Evangelicalism: The tattooed generation

JaycoverThere’s little new about the story that Jamie “Jay” Bakker — the son of PTL Club cohosts Jim and Tammy Faye — survived a hellish journey through teenage alcoholism, reclaimed his Christian faith and has become a pastor in Atlanta. Bakker wrote about it in his autobiography, Son of a Preacher Man (2001).

Nevertheless, John Leland’s 3,000-word profile in The New York Times Magazine is captivating, sympathetic and humorous. Leland, who has written frequently about rock & roll and is the author of Hip: The History, is at his finest when drawing parallels between Bakker’s ministry, Revolution, and skate-punk culture:

Revolution is one of several thousand alternative ministries that have emerged in the last decade, meeting in warehouses, bars, skate parks, punk clubs, private homes or other spaces, in a generational rumble to rebrand the faith outside of what we think of as church. To travel among them is to feel returned to the alternative-rock scene of 15 years ago, just before Nirvana and Lollapalooza put it on the map. Instead of criticizing major record labels, these ministries criticize megachurches; instead of flattening the status of the rock star, they flatten the status of the pastor. They cluster in cells rather than in denominations or arenas, and connect through D.I.Y. zines online. They are a counterculture on two fronts: at odds with both their secular peers and conventional churches.

. . . On a sluggish afternoon at an Atlanta strip mall, I asked Bakker about the influence of punk rock in his ministry. We were in a shop called Timeless Tattoo, where Bakker was getting an afternoon’s worth of minor touch-ups. Though the shop has no religious affiliation, a couple of the staff artists play in Christian punk bands; another had played with Bakker in the Creeps, their Social Distortion cover band. Bakker took several passes at the punk question, never mentioning music. “Those are the people that reached out to me when the Christian world rejected me and my family,” he said of the punks and skaters. “That’s something about punk-rock ethics. Your friends have your back. We share our lives together, and there’s a loyalty there.”

Leland also touches on the surprises of evangelicals dipping their toes into tattoo culture:

His biography, which forms the narrative center of his ministry, is an object lesson in what Ryan Dobson, the heavily tattooed son of James Dobson, founder of the conservative group Focus on the Family, calls “the Christian tendency to shoot our wounded.”

. . . His tattoo habit dates from this period and has become a connective strand in his family life. He got his first, “Revolution,” when he was 18; his father did not approve, he said, because “it reminded him of prison.” His mother became interested through her son, though. Last fall, when I met Tammy Faye, she had just administered her first tattoo, on one of Jay’s friends. “I thought I was going to throw up,” she said, excitedly. “I was so scared that I was going to hurt him. I was shaking so bad the cross was crooked, and I straightened it out when I calmed down a little bit. And I signed it, ‘TF.’”

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  • Calee

    The NY Times has had a couple of good articles on religion lately. Check out the Home section where one is masquerading as a story about a kid friendly coffee shop…

  • http://turtleislander.blogspot.com/ Turtle

    It’s always a losing proposition to define yourself more by what you aren’t than by what you are. “Revolution” is such a movement. Check out their website. Listen to any sermon on the media page. They’re concerned more with not being a certain type of Christian than with being mature. They are selling t-shirts with such useful messages as “Religion Kills”. The obvious point is: “we’re not like those mainstream Christians.” If they are really honest with themselves, they’ll take a look at whatever shame issues they’re dealing with, that make them care so much about being cool.

    As Christians, we can disagree with legalism in the church, we can disagree over methodology, and we can disagree over church aesthetics, but we ultimately appeal to the same person: Jesus. In other words, these “revolution” people themselves believe that they’ll spend eternity with the people from whom they publically disassociate.

    And that’s a crying shame.

  • http://www.lexalexander.net Lex

    I met Jamie a couple of times, briefly, during the period just after his dad’s resignation from PTL. He was obnoxious (heck, he was, like, 10 or 12, which is basically the same thing), but he also obviously was in a lot of spiritual/psychic pain. I’m glad that his story has turned out for the better; no kid deserves the kind of life that, based on testimony in the elder Bakker’s criminal trial, he had to have led. He’ll be a lifetime getting over that.

    And although I have no use whatever for James Dobson, I think Ryan Dobson’s comment about Christians shooting their wounded is right on. At its best, Christianity is a hospital for sinners, and we need to be more mindful of that.

  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    I’m not sure what’s gained in the language young Mr. Bakker employs, nor am I sure HIS definition of “religion” – apparently “putting on concerts, hosting a movie night and just hanging out with people” – is any more a valid expression of faith than those who experience the divine in more traditional ways.

    However, his view of religion, expressed in his phrase, “Religion Kills,” is not limited to the teen skater crowd he hangs out with, where it would be understandable, given their rebellious age. Bashing “religion” is also a widespread trend in some conservative Christian circles. In many ways I think this attitude has been more corrosive to religious faith than the cold, stale worship those people condemn.

    The idea that some people fall into “a false perception of holiness that focuses on law and kills the true message of Christ,” as Bakker asserts, is certainly true. But it’s also true that some take religious faith to an opposite extreme.

    Where that often leads is to the idea that faith in God requires NO holiness, NO works, and NO effort on our part. (Hence, sitting around and rapping about Jesus or any run-of-the-mill hyper-emotional experience substitutes for religion.) That, to me, is a faith just as stale and dead as those who feel that reciting a creed and attending a somber service is all that is required by God of His people.

    In my view, many Christians could do with a little “religion,” i.e., some more attention to serving others, a little more order and reverence in worship and a bit more adherence to the idea that God expects holy behavior (not to be confused with “holier-than-thou” behavior.) To assert that one is “better” than others simply because they reject these traditionally rather non-controversial concepts is simply a display of arrogance. Understandable from young people, perhaps, but not from an entire wing of modern Christianity, from where I suspect he gained this particular viewpoint.

  • Alison

    The last thing I heard from Jamie Bakker a few years ago was when he expressed his disdain over those “legalistic” teens who made chastity pledges. I think that is an example of what you are talking about Stephen.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Do you have a URL for that New York Times story you want us to see?

  • greekgeek

    I think Bakker the younger, and the ministry he leads, makes valid points. Religion, in its instutational form – void of spirituality and real relationships, does kill.

    I’m a preacher’s kid, same age as Jay, and while I don’t have sleeves of tats I get where he’s coming from and I have to say I’m encouraged by what he is doing.

    Jesus, friend of the tax-collector and prostitute, would probably be doing the same were he walking around in corporeal form.

    I looked at the Web site and all I could think was, “I wish I lived closer to Atlanta so I could check it out.” Fellowship (concerts, movies, hanging out) IS ministry and sometimes it means meeting people WHERE THEY ARE AT.

    The people Revolution appear to be reaching out to, those who would feel unwelcome in your church or for that matter my church, are non-conformists by nature so it stands to reason mainstream Christians are not going to get it or approve.

  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    I agree that getting people where they are at is important. I guess I was looking beyond his METHODS to the MESSAGE and attitudes driving those trends in religion.

    I’m sure Jesus would hang out with skaters too. But I’m not sure he’d condemn, as Mr. Bakker may be inclined to do, those who attend church, sing hymns and model their lives around firmly held moral principles.

    Those folks are not “playing religion,” as some derisively say, they’re acting on their religious faith in God. That doesn’t kill faith, although (as I said) it can, just as non-judgemental, “no rules” religion can kill faith and make it sterile, too.

  • http://pastorstevesblog.blogspot.com/ Steve A.

    No question about it, much of what goes on in Western Christianity is dead, fruitless faith. The deadness or life of faith cannot be judged by whether or not a person wears a suit or sports tatto’s, but by the fruit of the Spirit. Making one’s truth claims by saying, “We’re not that” is always sinking sand. It is just as wrong for Jay to put all traditional Christianity in the same basket and label it religion that kills, as it is for anyone to dismiss out of hand another’s faith because of external factors. The truth is that in every form of Christianity there are wheat and tares, sheep and goats.

  • Andrew Bond

    I am a youthworker in Colorado interning to be a youth pastor. I have a tattoo, I got it for the point of relating to our troubled culture. The same thing with most of my friends who I grew up with.

    I would ask one question to the groups meeting and allying against the church.

    Who is influencing who?

    I have had to ask myself this recently. Are we to change our apperance, the way we speak, and the way we are to reach people?

    The leader of Dry-bones ministry out here has a ministry that reaches the same people Revolution does. Does he have any tattoo’s? Visible no. Does he wear patches or gutter punk clothing? No.

    My tattoo is unviewable unless I have my shirt off(not often in colorado). I wear geans and t-shirts. Do I have any problem making friends with punk rockers or slip knot fans? No

    >This culture has fallen into the attitude of “What can I get away with”. We spend out time defending when we need to be using our sword of truth!

  • greg

    Whatever happened to prayer and service?

    Sure “Hanging out” and skating are ministry but where do they develop from there? Do they just continue to “hang out” and gather others to “hang out”? “Hanging out” and being cool are not the ends of the Christian religion.

    Oh to be a pastor labouring in the mission fields of the cafe and band room!! Yet, as long as the pastor doesn’t lose sight of the requirement to grow faith then there’s no harm, each to thier own, “find your own Calcutta”, as Mother Thersa said. A cafe can be Calcutta.

    The clear danger is that leaders become too enarmoured by being counter-cultural for it’s own sake and forget that the Christian Faith they preach is, in fact, a pillar of the larger Western culture they mock.

    The distinction between “dead institutional religion” and “free spirit filled worship” is facile. It’s an adolescent distinction made by the children of a culture that refuses to grow up.

    Give me the stumbling folly of dead institutional religion, that of Francis of Assisi, Mother Theresa of Calcutta, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

  • Molly

    “Hanging out” equates with building relationships which equates with building trust and commitment which equates with living out the Gospel which equates with growing disciples regardless of whether those disciples are in a cafe in Seattle or in a slum in Calcutta.