Outcasts. That’s our theme this week, starting with a review of Jay Bakker’s courageous new “Fall to Grace”—followed by our story about a new “literary life” of the late American Poet Laureate Joseph Brodsky.
If you’re just joining us: Jamie Charles “Jay” Bakker is that cute little kid who was born near Christmas in 1975 and paraded through the hugely popular TV productions of his parents, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. The Bakkers managed to build an audience from early low-budget shows that even involved puppet friends—to what amounted to a televangelist’s Tower of Babel. Scandals rocked the ministry, ranging from sexual misconduct by Jim to financial misconduct by the entire ministry. Other televangelists gleefully helped to tear down the family’s ministry—unaware of how some other similar towers were poised to topple. Jay Bakker emerged with an undimmed passion for Christianity, despite struggles with alcoholism and self-destructive behavior.
You can order “Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self & Society” from Amazon at a discount. The book summarizes Jay Bakker’s tumultuous life, then spends most of its pages laying out Bakker’s Bible-based conviction that God’s grace is radically inclusive. That includes gay and lesbian Christians, he argues. By the time he is finished, Bakker’s book ranks as the most prominent, full-scale evangelical appeal for inclusion we’ve seen in the last few years. Bakker goes even further than Andrew Marin’s landmark book in 2009, “Love Is an Orientation,” which we also recommended.
We’re aware that our readers come from many faith traditions—and some have no specific religious orientation. We’re aware that some religious traditions do not even allow for the possibility of including openly gay men and women. And, like most of our readers, we have heard all of the scriptural arguments over and over again. We’re recommending Bakker’s book because it’s a landmark—an important, breakthrough voice. As journalists at ReadTheSpirit, that means people should read the book and consider the arguments—even if you’re sure you’ll reject Bakker’s argument.
Now, let’s meet Jay Bakker in …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH JAY BAKKER
ON ‘FALL TO GRACE’
DAVID: We want to tell our readers where they can visit your Revolution Church in Brooklyn. Our readers live all over the world, but some are in your part of the U.S. So, I’ve got the location as—inside Pete’s Candy Store, which actually is a bar, and that’s at 709 Lorimer Street. What time?
JAY: Every Sunday at 4 p.m. for Revolution Church. You’ll show up and you’ll find yourself walking into the bar. There usually are people just hanging out. Go into the back room, which is almost like a railroad car and that’s where we have the service. We don’t do music most of the time. We have some announcements. Then, I usually speak for 30 minutes to an hour—or we’ll have a guest preacher or one of our co-pastors will preach. Then, we hang out and have community time for about an hour. Hopefully you’ll hear a good sermon, but for us the community time is a very important part of the church.
DAVID: Just as you do in your new book, we’re going to give our readers background on your parents. We may include some classic photos. But, let’s be honest: America’s memory is as short as a YouTube video these days. How many people do you think actually remember the rise and fall of your parents?
JAY: For people over 35 or so, I mean people older than me, I think it’s a clear memory. On this new tour I’m doing, when I get interviewed about the book the first few minutes are all about my parents. So maybe it’s that the press has a long memory. I do think that, for most Americans, it isn’t a clear memory anymore.
DAVID: You write that short rise-and-fall section of your book in a quick, punchy style. From what I recall as a journalist, you tell what happened honestly. It feels to me as though you’ve really come to terms with all the forces that came crashing down. Is that fair to say?
JAY: I think this definitely is something that I’ve put behind me as I try to live my own life now. I’m now focused on so many things beyond my parents’ lives. When I wrote my first book, Son of a Preacher Man: My Search for Grace in the Shadows, the whole story of my parents really was eating away at me. But, after that book and that time in my life, I stopped living in that past.
FROM PURE-BRED EVANGELICAL STOCK—TO MARCUS BORG
DAVID: You were 11 when the downfall came. In your own short life, you’ve survived a ton of trauma. But, again, let’s be honest: Countless men and women have suffered more than you. What I like about your book is that it’s definitely not an exercise in self pity. It’s this really passionate appeal on behalf of other people.
JAY: The idea is to recognize that pain is pain. I know people who’ve lived through things a million times worse than anything that happened to me. But I know that, if we help each other, we can live through it. This book is my way of encouraging people to survive. There’s grace there for all of us.
DAVID: Considering your pure-bred evangelical-Pentecostal roots, I was somewhat startled to find the people you regard as mentors in this new book. I mean, people like Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, Paul Tillich. You open the book with Jack Kerouac. There are many references to the Bible in your book and, of course, you do draw on classic figures like Martin Luther himself. But, it’s obvious you’re on a whole different pilgrimage here, Jay. I mean, you’ve got references to Henri Nouwen here, a Catholic writer.
JAY: Nouwen is revolutionary! Amazing. His book on the prodigal son is pure beauty.
DAVID: How did you throw open this door? We’ve published stories on the insular nature of faith and values. People tend to keep reading stuff that validates their assumptions. Most people don’t branch out like this.
JAY: I’m hungry for knowledge. I want to learn as much as I can. In my 30s, I’m a sponge. Right now I’m in a big Paul Tillich phase—reading everything he’s ever written. Remember, I dropped out of high school and had to go back and earn my GED. So, I’ve had this hunger for wisdom that’s taken me a long way.
DAVID: We just published an interview with Marcus Borg. And you’re really a Borg fan?
JAY: Yeah. Hey, I started reading Marcus Borg and that guy gave me a real conflict of faith. I mean that in a good way—but it really did pose a conflict for me. I had this crisis reading Borg. I kept asking questions like: So, what do I believe? Could I believe what he believes? Borg holds onto his faith and yet he doesn’t feel he has to hold onto a lot of things that I once thought were foundational. Borg’s not a heretic. He’s got an amazing faith. You know, I’ve read both N.T. Wright and Borg and there are times I’ve thought to myself: Marcus believes even more than Wright. Borg’s opened my eyes to the diverse ways of seeing truth—and truth is beautiful. We’re all earnestly trying to seek the truth, trying to understand it—but we have to admit that none of us has a corner on truth.
HONESTY & OPENNESS IN AN INFAMOUS FAMILY
DAVID: You try to be brutally honest about your parents. For example, you write that your Mom wound up “addicted to enough over-the-counter drugs to tranquilize a gorilla.” But it’s also obvious, in this book, that you love your parents and you learned some important things from them—particularly from your Mom.
JAY: My mom was a complex woman. The most important thing to remember about her is that she always loved people and wanted to make sure that people were loved. She never got caught up in all the fine points of theology. You know, back in the 1980s on television, she interviewed a person with AIDS. She even interviewed a pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church. I wasn’t even aware she did that, but I spoke at an MCC conference and they showed video clips of it. She was a sensitive soul and I’m a sensitive soul, too. Even when people turned on her, she tried to love back. That’s something that always encourages me.
DAVID: I’ve checked on this and you’re right in what you describe. Tammy Faye did reach out to the gay community. She seems to have stumbled into inclusivity in a way that’s really surprising, given what other conservative Christians are doing to this day. How did she manage that?
JAY: She just took all that stuff Jesus says about love—literally. People did become uncomfortable with how seriously she took Jesus’ teaching on love. But you’ve also got to remember: My parents weren’t right-wing conservatives. They were there on TV partially as entertainment and encouragement for viewers. You know, Mom actually did a show on penile implants back then! She thought that might help someone, so she did it. And why? She just said: Oh, I just thought it might help people. In some ways, she was naïve, but it really comes from how much she trusted in God’s love.
THE SOCIAL MEDIA STING OF TAKING ‘HELL’
DAVID: Today, you’ve pretty much isolated yourself with good friends and your New York congregation to shore you up, but you’re enough of a public figure that you certainly feel the sting. You describe some of that in your book.
JAY: Yeah, people will show up on Facebook or Twitter and want to make sure that I know I’m headed to hell. I see that all the time. But I do think the postmodern church or the emergent church—or whatever you want to call it—will eventually lead the way toward inclusion. It’s happening out there. I’m not alone in this.
DAVID: The standard research about religious attitudes toward homosexuality says that it’s simply a matter of younger adults aging. Younger adults are far more inclusive than older generations.
JAY: That may be, but I can still take you to lots of big churches full of young people where they still won’t let a woman preach. Seeker-sensitive churches have some of the biggest problems, because they don’t want to do anything that might be controversial. But it is changing all the same.
DAVID: Meanwhile, a lot of gay and lesbian people still are suffering.
JAY: Well, for me, the change can’t come soon enough. And I think the postmodern or emergent church is starting to open up on this. It’s just too bad we took so long to see this. We’re reaching the point where the whole Christian church is holding onto old prejudices that the rest of society realizes don’t hold water anymore. We don’t want to find ourselves in that position of just defending old prejudices because we inherited them. What we really need is a lot more clergy publicly talking about this. That will speed things quite a bit. There are a lot of pastors on the fence right now telling me privately that they’re with us, but not saying so clearly in public. So, for now, a lot of us are out there on the front line taking the heat.
DAVID: We featured an interview with Andrew Marin last year and one thing you both share is that you’re not gay. You’re sticking your necks out in this cause because you firmly believe it’s the right thing to do—and you both believe the Bible is behind you in your cause. But, come on: Why take hell every day? Why stick your neck out?
JAY: It’s what was needed in the civil rights era in the South. White folks from outside the South needed to show up and take part. When outsiders started getting injured and killed, the whole country realized that civil rights needed to take a turn. Homosexuality is a minority issue in America. Too many people feel they can remain detached from it and look the other way. We’ve got to bring the pressure back to the church. It takes outsiders, just as it did in the South. I’m doing my part. Maybe someone else will read this book and join us.
DAVID: Well, thanks for explaining how you’ve come to this point. Anything else you want to say to people who may want to recommend your book for discussion in a small group?
JAY: “Fall to Grace” is really about something even bigger than this one issue we’ve been talking about. Unless we open up and fully transform our lives through grace, we can’t discover the joy and the good news that’s just waiting for all of us.
REMEMBER: You can order “Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self & Society” from Amazon at a discount.
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(Originally published at readthespirit.com)