Peter Lineham. Penguin Books, 2013. 280 reading pages.
Brian Tamaki is something of an enigma to the large majority of New Zealanders. Tamaki is well known as the leader of the Destiny Church movement, and regularly noted for his brash moralising, questionable wealth, and protest marches – most recently relating to the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions and his consequent imprisonment. Whether they find him irritating or inspiring, threatening or altogether irrelevant, most Kiwis have no idea where he has come from or how to make sense of him. And this is not surprising. The way most of us have “experienced” Brian Tamaki is simply via the news media: he pops up when (and only when) he or his church does or says something controversial, only to vanish from the newsfeed once his revenue-generating power subsides. A man thus presented is easy to despise and ridicule.
Peter Lineham’s Destiny: The Life and Times of a Self-Made Apostle does much to help interested observers understand the phenomenon that is Brian Tamaki. Lineham is a historian of religion and Professor Emeritus of Massey University. He is also called upon regularly by news media to comment on current events that relate to religion in New Zealand – including Tamaki’s exploits. For his book, Lineham gathered information from a variety of sources, including a large number of interviews. These included Destiny church members and leaders (past and present), Christian leaders outside the movement (sympathetic and otherwise), as well as Brian and wife Hannah Tamaki themselves. He also draws upon his own expertise on religion and his own personal understanding of the Christian faith (Lineham is a Christian, albeit of a rather different kind to Tamaki).
Destiny explores the background to both Brian as well as Hannah Tamaki. It recounts their Māori heritage and the families they grew up in, as well as some of their early working lives in the southern Waikato: his as a bush gang worker and dairy farm manager, hers as a supermarket employee. It details how they met, married, and together converted to the Christian faith and joined the local Apostolic Church. It also tells of his early involvement in church ministry with the poor and in church-planting ventures.
The picture that emerges is of a man who didn’t get an easy start to life, and one who made mistakes. It also shows a man who worked very hard and make the best of things. There is certainly an entrepreneurial streak visible in their service as newer Christians, including a great personal investment of time, energy, and resources. Whatever one makes of the later issue of his considerable wealth derived from his mainly poor congregation, in the early years the Tamakis certainly cannot be said to have been in it for the money. Brian Tamaki was – and likely still is – driven by a strong and articulated sense of divine calling and purpose.
Later chapters in Lineham’s book explore some of the contexts that shape Tamaki, which may be less familiar to the average reader, Christian or otherwise. There is his participation in the Maori world – initially dismissive but increasingly invested – including an amusing episode where he was given a seat of honour next to the Maori Queen at a meeting with Prime Minister Helen Clark in 2006. Destiny also takes the time to explain the Pentecostal variant of Christian faith that Tamaki adheres to, as well as how he differs from much of it. The book also addresses the finances of Destiny Church and the so-called “prosperity gospel” that he preaches. Lineham offers firm and theological critique of Tamaki’s wealth and the prosperity gospel, but also sets that against the way that poverty is addressed within the church, which to an extent mitigates some of the critique.
Destiny also investigates some of the exploits performed by Tamaki and his church over the decades since it began – the “Enough is Enough” protest march, their foray into television, the Destiny political party, the private school, the work with gangs and prison inmates, and the various regional branches of the Destiny movement. The question of whether Destiny Church is or is not a cult is explored, and the church finances are discussed also. The church’s involvement in local communities is detailed, as is the internal makeup of the church community and church services. Lineham notes that few commentators have paid close attention to who makes up the members of Destiny churches, observing that there is a surprising variety in its membership, but that the “collectivist, ostentatious, verbal culture of Destiny means that middle-class academics and journalists are bound to dislike it” (p. 203). These topics are well researched, and illuminated with perceptive analysis.
All in all, Destiny provides the reader with an immeasurably more immersive understanding of Tamaki and his church than is provided (or attempted) by what we can read in the news media. It helps us to understand Tamaki without expecting us to agree with what he says, does, or believes. Rather than simply despising him with little care for his background or context, observers should read this book and allow themselves to make more informed judgements of the man and his movement. Destiny should in no way be treated as some kind of apologetic, for it is not and indeed provides plenty of critique. Instead, it aims to inform readers of a significant leader in New Zealand’s religious landscape.
Readers may be disappointed that this biography ends around 2012, rather than a decade later in 2022. Tamaki’s recent prison stint indicates that the saga of Brian Tamaki is not yet complete. But as history enthusiasts will assert, in order to understand the present, one must understand the past, and Lineham’s Destiny will enable us to make better sense of what we see of Tamaki today.
Physical copies of Destiny: The Life and Times of a Self-Made Apostle seem to be unavailable in New Zealand bookstores (and is no doubt a lost opportunity for sales), but it is available to read as an E-book (e.g. for Kindle) from Amazon for NZ$13.92 (price as at 3 October 2021).