On a tiny stage of a tiny bar in the heart of Brooklyn, New York, a tattooed guy with black-rimmed eye glasses, wearing a black t-shirt, jeans, white socks, and black shoes, a kind of cross between comedian Drew Carey and the goofy singer from Weezer, stands in front of an unused kick drum and guitar amplifier.
All things considered, this is not unusual.
And on this warm May Sunday afternoon at Pete’s Candy Store (that’s the name of the bar), the guy looks out across an expectant 30 or so people sitting in front of him, taps the microphone to check it’s live, and smiles when the club’s “lightshow”, a row of bare dressing-room-style white light bulbs, flicker on.
“Wow, it is all of a sudden so much more glorious up here!” says our guy, with a grin.
The audience laughs and Jay Bakker, original son of a preacher man, gets his next gig on the road.
It’s this — the venue, the location, the audience, the tattoos, the do-it-yourself punk rock attitude — that, within a bigger picture, which is unusual.
You see, Bakker, 31 years old, is a Christian preacher. Not just any preacher either. He’s the son of Jim and Tammy Fay Bakker, the husband and wife television evangelists who, during the 1980s, created religious, broadcasting, and corporate history with their Praise The Lord empire.
The Bakkers were so hot they created Heritage USA, a grand and godly theme park in South Carolina fitted out with water slides, to match their TV satellite network and multi-million dollar bank accounts.
Then, of course, it all went wrong. Very wrong.
Jim got caught up in a sex scandal. Praise The Lord spun into financial scandal. Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, who died in May, described Bakker at the time as “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2000 years of church history.” Which, regardless of your take on religion, is a big call.
Jim Bakker went to jail, was divorced by his wife, and wrote a book called “I Was Wrong.”
Jay, then known as Jamie Charles Bakker, was a kid at the time and watched all this unfold from within a bubble that spectacularly burst over his head, big time. Bakker Junior’s teenage reaction to developments were not dissimilar to what many of us would do in equal circumstance.
He got drunk. He took drugs. He rode his skateboard. He got into punk rock. Jay, though, discovered that being the son of celebrities, especially 1980s Christian celebrities, came with an extra truckload of baggage.
“I grew up in a bubble and when we lost everything it was the opposite,” says Bakker, sitting in the outside garden of a Brooklyn café, a few days after his sermon at Pete’s Candy Store.
“I would get into fist fights at school because they’d say things about my mom and dad. It was sometimes hard and, then again, it was semi-normal. I went through all the rebellious things that people go through, like drinking and partying and drugs, but it was a bit more amplified for me because of the attention.”
“I went to church and everyone knew what I did. I went to Christian school and I was under a microscope. These people were constantly watching me because of who my family was. I was just a kid. Christians were always putting extra attention on me, making an example of me or saying they were going to fix me.”
One time, a tabloid magazine reporter cornered the teenage Jay and offered him $30,000 to spill the beans on his parents.
“That was the prime time,” he recalls. “My parents were getting a divorce and they really wanted a big scoop. I was just a kid.”
Jay Bakker’s favourite tattoo is one that sits across his chest. It’s of a train that carries his mother’s maiden name — La Valley. “It hurt horribly,” he recalls. Back at Pete’s, he tells us from the stage that he’s spent the past week with his mother, who has just recently stopped taking drugs to treat her terminal cancer. Unsurprisingly, it was a mixed up and complicated week when you throw in the sudden death of Jerry Falwell, the iconic leader of America’s religious right, they guy who never forgave the Bakker family for its public fall from grace.
“I got a lot of text messages when Falwell died,” he tells his audience. “Some were reverent.”
“Some were irreverent.”
He laughs to himself.
“You know who you are…”
The small crowd laughs too.
In 1994, Bakker, no longer out of his head but still pierced, tattooed, skateboarding, and listening regularly to Californian punk rock band Social Distortion, formed a church called Revolution. It had a simple mission. It was a Christian church for people who’d given up on Christianity. Bakker launched the modest concept with two friends, Kelli Miller and Mike Walls, in Phoenix, Arizona. They met, with others, in coffee shops and bars. Revolution has since had incarnations in Atlanta (twice), Los Angeles, and now New York. There are ordained ministers in Atlanta and Charlotte, as well as Bakker in New York.
“We felt that there was a whole group of people that the church was ignoring,” Bakker says. “We were young and wanted to reach people our own age. We would see all these churches but we would see all people hanging outside smoking. People were falling though the cracks. We wanted to create something for them, by them.”
Like punk, Bakker’s revolution developed from DIY ethic into a message-carrying movement. He may not admit it too loudly but Bakker is taking on the mainstream Christian Church in America, a mass that wields enormous moral and political power.
He would also never say it too loud right now but Bakker is telling many Christians that they’ve misinterpreted God, the Bible, the whole bit. Put simply, just like corporate rock, a corporate God sucks. Big time.
“Jay is hands down the most transparent person I have ever met,” says Marc Brown, Bakker’s friend who runs Revolution’s New York administration from the bedroom of his no frills Brooklyn apartment. “I’ve never seen anyone who is as openly honest as Jay. Sometimes, he will get up at church and say that he’s not sure if he believes in God anymore.”
Like Bakker, Brown had a religious-heavy upbringing like many kids in America. Like Bakker, he grew cynical and tired of mixed messages and Christian hypocrisy. He identified with Bakker’s simple message and climbed aboard the wagon. He built a website (an important tool in reaching Revolution’s contemporary audience) and was subsequently hired full-time as the church’s first and only employee (Revolution is funded by donations but more on that in a minute).
“What drew me into Revolution was the concept of grace,” says Brown. “I had heard it all my life, it was a Christian catchphrase but I never understood what it meant.”
“Jay was the first person to really explain it to me and help me understand that grace was God’s unconditional love for us, regardless of who we are, what we’ve done, and what we will do. I grew up knowing only about conditional love. God loves you if… Or God loves you but…
“If I say I’m a Christian, I want people to think, hey, ‘He really wants to help people’. I think the church has failed at that. In our culture, people see the mega churches and see the $200,000 sign out the front and say, How is that relevant to me?”
Adds Bakker: “Grace. That was my thing. There was a need for it. I watched what my parents went through and what a lot of friends had gone through, living a life of guilt and fear, and realised that none of that is even in the Bible. Or that it had been twisted and misconstrued.”
In other words, rather than be a church with rules, regulations, and guidelines, Revolution’s hymn, if they sang them at Pete’s Candy Store, might be Nirvana’s Come As You Are.
“It very much is that,” agrees Bakker. “That is one thing I appreciate about punk rock, probably early 80s punk rock, was that it was not about pissing people off so much, it was about being loyal and making a difference and showing respect. They are aspects that are also a part of Revolution.”
“We don’t have formal positions on sex, drugs, or rock ’n’ roll,” explains Marc Brown. “Seeing as we meet in a bar, we probably won’t tell you not to drink. It’s not our job to tell people what they should be doing or not doing, unless it’s harming someone else. It’s a personal issue between you and God. Jay or I can’t dictate that to someone.”
This was where it got tricky for Revolution. Last year, Bakker took a public stand declaring that the New York branch of Revolution did not consider homosexuality was a sin. Cue wider Christian outrage. Bakker’s open arms didn’t go down well with the Atlanta branch of Revolution nor with most other Christian groups across the USA. The position was amplified by being highlighted on a TV documentary series about Bakker called ‘One Punk Under God’ (“I tried to get that title changed,” cringes Bakker. “It was a marketing thing. The other suggestion was ‘Tattooed Prophet’. I didn’t want that either.”)
Invitations for Bakker to talk at churches across the USA were cancelled and, more critically, certain (now former) supporters withdrew funding for Revolution. Rule one in the Christianosphere: don’t rock the boat. Especially by supporting homosexuals.
“The church has done a horrible job with the gay community,” Bakker says. “I supported [the gay community] and that’s where I had the most fall out [from Christians]. I got cancelled everywhere.”
“I really feel that the scriptures written on this 2000 years ago were referring to different subjects. They were not talking about two men or two women in an intimate, loving, relationship. They were talking about prostitution and idol worship.”
“I think it has been turned into a sin and there should be more dialogue about it. Instead there’s still fighting [within Christian groups], splitting and arguing, which in itself is a lack of respect for one another. We should be able to agree to disagree.”
“It is almost a childish way of dealing with things. It is more about politics and being worried about what other people will think than trusting God.”
Marc Brown, who watches over Revolution’s finances had a pragmatic reaction to the stand taken on gay rights: “Jay and I didn’t get paid for about two and a half months. Things got pretty bad. Now, things aren’t great, but we’re doing better.”
During this part of the conversation, almost on cue, Bakker’s wife Amanda calls several times on her cell phone from Atlanta airport to give updates on her attempt to catch a flight to New York. A student at New York University, she and Bakker have been married eight years.
“I was nervous,” Bakker recalls of his wedding. “It was emotional. We had a very traditional wedding. White dress, tuxedos, an old Presbyterian church. My friends were having these Rockabilly weddings and I just wanted to do something normal. If I could go back I would elope and save the money.”
The newly weds had “a honeymoon in Hell” in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. “We had no money,” Bakker says. “We went to the Bahamas a year later to make up for it.”
Bakker’s experience with his stand on welcoming the gay community to Revolution only strengthened his conviction that much of modern day Christianity is wrongly judgmental, a situation that he claims has damaged the church.
“If you read the Bible, it says ‘blessed are the peace makers’,” Bakker says. “But Christians are the ones going to war. ‘How you forgive, you will be forgiven’ but Christians are the ones who want people to have longer jail sentences. Conservatives are the most unforgiving and that is really sad. It has really hurt Christianity. In this country, the Christian right and the Moral Majority, as they like to call themselves, have hurt the church. Everything the Christian right has done is destructive.”
Back at Pate’s Candy Store, where Bakker is holding court, he stops a reading from Galatians, from the New Testament, to talk about his plan to head to a tattoo convention taking place across the bridge in Manhattan after the service.
“Has anyone been?” he asks the congregation. No one, sipping on Brooklyn Lagers, says they have (although several had taken part in an AIDS charity walk, alongside Bakker, earlier in the day). Nor, do they think they will join Bakker.
“Ah, you guys suck…” he laughs.
Later, Bakker explains that he’s happy preaching to a small crowd at a bar and not following the 1980s excess that dogged his parents, or say, a sell-out commercial rock band. Bakker rarely uses the Internet for personal use although Brown loads Podcasts of each weekly sermon on Revolution’s website, creating a countrywide congregation for those who can’t make the trip out to deepest Brooklyn.
“You don’t have to have this mega church,” Bakker explains. “I like the personal aspect of hanging out afterwards. If it got too big I would just stop.”
There is, of course, one major potential flaw in all of this religion business. It’s a big question but a critical one, nonetheless. Especially considering President George Bush holds weekly Monday morning telephone conferences with Christian leaders across the US to gauge support for policy; considering the world is locked in war based pretty much on religious views; considering that the United States is absolutely awash with churches; considering, as the Bakkers discovered, there’s money to be made (and lost) in those Bibles.
Jay, is there really some dude up there?
“There’s something up there,” he replies, after carefully considering the question. “I really do have a faith that there is a loving god, a caring god, and that he wrapped him in flesh and walked on the Earth and called himself Jesus. But I can’t say I’m always 100 per cent sure. That’s where my faith comes in.”
“Is my faith weak sometimes? Yeah. Other times, is what I’m doing just like going into the family business? Is this just an American religion that I grew up and was trained in? I constantly keep myself open. It will be interesting to find out one day…”
We walk through the Brooklyn streets (around his adopted home Bakker, for the most part, goes unnoticed even if, for a month or so, his face adorned posters on the side of buses promoting ‘One Punk Under God’.)
Jay, I ask, what is it with a 2000 year old book, that people feel the need to live their life by? What’s the difference between the Bible and, say, The Cat in the Hat?
“Everything has to rhyme in Dr Seuss,” he replies. “It’s a lot harder to write than The Bible.”
He considers a serious answer.
“For me, the Bible is the message of ‘Love your neighbour as yourself, love God with all your heart, love your enemy, turn the other cheek’. They seem like pretty solid principals. I can’t verbalise why. It just is.”
“It’s in my heart. Everything I’ve been through in my life, I’ve come out better on the other side and faith has guided me through this. The more I study the Bible, the more I find grace and peace in my life.
“A lot of time faith is just believing and trusting. I feel I’m past the point of ‘I hope God is there’. I really feel that he is there.”
Then, as transparent as his Revolution partner Marc Brown had earlier suggested, Bakker has a flash of doubt, followed by redemption.
“I can’t prove the existence of God right now,” he says. “But give me a couple of days…”
This story originally appeared in Men’s Style magazine in 2008.