By Paula L. McGee, guest blogger
Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth. 3 John 1:2
Preachers of LA chronicles the lives of several megachurch celebrity pastors. Five out of the six pastors are African American. The show supposedly captures the everyday “reality” of these pastors. But most of the scenes are scripted by the producers. Like many other viewers, I found myself entertained, and I liked seeing familiar black faces on the screen. However, as a preacher and scholar, it is important that I am also critical of the images that I consume. In my dissertation, The Wal-Martization of African American Religion: T.D. Jakes and Woman Thou Art Loosed, I critique the kind of churches and pastors that are featured on the show. I use Wal-Martization as a theoretical concept to describe the branding and storytelling at every level of representation. This term also names the ideology and the process of the generational differences that exist between the New Black Church and the traditional Black Church.
African-American worship and its components—testimony, prayer, song, and sermon—in the New Black Church are first and foremost products to be branded, marketed, and sold. The relationship between pastor and parishioner extends far beyond just brick and mortar edifices and local congregations to include parishioners that are connected by mass communication, global networks, and media. Pastor and parishioner are transformed into mainly the business relationship of CEO and consumer. These celebrity preachers exploit the fact that many of us still see the black preacher as a prophetic leader committed to social justice. As religious entrepreneurs, they brand themselves, their churches, and a myriad of products. The liberation they promote is not really about a social gospel. It is much more about making money and advancing within what we know is an oppressive system.
The preachers comfortably fit into a glamorous American rags-to-riches story. Scholars define this mythology as Horatio Alger Myth or the Myth of Meritocracy. These stories resurface with each generation, especially during times of great economic disparity. The philosophy of the myth is that if we work hard enough, then each of us can one day live like the rich and famous. All we need to do is pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Sam Walton, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and now Preachers of LA become vivid examples to reinforce our belief in the myth. Unfortunately, when we believe the myth and suggest to the masses of Americans that they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, we are inadvertently telling the poor at the other end of the spectrum, that if they are not rich—IT IS THEIR FAULT. The myth not only blames the poor, but it also ignores all systems of inequality.
Each week millions of viewers tune in to get an insider view of the glamorous lives of these preachers. Unfortunately, the images of this scripted fictional reality may become the standard of what many Americans will identify as the Black Church. I think that too many of us are talking about Preachers of LA, but not enough of us are PRAYING. As a preacher and scholar, I cannot afford to be entertained by the almost pornographic and distorted images of our beloved Black Church and her leaders. Instead of talking about Preachers of LA, I think the only adequate response is to make an altar appeal for prayer:
God of our weary years, god of our silent tears, thou, who has brought us thus far along the way, thou, who has by thy might led us into the light, keep us forever in the path we pray, lest our feet stray from the places, our god, where we met thee, lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee. Amen.
Rev. Paula L. McGee has a Ph.D. in Women’s Studies in Religion from Claremont Graduate Universityand is an ordained Baptist preacher. In 2009, she was awarded the Fund for Theological Education (FTE) dissertation fellowship for her dissertation entitled: The Wal-Martization of African American Religion: T.D. Jakes and Woman Thou Art Loosed.View the video of Dr. McGee’s dissertation defense for more of her thoughts on this subject.
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