Milmon F. Harrison. Righteous Riches: The Word of Faith Movement in Contemporary African American Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Paperback 192 pp. $19.95

Milmon F. Harrison’s book “Righteous Riches,” expands the study of African-American religion through his exploration of the emergent popular religious movement: Word of Faith. At publication, Harrison’s work was the first treatment of Word of Faith as a legitimate and distinct religious group, despite the movement’s high visibility and recent scholarly interest in televangelism and megachurches. Though Harrison locates Word of Faith in the historical context of New Thought, evangelicalism, and neo-Pentecostalism, he argues that Word of Faith adherents are distinct in their dedication to a contractual reading of Scripture that affords believers the ability to positively confess their divine right to wealth, health, and prosperity. Besides beginning the conversation on Word of Faith, Harrison makes three important contributions in Righteous Riches. First, Harrison works against believers who claim that Word of Faith is a unique and unparalleled religious expression by placing the movement in a religious lineage. Second, Harrison moves away from heavy-handed criticisms of Word of Faith by closely studying the “lived religion” of three current and former members while paying attention to the ways they negotiate/d membership in Faith Christian Center, a Word of Faith church. Finally, Harrison offers leads for exploring the attraction between Word of Faith beliefs and its adherents. Ultimately, while Righteous Riches successfully argues that Word of Faith does not represent a new religious innovation, Harrison’s evaluation of the racial dynamics in the Word of Faith movement are unsatisfying. As a starting point, Righteous Riches is an important foray into gaining a fuller appreciation of historical, technological, economic, and international contexts in which Word of Faith becomes a useful foil for examining the relationship between media, race, and religion.

Looking into the study of megachurches and seekers and finding nothing but white middle class suburbanites, Milmon Harrison believes that studying an urban African-American church will offer fresh insight. While Harrison is not explicit about the historiographical position of his text as a part of a dialogue on the nature of “the black church,”  he is in conversation with figures like Carter G. Woodson, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Orishatukeh Faduma who sought to forward “the black church” into social empowerment and progressive reforms. These individuals saw the primary function and value of black religious life in its social utility. In contrast, Harrison’s text adopts a model of reform and empowerment invested in the radical individualism espoused by Word of Faith, emphasizing the validity of individual religious experience and feeling over corporate social reform. However, Harrisons shift in understanding the location of instrumental value in African American religion, does not leave him far from the readings of Du Bois, Woodson, and Faduma. In the chapter “Prosperity in African American Religion” Harrison argues that the fundamental character of African American churches lies in their ability to attend to the physical and material conditions of life, an assertion that continues to locate the most fruitful analysis of African American religion in its instrumental value.

Working against models that analyze African American churches in terms of systemic oppression, immigration trends, employment, and social pressures intended to historicize and explain black religiosity, Righteous Riches focuses on the experience of individuals, personal empowerment, and self-reporting. Harrison combats readings of Word of Faith as a consumer driven religion by giving voices to the claims of the “everyday theologians,” whose un-interpreted accounts line the pages. In doing so, Harrison overemphasizes the claims of believers and the primacy of theology, without locating believers perspectives in their interesting and important economic, racial, and historical contexts. While it is compelling to hear the accounts of three Word of Faith believers, Righteous Riches does not offer a rich context for understanding the religious claims beyond their face value. This results in a text that relies heavily on quotations from believers with only occasional summary and synthesis of obvious themes such as the importance of the Word, the characteristic dress of ministers, and pressure to participate in small groups.

Harrison’s analysis of Word of Faith is not just about filling a gap in scholarship. As a former participant in the Word of Faith community he writes about Harrison is invested in offering legitimacy and a balanced perspective to a movement with no shortage of detractors. Opponents of Word of Faith claim that the movement is corrupt, cultish, and exploitative, its members ignorant, brainwashed and gullible.  In the midst of this turmoil, Harrison works hard to validate the worldviews of believers to render them religiously legitimate, coherent, and non-controversial. For example, while Harrison correctly credits New Thought and neo-Pentecostalism as influences on Word of Faith, he fails to consider factors in the formation of these beliefs, or non-religious influences on Word of Faith.  Despite an extended discussion of Father Divine as a predecessor of Word of Faith, Harrison fails to mention the shared New Thought and Pentecostal origins, or the correspondence between Father Divine’s emphasis on proper speech and his divinity with Word of Faith ideas of positive confession and the claim that all true believers are “little gods.” Indeed, Harrison never discusses the Word of Faith “little god” thesis, one of the most controversial beliefs of many of the most popular ministers. While bringing this fact into the conversation would invalidate the movement for some readers, historians strive to locate people and events in their fullest context. Without appreciating the relationship between Father Divine, New Thought, and Word of Faith we cannot understand them.

A primary curiosity of Harrison’s work is the tension in his focus on Word of Faith as a movement illustrative of African-American religiosity and his open acknowledgement that a large number of believers are white and Latino. Harrison’s desire to explore racial differences in religious meaning between blacks and whites gets lost in a book that claims to consider only one population within Word of Faith. Despite Harrison’s concerns about providing a corrective to the focus on white megachurches and “seeker” churches, he offers little analyses that convince the reader of differences in the messages, reception, or character of African-American Word of Faith believers.[1] Ironically, despite setting out to understand African-American religion, only one of Harrison’s three main interviewees was an African-American—the other two were Ukrainian and Jewish. Furthermore, there were no racial comparisons made between the three main informants. Indeed, after reading the book I was convinced that social class—Harrison describes Word of Faith as a “poor people’s movement”—played a more critical role than race in the movement’s appeal.[2] To this reader, Harrison’s passing reference to the correspondence between Reaganomics, television, and the burgeoning of Word of Faith in his conclusion offered a powerful opportunity to ground the movement in history.[3] Instead, Harrison repeatedly appeals to a closed system of black religious movements, drawing parallels between the material focus of Word of Faith and Sweet Daddy Grace, Father Divine’s Peace Mission, and Reverend Ike to prove that African-Americans have a history of material and spiritual closeness.[4] In doing so, Harrison locates Word of Faith on a natural religious trajectory from survival, to better living, to prosperity, the logical conclusion of a religious trend.[5]

In his conclusion, Harrison returns to the enduring question of meaning in Word of Faith. He posits that Word of Faith beliefs allow adherents to individually assert control over their lives, offer a religious explanation for transition into a new economic class, and have power over the system of capitalism that prevents them from achieving wealth. At bottom, Word of Faith allows believers to make sense of socioeconomic mobility, spiritually affirm capitalism, and uphold American consumer culture.[6] While the appeal of Word of Faith to individuals dealing with the anxiety of social mobility is compelling, Harrison’s thesis that African-Americans are attracted to prosperity-based movements because of the consistent collapsing of the material and spiritual, at best, needs additional proof. While it may be the case that African-Americans are drawn to Word of Faith for reasons circumscribed by race, for example the effect of race on economic status, Harrison’s argument leads to the problematic conclusion that other races and ethnicities experience distance between their religions and their everyday needs and wants. Putting aside the difficulty of such a claim, Harrison offers no alternative explanation for understanding the mass interracial appeal of Word of Faith. While understanding the appeal of Word of Faith to African Americans is interesting, the role of racial interaction and difference in predominantly black churches led by white pastors, a comparative consideration of racial dynamics within a church, or a consideration of historical precedents outside of African-American religion would likely result in better data for understanding the way that race shapes religious experience.[7] By studying a church that was predominantly African-American without systematically and comparatively exploring race as a factor in the reception of the message, Harrison missed an important opportunity to understand the extent to which African-American religious life remains “peculiar.”  While Harrison did not provide a satisfactory analysis of the questions of race, and multi-racialism, Righteous Riches provides a starting point for understanding even more about the relationship between American consumerism, media, and religious belief. Throughout Righteous Riches, Harrison gestures towards the importance of television to the spread and maintenance of Word of Faith, noting the inextricable ties between religious broadcasting and Word of Faith preachers (T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn, Paul Crouch, Creflo Dolar). Indeed, Harrison notes that the aesthetic sensibility of Word of Faith churches are shaped by the colors, style, and presentation of televised Word of Faith programs. Perhaps, if Word of Faith beliefs represent something different on the religious landscape those differences might not be found in the idea of positive thinking, claims to offer material benefits to believers, or the appeal of the movement to the disenfranchised. Instead, the integral role of media in shaping theology, building visual cultures, targeting and attracting believers, creating racial and interracial identities, and legitimizing religious claims may indicate a rich field of exploration.

[1] Harrison, Righteous Riches, 16.
[2] Of course, no consideration of class can leave out the way that race operates to systematically disenfranchise people of color thereby making class an issue tied closely to race. Ibid., 148.
[3] Ibid.,150.
[4 Riches,135.
[5] Ibid.,134
[6] Riches, 159.
[7] Ibid., 14.

Dianne M. Stewart.Three Eyes for the Journey: African Dimensions of the Jamaican Religious Experience   Oxford University Press, 2005.  xxi + 332 pp.  $74, cloth; $24.95, paper.

Stephen Dove, University of Texas at Austin

   Although Liberation Theology defines itself in terms of representing marginalized populations, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, this theological movement has almost entirely confined itself to expression through Christian terminology, symbols, and identity.  In turn, Liberation Theology has inadvertently marginalized many of the region’s other religious traditions that represent communities at the fringes of society by excluding them from the theological conversation of liberation.  In Three Eyes for the Journey, Dianne M. Stewart seeks to open the door of Liberation Theology to Caribbean religious traditions that derive much, and at times all, of their identity from outside of Christianity.  By providing an in-depth recasting of the roots of African-derived religions in Jamaica, Stewart demonstrates how these religious expressions offer their own contributions to theological discourse in general and to a theology of liberation in particular.  The author rightly acknowledges that this work can only serve as a stepping-stone in the larger project of developing in-depth theological analysis of African-derived religions.  However, Three Eyes for the Journey offers a significant first step in that direction by convincingly demonstrating that many religious traditions in Jamaica that are often interpreted as primarily Christian but with syncretistic elements may be better defined as African-derived religions at their core with certain Christian elements attached to them to increase social respectability.  As such, Stewart uses historical evidence to establish a new set of theological categories that acknowledge the use of African thought and practice by Caribbean religions to provide answers in the face of slavery, emancipation, racism, and poverty in the region.

Stewart organizes her work around five concepts she finds common to African-derived religions in Jamaica: Libation, Incantation, Offering, Visitation, and Communion, each representing a different stage in the “genealogy” of African-derived religions in Jamaica.  In her first chapter, “Libation,” Stewart offers a new perspective on Black religious expressions in Jamaica during the slave period, paying particular attention to African strains of practice and theology that migrated to the colony.   Stewart is especially interested in recasting the practices of Myal and Obeah as related and fully-formed religious systems rather than as antithetical good and bad forms of African magic.  The second chapter, “Incantation,” evaluates the attitudes of Europeans toward Black religion on the island, especially the political and missionary instillation of anti-African views in the lives of Jamaicans and their institutions.  Stewart maintains that the transferring of this negative view of all things African to Blacks by Whites resulted in both the repression and the masking of African religious identity in post-emancipation Jamaican religion.  In her third chapter, “Offering,” Steward applies the arguments developed earlier in the work to the historical and contemporary Jamaican religious traditions of Native Baptists, Revival Zionists, and Rastafarians.  In this discussion, she demonstrates how each of these religions makes use of African-derived theology and how each either embraces or disguises that connection.  The fourth chapter, “Visitation,” begins the work of exploring the role of African religious legacies in the ongoing work of theological development, especially in terms of liberation.  Through discussions of reappropriated symbols and particular attention to how Kumina religion can inform womanist and feminist theology, Stewart demonstrates the untapped perspectives offered by African-derived religion.  Following this exploration, Stewart uses her final chapter, “Communion,” to invite a broader community of scholars to take seriously the contributions that African-derived religions can make to theological discussions precisely because they are African-derived.

The value and strength of Three Eyes for the Journey lies primarily in Stewart’s large-scale reinterpretation of religious traditions native to Jamaica.  Stewart provides thought-provoking evidence that these religious traditions are not simply “Black cultic expressions of Christianity,” but in fact, owe much more to African religions than they do to European Christian orthodoxy.  Thus, rather than understanding Black Caribbean religions as syncretistic Christianity, Stewart makes the opposite claim that they are primarily African religions with minor elements adapted from Christianity.  This thesis opens a door to a Black theology that moves beyond Black Christianity, a method of investigation that can easily be applied beyond Jamaica and beyond even the Caribbean.  In order to accomplish this dramatic shift in describing Jamaican religion, Stewart demonstrates proficiency with a wide variety of Jamaican sources ranging from colonial missionary journals to contemporary accounts by active practitioners.

Unlike her strength in the realm of Jamaican studies, however, Stewart uses few primary sources from Africa and relies heavily on generalizations from secondary accounts to make links between African and Jamaican practices.  Stewart makes it clear that African and Jamaican religious experiences are only related and not identical, but her thesis would benefit from more research into concrete and symbolic connections between the two.  Stewart’s deep knowledge of Jamaica and wide survey of the island’s religious history and practice also causes her to make use of a number of terms that receive little definition in the work itself.  The lack of such definitions renders the book much more useful to readers established in the field than to newcomers.  Similarly, although Stewart explores beautifully the qualitative differences between African-derived and Christian-based religion in Jamaica, the book includes no quantitative comparison of these movements.  While quantitative analysis is certainly not the focus of this work, even a basic overview of Jamaican religious demography would make this work more approachable to readers less familiar with Jamaican religion.

Ultimately, the fresh approach and challenging interpretation of Jamaican religion offered in Three Eyes for the Journey outweighs the few weaknesses of the work.  While this book is aimed primarily at scholars already familiar with Jamaican religion, Stewart’s challenge to take more seriously the African roots of Black Caribbean religions will be valuable to any reader concerned with theologies of liberation or with Black religious history anywhere in the Western hemisphere.  Stewart has surely opened a new chapter in the worthwhile, and not easily resolved, debate about the extent to which African religions impacted, and continue to impact, Black religion in the Americas.

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