None of this thinking has endeared Bakker to the conservative-Christian behemoth. “I think a movement founded on rebellion is going to collapse under the weight of its own moralism,” says the Evangelical writer Ted Kluck, who accuses Revolution of substituting the arrogance of the traditional church with its own. To others, Bakker is not moral enough: He is engaging in “cafeteria Christianity,” picking only the parts of the faith that suit him. By focusing on grace, he is absolving sinners. He’s been threatened physically at speaking engagements and been told he’s leading people to hell. But Bakker speaks like a true believer. “Another type of reformation is happening,” he says. “And when a reformation is happening, the reformers aren’t recognized as reformers. They’re seen as heretics.”
My religious reeducation begins in earnest one day this summer when Bakker arrives at my apartment with several dog-eared Bibles in a messenger bag. I, too, grew up God-fearing and south of the Mason-Dixon Line. My great-grandmother rarely missed an episode of The PTL Club and sent in regular donations. I once confessed to the leader of my weekly Bible study that I might be a bit of a doubting Thomas, at which point the good woman explained just what I could expect if I chose to believe that Jesus was not my personal lord and savior: unfathomable cold followed by unfathomable heat, unending pain, an abyss where I would be cut off from my family, and where I might cry out for Jesus to save me, but it would be in vain because I had doubted him for one second one afternoon when I was 12.
I hightailed it out of the South as soon as I could. But in college, while others seemed able to jettison any trappings of religion, I was not. If belief and disbelief are two orbits that never intersect, as has sometimes been suggested, I’ve often felt like a particle bounding untethered between them. In other words, I’m enough of a believer to be wary of Bakker’s message and enough of a doubter to be wary as well.
Over a six-pack of Diet Coke and between a number of cigarettes smoked on the fire escape, we go verse by verse through the tomes, picking through some of the key issues that rankle or rally modern-day Christians: homosexuality, premarital sex, abortion, women’s rights, marriage, divorce, Heaven and hell. Bakker points out the inconsistencies in the text, the varying interpretations, the parts that have been taken out of context; and rather than being alarmed that there’s no biblical imperative, he finds this liberating. “To me, Christianity is not a moral code,” he says at one point. He believes this kind of thinking belongs to a culture rooted in the concept of good works and fed by a capitalist notion of faith by transaction, where success as a Christian is tallying souls saved and donations made. “It’s like fine print. It’s like, ‘Here’s the Good News!’—and they get you in and comfortable, and then they’re like, ‘Okay, here’s the actual reality: Jesus loves you just the way you are, but not actually.’ ”
In 2005, shortly before moving to New York, Bakker publicly came out as a gay-affirming minister. It’s a stance he believes to be biblically substantiated, and as we sit on my sofa, he proves it, going systematically through the “clobber” verses of the Bible that have traditionally been used to deem homosexuality a sin. He argues that the very word homosexual didn’t appear in the Bible until 1958, and that it has been translated from a Greek word that could be referring to the sexual practices of pagan idol worship. In a reading that could outliteral the literalists, he views “sodomites” as simply people from Sodom. “And Sodom,” Bakker says, “was destroyed for a lack of hospitality.”
But Bakker’s support for homosexuality has had consequences. After he made his conviction public, the wealthy Christian family that was his major source of funding withdrew its support. One by one, his speaking engagements were canceled. He had to lay off his staff. “By this time we had health insurance,” he says. “We had a great board of directors. But we just didn’t have the finances anymore.” In a crushing YouTube video from that era, Bakker begs a sea of stony African-American faces at a southern church to support gay marriage, or at least not condemn his support of it. “It’s hard for me,” he says from the pulpit, “when people who’ve been through such persecution and been judged against, all of a sudden, they don’t want freedom for anybody else.” The congregation, which had been lively moments before stares at him, silent and hostile.