Interview with Dr. Cain Hope Felder of Howard University

Howard University School of Divinity held its 89th Annual Convocation on Thursday, focusing on “Religion and the Media: The Public Face of Prophetic Ministry.” After heated discussions during the two-day convocation, Dr. Cain Hope Felder, chairman of the planning committee for the 89th convocation and professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Howard University, explained his take on the church and media today.

What was the core message you wanted to convey to the alumni and faculty when organizing this year's convocation?

The megachurch phenomenon has changed Protestantism in many ways – music, technology, sermon, money collection – what the result is, though, is a transformation many people would argue of ministers who are inaccessible and who are more following the pattern of corporate executives and who have theology that is very thin. [Their sermons] are not what people need to hear, but what would sell. This is reinforced by the rise and popularity of televangelists appealing to the masses through the media to get their message out.

In light of the rise of televangelists and mega churches, the public face of prophetic ministry has gotten undermined by a new emphasis on praise and worship ... [things] that play to the pop culture

Concern for the marginalized, the forgotten and the oppressed no longer becomes the primary concern of the church. Those themes [of the prophetic ministry] are becoming increasingly muted voices.

We felt this was very timely for our alumni to think about.

Can you further explain your view on the megachurch alongside prophetic ministry?

The rise of televangelists and megachurches are beginning to set a new standard, which is potentially dangerous – the corporate executive model. The new image of the preacher is to live well [and prosperously].

We are critical of that.

This convocation was both a critique but also a championing of the need for prophetic ministry ... we take a more holistic approach to scripture.

What about the role of the media?

Media is a very powerful instrument of propaganda and influence because it has this power in establishing what the norms are in society. We felt we had to speak up at a time when more and more media time is being given to religion – not all religion – just a selective proportion of religion (right wing coalition, televangelists, etc). We're saying those images of religion represent a distortion of religion. They're not representative of dominant themes of the Bible (righteousness, truth). We're trying to suggest that the Bible in many ways is anti-establishment.

Media can be effectively used to help the shut-ins, the sick and the elderly people have a basis of hope because it reaches a number of people who are not mobile. It also is a way of educating people about religion. But unfortunately, those uses of media seem to be a minority scene.

The media is basically a business. The bottom line is it's a business. You got to make a profit. And the church is following that lead too closely – business model.

What do you suggest are ways the media can be used in a more positive light for the African American church community?

They can project a greater variety of exciting things that are happening in ministry. Many churches are involved in inner city rehab projects ... job referral centers, counseling centers. There are no stories like that in the media. Lots of displaced people from Katrina have been placed in homes, but those are not covered.

The Church is trying to make a difference in the community in a positive way. It never gets mentioned on television. What makes the biggest noise is mentioned. When it has no relevance to larger issues of justice and injustice affecting all Americans – that gets attention as if we don't have to address those issues.

As a professor at Howard University, what is your ultimate goal in teaching your students especially during this media frenzy period?

My message is simple. My first concern is that African Americans have not been cursed by God and that they have enormous potential as people on this earth. But we've been beaten down ... and we're not near close to fulfilling the natural practice [of freedom]. We have to be the moral voice that has to stand up and make a difference out of the oppression.

Religion should be the basis of empowering people, in giving a new sense of hope and meaning and allow them to reach the fullness of the human potential.

Dr. Cain Hope Felder is a professor of New Testament Language and Literature and editor of “The Journal of Religious Thought” at the Howard University School of Divinity. Felder is the author of several books including “Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class and Family.” Felder taught at Princeton Theological Seminary and was the first national director of the United Methodist Black Caucus. He is also founder of the Biblical Institute for Social Change, Washington, D.C. – an organization dedicated to inform, inspire, affirm and transform the Christian community through scholarship and research.