Monday, August 12, 2013

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books


            When a sophisticated and theologically-literate Associate Professor of History writes a book about a fundamentalist church that has a wealthy and charismatic leader, there may be the expectation that the book will be a hatchet job.

Peter Lineham is such an academic and Brian Tamaki’s Destiny Church is such a church.

Yet the refreshing and enlightening thing about Destiny – The Life and Times of a Self-Made Apostle is how scrupulously fair Lineham has been. True, Brian Tamaki is highly unlikely to like this book, and certainly he will not like the description “self-made” in the title. Like most Pentecostal leaders, Tamaki believes he is not “self-made”, but is responding to a special call from God. True, Peter Lineham dislikes many things about Destiny, and does not hesitate to say so. But he is not interested in sensationalism, and he is fully aware of how glib many journalistic responses to Destiny have been.

So in his preface, Lineham declares “I have focused on explanation rather than indictment. This is more difficult, because on the whole I do not like the phenomenon of Destiny.” (p.9) Further, he warns that there are particular sensitivities in his own interpretation because “as a gay man and a Christian, I was likely to face sharp criticisms and to be perceived by Destiny as a very dubious observer.” (p.10)

Destiny has not been noted for its positive attitude to homosexuals. Following the Preface, the book opens with Destiny’s “Enough is Enough” march in Wellington in August 2004, against both the legalisation of prostitution and the civil unions bill. As Lineham notes, the marching black-shirted members of Destiny provoked some journalists into making comparisons with the Nazis; but a few more astute commentators had the uneasy sense that the protestors actually stood for something real in the Maori world, no matter how unpalatable it might have been to acknowledge it.

Lineham’s account shows how Destiny began with the strong sense that it could change the moral climate for all New Zealanders; but it has subsequently retreated from this view. As he notes in Chapter 8:

When it first came to public attention, Destiny was on a moral crusade. Indeed, one might have supposed that this was the essence of the movement. If so, it has lost its mojo. Destiny may have decided that the rest of us are such moral delinquents that there is no hope of persuading us to reform. Or possibly Destiny has realised that rescuing New Zealand is actually better achieved by rescuing New Zealanders.” (p.127)

While Destiny opposed the reform of prostitution laws and the civil unions bill, it has more recently kept its head down about gay marriage. Its emphasis on personal morality is still there. It has strict bans on its members smoking or drinking alcohol and (despite its opposition to the “anti-smacking” legislation) it does not encourage corporal punishment of children. But as Lineham interprets it, Destiny is now more concerned to keep its own house in order. In other words, it has turned inward after its more flashy public campaigns a few years ago.

Partly this is related to its singular failure to become an effective political party, as Lineham chronicles in Chapters 9 and 12. Like other avowedly “Christian” parties (including the “Christian Heritage Party”, which was disgraced by the crimes of its leader and disintegrated), the Destiny Party did not become a major force and attracted at most a handful of voters. The author says Destiny church members were hoping for a “miracle” in 2005, with a vision of their leader sweeping into power. But the miracle never happened, and Destiny’s forays into national politics since 2005 have been both complex (in terms of trying to find allies) and desultory. At this point, I would note that Lineham could have made more forcefully the obvious point that the great majority of observant, church-going Christians never voted for “Christian” parties anyway, but stuck with the mainstream parties. Indeed most New Zealand Christians resent the appropriation of the term “Christian” by narrowly focused political groups.

As an analyst of the Destiny phenomenon, part of Lineham’s fairness is signalled by his willingness to declare the smug nature of some anti-Destiny commentary in the mainstream media. He notes (Chapter 5) that the liberal press is too ready to jeer without actually analysing. He notes (Chapter 8) the single-minded illiberality of many of Destiny’s opponents – all those cliché comparisons with the Nazis made by David Benson-Pope and others. In Chapter 13 he states “The collectivist, ostentatious, verbal culture of Destiny means that middle-class academics and journalists are bound to dislike it.” (p.199). Destiny’s blokey culture is a red rag to bulls who want to froth in editorials – and who perhaps look down on those uppity Maori.

When he looks at Brian Tamaki’s background, and how his church was formed (Chapters 2, 3 and 4), Lineham’s tone is quite dispassionate and neutral. Tamaki (born in 1958) was a bumptious young man who got into a number of minor scrapes (nothing too scandalous – booze; car accidents), but who found a strong and ambitious woman in his wife Hannah. She wanted to keep Brian focused. Brian frequently feels called by God. It would take only a few tweaks to Lineham’s text at this point to make the story sound wholly laudatory.

The same goes for the sober and straightforward account of Tamaki’s background in a small Pentecostal denomination, the Apostolic Church, first in Te Awamutu then in Rotorua. Lineham writes as a theological sophisticate – he is aware of both the roots of, and the tensions within and between, these minority churches. He quotes from Tamaki’s own account of his calling. Only occasionally his tone is mildly sardonic. Speaking of “church-planting” he says:

 “In some respects, the pioneering of new churches can refocus a movement that feels tired. Starting anew is better than the wave of spiritual gimmicks (laughing, barking, falling down or what was called being ‘slain by the Spirit’) which became Pentecostal entertainments in the 1990s.” (p.54)

When Tamaki split from the Apostolic denomination, he emphasised the primacy of the local church. Lineham presciently notes that this took Tamaki away from any concept of the church universal, with a social gospel. When Brian and Hannah Tamaki moved to Auckland and adopted the name Destiny, Lineham outlines how their movement became a “megachurch” on a very American model and he discusses at length the way Destiny avoids the audience-seeking gimmicks of other Pentecostals. As he comments, aspiration and hope are Destiny’s main message:

Brian Tamaki is, above all, a preacher. There is nothing particularly profound about the preaching. People who are struggling with rejection and failure may find it shallow. Yet, for those who are hopeful, there are words to stimulate and encourage. Bible verses are used in a random sequence, often to back up assertions, but these verses, often from the Old Testament, do not always validate the point. Tamaki acquired a simple evangelical theology at Te Nikau, and it did not develop much. He works hard at his sermon preparation early in the mornings, thinking through what he feels he should say, and reads a little but not primarily in biblical or theological issues.” (p.67)

As an academic with considerable theological training, Lineham is able to examine the underlying theology of Destiny. It has a strong sense of God’s purposefulness and hence possibly a theoretical tendency towards predestination. Yet it also has a strong sense of the potential of the human will. This concept is appealing to those who wish to change their lives. Lineham calls it “a pragmatic version of supernaturalism… deliberately attuned to the aspirations of its followers.” (p.74)

Lineham lingers (Chapters 6 and 10) over Destiny’s relationship with other denominations of the Pentecostal sort and its attempts to become more than a one-church group. For outsiders like this reviewer, the differentiation of Elim and New Life and Charismatic and Pentecostal Churches can be obscure. Lineham refutes the wit who said Destiny was “a franchise and not a church” by pointing out that a franchise is exactly what it is not. It is very hierarchical with pastors bound to Brian Tamaki himself. After telling in detail the story of Destiny churches (most of them, incidentally, very small) Lineham suggests that Tamaki in fact stifles the initiative of his subordinates, remarking:

Pentecostal fervour flourishes when local creativity is given scope. The Destiny operation is limited and cramped by the vision of its bishop. While this vision is perhaps creative, it is incapable of allowing that others may have the same gift. Denominations need good leadership. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, expelled many leaders and was called ‘Pope John’ by some, but he also allowed local initiatives to flourish. Destiny is the author of its own weaknesses.” (p.110)

Inevitably, then, this brings a discussion of Brian Tamaki’s own vision for his church. Lineham says the ecclesiastical terms which Destiny uses must be taken seriously, including Tamaki’s becoming “Bishop” in 2004. The term gave Tamaki status within his church and reinforced his authority, especially among Maori and Polynesian members. There are links to the black Pentecostal tradition in America and the influence of the black preacher Eddie Long. Prestige (and wealth) are part of his congregation’s aspirations.

Two issues are related to this.

First (Chapter 11), what is Brian Tamaki’s relationship with the Maori people? Tamaki (who speaks no Maori) only gradually discovered his Maori side. At first Destiny was not specifically identified with Maoritanga, but it has increasingly so identified itself since its defeat as a political party in 2005 and the end of its direct political involvement. It now sees itself as closely allied to Kingitanga. Lineham (pp.182-183) compares Destiny with Ratana in its desire to turn Maori lives around and reject a pre-Christian pagan Maori past while at the same time holding to traditional and unifying standards. There is indeed a moment in the text where, despite his personal distaste for the church, Lineham seems almost to admire the cleverness and cheek with which Tamaki was able to ingratiate himself with the Maori Queen and upstage a teeth-gritting Helen Clark at a famous meeting on the Maori Queen’s marae.

Given Destiny’s hierarchical nature, and the personal power of Brian Tamaki, the other relevant question is whether Destiny is a cult, as Helen Clark once intemperately said it was. This is dealt with in Chapter 17 where, among other things, we are told of the bizarre ceremony in which 700 (mainly Maori) male members of the church swore a “covenant” with Brian Tamaki personally (not with Jesus Christ or with the church in general) and received a special “covenant ring” for so doing. Lineham weighs up the evidence against the accusations made by Cultwatch, the movement that watches vigilantly for any sign of destructive cults forming. His conclusion is that Destiny is certainly authoritarian, and its practices would be too exclusivist for nearly any other Christian church. But on the other hand, Brian Tamaki has sometimes admitted his mistakes to his followers. And members of the Destiny church do live in the world at large and are not isolated from it. Without harassment, some members have decided to leave the church. (Ex-members of Destiny are among Lineham’s sources.) Lineham’s conclusion is that the term “cult” is inappropriate.

By this stage in reading this review, you might have come to the conclusion that Peter Lineham’s account of Destiny is altogether too benign. He has noted its developing sophistication in political matters, the way it meets the aspirations of its followers and the fact that it isn’t a cult, even if he has bridled at its take on matters of sexual morality. He has said some positive things about the movement.

But this is to miss one major judgement that is made in Destiny – The Life and Times of a Self-Made Apostle. From the very beginning, Lineham casts a negative light on Destiny’s tendency to confuse spiritual wellbeing with material wellbeing.

As an epigraph to the book, he gives his own very free translation of a familiar scriptural passage, in which St Paul speaks autobiographically. You will find the passage translated thus in the RSV:

I think I am not in the least inferior to these superlative apostles….Did I commit a sin in abasing myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached God’s gospel without cost to you?” 2 Corinthians 11:5,7

Lineham cheekily translates it thus:

I reckon that I’m every bit as good as these super-apostles… but my mistake was that I was so humble that I honoured you by proclaiming the gospel without expecting a financial reward.”

In brief, Lineham is profoundly troubled by Destiny’s attitude to personal wealth. He describes the ostentatious bling of Mr and Mrs Tamaki and their inner circle, the multiple properties they own, the flashy vehicles they drive, the frequent expensive overseas holidays they take; but most offensive all, the promises they make that church members (some quite impoverished) will receive more “blessings” the more that donate to the pastor. In Chapter 8 he excoriates them for failing to speak out on matters of poverty and exploitation and materialism, while being only too ready to speak out on matters of sexual morality. He sharpens up his attack in Chapter 15, “The Prosperity Gospel”, where he speaks of the way money is handed over for Brian Tamaki’s personal enrichment:

This aspect of Destiny is one that makes my and many others’ blood curdle. Christianity is led by the Galilean who had no home of his own, no possessions except the clothes he stood up in. How can Christian values have been so seduced? As it turns out, this is Tamaki at his least original.” (pg.218)

The “prosperity gospel” is a development of American Pentecostalism. It takes out of context scriptural passages about the prosperity of the nation and applies them to the individual. In effect, it turns Jesus into a cheerleader for capitalism and the accumulation of personal wealth. Obviously this is a very attractive message to many of the materially-impoverished, and many who have made their pile and wish to be reassured that their way of life is a moral one (Destiny has members of both types). As Lineham says, Destiny often serves up low-quality financial seminars in guise of sermons, and

“…believing that unemployment and the unemployment benefit were morally unacceptable, Destiny pastors also urged people who came from a poor background to clean up their act, stop wasteful gambling, get a job and start saving and giving. It was a simple and effective message which enabled many a poor person to make a turnaround in their lives, but probably did not make them rich.” (p.222)

So, to the very end, Lineham’s verdict remains mixed.

Being both gay and a committed Christian, Lineham has a particular take on Destiny and Brian Tamaki which will not be the same as that of Destiny’s other critics. But he does not skew the evidence. He is outraged by some things about Destiny, but is too astute to resort to stereotypes or polemic. This is a very fair book.   

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