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One Punk Under God

The son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker says that Jesus loves you, tattoos and all.

| Wed Dec. 13, 2006 3:00 AM EST

On a good Sunday, Jay Bakker’s storefront church in Brooklyn may attract as many as 30 worshippers. That’s alright with Bakker, the founder and pastor of Revolution, a nondenominational congregation that might be described as an anti-megachurch. Intimacy trumps grandeur in this “church for people who have given up on church.” It got its start in an Atlanta bar, luring wayward skaters and punks with a gospel of “ultimate grace,” a come-as-you-are theology that holds that God loves you, combat boots, body art, and all. Bakker, a pierced and heavily tatted 31-year-old, takes a casual yet passionate approach to his role, delivering sermons with titles such as “Nobody Likes a Selfish Bastard,” “Jesus: A Friend to Porn Stars,” and “Galatians Baby!”

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Revolution’s modest message and alternative aesthetic are a far cry from the glitzy religious empire built by Bakker’s parents, televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. At its height in the early 1980s, their Praise the Lord ministry boasted 13 million viewers, raked in millions in donations, and ran the world’s largest Christian-themed resort. It all came crashing down in 1987, amid a sex scandal and accusations of greed and embezzlement. The Bakkers divorced, Jim went to prison for fraud, and Tammy’s tear-streaked mascara and fake eyelashes became a punch line. Jay Bakker, who was 11 at the time, hit the bottle, dropped out of high school, and felt that God had forsaken him.

Twenty years later, Bakker is a sober, self-taught preacher with a epiphany. “Whenever I went deeper into the Bible and went into the Greek or the Hebrew or the historical background,” he explains, “I was always afraid like, ‘OK, I’m gonna prove that God doesn’t love me.’ But it seemed that every time I studied deeper, it was actually good news. Sometimes it seems too good to be true.” For many mainstream Christians, Bakker's beliefs are too good to be true. Just ask Ted Haggard.

Bakker’s quiet revolution is the subject of “One Punk Under God,” a six-part documentary series that debuts on the Sundance Channel tonight. The series catches Bakker at a crossroads. As the first episode opens, his Atlanta church is humming along nicely, but he wants to officially accept gays and lesbians—a move that threatens his relationship with his financial backers and his co-founder, a conservative Boomer who’s been a father figure. Meanwhile, he’s trying to close the emotional distance between himself and his real dad, who’s remarried and launched “The New Jim Bakker Show.” He’s also tending to his mom, who’s battling colon cancer. And to complicate things, his wife isn’t so hot about his decision to be a preacher, and wants him to move to New York City, where she’s starting grad school.

“One Punk Under God” reveals the human side of a godly man without superhuman aspirations. Bakker has none of the punk-rock bravado suggested by his appearance nor his parents' showbiz chops. Instead, he comes off as unpolished, humble, and painfully honest about his family and his faults. “I don’t have a phone line to God anywhere in my house,” he says. Yet Bakker’s unassuming style is forceful in its own way. In one of “One Punk”’s most touching moments, Bakker reconnects with his father after two years, appearing on his dad’s show to talk about his philosophy (and show off his PTL tattoo). The elder Bakker tearfully declares that his once-estranged son “is what I should be but can not be.”

Jay Bakker spoke with by phone from Brooklyn. What lessons did you learn from your parents about what to do and what not to do as a preacher?

Jay Bakker: My parents always taught me to love people no matter what. My mom was reaching out to people with AIDS in the early ’80s. My parents always taught me to put other people first. But I saw my parents get in this trap where they created this huge ministry. They created a monster and they had to feed it. They had all these employees and facilities and bills, and all of a sudden they had to raise money all the time to keep all this stuff running. They got themselves between a rock and a hard place and I think that’s why, from a young age, I’ve been taking stands that haven’t been that popular. I didn’t want to have to compromise and I think there were times when my parents had to compromise some of their beliefs and ideas in order to keep their church going. [As a preacher] I just feel like I have to be honest; I couldn’t live with myself if I wasn’t. I think that’s why I’ve been able to reach some people who don’t feel comfortable in churches. I do make mistakes and I can be goofy and quirky sometimes. I’m not the world’s greatest speaker. I don’t try to hide that. One thing that struck me is how you’ve put yourself in a leadership position where you freely admit you don’t know all the answers. And people literally embrace you for that.

JB: I don’t have all the answers. I grew up around people who told me they did, and then in the long run I found they didn’t. So I figured I better start out honest with people and stay that way. I think there’s pressure when you’re a pastor that you have to have all the answers, and if you don’t, your faith is built on sand. For me, faith is about believing in those things you can’t see and at times can’t understand. I’ve been really blessed to have people who are open to that and stick around. Not everyone does stick around, though. So people have left Revolution because they realized you didn’t have all the answers?

JB: Well maybe not exactly that, but maybe not the answers they were looking for. How do you describe Revolution in a nutshell?

JB: We’re really just a small church. We meet in bars. We’re a come-as-you-are-whoever-you-are kind of church. We’re a church about love and grace and acceptance and caring about people and at times agreeing to disagree. You and [Revolution Atlanta pastor] Stu Damron have a fundamental disagreement on homosexuality but there’s been no split.

JB: I’ve seen churches split on the color of the paint on the walls. With me and Stu, we have a great love for each other and our love is bigger than one particular misunderstanding. I don’t think we can write someone off because they don’t see what I see or we haven’t gotten to the same place yet. Church splitting is ridiculous most of the time. Have Stu’s views about being a gay-affirming church changed at all?

JB: I definitely think they’ve changed some. I think he’s become more open and sensitive to the issue. I don’t know exactly where he stands at this point. I do know he’s become more open, and that’s pretty cool.

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