of God,” who could not do such things (he also promoted prosperity gospel teachings). Perhaps, we might provide people with an interpretive framework through which to “read” this TV series and therefore, critique the consumerist, pathological practices that remain unquestioned and intellectually untouched.
I am suggesting that the irony of this show is that the very ideals these preachers are lifting up as emulative are the practices that are providing impetus for what people within these communities are coming to see as wrong. It seems the series has offered these men as “spectacles to behold” but, in and through this process, these men have become the ultimate spectacle of the pathological absurdity associated with our neo-liberal way of life. Consequently, I propose that this show actually can be a springboard to create meaningful, critical conversation on exactly what is wrong at this time period in many Christian communities and how we might creatively transform these spaces.
Dr. Keri Day is the Assistant Professor of Theological and Social Ethics & Director of Black Church Studies Program at Brite Divinity School. Follow Dr. Keri Day on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Yalegirl