Brian Tamaki is a New Zealand success story. Rising from inauspicious circumstances, he symbolises what Pentecostal Christianity can offer marginalised people who are cut off from more traditional routes to power, wealth and success.
Since his first venture into church planting in Te Awamutu in 1985, Tamaki has effectively crafted his own brand of Pentecostal Christianity, which since 1998 has become known as Destiny.
Tamaki is not a charlatan or a cult leader; he is a very shrewd cultural and media operator who has much wider influence upon secular society than within “Christian” New Zealand.
What fascinates is the sense of horror, terror and outrage Destiny and Tamaki provoke in the liberal middle classes. Here is religion in the raw, viewed as the crack habit of the ethnic masses with Tamaki as a combination of pimp and drug kingpin. This is not religion and ethnic populations as liberal middle-class New Zealand may wish them to be. This is religion as morally and socially conservative; religion claiming the right to offend, discriminate and experience God-given material rewards.
Destiny is not a cult, for it does not seek to shut out the world. Rather, it tries to radically engage with the world on its own terms. But disconcertingly, it is a political church of charismatic leadership and Apostolic authority. It takes an interventionist, providential God very, very seriously. In Destiny, in short, liberal New Zealand experiences the horror of the claim of the sacred.
Into this maelstrom of fears strides Peter Lineham, a gay Christian historian of religion. In applying a scholarly eye, he has written a comprehensive, balanced and perceptive account of the rise of Destiny and Tamaki.
Reading the book through its sociological lens, we can see how Tamaki represents and harnesses Max Weber’s notion of charismatic leadership and a moral authority, which is now being passed on to his son. Tamaki also represents Weber’s understanding of the ethical prophet who announces a break with the normative order and declares that break morally legitimate. From the perspective of Émile Durkheim, Tamaki acts as the totem of his church. His success is what his community seeks to emulate and access; not its god, but its symbol.
If you want to start a religion, Destiny is as good a model as any. It offers itself as an alternative. It identifies people who are dissatisfied and socio-economically marginalised, and offers them beliefs, experiences and community to overcome their situation. Its simple mythology of church and self divides the world into the good versus evil battle of manichaean dualism and gives its members a role as foot soldiers in the battle for good. The church also presents a prosperity gospel that seems to bear material and spiritual fruit for those favoured by its god.
Destiny seeks to empower the powerless and give knowledge to those often denied it. It is religion as politics in a world of mass media: the wider world intruding upon New Zealand.
DESTINY: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF A SELF-MADE APOSTLE, by Peter Lineham (Penguin, $45).
Michael Grimshaw is an associate professor in sociology at the University of Canterbury.