Professor’s book, mostly but not entirely flattering, looks at T.D. Jakes’ rise to fame
Shayne Lee’s largely favorable T.D Jakes: America’s New Preacher (New York University Press, $27.95) charts Bishop Jakes‘ rise from obscure West Virginia ditch-digger and storefront preacher to internationally known Dallas-based clergyman, advising President Bush and making the cover of Time magazine.
Dr. Lee, a sociology professor at Tulane University in New Orleans, also writes about Bishop Jakes’ incessant fund-raising and mansion-dwelling, Bentley-driving lifestyle. He questions where Bishop Jakes stands on such traditional Christian beliefs as the Trinity. And he notes that Bishop Jakes, while remarkably effective at capturing a female audience, “at times makes awkward references to women’s breasts.”
A spokesman said Bishop Jakes, pastor of the Potter’s House in southwest Dallas, won’t be reading Dr. Lee’s book.
“He’s busy with [Hurricane] Katrina-related work, and with running his church,” said Mark DeMoss, the Jakes spokesman. “He doesn’t read a lot of what’s written about him.”
Others are reading Dr. Lee’s book. It came out in October and quickly sold through its first edition of 2,000 copies, despite the high price and meager marketing that come with publication through a university press.
Dr. Lee, 34, sees himself as a pioneer – the first to do a full-length scholarly take on Bishop Jakes. He’s sure he won’t be the last.
“Other than Martin Luther King Jr., he’s the most influential African-American preacher ever,” said Dr. Lee. “A lot of ministers and scholars get mad when they hear me make that comment, but I boldly make it. … As far as the breadth of his talent and the scope of what he’s been able to do, I can’t think of a close second.”
– Concerns About The Teachings Of T.D. Jakes
Dr. Lee was an undergraduate at Oral Roberts University in 1993 when Bishop Jakes, then relatively unknown, preached on campus at the Azusa Conference – a showcase for Pentecostal ministers. Though Dr. Lee didn’t go, he heard the buzz afterward.
“It was a Friday night when he spoke,” Dr. Lee said. “A couple of friends came back and said, ‘This guy Bishop Jakes was great. He really tore it up.’ “
Dr. Lee soon made it a point to hear Bishop Jakes. And while getting a master’s degree in biblical studies from Regent University, a master’s in religion from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University, Dr. Lee followed Bishop Jakes’ rise.
In 2001, when Bishop Jakes made the cover of Time with a headline that asked whether he might be the new Billy Graham, Dr. Lee decided he had to write a book.
“For a black Pentecostal preacher to be on the cover of Time , compared to America’s greatest religious icon – I had to ask myself what took place in American Protestantism for this to be posed as a reasonable question,” he said.
Dr. Lee considered himself unusually well qualified for that task. Beyond having the academic grounding, he grew up in New York City, in a Pentecostal home. He understood that faith’s commitment to emotional, Holy Spirit-filled worship, including speaking in tongues.
Moreover, he had a keen interest in high-profile preachers, studying them the way a hardcore boxing fan (Dr. Lee is one of those, too) would heavyweight contenders.
Dr. Lee said he tried “many, many times” to get an interview with Bishop Jakes, and a staff member led him to believe one was in the works. But it never happened. (Bishop Jakes, through his spokesman, said he was unsure whether he knew of the author’s request.)
Unable to have a one-on-one encounter, Dr. Lee immersed himself in Bishop Jakes’ TV performances and tapes, and read most of his books. He also read news clippings and heard Bishop Jakes preach at the Potter’s House and at conferences. He interviewed ministers and others who know Bishop Jakes well.
The T.D. Jakes portrayed by Dr. Lee is remarkable from childhood forward.
“Jakes, from Day One, was both a businessman and a preacher,” Dr. Lee said. “He was a little Bible boy, and he was a little boy selling vegetables from his mother’s garden.”
As a teen, Tommy Jakes spent considerable time nursing his terminally ill father – a fact Dr. Lee says is important in understanding Bishop Jakes’ empathy. The book also traces Bishop Jakes’ conversion to Pentecostal faith, his brief study of psychology in college, and his perseverance, with the steadfast help of wife Serita, through lean early years in Charleston, W.Va.
“This guy almost singlehandedly turned a dilapidated old movie theater into a church,” Dr. Lee said. “He was working at the time, digging ditches until his hands would bleed, and in his spare time he was working on the church.”
One chapter titled “Jakes Receives His Big Break” describes the events that led to his 1993 appearance at the Azusa Conference. Dr. Lee recounts Bishop Jakes’ climb to prominence through regular appearances on religious TV. And he covers the decision to relocate to Dallas, where Bishop Jakes started the Potter’s House in 1996.
Dr. Lee finds much to admire in Bishop Jakes’ life and work.
“He understands what hurts people, and he’s able to communicate the Gospel in a way that alleviates people’s pain,” he said.
But Dr. Lee said Bishop Jakes is open to criticism because of the wealth he’s accumulated tending an empire that includes the Potter’s House, nonprofit organizations and TDJ Enterprises, the umbrella company for his for-profit efforts in book publishing, and music, theater and film production.
Bishop Jakes is easily a millionaire from book sales alone, Dr. Lee believes.
“He’s in the business of selling God, and he’s built a fortune by turning spirituality into a commodity.”
He also noted that Bishop Jakes has been less transparent with his finances than many TV evangelists. And, he said, Bishop Jakes has been artfully vague on whether he believes in the Trinity.
Most Pentecostals do, and the Potter’s House doctrinal statement says God is “Triune in His manifestation.”
But the statement omits the word “Trinity” and Dr. Lee points out that Oneness or Apostolic Pentecostals, the group Bishop Jakes was long affiliated with, baptize in the name of Jesus only and reject the idea of God as manifested in three distinct persons. (The complicated debate about Bishop Jakes and the Trinity is played out on various Web sites.)
Although he is highly popular among women, and comfortable with women in the pulpit and in key staff positions, Bishop Jakes’ sermons and writings are in some ways antifeminist, Dr. Lee argues. The pastor, he said, calls on women to submit to their husbands. And Bishop Jakes’ writings show a preoccupation with the female form, the sociologist said.
“Whether he is referring to strong thighs, firm breasts, satiny skin, sex appeal, or overall beauty in general, Jakes’ unnecessary references to female physicality represent the patriarchal habit of objectifying the female body,” Dr. Lee writes.
Dr. Lee’s own preoccupation seems to be with the words “neo-Pentecostal” and “postmodern,” which appear often in his text.
By neo-Pentecostal, he says he means “a new way of being Pentecostal – less emphasis on speaking in tongues, more emphasis on the liberating power of the Holy Spirit, and the embrace of psychology.” And by calling Bishop Jakes postmodern, he defines him as “outside the box of traditional churches. He wants to blur denominational lines.”
Although Bishop Jakes would not comment on the book, Mr. DeMoss, his spokesman, said: “Mr. Lee’s opinions are just that, opinions. He accuses Bishop Jakes of profiting from ‘selling God’ and writing books about God. Well, God isn’t for sale, and Mr. Lee is seeking to profit from a book he wrote about a preacher he has never met or spoken to.”
Dr. Lee’s next book will investigate the influence and appeal of Bishop Jakes and four other preachers – Rick Warren, of The Purpose-Driven Life fame; Joel Osteen, of Houston’s massive Lakewood Church; Brian McLaren, an author and leading figure in the “emergent church” movement; and Paula White, a rising star on Christian TV.
“This book is basically going to explain to the world why these five preachers are drawing millions of followers,” he said.
Hurricane Katrina shut down Tulane in the fall, even as it propelled Bishop Jakes to a frenzy of relief fundraising and organizing. For Dr. Lee, the terrible storm meant a “forced sabbatical,” with plenty of time to write.
“I’ve got about three-quarters of the book done.”
MEET T.D. JAKES OF COWTOWN
Bishop T.D. Jakes has moved west – to a $5.2 million, 17-acre estate in Fort Worth he bought from fellow best-selling author Sandra Brown.
Shayne Lee’s recently published book T.D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher still has Bishop Jakes and his family living along White Rock Lake.
But Dr. Lee turned in his manuscript in 2004.
Tarrant County property records show that on Jan. 3, 2005, Bishop Jakes and his wife, Serita, bought a 12,000-square-foot home in east Fort Worth from Ms. Brown, a writer of hugely popular crime and romance novels, and husband Michael.
“We were out of town when our real estate agent called us and said, ‘We’ve got a potential buyer. Are you familiar with T.D. Jakes?’ ” Ms. Brown recalled in a phone interview.
She said she and Bishop Jakes had met at a book promotion years ago.
Ms. Brown said the Jakes family took possession of the Fort Worth house late last January.
“It took us quite a while to move,” she said, adding that she and her husband now live in Arlington. “They were very gracious about letting us stay until we could get everything situated.”
The Jakeses’ new home has four bedrooms, five baths and a six-car garage, according to Tarrant County records.
Dallas County records show that the Jakeses sold their 9,689-square-foot White Rock home last February. The buyers’ loan was for $2.5 million.
A spokesman for Bishop Jakes, Mark DeMoss, said the pastor moved to Fort Worth “specifically for more privacy and safety, particularly given that he travels a lot and has a wife and children.”
Dr. Lee’s book notes that Bishop Jakes’ wealth and opulent lifestyle have drawn criticism.
“Certainly,” Mr. DeMoss said, “he lives comfortably as a result of wearing several hats quite successfully – those of author, movie producer, music label owner, speaker, and pastor of one of the largest churches in the country.
“That has been documented and he does not deny it.”
THE BOOK ON BISHOP JAKES
Excerpts from Shayne Lee’s T.D. JAKES: America’s New Preacher
A TOUGH KID
“At a young age, Jakes learned how to console the brokenhearted through family tragedy and personal struggles with depression. Jakes turned his life into his art and now shines as a complex tension between comforter and capitalist.”
“Jakes secures a loyal following by preaching sermons that answer many of life’s questions, writing books and plays that tackle many of life’s problems, and producing songs that soothe many of life’s pains. He alternates as motivational speaker, psychologist, dietician, financial consultant, entertainer, father figure, and spiritual leader to address many needs.”
A LITTLE STEAM
“Jakes knows that sex sells even in Christendom. He made a fortune on his CD Sacred Love Songs, a compilation of romantic songs with smooth and sexy rhythm tracks for Christian couples. Jakes encourages Christians to transfer romantic energy to their worship experience.”
“Rather than simply spreading the gospel, Jakes’ television broadcasts double as infomercials to promote his movie, his forthcoming conferences, cruises, and the sale of his latest video or book. Every time Jakes preaches a new sermon series … it can procure him a fortune.”
RICH LIKE JESUS
“Jakes felt betrayed by West Virginians for criticizing his opulent lifestyle. … Jakes contended that soldiers gambled for Jesus Christ’s cloak while he was on the cross, so he must have had great wealth, and therefore Christ’s followers should emulate him by being wealthy.”
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