Compared with his charmed upbringing in the PTL kingdom, Bakker’s life is now fairly monastic. His wife left him in 2007. He has held on to their railroad apartment in Williamsburg, sharing it with a cat named Pedro. He is still paying off credit-card charges from the move, and though he receives a salary from Revolution, it isn’t always able to pay him in full. He no longer has health insurance, and he sometimes gets behind on rent.
Close to 10,000 people download Revolution’s sermons each week, but asking for donations is not high on the church’s list of priorities—a tricky proposition, anyway, when your last name is Bakker. “We’d rather have you here than your money,” he frequently says. Looking back to the riches his father knew at PTL but “from the viewpoint of being a minister now whose church is barely making it,” Bakker says he understands why “people find hypocrisy in a preacher having more than one house.” More than anything, he recognizes how isolating money and power can be. “I remember one time I said, ‘Dad, why are preachers so freakin’ crazy?’ And he’s like, ‘Because you just get in your own world.’ I would love to invite someone like Joel Osteen to come live with me for a month, grow a beard, and just go by Joe. Let him be among people who aren’t church people, who aren’t in that whole bubble, and experience what it’s just like to be normal.”
Bakker recently finished reviewing galleys of his second book, Fall to Grace, which will be released in January. Though it will have a “bit of a refresher course at the beginning for anyone under 30” who may not remember the Bakkers, the book is not a memoir (as was his first book, Son of a Preacher Man). It is, instead, an attempt to synthesize the grace theology he’s been developing for over a decade. Its message is rooted in the Book of Galatians, in which the apostle Paul chastises several churches he founded for becoming too legalistic, for trusting laws rather than Christ’s free gift of salvation, and for using those laws to exclude the people who don’t follow them.
O n a recent Sunday afternoon, Revolution decides to try something new.
“We’re having Revolution Question and Response,” Vince Anderson announces as he and Bakker settle into bar stools on the stage of Pete’s Candy Store. “Um, notice the use of language. We do not have the answers. I repeat: We do not have the answers.”
The congregation titters, and Bakker smiles back at them a little sheepishly. Under the stage lights, he looks astoundingly like his father. His large eyes swim behind thick glasses. There’s something about him that seems a little gun-shy. He still has a slight Carolina twang. When he’s nervous, he tells jokes that aren’t always funny.
It’s hard not to respect someone who won’t abandon the church even as it tries to abandon him, and who aggressively searches for truth without claiming that he owns it. Still, while Bakker and Anderson have the sympathy and attention of their audience, I can sense parishioners trying to work out what they think of Revolution. Once you strip so much out of Christianity, what is left? How do you agree with a church that is still figuring out its message?
But as I’m sitting there, close to the back and beer in hand, it occurs to me that maybe the opposite of faith isn’t doubt. Maybe the opposite of faith is certainty, a comforting belief in your own rightness. To a greater degree than most Evangelicals may care to admit, Jay Bakker’s open-armed ministry is an extension of what his parents created. Jim and Tammy Faye were much more tolerant than other televangelists; in 1986, Tammy Faye famously interviewed a gay minister who had been diagnosed with AIDS. But theirs was a theology of aspiration—believing is easy, and believing leads to success—and it didn’t encourage its followers to doubt their faith or themselves. This, it seems to me, is what Jay is offering: a Christianity that allows for, and is even sustained by, failure.
Among the questions asked—but not answered—at the sermon that day: What happens to the souls of unborn babies? Is God calling us to give up meat? Should Christians live in communes? What’s a good church in L.A.? Does hell really exist?
That last one gets everyone’s attention. Bakker points out that the Bible itself can’t quite decide what “hell” is: a waiting room? A lake of fire? A dump outside of Jerusalem?—and that it depends on your interpretation of the Book of Revelation. After talking for a while, though, he admits that whatever the Good Book might say, he just has trouble with the concept of fire and brimstone. “I have a hard time because everything I know about Jesus and grace and love and forgiving your enemies—hell would sound like God doesn’t practice what he preaches. I want to question hell.”
Bakker grins ruefully and suggests that maybe they should move the discussion out to the bar. “We’re already in enough trouble for what we’ve said today.”
“Would you like to pray?” Anderson asks. And yes, Jay Bakker would.