Destiny: The Life and Times of a Self-Made Apostle
Penguin Books, $38.00,
A Rising Tide: Evangelical Christianity in New Zealand 1930-65
Otago University Press, $40.00,
Recently, the International Association of Religion Journalists conference in Brisbane brought together journalists and academics from around the world to explore ways of improving the reporting of religion in the mainstream print and digital media. Paul Marshall, whose book Blind Spot: Why Journalists Don’t Get Religion examines these concerns, gave the opening address. My own paper reported on the woeful coverage of religion in New Zealand, where the major media outlets are bereft of a single specialist religion editor or anyone assigned the regular religion beat. Add to this the work pressures of reduced staff and lack of specialist training and expertise, and the result is that news of religion is largely reduced to hype and hypocrites, charlatans and conmen, scandals and sexual abuse. The country’s most recognisable Pentecostal preacher, Bishop Brian Tamaki, is a case in point. Hounded by TV3’s Campbell Live, vilified and accused of being a Nazi, he has been widely condemned as a fraud in the media. The New Zealand Herald chose to cover the launch of the book about Tamaki here under review, but sent Steve Deane, better known as a sports writer, who largely focussed on the preacher’s sartorial outfit and the authenticity of his “reptilian” shoes.
Does it matter that religion is poorly reported? What harm is done by anti-religious stereotypes? What are the results of the negative framing of religious news stories? It does matter. Increasingly, public knowledge about religion is acquired, not through church or community, but via media reports. The costs of bad reporting are not only in terms of the failure to be “accurate and fair”, but also in denying the public the opportunity to understand the role that religion plays in the lives of many, and why this continues to be the case. Just as business or political reporting requires training and expert knowledge, so does religious reporting. It certainly requires something more than the press’s favoured “Wally theory of religion”: according to which, people will believe anything as they are bilked of their cash and dignity, and religious belief is just easier than facing up to the secular realities of modern life. In fact, religion is often a much more demanding course, demanding significant commitment and costs, and people usually choose to join religious communities with their eyes wide open.
Destiny Church is not the largest nor the richest Pentecostal or evangelical church, but the church and its spiritual leader do have a uniquely high media profile. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the “Enough is Enough” march on parliament in 2004 and the haka at Waitangi in 2007 were indeed news. And, even if it was never quite clear exactly what was “enough”, the general tenor of Destiny’s fears of the government’s progressive agenda were evident. These strident marches created headlines, and Tamaki has been an object of media attention ever since. Secondly, Destiny’s position is supported by our own version of a “moral minority”. That is, Christians beyond his church support his moral stands. However, Destiny, like the Christian parties before them (Christian Heritage Party, Christian Democrats, United Future), got its fingers burnt when it did so poorly in the 2005 and 2008 elections. Moral conservatives repeatedly choose not to vote for Christian parties. This is likely to be played out again next year with the Conservatives, although a “cup of tea” deal might still see them in parliament. Thirdly, Destiny has profile because they continue to be engaged in a series of novel initiatives and ventures, from covenants, via charter schools, to the building of their “City of God” in South Auckland.
Media reporting on Destiny Church has largely been on tithing and the preacher’s boats and cars. It is a shame that the reporting has not focussed on what Tamaki has been doing for thousands around the country. He has achieved something that very few of us know how to do or can do. He has built a community, actually a number of communities, of trust and mutuality, of people who care about each other and support each other. For many, it is a struggle to comply with Destiny’s demand of absolute abstinence after lives of alcohol and substance abuse, but they are supported in the attempt to change their lives. These communities give people a chance, often a second chance, for communion and dignity, companionship and support, and, most significantly of all, hope and the possibility of change for the better ‒ of Biblical metanoia, of being turned round, of being zapped and changing direction for the good, of being born again in the new community.
When I attended one of Destiny’s birthday celebrations in Auckland a few years ago, I was struck by this powerful, palpable, visceral sense of community, of belonging, and of a love for the man that made this all possible, Bishop Brian Tamaki. You cannot fake his love for them or vice versa. At this level, he clearly is not fraudulent, but cares, and is a constant in the flux of contemporary life for those who acknowledge him. It is, of course, still true that alongside Tamaki’s spiritual leadership is a political megalomania and overt homophobia, both now seemingly considerably subdued. Whether these are necessarily connected or purely contingent is a moot point.
If we exclude Tamaki’s autobiography, this is the first book-length study of Bishop Tamaki and Destiny Church. Peter Lineham promises a great deal, including an account that will explain the rise and appeal of Destiny, the theology of the church, and something about the man himself. Lineham is very successful on the first two fronts. His careful and well-researched historical portrayal is a model for such studies. He gives attention to the personalities involved, the small-town contexts, the changing directions taken by Tamaki and his relationships with significant others in this Christian subculture and, in particular, the not always planned transition into the Pentecostal limelight.
The study is also presented as a biography, and here it is disappointing. The small-town boy called by his God to become a preacher and start a church, who continues to be guided by his inner circle and by his deity, recedes behind the excellent narrative. While we can recognise his all-too-human foibles, his loyalties, his sincerity, his pride, his evident intelligence, his ability to capture the public mood, and his inspirational spiritual leadership, we are never really shown what makes him tick, the true nature of his ambitions, his doubts and fears. The book ends by conveying a certainty that we have not yet heard the last of Tamaki and his Destiny Church.
Stuart Lange’s fine book traces the rise of evangelical Protestant Christianity in New Zealand from between the wars until its mid-1960s heyday. He rightly emphasises the role that the universities played in these developments, with the Inter-Varsity Fellowship of Evangelical Unions and its fostering of a public and professional face for evangelical Christianity. We still live with the legacy of these three-and-a-half decades of evangelical success, and Lange skilfully recaptures something of the excitement and passions of the time. This Christian world, however, began creaking in the 1960s and cracking in the 1970s as church attendance fell, and what promised to be a culture turned instead into a subculture.
Lineham’s mapping of Pentecostal and evangelical currents is unparalleled and should be required reading for all of us with an interest in post-1984 contemporary New Zealand. He lets us into the normally closed world of sectarian Protestantism and the near endless schismatic break-ups. He also links Destiny to Maori religious movements past and present, especially Ratana and regional Apostolic Pentecostal churches. Beyond New Zealand, he draws fascinating parallels with African-American and other Pentecostal movements, and the prosperity gospel traditions. What we are left with is Bishop Brian, a singular and creative admixture of many currents, who offers us a prism in which to see ourselves and our society refracted in ways that are normally obscured.
In association with Norway’s Media Project, we are planning to hold a seminar this year for New Zealand journalists in the hope of improving the reportage of religion news. In the meantime, journalists could do no better than by starting with Lineham’s life of Brian.
Paul Morris is a professor in the Religious Studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington.