I recently read Shayne Lee’s book, America’s New Preacher: T.D. Jakes (NYU Press). I cannot begin to tell you how fascinating this book is. I almost couldn’t put it down. First of all, Lee is a talented writer. A professor of sociology, currently teaching at the University of Houston, Lee analyzes both the good and bad implications of Jake’s phenomenal success. And he carefully connects Jakes’ rise to prominence to the larger religious scene in America today.
This is one of the first major biographies of the life and work of T.D. Jakes to be written. Yet later writings on Jakes will have a hard time reaching the standard of this book. This is not a puff piece, which simply sings Jakes’ praises. At the same time, it is not a hatchet job, either. Lee doesn’t have an axe to grind. He is not trying to bury Jakes. He seeks to be as objective as possible. And I think he does a pretty good job. From just reading the book, it is hard to tell whether Lee personally agrees with Jakes’ philosophy or not. And that reflects the heart of the book’s message. Lee argues that Jakes is a bundle of contradictions and that the paradoxes of his life and ministry are purely American.
In New Preacher, Lee tells the story of Jakes upbringing in West Virginia, his conversion to Christ, and his early days of ministry. He carefully tells the story of the convergence of various factors that led to the “overnight success” of T.D. Jakes. He also tells how Jakes, unlike many others who reach the spotlight, strategically used his 15 minutes of fame to build his ministry into a movement, of sorts.
On one hand, Jakes was absolutely determined to be a successful minister, though one has to question the biblical validity of his view of success. Aat the same time, many different things happened to bring him to prominence that he could not have planned. But he definitely maximized those moments to build a ministry empire. This empire includes his tremendous financial success. But it also includes the compromises he has had to make (and continues to make), in order to maintain all that he has acquired.
This shrewd and determined focus on maintaining success may be best seen in Jakes’ “Mega-Fest” conference. When his staff became concerned that attendance at their different conferences was beginning to slowly drop, the idea came to merge all of these conferences into one major gathering. The results was the first “Mega-Fest” in Atlanta in 2004, which drew more people than the 1994 Summer Olympic Games.
Lee’s chapters on Jakes’ media savvy, contradictory feminism, and focus on prosperity are all provocative. But one of the interesting features of this book to me is how it describes the religious climate in America that made the “overnight success” of T.D. Jakes possible. These dynamics would include the rise of Neo-Pentecostalism, the development of televangelism, and the decline of denominationalism.
Many people are key to these developments. But of the various people mentioned, the sections about Carlton Pearson were most compelling to me. Lee argues that there would absolutely not be a T.D. Jakes if there were not a Carlton Pearson. Yet the meteoric rise of T.D. Jakes happened at the same time Pearson’s ministry was rapidly plummeting, because of his embracing of a doctrinal heresy of “Christian universalism” (which is an oxymoron). Interestingly, when Jakes himself was confronted about his Oneness Pentecostal convictions (which deny the Trinity), he artfully dodged the matter, so that his ministry would not see the same sad fate Pearson experienced.
Lee argues that Jakes is America’s new preacher and that those who would be successful will have to follow his model. Sadly, I think he’s right. But he is only right if you agree with his definition of success. And I do not. We are not called to be America’s preachers; but God’s preachers. May this book not be read as a model to follow; but as a warning to heed.