The first thing one notices about the handsome young man in the jacket photo is his two full sleeves of tattoos. The black T-shirt and short haircut lend him a resemblance to rock ranter Henry Rollins. It's actually Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's son in the picture, though-Jamie Charles all grown up-and somehow we're not surprised.
The jacket blurb says Jay Bakker currently ministers to "a disillusioned subculture." Now, some might argue that Bakker's folks contributed to that subculture's disillusionment. It has been noted that the under-35 demographic is a tad obsessed with keeping it real, and Jim and Tammy Faye weren't exactly brimming with earthy authenticity. It may have been unfair, or a setup as the son alleges, but the downfall of the Bakkers was mourned by few in Jay's age group. Many people thought or likely said aloud: good riddance. And in that sentiment, the skeptical public was joined by vast hordes of reporters, congregations, and most of the other high-profile evangelists of the era. Jim Bakker's televised tears and Tammy Faye's mascara became the stuff of "Saturday Night Live" skits.
So this is what Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye, has to unpack. Naturally, anyone brandishing a book contract must deliver a yarn spun with inspiration or prurience. Of course, Jay Bakker's story promises both. His dad went to prison. His parents divorced. He lived at ground zero of the media blast that leveled his father's own evangelical Magic Kingdom, Heritage USA. As a 13-year-old suffering through his father's trial on fraud and conspiracy charges, a tabloid actually offered Jay Bakker $30,000 for an interview.
Unsurprisingly, Bakker self-medicated. He got body art. He acquired a taste for punk rock and hip hop. In a sense, Bakker embodies the demographic model that advertisers, politicians, pundits, and other sociological inquisitors have constructed as proof of his generation's dissolution. He would have cause for much cynicism (even though we know from the book blurb that this is a redemption story). Few would be shocked if he leveled some of that cynicism at his parents' carnivalesque ministry.
However, Bakker's obvious affection for his folks here softens and humanizes their freakish media image until Jim and Tammy Faye become just two more beset, dysfunctional, yet oddly touching and familiar American parents. Jim Bakker's obsessive dream to build a theme-park retreat for evangelicals becomes the story of just another workaholic but well-intentioned father. They start to make sense to the rest of us.
Bakker's strongest indictments are leveled at Jerry Falwell, Paul and Jan Crouch, Pat Robertson, and other high-profile ministers. These fellow evangelists, Bakker alleges, either contributed to the downfall of his father or refused the son's pleadings for help in obtaining a reduction of the elder Bakker's 45-year sentence. "The fact that this was being done in the name of Christ made it worse. No wonder people hate Christians the way they do or think that Christianity is screwed up, when they see us destroying each other." Ironically (or maybe not), it is only Jimmy Swaggart who supports the younger Bakker's call.
With his dad's support, Bakker pulls himself out of a reliance on liquor, pot, and acid. He grapples with God's grace for alcoholics, depressed punks, even ostracized evangelists. As both an insider and an outsider to the church, with some kicked habits and an appreciation for fine tattoos, Bakker finds his unique qualification for ministering to skaters, punks, and street kids-those who find themselves "driven away by the condemnation and the infighting within the church, by a religion that instead of preaching grace is known as the only army that kills its wounded."
Bakker's unpracticed prose (he fights dyslexia) sometimes veers into "Christianese," but the raw experience pushes through. Ultimately, it's an occasion to marvel at God's patience. Bakker's vision, centered around Atlanta's edgy Little Five Points neighborhood, now includes punk shows, a runaway shelter, and a judgment-free Bible study for all comers. In the aftermath of a marriage, a theme park, and a multi-million dollar television ministry, the son of Jim and Tammy Faye found his calling at street level-not unlike Jesus.
Bob Massey lives in Arlington, Virginia, and covers music and technology for The Washington Post, Spin, and other publications.