American Televangelism & Patricipatory Cultures

Fans, Brands, and Play with Religious "Fakes"

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Denis J. Bekkering
Contemporary Religion and Popular Culture
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , October
     228 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Denis J. Bekkering’s American Televangelism & Participatory Cultures is a solid addition to religion and popular culture studies. Focusing on participatory fan cultures that arose around two prominent late 1980s televangelists—Robert Tilton and Tammy Faye Messner (formerly Bakker)—Bekkering invites us into a world of participatory fandom where people who see these televangelists as religious fakes engage with them in various ways to define the significance of televangelist practice for themselves. These audiences are often small and marginal, but Bekkering is able to show us why we should care about groups like the Robert Tilton Fan Club (RTFC) or homosexuals who saw Tammy Faye as the one televangelist who accepted them. For those studying religion and popular culture, there is a lot to ponder in this book regarding research design and arguing for what matters in our work as Bekkering takes the concepts proposed by David Chidester in Authentic Fakes (University of California Press, 2005) into his field studies with mixed results.

Bekkering’s book can best be conceived in three parts: an introduction, three chapters on Tilton, and two on Messner. This division is key because Bekkering uses different types of data sources in his sections on Tilton and Messner. The three chapters on Tilton demonstrate Bekkering’s qualitative research skills. Using the Internet and YouTube videos of “The Farting Preacher” (a parody of Tilton’s preaching that was overdubbed and became infamous in the late 1980s), Bekkering was able to find and interview people who were active in a very small underground subculture in Dallas at the turn of the 1990s. The RTFC was not large, but was a forum for creating what Bekkering calls “recreational Christianity,” (“the ironic play with Christianities considered strange, extreme, threatening, and/or false” [83]). Taking an ironic, critical stance towards Tilton’s prosperity gospel preaching (which the audience found hilarious and duplicitous) the small group of underground tape-traders and fanzine writers formed a community that used irony and satiric parody to define for themselves what makes Tilton’s Christianity false. Indeed, one of the questions that we should raise about groups like the RTFC is why they are significant since the group never directly confronted Tilton about his ministry. Instead, they chose to laugh at him behind his back. Bekkering argues throughout the book that this recreational Christianity enables participants to define what they think of as good religious practice and helps us to treat televangelists and their reception as multifaceted and complex. He contributes to the broader literature on televangelism by helpfully examining a small group of people whose parodic materials would surface on the Internet two decades later when they could again be used to critique Tilton’s ministry as he tried to revive it after his scandal in the early 1990s.

While the RTFC chapters focus on interview data and content analysis with people who were involved in parodic critique, the chapters on Tammy Faye focus more on the way that prominent homosexual documentary filmmakers and drag queens (e.g., RuPaul Charles) saw Messner as an unheralded gay icon and how she rebuilt her career around doing one-woman shows and public appearances that played to this idea while still keeping one foot in the conservative Christianity that made her a star. Instead of hunting down a small, local group of fans who participated with Messner from a distance, Bekkering relies on public statements and interviews with documentary filmmakers and celebrities who discuss Messner’s importance in their lives. He tracks her career trajectory from after her scandalous fall from grace when she and her then-husband, Jim Bakker’s, Praise The Lord ministry collapsed under fraud and sexual scandal to her eventual death from colon cancer in 2007. Bekkering is careful not to take claims of Messner’s acceptance of homosexuals and homosexuality at face value, noting that she was often cagey when asked about homosexuality. Yet, the campy embrace of Messner and her makeup endeared her to an audience that she also accepted. There is some excellent detail work in these chapters when Bekkering is teasing out the differences between how homosexuals who approved of Messner saw her and the messages she was sending about homosexuality. Yet, it differs from the Tilton chapters because the participants in the Tilton section were responding to Bekkering’s questions in an interview setting, rather than another interviewer’s inquiries. As such, the Tilton chapters have a better understanding of what was at stake in terms of recreational Christianity for the participants than the Messner chapters. Since Bekkering did not replicate the interview methods from the first part of the book in the second, there is an unevenness to the data that informs the two sections. Researchers reading this book should ponder the structural considerations that likely led to these choices and think about the way that it affects his interpretation’s consistency throughout the work.

Religion and popular culture scholars can find value in Bekkering’s methodologies, his use of the Internet and YouTube as an archive for starting research, and his concept of recreational Christianity as an interpretive framework. This model has to be taken further, though. The subcultures that Bekkering studies are small and their broader significance has to be tested with larger and more diverse subgroups. Specifically, we need to take his notion of playing with religious “fakes” to do important religious work seriously and deal with the politics of considering people like Tilton and Messner “fakes.” Bekkering is following social convention, but the politics of such labeling is underdeveloped in this book. Allowing the concept of a “religious fake” to remain unchallenged also leaves the concept of something “authentic” underdeveloped. As the politics of religious representation continue to shape religious studies, and the question of who gets to speak for the religious continues to have political implications inside and outside the academy, the power to apply the label “fake” needs further investigation. Bekkering is offering some starting data, but more needs to be said to fully articulate the significance of these case studies for the broader study of religion.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Feltmate is Associate Professor of Sociology at Auburn University at Montgomery.

Date of Review: 
January 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Denis J. Bekkering received his doctorate in Religious Studies from the University of Waterloo. He has previously published work in Culture and ReligionStudies in Religion, and the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture.


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