I admit that I am not the most up-to-the-minute, in-touch, cutting-edge sort of guy these days. We haven't had cable TV at home for 10 years. We've given away two satellite dishes that came with our houses. And high-speed Internet still hasn't reached my hilltop. For instance, I know that the Sundance Channel for independent film exists, but I've never actually seen it. So when I turned on the car radio in the middle of a World Café interview with someone named "Jay Baker," I searched my brain to find an association with the name.
Whoever he was, this Jay fellow was being interviewed about his version of Christianity and the music that helped inspire it. And he had really good musical taste. At his request, Café host David Dye spun "I Do Believe" by Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash's recording of "Sunday Morning Coming Down," and Kris Kristofferson's "Why Me?" He could have been rifling through my very own vinyl. And this Jay's theology sounded like we even read the same Bible (except maybe for Sirach and Maccabees and all that). Still I couldn't peg the guy. I kept thinking "Jay Baker" and getting some weird combination of The Jayhawks (a roots-rock band) and Lee Baker (a legendary Memphis guitar player, who happens to be dead).
Then, a couple of weeks later, there he was again, in one of my other windows on the world, the celebrity gossip page of that magazine that comes with the Sunday paper. And it all clicked. The guy's name was Bakker—as in disgraced televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye. Now, like the rest of America, I had some rethinking to do about that infamous family.
Turns out Jim and Tammy's little boy grew up to get lots of tattoos and body piercings, lead a "come-as-you-are" storefront church for post-punkers, and become the subject of One Punk Under God, a six-part documentary series on Sundance. The series ran in December and January and made 31-year-old Jay a celebrity in his own right.
AS ALL BUT MY youngest readers know, Jay's parents were Christian media superstars of an age past. Their PTL Club (short for "Praise the Lord") was a fundamentalist hybrid of Johnny Carson and Oprah, best remembered for Tammy's frequent bouts of on-air weeping and the damage these did to her monumental eye makeup. In the early 1980s, when the Christian Right was young, the Bakkers had millions of viewers, and donors. Eventually, they had a Christian resort theme park. In fact, they had it all—until they didn't. The Bakker empire crashed and burned when the public discovered that Jim Bakker had committed adultery with a church secretary and used PTL money to buy her silence. The adultery was bad enough for a leading fundamentalist preacher, but the hush money made it a legal matter. When the feds opened the books, they found other misuses of donor money, and Jim Bakker went to jail. Tammy divorced him. And young Jay went down the rabbit hole of drugs and alcohol.
The rest of the tale is in young Bakker's book, Son of a Preacher Man (reviewed in Sojourners, September-October 2001) and in the Sundance series. Bakker has become founder of a mini-chain of three "Revolution" churches (in Atlanta, Charlotte, and New York City) that meet in bars and minister to searching, alienated members of Generations X, Y, and Z. "Church for people who've given up on church" is their pitch line. These are anti-megachurches. They are deliberately small and scruffy and low-key. And, far from cultivating big conservative Christian donors, Jay Bakker has deliberately alienated them, most notably by accepting gays and lesbians into his faith community, just as they are.
Despite his black garb and extensive body art, Bakker comes off on TV and in his sermons (audio available at revolutionnyc.com) as a humble, self-deprecating guy—even a bit of a fumbler—but smart and serious beneath the surface. Still, he wouldn't be a public figure if it weren't for his infamous family background. So, believe it or not, good has finally emerged from the PTL debacle. Jay Bakker is actually helping give Christianity a good name in some very unlikely places.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort.