Monday, January 28, 2008

A Propensity for Imitation

William Watty, former president of the United Theological College of the West Indies, has observed that the Caribbean church has a high propensity for imitation:

It is here in the Caribbean, not in Europe, that you are likely to find the classic and pristine expressions of European denominationalism. It is in the Caribbean that you will hear Moravians talking about Jan Hus as though he was burnt at the stake last night. It is in the Caribbean that you will hear Methodists talking about the conversion of John Wesley as though Aldersgate Street is around the corner and they were there that night, that you will see Anglicans celebrating as though Newman, Keble and Pusey had them specially in mind when they inaugurated the Anglo-Catholic Revival, that you will hear Catholics speaking as though Pius IX took care to canvass their opinion specifically before he enunciated the Dogma of Papal Infallibility.

If we were to substitute the United States for Europe, we would find that Watty’s illustration could easily be extended to include the twenty-first century Bahamas. Consider, for example, how the books, movies, television programs, and personalities that are currently fashionable in American Evangelical culture have influenced Bahamian Christianity. Local Christian book shops prominently display stacks of Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life, Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, and Bruce Wilkinson's Prayer of Jabez. Cable Bahamas regularly pipes in religious programming from the major U.S. television networks, making household names of personalities like Joel Osteen, John Hagee, Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland, and Juanita Bynum and, just a few years ago, Bahamian movie theaters were packed out by church groups attending showings of Mel Gibson’s Passion of Christ. Given this influence, we should not be surprised that many Bahamian clergy have chosen to imitate the message, method, and promiscuously wealthy lifestyle of U.S.-based television preachers.

Labels: , , ,

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The "Get Rich Quick" Approach to Religion

My views on prosperity theology are no secret. It is nothing more than a "get rich quick" approach to religion that relies on prooftexting and cannot withstand the scrutiny of serious biblical exegesis. Worse yet, it often preys upon the poorest and most vulnerable members of society by convincing them that if they simply put what they have in the offering plate and trust in God, then all their financial problems will be solved. But what happens when a person does give what they have in faith and it doesn't bring the desired results?

Britt Towery, a columnist at reports:
Sad story after sad story is the heritage of most of these televangelists. One single mom said she was fleeced for over 12 years by a TV preacher. "When I think of the times my electricity got turned off because I tithed and gave instead of paying my bills, I could scream. I was told to NOT pay my bills, but to tithe first and believe God for the money for my bills . . . when my electricity was turned off I was told I had no faith."

Another wrote they were told: "Just send $65, and within 90 days God will turn my life around."
Ignoring the social, political, and economic factors that keep people impoverished and--too often--prevent them from pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, prosperity theology simply provides a disingenuous theological rationale for blaming the poor for their own poverty. Telling someone that they are poor and have financial problems because they don't have enough faith in God is really just the religious equivalent of telling a single mother with three kids and a full-time minimum wage job that she is poor because she's lazy and doesn't work hard enough.

While some prosperity preachers might really genuinely believe in this distorted view of scripture, a growing number are nothing more than slick religious con-artists, abusing their positions of trust in the church to get rich at the expense of their congregants and evade the long arm of the law.

But many of these preachers might not be able to stay ahead of the law for much longer. Recently, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) completed a two year investigation of some of American's leading (and not so leading) prosperity preachers.

John Bloom of the Wittenburg Door reports:
The headliners were Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland and his lovely wife Gloria, and Creflo Dollar and his exquisitely named wife Taffi.

Less well known, unless you happen to subscribe to “Widow-Fleecing Monthly,” were Randy and Paula White, the couple whose Without Walls International Church in Tampa outlasted their marriage; Joyce Meyer and her loving husband David, of Joyce Meyer Ministries in Fenton, Missouri, who may have had to use their $23,000 marble-topped commode when they heard the news; and Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church of Lithonia, Georgia, who apparently made the list because of his healthy appetite for faith-based-initiative money.
So what exactly prompted Senator Grassley to launch an investigation into the activities of these preachers anyway?

Again, John Bloom explains:
There’s been a trend over the past 20 years for non-profit corporations, which are required to file reports with the Internal Revenue Service, to convert themselves into churches, which are not required to file anything.

Some of these churches have an appetite for Gulfstream jets, beachfront mansions, Bentleys and cosmetic-surgery funds. This is, of course, in conscious imitation of the Yuppie from Galilee.
And lest we have any doubts about the criminality of all this, Bloom elaborates further:
Unfortunately, it cuts a little deeper than that. The amount of information considered by the Finance Committee before starting down this road amounted to at least the suspicion of a vast criminal conspiracy. (And, lest you think I’m exaggerating, just check the interlocking directorates, shared board members, and shared jet leases of the top 50 or so players that the committee is looking at.) Some of these guys are little more than carnies. Others aren’t as self-consciously criminal but believe their own publicity—but they also know that they’re taking money intended for disaster relief, aid to the poor, and aid to orphans, and converting it into personal luxury items. If that’s legal, then the law should be changed. If that’s illegal, then there should be at least as much jail time for them as Martha Stewart got for lying to the SEC.
Unfortunately, the phenomenon of prosperity theology is not unique to the United States but has been exported to the far corners of the earth. Here in the Bahamas, Adrian Rogers over at WeblogBahamas echoes many of the concerns I have cited above. And, just a few years back, Cedric Moss, a local pastor, ran a series of columns in the Nassau Guardian exposing the tactics employed by many unscrupulous pastors (whom Moss refers to as "highly paid celebrity motivational speakers) to "fleece their flocks" (see here, here, and here).

While some bloggers, citing concerns about separation of church and state, have rightfully questioned the propriety of Congressman Grassley conducting an investigation into the finances of prosperity preachers, I hope that his efforts will help to educate the churchgoing public about the need to check out the credentials of the ministries they wish to support.

But as important as that is, I hope that the publicity generated by Grassley's investigation will force all of us to pause and reflect on our theological views. Because the real issue here is much more than just bringing religious con-artists to justice or learning how to protect ourselves from getting scammed by them. The real issue is who we believe Jesus Christ really is and what the life of discipleship actually entails.

Regarding that issue, Towery's closing words point us in the right direction.
The Christ I read about in the New Testament preached self-sacrifice and humility. He ministered to society's outcasts, the lepers and prostitutes. He overturned the crooked money-changers table in the Temple.

I don't think Jesus would wear a Rolex or drive a Bentley. He was up front in his dealings with the masses as he was with the disciples. He was not putting on a show or trying to impress anyone. Kings, high priests or paupers were the same to him. He loved them all. And a majority never understood what it was all about.


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Quote of the Week

"It is not an accident that, in nearly every social or political crisis through which the peoples of the Caribbean have passed in recent times, the ministers of the Churches, whether their training was received locally or perfected abroad, have invariably been strangely silent or else represent a position which is reactionary and alien to the legitimate aspirations of the majority of the people. It reveals a form of training and preparation for the ministry of the Church which fosters attitudes of elitism, escapism and alienation which in a struggling post-colonial society are quite unprogressive and, at times, even obstructive."

William Watty, former president of the United Theological College of the West Indies and author of From Shore to Shore: Soundings in Caribbean Theology.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Observe Haiti Solidarity Week

Just in from Haiti Reborn. Consider how your church or community group might help raise awareness about women's issues in Haiti by observing Haiti Solidarity Week.

Haiti Solidarity Week
Stand up and speak out to end Violence Against Women
February 3-10, 2008

This year here at Haiti Reborn we are encouraging folks to get involved in activities aimed at confronting violence against women during Haiti Solidarity Week. We have some ideas for doing this on our website, including hosting house parties to raise funds and raise awareness. Any money raised for Haiti Reborn during February solidarity week will go to support the work of the Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV), a women's collective providing services to victims of sexual violence in Port au Prince and engaged in popular education and advocacay to confront the sources of violence.

We invite anybody organizing an event this week - whether it is on this theme or other, related to Haiti Reborn, or other group - to post the details of the event on this page. It has a searchable database of events and thus will help you get the word out about your solidarity activity.

February 7 is a significant date in Haiti's historical struggle for democracy - the day J.C. Duvalier was forced to leave in 1986, the day Aristide, as Haiti first democratically elected president, was first inaugurated in 1991, and the date of the election that brought La Tortue's unelected and illegitimate government to a close in 2006. There are generally many events organized to commemorate Haiti struggle for democracy on this day - and throughout the week. Help us get the word out by posting the details of those activities here - or letting us know by sending an e-mail. (Note: You can customize the descrption of your event - you do not need to use the default!)

Labels: , ,

Caribbean Conference of Churches Offers Master of Theological Studies Programme

Here's a program that should be of interest to prospective theological students from the Caribbean. Given that it has been developed and will be taught by Caribbean theologians, it promises to be a good alternative to the typical North American options for graduate study in theology. I'll be curious to learn more about this program as it gets underway.
Caribbean Conference of Churches and Huron University College invite applications for the first cohort of its Master of Theological Studies (MTS).

Programme starts July 2008 and will run for three years. It has been designed by a team of Caribbean theologians and will be delivered by Caribbean scholars.

Courses include: Biblical Studies; Systematic Theology; Mission & Evangelism; Pastoral Theology; Church History; Missiology.

Applicants should possess an undergraduate degree from a recognized university in any discipline. In exceptional cases, students who are not holders of an undergraduate degree may be allowed to pursue the Masters Programme.

For further information contact Mrs. Marcia Faustin-Walker, Senior Programme Associate at E-mail address: or fax number: 1 (868) 662-1303.

The degree is awarded by the University of Western Ontario through Huron University College.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

On Soup Joumou, Stollen, and Junkanoo: Celebrating the Holidays Away from Home

For most of the world--at least those of us on the Gregorian calendar--today is New Year's Day. But for those of us who are Haitian, married to Haitians, or otherwise living in Haiti or its Diaspora, today is also important because it is Haitian Independence Day. While of special significance to Haitians, today is important for all Caribbean peoples and, indeed, all of us who are--in some fashion or another--descendants of the Atlantic slave trade and its legacy. You see, the Haitian Revolution was the first--and only--successful slave revolt in the New World, making Haiti the the oldest Black Republic in the world and (after the U.S.) the second independent country in the Western Hemisphere. So in typical Haitian Protestant fashion, we observed this dual holiday by attending New Year's Eve services last night at Emmaus Baptist Church here in Nassau and then ushering in the new year by wishing each other Bon Ane! and eating soup joumou and pain Haïtien.

As an expatriate American living in the Bahamas (and married to a Dominican of Haitian descent), you can imagine that our holiday celebrations reflect a number of cultural traditions that have shaped us over the years, making for a truly cross-cultural celebration. I've already mentioned, of course, our tradition of eating soup joumou and pain Haïtien for New Year's/Haitian Independence Day. But when we are in the U.S. and the Bahamas, we also eat more traditional American holiday foods such as turkey and stuffing or baked ham. When celebrating the holidays with Estela's family in the Dominican Republic, however, American-style foods are replaced with Dominican foods such as cassava fritters, beef empanadillas, spaghetti, and fried chicken. And while I'm a couple of generations removed from my German ancestry, we still bake an Americanized version of stollen, made from a recipe handed down from my great-grandfather who was a German baker.

Here in the Bahamas, the Junkanoo parades are an essential part of the holiday festivities, beginning with Junior Junkanoo in mid-December and, then, the two big Junkanoo parades held in the wee-hours of the morning (or, as we say in Spanish, por la madrugada) on Boxing Day and New Year's Day. Dating back to the days of slavery, Junkanoo is perhaps one of the best known (though hardly the only) and most popular forms of Afro-Bahamian culture.

As I generally tend to avoid places where large crowds congregate, we've never attended Junkanoo before. But this year, Estela and I took advantage of the opportunity to join Stephen Aranha, president of the Bahamas Historical Society, and his family to watch the Boxing Day parade from the excellent vantage point of the Bahamas Historical Society Museum. I'm glad we went as it was well worth the experience.

While much of what takes place in Junkanoo (especially the numerous, smaller activities throughout the year) is packaged for the consumption of foreign tourists, Junkanoo is actually a very profound and complex expression of Bahamian culture. The Bahamian anthropologist Nicolette Bethel has written a number of helpful blog posts (see here and here) that have helped my artistically-challenged mind to get a better grasp on Junkanoo's deeper meaning.

But perhaps the best way to understand Junkanoo is simply to observe it first hand. To that end, I've posted a couple of video clips below. (Thanks, again, to Nicolette Bethel for pointing these out.) The first is a scrap group, which is basically an informal--and usually small--group of friends who get together to rush. Back in the old days, all Junkanoo groups were scrap groups and today's groups continue in that tradition. The second video is of the Valley Boys, one of the large A-Groups that competes for prizes. Since Estela and I live near and work in Mason's Addition, we chose to root for the Saxons and One Family, both of which hail from our neighborhood.

Labels: , , , , ,