Colored Television

American Religion Gone Global

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Marla Frederick
  • Stanford, CA: 
    Stanford University Press
    , December
     2015.
     256 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780804790949.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Colored Television: American Religion Gone Global by Marla Frederick is an attempt to open “static conversations about the benefits and problems of religious broadcasting” as it relates to how “black Christian faith is made and unmade both in front of and behind the cameras” (xi). Frederick’s use and synthetization of the word “colored” reflects the people, the colorful style of religious personalities, the colored progress of electronic media, and the “rainbow” of interests, personalities, agendas, and outcomes that broadcasting bring in this mediated and constantly inundated societal change. Much like her usage of the word “colored,” Frederick seems to structure her book around multi-dimensional terms that become broader than their intended meaning and more specific to her text, her scholarship, and her case study—Jamaica. 

Colored Television focuses on Jamaica to understand the movement of people and religious ideas, as well as the fluidity of African American religiosity across borders. Frederick outlines her theoretical claims, offering three contributions that this text will make (8). Methodologically, Frederick immersed herself in the human experience; she attended conferences, gathered in homes and communities; she listened to stories and she took part in conversations; she spent hours in front of televisions as well as behind-the-scenes of these mediated gatherings. Her triangulated approach to religious broadcasting offers a unique perspective on the interests of the producers, consumers, and distributors in a larger, transcultural, and “colorful” context. 

Frederick’s first chapter gives historical background and contextual framing. She compares two events: one televised and one held on Jamaican soil. This ethnographic account is punctuated by an aptly timed history of religious broadcasting, and religion and globalization. The chapter concludes by challenging the reception of American religious broadcasting by diverse audiences. How do women outside of the United States understand women as broadcasters? How does economic development as a sign of growth and prosperity effect underserved or economically underdeveloped people of African descent? The following chapters proceed using multi-dimensional terminology (and phrasing) to frame specific ideas. Frederick embeds smaller case-studies—specific to her argument and methodology—within each chapter to create a multi-layered text. 

Chapter 2 introduces the religious dandy and black religious dandy figures. The religious dandy figure, specifically between the 1970s and 1980s, sold not only ideas about prosperity and wealth but racial uplift and radical change. Black religious dandies have similarly disrupted social expectations based on race, but they have also “disrupted long-standing religious expectations that valorize poverty” (37). Contemporary black religious leaders moved from the message of prosperity for all to a message of “relative prosperity:” contemporary attempts to re-mix the prosperity gospel for greater international and worldwide influence, acceptance, and discourse. Therefore, Chapter 3, aptly titled “Relative Prosperity,” offers a swift segue. 

“Relative Prosperity,” argues that adherents’s of this adaptation allow for a sustained ideology of prosperity in places of “economic fortune and misfortune”—specially in Jamaica (63). Frederick offers two key points in this chapter. The first is her re-defining of prosperity. Frederick emphasizes that prosperity defined narrowly as receiving gifts or goods from God does not work in a global context. Prosperity on the global scale must be an ever-moving target that holds space for those not living in suburban America. Secondly, and most salient to this chapter, Frederick defines “relative prosperity.” According to Frederick, relative prosperity “blends the material, spiritual, and social motivations and outcomes of giving in a way that allows the giver to consistently offer his or her seed-faith gifts amid incongruent social realities” (71). Without fluidity, without relativity, this theology would not be globally sustainable. 

Chapters 4 and 5 begin to investigate gender and sexuality. Chapter 4 introduces what Frederick has coined, a “gospel of sexual redemption.” In this gospel “female televangelists narrate extraordinary detail about sexual encounters fraught with abuse, guilt [etc.] … with a triumphant narrative of God’s extraordinary power to heal a person who has endured the most horrific and/or demeaning experiences” (89). These gospels work to alleviate the shame that often accompanies these experiences. Frederick interweaves history, gender differences, and conversations about sexuality, questioning what it looks like to share a gospel of sexual redemption through the “masculinist prescriptions of purity” (89). The question of media in chapter 4 emerges through different lenses: cameras and broadcasting capturing emotional vulnerability, the expansion of global media to share messages cross-culturally that question timeless regulations surrounding purity and sexuality, and how media spaces allow freedom but also are fraught with gender-politics. Chapter 5 then argues “women followers of religious broadcasting often use televangelists’s testimonies of sexual trauma and redemption as inspiration for navigating and reclaiming their own lives” (119). Chapter 5 further explores the “gospel of sexual redemption” while further examining black bodies as sites of personal agency in developing and industrialized nations (119). 

While previous chapters explored the influence and reception of televangelists, the final chapter considers the effects of distribution and distributors (137). The distributors and the committees of “unknown names and faces,” have the power to decide what counts as the gospel and what does not (138). Frederick’s exploration of distribution not only questions the “role of distributors as gatekeepers,” but the suppression of non-American, non-mainstream voices in religious broadcasting due to constrains of finances and economic hardship. Relativity, a key theme throughout the book, emerges again, questioning the saturated stations that promote a “Republican American gospel” on a global scale—what and how does the global context make sense of “faith, family, and patriotism” (145). Ideological differences in the United States hinder certain messages from airing, but on Jamaican soil “pragmatic concerns related to limited technological and financial resources” tend to dominate conversations about religious broadcasting (146). 

Frederick’s book continually emphasized relativity—theological, social, economic, and cultural ideologies that are adapted and changed for relevancy in the place of reception. How are certain messages received, altered, or re-packaged for consumption outside of the United States market? Frederick’s book offers precise terminology and careful consideration of her topic and area of study. Using historical trajectory and precedent, Colored Television: American Religion Gone Global anticipates a movement within mediated religious broadcasting. A movement, Frederick adds, that allows many and more voices to be heard in several different—and on several differing—platforms. America, the once dominate force behind religion gone global, will not reign forever. Frederick’s book ends with hopeful, anticipatory of voices from even the smallest ministries—“we simply await its arrival” (174).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Madison Tarleton is a doctoral student in Judaism, Art, and Media at the University of Denver/Illiff School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
March 8, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marla F. Frederick is Professor of African and African American Studies and of the Study of Religion at Harvard University.

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