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I first saw Jay Bakker when he spoke at a conference held by the Gay Christian Network in Washington, D.C., in 2007. At that time, it was a big deal for Jay to be speaking before a crowd of gays and lesbians. In fact, it was downright scandalous. Bakker took a lot of 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 book Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self and Society, Bakker wrote about his struggles as a kid growing up on the Christian playground known as Heritage USA. The Bakker empire fell in the late 1980s after his mother accidentally 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 assuage his own pain over the sufferings of his parents. Feeling condemned for his behavior drove him further away from the church.
In the book 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.” Bakker continued to party and drink, and D.E. would continue to love him through it, gently pushing Bakker to return to God by telling him all about grace. Bakker writes that he believed grace to be a cop-out, an excuse to sin. Once he began reading Paul’s letters to the Galatians, Ephesians and Romans though, Bakker became hooked on grace — a “grace fiend” even, he writes.
Now he finds himself advocating for the demanding work of grace, to extend grace to outcasts such as LGBT people, but also to the virulent critics who have attacked him for his graceful ways. I had a chance to talk with Bakker about his new book and how a grace evolution can be a source of change and renewal for the evangelical church.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. As we began, I asked him what it was like to grow up with famous parents.
It’s all I knew. So for the first few years of my life it was crazy, having to dress up and be on TV and stuff like that. But I think it’s the same thing as your parents making you do whatever, eat your vegetables or things like that. There were some really great experiences.
When they lost everything though, it was really tough, because my whole world went upside down. I mean, the school I went to was at PTL [the Praise the Lord Club and Network the Bakkers founded]. All my friends were there. That was where I hung out every day. And so when everything happened it was like, not just dad losing his job. Everything changed — my friends, my house, everything. And then of course, seeing things on TV every day and every night was really tough.
You’re just a kid going through your parents losing everything, your father eventually going to jail. How did you survive through that?
The first year was spending a lot of time by myself. I think when I was around 12 [or] 13, I started drinking and doing stuff like that. But that was also just to fit in, because I was really nervous around people. So I just kinda jumped into friendships and jumped into hanging out with the party kids at school. At the same time though, those kids are the ones that really showed me a lot of love and acceptance. Some of them are still my friends to this day. So yeah, I just jumped into my own world.
You write about a friend of yours in Atlanta, who you stayed with, who just sort of loved you through it.
That was my friend D.E [Paulk]. He was a youth pastor, and now he pastors a church. He was always there, and one day I started talking to him and I said, “You know, you talk about this thing called grace. And honestly — I don’t know, I think God hates me — I don’t believe it.” And then he told me I was full of shit. And I said, “Well why shouldn’t I think you are?” And that went on for a while. Then finally I said, “Prove it. Prove it to me that this is true.” Because everything he said just sounded too good to be true.
So I started reading the book of Galatians, and then I read Romans. And he was telling me what to read, because I had never really read the Bible for myself growing up. It was always hearing stories from other people. I started reading these books, and hearing about grace and love and forgiveness — and there’s nothing that you can do to be accepted, but just you are accepted — and it was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m accepted. Even the unacceptable parts of me are accepted?” And it was like, “Yes!”
It was strange because my whole life I’d really struggled with my drinking on and off and trying to quit. And all of a sudden I wanted to get sober. I went into a 12-step program because it was like, I was free to be loved even if I wasn’t sober. I was free to be loved even if I wasn’t having my life together. I mean heck, I’m 35 and my life still isn’t perfect, but this stuff is [about] being able to accept that pure acceptance for something that I always felt was against me or hated me. It was definitely a revolution in my life.
You say that you experienced a graced “evolution.” So what is that?
It’s just this continuous evolving faith — realizing that God’s bigger than the labels and the names and the things that we continue to put on God. These limits that as humans, we feel that we need for God just seem to get bigger and bigger. And the cool thing is, the more I get that, I get that from reading the Word and spending time in the Bible. And of course, living life and understanding the historic reasons behind the Bible and things like that.
So I find that my faith is continuously evolving or continuously changing. Growing up, I was told when you study the Bible, everything’s going to be clear and black and white. In fact, I found about the opposite to be true. It’s wild, because you take the book for face value one way, and then you realize when you go even deeper, it’s even better news.
Expound on that a little bit. How does the news get better for you?
You start to study the traditions of — let’s say the Romans — and you see the type of folks that Paul’s talking to, and you see the customs and the things that he’s confronting, and you start to realize, “Oh, this is completely different.” How this lines up with this book, or who he was writing to. Like, “Oh okay, so women can preach.” He was talking to a particular group in this area, or this or that. I’m not a literalist, but even if I did take it literally after hard study, it would still be very good news. The scriptures on hell seem so scary, but then when you translate the word “hell,” you start to realize that it’s not the same word everywhere they use it.
It’s just these different things that you find out. You’re like, “Why was I never told this? And why isn’t the translation better?” The fact that the word homosexual never appeared in the Bible until — I think it was 1958 —and the fact that they had no concept of what LGBT people are today, when it was all about worshiping their God and different things like that. Sometimes I get so exhausted for just feeling like I continuously have to explain to people [who say] “It says it right here in the Bible.” And I have to be like, “It doesn’t; that word wasn’t there.” I’m really hoping that we can get Bible translations… to take those words out and start to make a change.
A writer, Kathleen Falsani, who interviewed you recently, said that your book heralds a great gay awakening for the evangelicals. Do you think that might be true?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t say it would be my book in particular. I’m a part of a movement. You’ve got to look at people like Mel White, who’ve been doing this for years, and Peggy Campolo and these folks. I’m hoping that’s true. I do see more acceptance happening, and I do see more inclusion happening. My goal is pure acceptance, not just tolerance. Tolerance is nice, but I like to see where people are past that point. So I think we’re on the verge of that.
People are having conversations. Somebody asked me to listen to this sermon and it was about basically “being gay is a sin,” but it was from someone who was more progressive on this thing. And it was like a 30-minute apology. And then a 10-minute “Why it’s wrong to be gay.” So I’m starting to see the preachers and pastors apologizing for what they’re about to say. It’s almost like instinctively, they know they’re wrong, there’s something wrong.
I have read a lot of criticism of you, especially from evangelicals like Ken Silva and folks like that over on the far-right side. How do you respond to that sort of criticism — or do you?
I used to worry about that when I first got on Twitter [etc]. But I don’t put any credit to those guys, they’re extremists and obsessed and no one fits in in their book, and all I think we can do is pray for those guys. With Ken Silva, you can’t even get in touch with him or meet with him. I find it best to just ignore those folks. If you click on something that Ken Silva’s written, he’s got it so it puts him up in the Google search and all these things. He’s very smart on how he runs his website. He’s got like three or four different ones in different names, but to me it’s just really hateful stuff. And I don’t think it’s really worthy of even listening to, it just doesn’t make sense to me. So I just try to ignore that and go on.
If someone I respect or someone I really know wants to come and say something about me, yeah I’ll sit down and listen, but to have people talk about you who don’t even show their face, or you’ve never even met before, or even have any type of relationship… And they just want to write about how horrible you are constantly. It’s like, “Well, I guess you’re going to do what you’re going to do and I can’t stop you, and I’m definitely not going to fight you,” because I just find it to be a complete waste of time.
One of the things I really liked about your book was when you talk about your own divorce and your own fear of coming to Revolution [Church] and being open about it. You wrote, “That gave me the permission to be broken and still loved,” and I thought that was amazing. And you relate that to Ted Haggard, what happened to him, and sort of imagine how his life would have been different if his church had given him the same kind of grace. So how do we model that, so others can do it?
We love our enemies. That’s the beautiful thing to me about the Bible. It asks us to do things that don’t always make sense. But our beautiful [teaching to] love our enemies, [a la] Martin Luther King or Gandhi — that to me is beautiful. And restoring them. And I think what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to demand grace. We’ve got to demand love, we’ve got to demand restoration. We’ve got to be speaking up loudly if we’re even one or two people in the congregation. We have to not allow our own hurt. We’ve got to learn not to speak out of our own hurt and our own pain. There’s times that that’s great, but when someone else’s life is a devastating thing, I think it’s the time [to say] let’s go into restoration mode and love this person and give ourselves some time to deal with it later, because I think if we don’t restore and do things right away, it’s too late.
It’s amazing what can happen within just a few hours. Someone’s life is completely changed and over. I’m surprised Ted Haggard’s bounced back like he has, to be honest with you, but he had to do it on his own and through [himself]. 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 rather than hide it and keep it a secret or feel shame. That’s what I had to do in my own life. Just accept myself completely and realize that God accepts me completely. So I could look at some of these things and realize that some of it was just man’s religion making me feel guilty. And then there was other things that were… like alcohol, that was leading me down a road of driving drunk, or putting myself at risk.
I’m amazed at the idea of grace going the other way. Because I see Ted Haggard being very forgiving toward the people who kicked him out.
And that’s usually what happens. I saw that with my family as well. When that happens to you and you get ostracized and kicked out, you feel so much pain that I think you realize you have a different view of things. I’d have to say, I don’t know if I would be the same person I was. I probably wouldn’t if all this stuff I hadn’t gone through with my family and even in my personal life that continue to open up my arms or open up my heart of brokenness and love and things like that. And realizing every day that life is way more complicated than we make it out to be. So yeah, I think when we go through something like that, we learn a lesson of — we don’t want other people to feel that way. And that’s a true example of love, that’s loving your neighbor as yourself. That’s loving your enemy. That’s what following Christ is about — not just being a Christian, but actually following Jesus.
So how do you think we can do that work of restoration, especially with folks who — maybe like Ken Silva — don’t even want us to reach out to them, they just want to criticize and that’s it.
It’s going to have to be through prayer and in relationships. I honestly don’t know. I wish I had the complete answer for that, except for continuously living an example of grace and hoping that they’ll see the peace and the joy that we have and they’ll want what we have. And it depends, like are they just trying to make a living? Is it just a job? Are they just shock jocks? Or is this something that they truly believe? I don’t know, but I think what we have to do is try to give grace.
And for me with Ken Silva, I realized I wasn’t giving him grace when I was sitting there arguing with him and defending myself and defending all these things. In some ways I was trying to expose the truth to him, but I found it to be a little bit more graceful if I’d just stay away and didn’t continuously… because I would get angry. And I don’t know if I wasn’t mature enough — or am — enough to handle the exchange at this point.
So sometimes walking away is graceful.
Yeah, I think so. And then sometimes telling people how you feel is graceful. I think you have to go situation by situation.
I love the story about your mom, where you realized a friend of yours was gay when you were younger and your mother was like “Yeah, and so what’s the problem?” That really surprised me coming from… I mean, we all have our misconceptions I guess, about how your family felt about these issues.
That was probably like in ‘89 as well, or ‘90. And it was one of those things where I was like, so devastated — and your mom goes, “So what?” You’re like, “Wait a second, I’m devastated. You shouldn’t be saying ‘So what?’ ” But it just kinda hit me, and I’m looking at it — I was like, “Hey, you know, I think I was more worried about what other people would think.”
She could have taken off her makeup. She could’ve dressed down, she could have done that. A lot of people would have preferred that, but she never [did]. She just lived and was who she was. And she really taught me how to do that. And I’m so proud of that. And she didn’t do it like, “Oh, I’m going to do this no matter how much it hurts people.”
She always loved people and cared about people. At the same time, she had a sense of who she was. And that’s something that was really beautiful to me. And it taught me a great lesson.
So why do you think Tammy Faye was so popular among the gay and lesbian folks?
I used to think it was just her makeup and her kitsch, which I’m sure is a big part of it — but it’s also because she’s a survivor. I said [to a gay friend], “Why is it that you guys love my mom so much?” And he said, “Well, it’s those things, but your mom’s a survivor and she’s true to herself, and she still has this passion and compassion towards people.” And there’s something really beautiful about that. And I was like, “Wow, so it’s not just the joke.”
Because I always felt like she’s just the joke, and maybe she’s in on it a little bit, but I have people walk up to me on the street — folks from the LGBTQ community — and say, “You’ll never know how much your mother meant to me, and the change that she had in my life” and it’s not like, “Oh, your mother was crazy.” They might say that too, but it’s not just the one or the other.
I’ve had people who weren’t even out in the Christian setting come up to me and find me in a corner and be like, “I’m not out. Your mother has given me the ability to survive so far. And I just want to say, I just love her and I miss her.” And so it’s pretty powerful stuff.
She had a big impact on a lot of people. What do you think people misunderstand the most about grace?
People will think it’s a license to sin, or it’s this wishy-washy, “Do whatever you want.” Or it’s just for salvation. There’s a lot of misconceptions. Or it’s just unmerited favor. And grace to me is such a gift that it covers everything. Grace is something that’s so powerful. Self-acceptance, accepting the unacceptable, not having the need to feel like you even have to grow spiritually.
When I know there’s times where I doubt, times where I struggle with my own faith, and grace has even given me the ability to do that without fear, it allows me to grow. Yeah it’s frustrating, but I have to remember I’m accepted by something greater than myself.
It’s the God that shows up when it feels like there is no God. I think people just look at grace as this small part of faith, and I look at grace as faith. We’re supposed to love our neighbor as [ourselves] and love our enemies and love God with all our heart. And grace is what gives me the ability to do those things.
But it’s also the thing that gives me the ability to actually accept those things when I know I’m not always acceptable or don’t feel acceptable, I’m still accepted in it. It’s a transformative power that I can’t even really clarify that well. You know what I mean? I’ve written a whole book about it. That’s the best I can put it into words, and I still don’t feel like it’s clear enough.
It really is an experiential thing. Give me a prediction: What do you see for the evangelical church in the future?
I think we’re going to see the numbers continue to shrink and people continue to probably leave the church. But I think within the next probably 10 or 15 years, some things are going to change. I think you’re going to see a lot more affirming churches, a lot more people asking questions, and people’s faith even developing in ways that we haven’t seen before.
I think the evangelical churches, as they keep digging their heels in on tradition rather than love, I think they’re going to have a hard time. But you never know. You never know what’s going to happen tomorrow. You never know who’s going to come out. You never know who’s going to come out as an ally. I’m not really good at predicting things.
But I’m going to continue to do the work that I do. And I hope that I can encourage other allies to come out as allies or other people to be willing to take a stand. Because it was other allies and other people that did that, who encouraged me. After meeting [Peggy Campolo] it was like, this has got to happen.
What do you say to gays and lesbians who think that this grace thing is too good to be true, and they still want to deny their true selves?
I tell them it’s too good to be true, but unfortunately — or fortunately — it is true, and you’re loved just the way you are. And 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. Sin is the same as [things that] cause hurt and cause pain. These aren’t magic words. These are practical words that work. Know you’re accepted, no matter what anybody says. Accept you’re accepted, because I think that’s transformative.
I like the theologian Paul Tillich. He said you don’t even have to become more religious. You don’t even have to believe more. You don’t even have to decide on what you’re believing. At this point, accept that you are accepted and allow that to change you. Allow that to transform you. And I’ve found that to be true. A lot of people would say, “Oh, that sounds a little iffy. You’ve got to put this message in there and that.” But I’ve just learned to trust God in these situations. And I’ve seen the power of grace.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.