Earlier this year, when Oprah attended a worship service at Lakewood Church and visited the home of its celebrity pastor Joel Osteen for her special “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” the media icon invited her friend filmmaker Tyler Perry to tag along. Capturing Oprah, Osteen, and Perry—three metaphors of contemporary American spirituality—in the same room seemed apropos if not prescient.
For if Oprah helped to bring in a new wave of self-therapeutic spirituality, Perry and Osteen are surfing that wave to epic heights.
But despite tremendous commonalities in how they negotiate their brands of spiritual empowerment, Perry has his own provocative trajectory as a new kind of holy maverick.
On the surface, Perry’s religious cinematic might not appear edgy or progressive. His movies simulate energetic choir performances, sentimental preaching moments, and riveting gospel music tracks, while featuring Christian characters as they deal with the vagaries of life and pray to God for strength and guidance. But while Perry’s movies are firmly entrenched within conventional Christian codes, contexts and worship cultures, he often presents Christianity in unconventional or even controversial ways.
It was somewhat forward thinking of Perry to cast a female minister in Madea Goes to Jail, but strikingly progressive to show that same rambunctious minister mentoring prisoners and passing out condoms and needles to sex workers in the streets. Perhaps from Perry’s perspective, Minister Ellen represents a new kind of spiritual leader who doesn’t need a church because the streets and prison are her pulpits, and who recognizes that the immediate need of preventing sex workers from getting AIDS outweighs the biblical prescription against fornication and the public perception that a spiritual leader is facilitating illegal drug use.
In Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad All By Myself, Pastor Brian spends more time on the streets engaging his community than in the pulpit and seems more interested in the alcoholic protagonist’s psychological wellbeing than in the direction of her soul. In the same movie we see Pastor Brian’s faithful helper Wilma singing a solo in an upbeat nightclub, the last place one might expect the matronly churchwoman to appear. Again, for Perry, Christian ministry extends far beyond the church pew.
Perry’s endorsement of divorce is equally edgy when viewed in the context of New Testament prohibitions against divorce. In the beginning of Why Did I Get Married? we see Shelia trusting in God to save her troubled marriage, but her prayers prove futile as her marriage shortly dissolves. Shelia marries again, this time to a kindler gentler man who too was recently divorced. She later reveals to her friends that God wanted her to move on from the first marriage so he could bless her with the new husband. Similarly, in Perry’s first movie Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Helen tells her friend and divorce attorney Brian that she was under the impression that God would bless her marriage but Brian suggests that her pending divorce in fact could be God’s way of blessing her. Before the divorce is finalized, Helen reconciles with her husband, but eventually chooses to end the marriage because she found a new love interest (whom she had been dating while she was still married).
So Perry presents divorce as both a means to escape abuse and as a mechanism to secure greater happiness and satisfaction. In this way he deconstructs the motif of the suffering spouse who faithfully endures an unhealthy marriage as part of her Christian duty or familial responsibility. To women who suffer in unhealthy marriages, Perry presents divorce as the divine blueprint for redemption and simply the smart thing to do—because in Perry’s relational religion, existential health trumps biblical prescriptions. One would be hard-pressed to find a prominent preacher publically endorsing divorce as a viable means within God’s blessing or redemptive plan.
Perry balances an unprecedented cinematic integration of religious and aesthetic cultural tools from black church experiences with spiritual empowerment that is heavy on meeting pragmatic needs and light on doctrinal constraints and biblical prescriptions. Perry’s upbeat, non-dogmatic, relational religion resonates with many Gen X Americans who came of age in the Oprah Era.
Perhaps it is time for scholars and intellectuals to give the writer and director of a dozen movies a fresh look. Tyler Perry’s existential cinematic offers scholars an artistic lens through which to explore the changing contours of contemporary American Protestantism as well as the increasingly postmodern expressions of spiritual empowerment.
Shayne Lee is the author of three books, including T.D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher and co-author of Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace. Dr. Lee is currently working on a new book manuscript entitled Tyler Perry: The Post-Soul Existential Cinematic.