Ten Questions for Jonathan Walton on Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism
What inspired you to write Watch This?
My interest in African American religious broadcasting came from what I perceived to be the gaps in the fields of African American religion and Religion, Media, and Culture. For the most part, scholars of African American religion in general and black theology in particular theorize about Afro-Protestantism in America according to a particular historiography that privileges liberal Protestantism in general, and civil rights motifs in particular. But the prevailing narrative of the freedom-fighting “black church” is in many ways inconsistent with a number of African American Christians whose view of the faith is informed by Trinity Broadcasting, the Word Network, and Streaming Faith.com. Just the same, for sociologists and communication theorists who have examined the world of evangelical religious broadcasting, it is predominantly framed as the domain of the white, religious right.
This book, then, is my attempt to illumine, unpack, and interrogate the theological and social orientations of prominent black religious broadcasters in order to understand them as a source of attraction and ethically evaluate their dominant messages.
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
The world of religious broadcasting cannot be reduced to an arena of hucksters and snake-oil salesmen. Nor should we reduce viewers and participants to passive, uncritical spectators; folks are not mere “suckers” trapped in a cage of Marxian false-consciousness. Black religious broadcasters convey a message of self-love, self-determination and personal transformation that many find empowering. This is not to suggest that deceit and manipulation are not part of the game. The huckster image is not completely unfounded. But we cannot deny the moral agency or critical posture of participants who turn on the television, purchase a DVD, or attend these megachurches who bring possess their own spiritual aims, interests and concerns. While researching this book I came to discover that many persons are able to “eat the fish, yet spit out the bones.”
Anything you had to leave out?
Yes. The juicy gossip I uncovered. I needed to keep it academic.
What are the some of the biggest misconceptions about your topic?
That black religious broadcasting is new. Again, many regard it as a post-civil rights phenomenon at best, or the co-opting of the black church by the white religious right at worst. But the confluence of mass media and Afro-Protestantism dates back to religious race records of the 1920s and is as “authentically black” as James Brown. From prominent Pentecostal preachers like Leora Ross, F.W. McGee, and Mother Rosa Artimus Horn during the interwar period to C.L. Franklin and Rev. Ike in the second half of the previous century. These creative cultural artists have always made an indelible impression upon Afro-Protestantism.
Did you have a specific audience in mind when writing?
Scholars and students of American religion, of course. But I also had curious and critical persons of faith in the back of my head. I would be honored if preachers and laypersons alike learned something from this book.
Are you hoping to just inform readers? Give them pleasure? Piss them off?
I hope readers will find this book both informative and entertaining. This is where I am indebted to the African American homiletic tradition. Black preachers at their best embody the knowledge of an Emilie Townes or Cornel West yet have the delivery of a Sonia Sanchez or Richard Pryor. (Not that substance and style are indistinguishable. Professor West can be quite the comedian just as Sonia Sanchez is a philosopher par excellence!) Hence I tried to tell their story in such a way that reflected, in some small way, the rhetorical sensibility of the evangelical preaching tradition.
To be sure, this book will invariably piss someone off. Some may think I was too critical of the phenomenon, others not critical enough. And many may simply feel the book is a piece of crap. (Thank God I have a mother that will love me regardless!) But my intention is never to offend. I don’t believe in being controversial, provocative, or iconoclastic just for the sake of it. I am trying to impel what I consider to be a much-needed conversation concerning the ethics of black religious broadcasting. Pissing folks off seems counterproductive to me.
What alternate title would you give the book?
Heather Hendershot has a wonderful book entitled Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture. The first chapter is entitled “For Profit-Prophets,” which I found riveting and briefly considered. Then I realized it might “piss them off.”
How do you feel about the cover?
Love it. I think it vividly captures the beautiful world of liminality that the book argues viewers enter while participating in the phenomenon of religious broadcasting.
Is there a book out there you wish you had written? Which one? Why?
Robert Orsi’s Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them (Princeton University Press 2005).
While I do not share Robert Orsi’s Italian Catholic roots, nor claim to possess the analytic sophistication necessary to write such a book, Between Heaven and Earth resonates with me at a deep intellectual level. The author confesses and confronts vulnerability in terms of doing fieldwork in one’s own religious culture and negotiating the bounds of difference, distance, and discipline over against similarity, familiarity, and religious mystery. Orsi’s critical compassion toward his subject matter is masterful and serves as an inspiration.
What’s your next book?
A cultural biography of sorts on Bishop Carlton Pearson, former protégé of Oral Roberts tentatively entitled Pentecostalism Made Pretty. Pearson will serve as a lens to examine the growth of the neo-Pentecostal/Charismatic perspective in the latter part of the previous century and the hyper-racialized power dynamics therein. There is a story to be told about Pearson who once typified racial-reconciliation on the airwaves, even as he was referred to as “Oral’s little N-word” by Charismatic leaders in private. Pearson’s rise to power and subsequent branding as a heretic in a world that covets theological creativity offers a compelling subtext marked by racial hierarchy, financial interests and evangelical politics.