Q&A / SHAYNE LEE: Jakes both preacher, ‘ferocious capitalist’
Most of the public knows about the Bishop T.D. Jakes who graced the cover of Time magazine, preached “Woman, Thou Art Loosed!” and filled stadiums across the country with throngs of weeping fans.
But how many know about the Jakes who boasted that he didn’t have enough garage space for his luxury cars, said Jesus was rich, and once tried to evict the owners of a home he had just purchased though they only had a week to pay off their debts?
That portrait of Jakes comes courtesy of “T.D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher,” (New York University Press, $27.95). Shayne Lee, a sociologist and professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, asks hard questions about Jakes’ ministry.
Lee, 34, was a student at Oral Roberts University in 1993 when Jakes, then an unknown preacher from West Virginia who wore “high-water pants,” preached at a campus conference. One of Lee’s friends came back from Jakes’ sermon bubbling with excitement.
“I remember this guy saying, ‘This guy named Bishop Jakes tore it up,’ ” Lee said during a phone interview. “I thought, ‘Who’s Bishop Jakes?’ “
Lee concludes Jakes is a shrewd self-promoter torn by his instincts as a “ferocious capitalist” and a virtuoso preacher. Lee talked about Jakes by phone from St. Louis, where he is temporarily living after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.
Q: Jakes is one of the most popular preachers in America, but no book has ever taken a critical look at his ministry until yours. Why is that?
A: It’s because of Jakes. He’s not a Jimmy Swaggart. He’s not a finger-pointer. He’s a very compassionate guy. He doesn’t warrant the type of aggressive response that Jimmy Swaggart does.
Also the people with the analytical tools to examine elements of his ministry are in academia and preoccupied with other things. But there is a generation of Gen X scholars who will be focusing on Jakes. I think that you’re going to see a lot of careful analysis of Jakes in the future. I just happened to be the first.
Q: You say that Jakes is a pioneer in the neo-Pentecostal movement [Pentecostals emphasize emotional worship and “gifts of the spirits”] and that movement has now eclipsed mainline churches. How have they done that?
A: Pentecostalism used to be associated with the dregs of society when it first emerged in the early 20th century. But many of them have made the adjustments to a postmodern society that other denominations haven’t. Their message resonates in a confessional culture because of their use of stories and talk about the pain in their lives. But they’ve also maintained their passion but with a postmodern flash. There’s a new game in town and neo-Pentecostals have taken over. Jakes is a metaphor of that experience.
Q: You also argue that Jakes may appear bold and modern in the pulpit, but his theology is very conservative. What do you mean?
A: Jakes’ theology is very conservative and very American. It’s Benjamin Franklin — you use the tools and resources you have to bring yourself up. It’s not society’s problem. It’s your problem. God has given you everything that you need. It’s up to you.
Jakes has bought into the Prosperity Gospel. The Prosperity Gospel is problematic. It’s an American gospel. It’s not a universal gospel that applies to all people and all times. It only works for people in a free market society who can transcend their socioeconomic level through hard work or savings. That’s the positive aspect of the prosperity gospel. It gets you aggressive about bettering your plight. But it ignores structural factors that impede people.
Q: You say that the bigger Jakes’ ministry has become, the more pressure he feels to make even more money to keep his machine going. How does that pressure affect his ministry?
A: That’s the biggest weakness of having such a big machine with his ministry and his lifestyle. You have to continue to raise enormous capital. When you get to the Bible, you see prophets taking time off for spiritual replenishment and prayer. Jakes can’t afford that. He has to generate lots of money. Jakes will tell you that “I’m not just a preacher but I’m also a businessman.” I argue that you can’t separate the businessman from the man of God. Jakes is in the business of selling God. He has turned spirituality into a valuable commodity and his business depends on people seeing him as a man of God. The greater his fans perceive his anointing, the better the business. When the two are mixed like that, it can produce dangerous results.
Q: What kind of dangerous results?
A: There’s no accountability. If he’s selling real estate, tennis shoes, it would be a little different. He’s selling God. I feel there’s a higher responsibility.
Q: Anything surprise you about Jakes during your research?
A: He really endured many trials in his early ministry. That’s why he’s such an incredible story. Those years of toil really developed in him a compassion for people that today is one of the hallmarks of his ministry. He really cares for the hurting individual.
He was also an outsider. He wasn’t part of a religious structure. He was under the radar. Jakes knows what it’s like to be an outsider. If you look at other big preachers like Joel Osteen or Rick Warren, they were also mavericks. They didn’t follow the traditional route. They were able to change the system because they were never really part of the system.
Q: I’ve heard you say that some newspapers and magazines won’t review your book because you’ve written critically about Jakes. Why did you decide to include those controversial elements?
A: I wanted to show how complex Jakes is. You can’t reduce him to the Man of God without looking at the ferocious capitalist he is. But my admiration for him has increased. I’m amazed at how much a thinker and an intellectual he is. I was amazed at what he and Serita [Jakes’ wife] have been able to overcome.