Though it seems amazing that it could have been so long ago, it has been 20 years since the Jim Bakker scandal made international headlines. Indicted on federal charges of fraud, tax evasion, and racketeering, Bakker was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 45 years in prison. The sentence was later reduced and after spending less than 5 years behind bars, Bakker was released. But while he was free, his empire was shattered, his marriage over and his reputation forever tarnished. His family was devastated.
Jay Bakker is the son of Jim and Tammy Faye (now known as Tammy Faye Messner). Now in his early thirties, he was only a boy when his world fell apart. He reacted to his pain and embarrassment by rebelling, turning to drugs and alcohol. “The scandal exposed me to the pain and hurt that the church as well as the world can give,” he writes. “But through all of that, I searched to find out who God really was. What I discovered is that God is a loving God. I experienced his grace firsthand through life and through the Bible. As a result of this discovery, I started a church for those who feel rejected by religion; this church is called Revolution.” Heavily tattooed and pierced, sometimes foul-mouthed, and pastoring a church that meets in a bar, he does not fit the typical image of an American preacher and evangelist. With theology that often bears only a passing resemblance to the Christianity of the Bible, neither does his preaching fit the image of what we would expect from a Christian preacher and evangelist.
One Punk Under God is a six-part observational documentary series that will be broadcast on the Sundance Channel beginning on Wednesday, December 13th at 9:00 PM. Each of the episodes follows Bakker in his day-to-day activities which seem to revolve around preaching once a week at Revolution Church, meeting with his church leaders, visiting his mother who, sadly, is dying of cancer, and just generally hanging around.
I was able to watch the first three episodes of the series. The first of these introduces Bakker and the leaders of his church and follows him as he travels to the site of Heritage USA, the now-defunct Christian theme park that was built by his father in the 1980’s. Now a decaying and monstrous wreck, the park was once America’s third most popular vacation destination with almost six million visitors annually. In the second episode Jay preaches at a gay-affirming church called Open Door and soon begins to take a new stance on homosexuality, deciding, along with his wife and much of the church leadership, that they should also be a gay-friendly church. Unfortunately, the third episode was mysteriously missing from my screening copy of the DVD, but by the fourth episode Revolution Church is suffering from the fallout of the decision to be gay-friendly as many supporters have decided to withdraw their funds. Jay travels to Branson, Missouri to make a guest appearance on his father’s show “The New Jim Bakker Show.” Meanwhile his wife, who almost seems to admit that she is not a Christian at all, wants nothing more than for him to quit the ministry and to find another line of work. At the end of the episode he announces that his wife has been accepted to a pre-med program at New York University and that he will be moving there with her. I understand the the final two episodes of the series follow the Bakkers as they move to New York and settle into their new home in Brooklyn. Jay soon begins Revolution NYC.
One Punk Under God is another in a long line of shows (most of which play on TLC or A&E) that showcase a person most people otherwise could not possibly care less about. And yet the show somehow makes the viewer interested in the other person’s life. Bakker’s life is truly not too extraordinary, and yet because of the strangeness of his past, his ministry and his personality, it is intriguing. He looks like a punk, acts like a punk, and preaches to punks. If the short clips of his preaching are indicative of his skill, he is a very poor preacher, both in content and delivery, and must reach his small group of follows more through force of personality than through any other means. One reason I kept watching the episodes was to try to discover what it was that drew people to Bakker. After three episodes I still have no idea. Perhaps if I was part of a whole different subculture I might be able to understand.
Bakker’s theology is all over the map. In the second episode, where he first discusses the issue of homosexuality with his wife and then with the church’s leadership, there is little said that even hints at a Christian worldview. Jay studies his Bible, but only to show that Romans 2 (“For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself”) overrules Romans 1 (“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men”), with God’s overwhelming love for everyone overcoming His need for justice. He declares time and again to his congregation that God loves you “just as you are.” Bakker’s worldview may have some Christian influences, but it is clearly not consistently derived from Scripture.
The series is interesting, as much for background elements as for Jay Bakker. The trip to Heritage USA is sad–pathetic really–as cameras show the crumbling ruins of buildings, pools and amphitheatres. The shots of the inside of Tammy Faye’s house will make every viewer cringe at the decor that is easily as garish (and possibly more so) as Faye’s infamous makeup. Jim Bakker’s words, echoing those of his son, about God loving every person just as he is, will make viewers realize that Jim has still not discovered such an important component of the gospel message.
This series, though often poignant and interesting, is a sad testament to a tragic situation. We might have hoped that the fall of Jim Bakker would help his son return to the Bible his father so clearly forsook. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case. Jay Bakker seems to be wandering further and further from biblical Christianity, defining his ministry with theology that is far from what the Bible teaches.
If you are interested, you can watch the first episode for free through iTunes. In the future the entire series will be available for purchase through iTunes for $9.99.