Can the Fallen Church Fall to Grace?
The fall of televangelist Jim Bakker and his PTL ministries was a watershed moment in the history of American evangelicalism. The Bakker ministry had achieved extraordinary success and influence, and had turned its influence to a variety of causes, many of them of unquestioned worth. Yet Bakker's fall began when it was revealed he had committed adultery with a church secretary, and later revelations disclosed the luxury the Bakkers had built around themselves while the ministry struggled with debt and accounting fraud. Bakker resigned and was replaced at PTL by Jerry Falwell, and eventually Bakker endured imprisonment and divorce. While Tammy Faye went on to other ministry ventures, Jim Bakker remarried and has remained out of the public eye.
Fall to Grace walks readers through this experience from the vantage point of the Bakkers' youngest child, Jay, and tells a classic prodigal son story in which Jay, burned and spurned by the church, sought comfort in a life of distraction but eventually returned to embrace the grace of God and even a call into ministry. Yet the God he came to know in his adulthood was not at all the God he had heard about in his youth, and the ministry to which he is called is radically different from the ministry of his parents.
Fall to Grace has been discussed in Patheos' Book Club. He spoke with Timothy Dalrymple by phone.
Let's get the parental question out of the way. What does it mean, in your mind, that you are the son of Jim and Tammy Faye?
I love my mom and dad. They've taught me a lot. I'm grateful for the way they helped me get my foot in the door. I wouldn't be where I am without them.
But now I have a new message and a new ministry. I'm trying to create my own platform to let people know about God's grace and God's love.
It's tough. I wish that my parents weren't discussed in a negative way every time I am interviewed, because of course I love them and I'm proud to be their son. Other people want to talk about their failures over twenty years ago. I just want to move forward.
After the fall of PTL, and your own disillusionment with the church, you entered a period of rebellion and experimentation. You describe this in your book. But what brought about your "fall to grace"?
I had grown up viewing God as a taskmaster who was constantly supervising your behavior. I never felt like I could live up to the expectations of God, or the expectations other Christians had for me. Christianity seemed to be about living a moral and conservative life, rather than a life of freedom, love, grace, and forgiveness.
When I was about 20, I told a friend of mine, D. E. Polk, that I thought and felt as though God hated me. He said, "You're full of shit, and here's why." He started telling me about grace.
At first I felt like it was just a compromise. I had left the church, by this point, and wanted nothing to do with it. I had hit rock bottom. I asked if he could prove to me that this was in the scriptures.
And he did. He showed me this message of grace in Paul's letters to the Romans and the Galatians. I finally began to understand what Paul was saying about grace and how it sets us free from the law of sin and death. To me, "the Law" sounded a lot like what I had experienced of Christianity, where it was always about doing the right thing. The message of grace and love came to me as a liberation. The gospel became good news again, and in that good news I found the freedom to live.
Dr. Timothy Dalrymple is the Associate Director of Content at Patheos, and writes weekly on faith, politics, and culture for Patheos' Evangelical Portal. Follow him at his blog, Philosophical Fragments, on Facebook or on Twitter.