Revolution was originally just a rebranding of old-school Christian theology: rebellious in affect, but not communicating a message that looked very different from, say, Billy Graham’s. The pose of defiance was enough to draw Jay back into Scripture, but as his personal understanding of the Bible developed, his theology became more progressive and radical. He married at 23, and when his wife got accepted to a graduate program at NYU in 2006, Jay saw it as an opportunity to move his church into liberal terrain. He packed up his Bible Belt apartment and headed for Williamsburg.
C onventional wisdom has it that pastors’ children either rebel or end up pastors themselves. Bakker has managed to do both. “I’ve been called the grunge pastor, the punk-rock pastor, the tattooed pastor, the David Cross of Christians,” he says. “Whatever the next thing is that happens to involve tattoos and clothing, I’ll probably be called that.” But to say he’s a prodigal son is both simplistic and not really true.
Bakker’s relationship with his mother remained very close until her death from cancer in 2007, after which he had HELP ME LORD tattooed across his knuckles. His bond with his father has been more strained. The two can go for months without talking, and Jim—who has remarried and adopted five children with his new wife—does not always join Jay and Tammy Sue for holidays. But Jay blames any awkwardness between them on difficult expectations rather than on real conflict. “I think my dad’s a pretty sincere guy—when he’s on TV,” Jay commented in One Punk Under God, a documentary series made about him in 2006. “He just kind of needs an audience.” Jim has preached at Revolution in New York; Jay has been a guest on his father’s current show, which broadcasts from Branson, Missouri. And just as his relationship with his parents never really ruptured, neither has his belief in God. Even in his angry teenage years, Jay simply assumed that God hated him.
“All the stuff I’d been taught my whole life didn’t seem to be adding up to what’s in the Bible.”
Bakker’s real rebellion has been against mainstream Christianity, which he doesn’t think has much to say about forgiveness. He was 20 when he entered AA (“I’ve never had a legal drink”), and his theology has certainly been shaped by the program: He now says he drank in part to get over his guilt about drinking, a stranglehold that was released once he came to realize that “God loved me no matter what.” This experience led him to resent Christian legalism, the dos and don’ts that are so much a part of modern faith, and this sent him to the Bible. “I started reading the Bible for myself for the first time,” he says, “and I was just blown away by it. All the stuff I’d been taught my whole life didn’t seem to be adding up to what’s in the Bible.”
The problem with Christianity these days, as Bakker sees it, is not that it conflicts with our modern understanding of science—the Richard Dawkins critique—but that it conflicts with our contemporary views of morality. “The younger generation is just like, ‘This seems contradictory to people I love. Why are certain people being ostracized?’ I read about Jesus, and then I’m told that we should vote this way, but it seems like Jesus wasn’t for war. It doesn’t even seem Jesus liked war. How does ‘Blessed is the peacemaker’ become ‘Our God, our Jesus wants us to kill people?’ How does ‘Blessed are the poor’ become ‘We shouldn’t put money into tax issues that help them’?”
Bakker is certain that if Christianity actually modeled itself on the life of Christ, then these contradictions would disappear, leaving behind the most basic tenets: Jesus was resurrected, and he died for our sins. “There’s just something about the idea of grace and the life of Christ,” he says, “ that I can’t get away from.” The rest of Protestant Christianity, however, he’s basically prepared to ditch—a stance that pushes him beyond the far liberal wing of the Evangelical Christian community and into what is known as the “Emergent” ministry.
The Emergent movement is not an organized force in American theology; most of its members would probably dispute being members of anything. But it is a way of referring to a growing number of churches and ministers—like the Void collective in Waco, Texas, and the theologian Brian McLaren—who attack the fundamentals of fundamentalism. They tend to be pro-choice and support gay marriage, and they don’t fret over premarital sex. They welcome atheists and embrace doubt. They like to read Nietzsche during services.
And though Bakker is hesitant to use the term himself, Revolution has cohered into one of the nation’s most vibrant Emergent churches. “The reason why traditional Christianity works so well is because it tells people that things happen for a reason,” says Peter Rollins, a pioneer of the Emergent movement. “We don’t want to suffer; we want an easy answer. You can fill stadiums with that. But at a community like Revolution, they don’t have an answer for people who are suffering. They say, ‘We don’t know why this is happening, but we’ll suffer through it with you.’ ” Or, as Bakker puts it, “Faith isn’t answers all the time. Faith is helping you deal with the questions.” His Facebook page lists his religious views as “Changing.”