Prodigal Son? | Arts Feature | Indy Week

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Prodigal Son?

In a new memoir, Jay Bakker attempts to reclaim his birthright, his father's God--and his fame


Remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker? As if you could forget. Well, they have a son--little Jamie Charles, as followers of the Charlotte-based televangelists will remember the boy who squirmed away his childhood years under the bright spotlight of the family's Praise the Lord (PTL) Network show. Young Bakker was 11 in 1987, when his parents' empire began to crumble under the pressure of scandal. Twenty-five now, and calling himself Jay, he's put out a book with his version of the saga: Son of A Preacher Man: My Search for Grace in the Shadows.

I say "put out" a book advisedly: Son of A Preacher Man is credited "with Linden Gross" and Bakker makes much of his dyslexia among the myriad struggles of his quarter century on earth. So it's unclear whom we can blame for the bland, repetitive, cliched prose. Stylistically speaking, this is the shoddiest bit of printed matter I've seen in a long time.

But let us judge not, in that respect. A book like Bakker's is not so much a piece of literature as a cultural document. And an odd one it is.

The book begins with mother Tammy Faye's breakdown from addiction to pharmaceuticals. Soon after, revelations of Jim Bakker's sexual tryst with a former employee force him to step down as head of the PTL. Allegations come to light which will send him to jail for fraud. Reporters stake out the Bakker residence, as 11-year-old Jamie Charles is dragged along through it all, accompanying his mother to the Betty Ford clinic and his father to court. Jay Bakker recalls being sent outside by his father to climb trees and take Polaroids of the press stakeouts. He says he thought it was a game. From there, the book traces his teenage years as he drifts from place to place, quickly becoming an angry young man with an alcohol problem.

If you were hoping Jay Bakker was going to dish out the dirt on mom and dad, you'll be disappointed. No fallen celebrities could hope for a loyal, more adoring son. The introduction lauds Jim Bakker "who has been unjustly remembered for his sins rather than his service." Camp enthusiasts for Tammy Faye will find little of interest here, either. Jay Bakker in print displays none of the chutzpah his mother showed to such winning effect in the recent documentary, The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Nor does he have the dippy humor that helped her parley a bunch of sock-puppet Sunday school skits into religious superstardom.

He did seem to inherit her notorious propensity to weep in public, however. Son of a Preacher Man is a long litany of paranoia and self-pity. Life was tough on Jamie Charles from early childhood: "When kids weren't making fun of my weight or the money my folks had or how I dressed, they made fun of the warts on my hands." To be sure, the way he grew up would have been hard on any kid. But it seems that Bakker is determined to remember every slight from the teachers who sent him to the guidance counselor to the parking lot attendant who towed his friend's car. "Here I was going through all this hell," he says at one point, and "This was one more person who had come to destroy my family" and "Along with my hope, another part of me died that day." Nearly every page contains such a sentiment. Jamie Charles' heart has been "shredded" more times than I care to recall.

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, prayest to the Father which is in secret; and thy father which seest in secret shall reward thee openly. --Matthew 6:5

Chief among the persecutors of Jay Bakker and his family are ministers, former supporters of the Bakker family, and especially, other televangelists. Much space is devoted to his enduring hatred of Jerry Falwell, who, to be sure, neatly maneuvered the elder Bakker out of power when he saw his chance. Here is where Son of a Preacher Man becomes one with the slippery, self-serving rhetoric of the Christian right. While his father is still in jail, the teenage Jay meets with Falwell and forgives him. Apparently, in Bakker's theology, you can publicly accuse someone of whatever you like, as long as you say "but I forgive you." Bless his heart.

As you may have guessed, the preacher man's son has become a preacher man himself. Throughout his teenage years, he asserts he felt a call to the ministry despite his heavy drinking and drugging. After a few false starts, he wound up in Atlanta organizing a Christian youth program he calls Revolution, designed to appeal to punk rockers and other disaffected teens. The pierced and tattooed Bakker sees himself as defying church authority and breaking new ground in bringing his gospel to concerts and skateboard parks: "Kids are dying and going to hell every day, and a lot of these bands are the only Jesus they will ever see." Well, more power to him, I guess. No doubt there's an Atlanta burnout or two who could use the saccharine comfort Bakker has to offer. His message, at least, is short on sin and long on redemption. That would stick in my throat a little less if he didn't repeatedly demand that the world embrace him and his disgraced father for their service to God.

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called a house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves. --Matthew 21:12, 13

If Bakker wants us to feel sorry for him, I for one, do. I feel sorry for anyone whose life efforts have brought him so little peace he must trumpet his sufferings from every corner of the globe, ceaselessly craving the approval of enemies real and imagined. No doubt a childhood spent on national television and the repercussions of his father's misdeeds did this guy a lot of damage. But I don't believe the public owes him amends, or that the Bakker family deserves to be "restored," by which he seems to mean restored to their former positions of power and fame. He vigorously denies any financial misconduct on the part of Jim Bakker; he acknowledges that his dad "made some mistakes" but neglects to detail just what those were.

Jay Bakker grew up on the squeaky clean streets of Heritage USA. Heritage was a four-square-mile shopping mall, hotel, TV studio and entertainment complex, complete with waterpark and a Christmas light display that was the wonder of suburban Charlotte gawkers. On his broadcasts, Jim Bakker exhorted the faithful to send money to support this "Christian retreat;" by Jay Bakker's estimate, they did so to the tune of a million dollars every other day. Perhaps Jim Bakker did "lose sight of God" in the struggle to keep this monument to modern Christianity afloat. But nowhere in Son of a Preacher Man does the younger Bakker question the wisdom or glory of this stupendous folly. It was "magical." He weeps, years later, when he is kicked off the grounds for trespassing at the now decaying themepark without bothering to call ahead for permission.

To young pastor Bakker, Heritage USA, with its ice cream store named after his sister, was his birthright. As was the wealth his family accumulated, the paid staff, his two-story climate-controlled treehouse, the unlimited treats, the vacation houses. Even after the family supposedly "lost everything," he somehow had enough cash to drink up $400 weekly bar tabs during his black sheep years.

Most disturbingly, Bakker's vision of redemption for his family takes the form of their triumphant return to the public eye. He couldn't be more excited about his mother's starring role in the camp documentary The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Any irony implicit in that film is lost on Jay Bakker. To him, God's favor shows in sister Tammy Sue gearing up for a gospel singing career, father Jim plotting to return to his role as shepherd of the airwaves, Jay's own face in Rolling Stone magazine. For a guy who claims publicity destroyed his life, he's awfully hungry for more.

No doubt the fact that not everyone greets these prodigals with open arms will serve to further the Bakker's persecution complex. In a way, it is a shame, because, in the end, he comes off as simply a rather naive, if over-privileged, young guy trying to please his disapproving dad. In some ways, I believe he is truly looking for redemption. If so, someone ought to tell him that real life doesn't happen on television, or in the public eye at all. If he took the "kick-me" sign off his rear and got out of the limelight, he might find that there's life after PTL. EndBlock

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