This month in the Patheos Book Club, we're discussing Jay Bakker's new book, Fall to Grace. Read an excerpt from the book here, then check out the Discussion Questions and join the discussion on "revolutionizing grace" at the Take & Read Book Club blog here.
We are punished by our sins, not for them.
You know you've reached a new level of fame in American culture (or infamy) when there's a casting call to play you in a movie.
In my case, it was a second-rate made-for-TV movie called Fall from Grace, starring Kevin Spacey as my dad and Bernadette Peters-face painted like the side of a barn-as my mom. Somewhere in Hollywood a bunch of chubby white kids lined up, hoping to get their big break playing the part of little Jamie Charles Bakker, son of disgraced televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye.
What those other kids might not have realized was that being the son of the picture-perfect Christian family was a role for me too. Twice a week I would don a child-sized suit, tame my cowlick, and brandish my jack-o'-lantern grin for an audience of millions on my parents' Praise the Lord (PTL) television ministry.
The network's supporters were my extended family. All through grade school, my yearbook picture (no matter how humiliating) was mailed to six hundred thousand PTL faithful around the world. They knew of my birth even before my dad did. He was on the air preaching when the producers flashed the words "It's a boy! It's a boy!" across the bottom of the screen like a severe-weather warning. On December 18, 1975, Hurricane Jay made landfall.
For those readers who don't know my family story, or have assigned those memories to the junk pile of 1980s trivia, let me lay a little groundwork here. It's not that I take pleasure in retreading this territory (believe me, I don't). But I do think it's important that you understand what I've lived through to learn grace.
My family set the standard for televised crack-ups. Before O.J. on the interstate, before Michael Jackson dangled babies over balconies, before Britney went all bald and strange, there was the Jim and Tammy Faye "mascara meltdown." But prior to being pariahs my parents were pop-culture pioneers. They were the first people to bring down-home, family-friendly Christian worship into America's living rooms through television. They paved the way for the best-selling mega-church stars of today. For good or ill, it all started with my mom and dad.
And it all started humbly enough. In 1964, my parents made their first appearance on the Christian Broadcasting Network, the station of future Christian television mogul Pat Robertson. They debuted with a kids' show featuring handmade puppets: Susie Moppet (a Porky Pig bubble-bath cap refashioned with braids, voiced by my mom) and Allie the Alligator (a leopard-print sock with teeth, voiced by Dad) would sing Christian songs and explain God's Word.
One thing led to another, and by the mid-1980s my parents owned one of only four satellite TV networks in the world, along with a sprawling theme park and the largest TV ministry the world had ever witnessed. At its height, PTL was carried on twelve hundred cable systems around the globe, broadcasting into more than thirteen million homes.
Dad became a global figure-a new breed of Christian businessman and a friend to presidents and movie stars. He convinced himself that it was all in keeping with God's plan. He told Time magazine in 1986 that if Jesus were alive today, "he'd have to be on TV. That would be the only way he could reach the people he loves."1
Dad preached a soft version of the prosperity gospel, one that said: Do good and you'll do well-then give some back. He didn't run commercials on the network, so his whole ministry became a kind of on-air appeal. He was constantly raising money to keep PTL going-and growing. At its height, PTL had to raise $500,000 per day to keep the lights on. (Dad would later admit that fund-raising got in the way of his relationship with God and led to some of the decisions that would be his undoing.)