Son of a Preacher Man: My Search for Grace in the Shadows
By Jay Bakker with Linden Gross
Harper San Francisco, 224 pp.

These days, the Bakker kid goes by "Jay" instead of "Jamie Charles," as millions of TV viewers knew him in the '80s, when he was featured on the annual Christmas cards of the nation's No. 1 Christian couple, Jim and Tammy Faye. When you're trying to start a ministry of your own, as Jay is today, it's enough to be stuck with the surname "Bakker." The stigma, Bakker says in his "Son of a Preacher Man," is still there, and apparently he's decided it's time to set the world straight on just what happened to him after the collapse of "Praise the Lord" (PTL) and his parents' notorious fall into disgrace. Or perhaps

Jay Bakker's engrossing story (told with co-author Linden Gross) sketches his family's desperate search for grace after their public humiliation. His verdict on this personal history is astounding. After complete financial ruin, betrayal, prison sentences, divorces, substance abuse, and all-out despair, Jay Bakker writes, "God's plan for my life was perfect." The suffering and abandonment, that is, led him to realize his redemption is not, and never was, in his own hands but only in the love and forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus. His testimony to the power of God to change lives and hearts by grace could move to sympathy hearts hardened by watching TV preachers.

In telling his story, Jay Bakker performs another remarkable feat: He condemns both the Christian right and the Christian left for their utter lack of charity. The right rejoiced in Jim Bakker's downfall, some letter writers even wishing him prison rape for his troubles, others capitalizing on the cash freed up by a ministry down the tubes. The left exulted in the chance to put an evangelical preacher on trial for apparent hypocrisy and unacceptable lifestyle choices. Neither showed much interest in the Bakkers' eventual restoration and renewal. Jay is still angry--if forgiving--and is determined to right the wrongs in his own ministry, called Revolution, in the Little Five Points neighborhood of Atlanta. Now he's reaching out to the down-and-out, making the gospel accessible to the alienated. He softens outsiders' suspicions about Jesus by assuming solidarity with them, proudly displaying his piercings and tattoos.

There's little question that Jim, Tammy Faye, and Jay have been forgiven and restored. But Jay's story of PTL gets a little iffy. There's no mention of the TV-viewing and money-donating believers who went down with the ship, who were ruined for the faith by the Bakkers' distorted message. Jay still defends what his parents were doing and how they did it. For all his critical reflection on heartless and graceless expressions of the faith, there is almost no critical reflection on the nature of the media-centered parachurch evangelism.

The fact is, success in and of itself was the center and eventually the god of the PTL. Jay describes his dad as "a visionary who was determined to make Christianity exciting to adults and youngsters alike," and if that meant setting up "a state-of-the-art TV studio, various ministry buildings, hotels and motels, campgrounds, a residential subdivision of vacation and retirement homes, shops, restaurants, tennis courts, a pool, and a roller skating rink," so be it. These things were straightforwardly interpreted as signs of God's favor.

Christianity turned out to be a singularly fruitful investment. Jay admits that the "monster" got out of control. But he doesn't entertain the idea that there might be something fundamentally flawed about the whole approach to the Christian faith that his father and other such evangelists took.

A cautionary tale it may well be. This book leaves the concerned reader with
the unnerving possibility that Jay Bakker is setting himself up for the same mistakes his parents made. Without church and without tradition, Jay's evangelistic work, however well-meaning and compassionate, is unanchored and therefore bound to drift.

t Jay is apparently unaware that all his concerns for the renewal of Christian life are shared by--even the heart and soul of--countless theologians throughout the history of the church. He seems unaware of the resources available to him to carry on his work; rather he criticizes tradition and church for being rigid and devoid of spirit. He, and perhaps now also his parents, are right when they insist that the body of Christ is to be the source of open and forgiving love. But he has apparently yet to realize that unity is essential to the body of Christ as well, and in the end competing ministries will only subvert their dearest ideals.

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