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Righteous Riches: The Word of Faith Movement in Contemporary African American Religion
Righteous Riches: The Word of Faith Movement in Contemporary African American Religion
Milmon F. Harrison
Oxford University Press, 2005
192 pp., 53.00

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Patton Dodd

You Have the Right to Be Rich

But you have to earn it.

Milmon Harrison's ethnographic survey of the Word of Faith movement opens with capital letters and exclamation points—punctuation worthy of a faith-stirring service at a megachurch in Sacramento, California. But this is no Sunday worship service; it is the church's First Annual Finance Convention, and the "brightest stars" of the Word of Faith galaxy have lined up to "teach believers what the Bible 'really' says about God's will for the prosperity of the faithful."

Currently on stage is televangelist Leroy Thompson, who is commanding the audience members to make a few confessions at the top of their lungs. They repeat after him: "I'LL NEVER BE BROKE ANOTHER DAY IN MY LIFE!" Then, "I AM EXPECTING SUPERNATURAL INCREASE THIS WEEK!" And then, "I AM EXPECTING SUPERNATURAL DEBT-CANCELLATION THIS WEEK!" The audience responds not just dutifully, but enthusiastically. Faith is an act of the will, and it empowers these believers to become what they say: "they appear to be standing taller now, ready to fight and aggressively take hold of these things they are personally claiming and confessing as theirs as part of a body of entitled believers."

As we learn later, the congregants are empowered not only by raising their voices but also by investing their dollars. For adherents of the Word of Faith doctrine, relationships with God are fundamentally causal; believers may be "entitled" to certain blessings, but as a Word of Faith preacher might put it, you can't reap a harvest without sowing seed.

Harrison, a professor of African American studies at the University of California, Davis, knows whereof he speaks. In keeping with a vigorous trend in the study of religion, Harrison is investigating the very religious group of which he was formerly a part. In his preface, Harrison explains that during his twenties he became an "excited, born again, 'baby' Christian" at a Word of Faith church. Though still a Christian today, Harrison no longer identifies as a Word of Faith believer, and while he does not intend to "write an exposé of the movement," he is ambivalent about how his relative insider status affects his project.

Given all this, and given the radical features of the Word of Faith movement, it is hard not to scan the book for an engaged emotional reaction (okay, a screed) from the author. Harrison resists such expectations, having promised that he would, and it is for the best. Instead, the book is devoted to ethnographies of committed adherents, and their stories paint a complex portrait of socialization and of the rationalization of a genuinely contemporary, and quintessentially American, faith system.

As Harrison explains, the Word of Faith movement is a post-World War II phenomenon, one of many outgrowths of evangelical charismatic Christianity. The still-burgeoning movement features nondenominational churches and parachurch ministries, Bible schools, voluntary fellowships, and, as any channel surfer knows, mass media broadcast networks. Its institutions are independent, its organizations voluntary, and its leaders well financed.

The movement's name derives from The Word of Faith magazine, founded in the 1960s by the late Kenneth Hagin, Sr., who is often credited with originating the Word of Faith doctrine. Affectionately known as "Dad Hagin" among today's ministry leaders, he promoted the movement with his magazine, radio show (the Faith Seminar of the Air), and ministry training school, the Rhema Bible Training Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Hagin emphasized that all believers in Christ are entitled to be materially rich and physically healthy, and that those promises can be realized only through positive thinking and verbal confession.

But Hagin, as Dan R. McConnell and others have noted (McConnell's A Different Gospel is a landmark historical and theological critique of the movement), was not in fact the progenitor of these ideas. Rather, Hagin drew from (or, as McConnell would have it, effectively plagiarized) the writings of the New Thought/Holiness minister E.W. Kenyon (1867-1948) in the formulation of Word of Faith doctrine. Word of Faith teaching bears a deep resemblance to the New Thought insistence that material and spiritual realities respond actively to positive thinking, and there is no debate on the long aftershocks of New Thought on the American mind.

Harrison takes note of this issue, but he argues that the blending of Word of Faith with mainstream evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, and the rise of televangelism gives the movement a more complex character in its current form. Indeed, many Word of Faith churches have much in common with popular seeker churches that emphasize the gospel's capacity to make individuals happy and healthy. And to the movement's members, the emphasis on faith as a user-friendly tool that should be applied in every aspect of one's life (faith for a new job, faith for bills to be paid, faith for a good parking spot at the mall) is simply an advanced, literal, and pious acceptance of the Bible's promise that God will meet every need.

Ironically, if predictably, the admonition to have faith and maintain a positive attitude can slip easily into legalistic condemnation. At the very least, in Word of Faith churches, known as "Word" churches to members, the spiritual life is approached with a tenacity that would be the envy of any MBA student. Sunday mornings are for worship, but they are also for work. Despite the movement's Pentecostal backbone, church services focus less on ecstatic experiences and more on education. Some members arrive with briefcases packed with Bibles (usually King James) and notebooks, and ministry leaders often stress that they are "teaching" rather than "preaching." The Bible is a textbook, and its principles have scientific application, formulas with results guaranteed.

This seriousness, and its attendant behavioral requirements, is applied to every aspect of the church member's life. New members undergo an intensive confirmation process, and once they graduate from the "New Members Class" they are ushered into (ahem) volunteer service. Harrison says that Word of Faith adherents are often reminded that "to whom much is given much is required," and their weekly schedules are dictated by the hours of church operation. Interestingly, much of Harrison's personal animus—held mostly at bay but sometimes perceptible—is directed at these obligations of membership. An entire chapter is devoted to exploring these requirements, the prodding to fulfill them, and the anxiety members experience in avoiding them. To Harrison's thinking, a crucial feature of the congregational culture of Word churches is the way adherents react against these pressures, and he explains how members negotiate the demands through "venting networks," long (and culturally controversial) sabbaticals, and other strategies. Sometimes, the only solution is to leave the movement.

The congregation in focus in Righteous Riches is a predominantly African American church that makes laudatory efforts at multiculturalism, including a monthly service where members are encouraged to invite someone of a different race. Harrison shows how an emphasis on personal entitlement can be a boon to the racially marginalized; one of his respondents describes how the church empowered her to walk through racial barriers—"as [God's] child, she has full authority to go wherever she wishes among whomever she encounters"—and take up golf well before Tiger Woods was a household name. Though the book is unfocused in this regard, Harrison does make several suggestive observations about how the movement gives practitioners license to achieve racial reconciliation and language useful for overcoming social differences.

This point about language is particularly suggestive. Harrison rightly highlights the acquisition and incorporation of new definitions and catch phrases in many of his respondents, but he stops short of analyzing these important linguistic transformations. Still, it is clear that in addition to providing a repertoire of rights, the Word of Faith movement prescribes new ways of using old words, and freely, recklessly adapts language to serve doctrinal and ideological purposes.

For instance, what's a Word of Faith worship leader to do with songs that imply humankind's fallen state? Simple—edit them. In a Word of Faith song service, "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me" becomes "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound / that saved someone like me." If positive confession can produce victory, then negative confession can produce defeat, even in the most mundane matters, and the belief that words have creative power means that language is always under the microscope. Harrison recounts a time he mentioned that his hair was thinning on top, only to be rebuked for making a negative confession. "We're believing for you a full head of hair," his friends responded. "You're not going to lose your hair, in Jesus' name!"

Through Harrison's remembrances and his respondents' testimonies, Righteous Riches offers a litany of such anecdotes that beg for further investigation. Along with modest historical notes, the book sets up some useful categorizations for thinking about the Word of Faith movement. Save for a slim conclusion that explores some promising interpretive directions, including the movement's historical proximity to Reaganomics, Harrison refrains—for now at least—from harvesting much analysis of these issues, but he plants a lot of seed.

Patton Dodd is the author of My Faith So Far: A Story of Conversion and Confusion (Jossey-Bass) and is a doctoral candidate in religion and literature at Boston University.

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