I first saw Jay Bakker when he spoke before a conference held by the Gay Christian Network in Washington DC in 2007. At that time, it was a big deal for Jay, the son of Praise the Lord television ministers Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, to be speaking before a crowd of gays and lesbians. In fact, it was scandalous. Bakker took a lot heat for coming out in full support of those in the LGBT community seeking acceptance in their religious communities.
But, Jay Bakker is used to taking the heat. In his new book, Fall to Grace, Bakker writes about his struggles as a kid growing up in the Christian playground known as Heritage USA. The Bakker empire fell in the late 1980s after his mother accidently overdosed, and news broke about his dad’s affair with Jessica Hahn. Later his dad would spend five years in prison on a fraud conviction.
In his teen years, Bakker turned to drinking and partying to fit in and to soothe his pain. Feeling condemned for his behavior drove him further away from the church. He writes: “If a lousy Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler was all it took to separate me from God, then I was gonna accept my one-way ticket to hell… Reserve me a seat in the bar car!”
It was through the patience and love of his friend D.E. Paulk in Atlanta (whose ministry family suffered its own scandals), that Bakker experienced what he called “a grace evolution.” While Bakker continued to drink and carry on, D.E. simply loved him through it, gently pushing Bakker to return to God. Bakker writes that he had believed grace to be “a cop-out… an excuse to sin.” But once he began studying, reading Paul in particular, Bakker got hooked on grace; became “a grace fiend, even.” Now, he finds himself advocating for the demanding work of grace—to extend grace to outcasts like LGBT people, but also to his critics.
I had a chance to talk with Bakker about his new book, about his life story, and his hopes for the future of the evangelical church.
You say you experienced a “grace evolution.” What do you mean by that?
It is this continuous, evolving faith, realizing that God is bigger than the labels and the names that we keep putting on God. These limits that we, as humans, feel that we need for God just keep getting bigger and bigger. Growing up, I was told that if I study the Bible, everything would be clear. I found the opposite to be true. When you take the book at face value for one way, you find that if you go even deeper, it’s even better news.
When you start to study the traditions, like in Romans, when you see the kind of folks Paul is talking to and the kind of customs he’s facing you realize it’s completely different than how you’ve been told. Why isn’t the translation better? The fact that the word “homosexual” never appeared in the Bible until, like, 1958, and the fact that they had no concept of what LGBT people are today, when it was all about worshipping other gods, and things like that. Sometimes I get so exhausted from just continuously having to explain to people who say, “It says it right here in the Bible,” that it doesn’t. That word wasn’t there. I’m really hoping we can get Bible translators and these companies to take these words out and make a change.
Your new book has been heralded as ushering in a new awakening on LGBT issues for the evangelical church. Do you think that’s true?
I wouldn’t say it would be my book in particular. I’m a part of a movement. I’m hoping that’s true. I do see more acceptance and more inclusion happening. My goal is pure acceptance, not just tolerance. I think we’re on the verge of that. People are having conversations. I had someone ask me to listen to this sermon that was a thirty-minute apology, and then a ten-minute why it’s wrong to be gay. So, I’m starting to see these pastors apologizing for what they’re about to say. They seem to know, instinctively, that what they’re doing is wrong.
There has been a lot of criticism about you from the far right, like Ken Silva (a New Hampshire pastor who runs Apprising Ministries). How do you respond to that criticism, or do you?
I used to worry about that, but I don’t put any credit to those guys. They are extremist and obsessed. No one fits in in their book. All I think we can do is pray for them. You can’t even get in touch with Ken Silva or meet with him. I find it best to ignore those folks.
If you look at what Ken Silva’s written, he’s got it so it gets him up in the Google search. He’s very smart on how he runs his website. To me, it’s just really hateful stuff and not worthy of even listening to. If someone I respect or someone I really know wants to say something about me, I’ll sit down and listen. To have people talk about you who won’t even show their face or you’ve never met before and wants to write about how horrible you are, there’s nothing you can do. I can’t stop them and I definitely won’t fight them. It’s just a waste of time.
In your book, you talk about your fear of going to your congregation and telling them about your own pending divorce. You wrote that “they gave me the permission to be broke and still be loved.” You relate that story to Ted Haggard, and imagine how different his experience might have been if his congregation had given him that same permission. How can we model that kind of love?
We love our enemies. That’s a beautiful thing to me about the Bible. We must demand grace. We must demand love and restoration. We have to learn not to speak out of our own hurt and pain. Sometimes that’s good, but when someone else’s life is devastated, it’s time to go into restoration mode and love this person, and give ourselves time to deal with it later. If we don’t restore and do things right away, it’s too late. It’s amazing what can happen in just a few hours, someone’s life can really change.
I’m amazed he’s bounced back like he has, and he had to do it on his own. But, I think if we show grace, and we give grace, we’re going to be teaching grace as well. If we accept the unacceptable, we’re going to help people accept that part of their lives, or what they feel is unacceptable so they can take a look at it instead of hide it or feel shame. That’s what I had to do in my life was just to accept myself completely and realize that God accepts me completely so I could look at some of these things. I realized that some of it was just man’s religion making me feel guilty. But, there were other things like alcohol that were leading me down a road of driving drunk or putting myself at risk.
In Haggard’s case it seems grace has gone the other way. He’s very forgiving of those who kicked him out and turned their backs on him.
That’s usually what happens. I saw that with my family as well. When you get ostracized and feel so much pain, you get a different view of things. I don’t know if I would be the same person if I hadn’t gone through all this with my family, and even in my personal life. I continue to open up my heart of brokenness and love and realize that life is far more complicated than we make it out to be. When we go through that we learn that we don’t want other people to feel that way. That’s a true example of love. That’s loving your enemy and what following Christ is about.
So, how can we do that work of restoration with people like Ken Silva who don’t even want us to reach out to them?
It’s going to have to be through prayer and relationships. I really don’t know other than continually living an example of grace and hoping that they’ll see the peace and joy that we have and will want what we have. Are they just trying to make a living? Are they just shock jocks or is this what they truly believe? We just have to try to give grace. For me, with Ken Silva, I realized I wasn’t giving him grace when I was arguing with him. In some ways, I was trying to expose the truth to him but I found it more graceful to just stay away and not continue the conversation because I would get angry.
So sometimes walking away is graceful?
Yeah, I think so. Sometimes telling people how you feel is graceful, too. You have to go situation by situation.
In your book you talk about how your mom, Tammy Faye, reacted to the news that a friend of yours was gay. You were devastated, but her response was basically, “What’s the problem?” I found that surprising.
That was probably back in 1989. I was devastated and she says “so what?” and I thought, wait a second! It hit me that I was more worried about what other people would think. My mom was just one of those people—she could have taken off her makeup or dressed down and a lot of people would have preferred that, but she just lived who she was and she taught me how to do that. I’m so proud of that. She didn’t do it like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this no matter how it hurts people,’ she really loved people but at the same time had a sense of who she was. That was beautiful to me and it taught me a great lesson.
Why do you think your mom was so popular with gays and lesbians?
I used to think it was just her makeup and her kitsch, and that’s part of it, but it’s also because she’s such a survivor. She was true to herself and had such a passion and compassion for people. She wasn’t just a joke, even one she may have been in on a little bit. I have LGBT people come up to me and tell me how much she meant to them. I’ve had people who weren’t even out in a Christian setting who would tell me that my mom gave them the strength to survive. That’s pretty powerful stuff.
What do you see for the future in the evangelical church?
I think we’re going to see the numbers continue to shrink and people leave the church, but within the next 10 to 15 years things will change. We’ll see more affirming churches, more people asking questions and people’s faith developing in ways we haven’t seen before. The evangelical church will dig its heels in on tradition over love and will have a hard time. But, you never know what will happen tomorrow, who will come out, or who will become an ally. I’m going to continue to do the work that I do and encourage other allies to come out and take a stand. It was other allies who did that and encouraged me.
What do you tell gay and lesbian people who can’t believe that accepting grace is all they need to do?
You’re loved just the way you are. People might turn on you, and Christians might turn on you, but that’s not Jesus and that’s not grace. That’s what I see as sin—what causes hurt and pain. Know that you’re accepted, no matter what anybody says, accept that you’re accepted, because that is transformative. Theologian Paul Tillich said you don’t even have to become more religious or believe more, just accept that you are accepted and allow that to transform you. I’ve found that to be true. I’ve learned to trust God in these situations and I’ve seen the power of grace.