As we make our way into 2007, can we all agree that one of the scourges of the new millennium is so-called “reality television?” There were all sorts of hideous examples of this cultural phenomenon in 2006 from the ghastly “Dr. 90210,” a show about plastic surgery that proved that people really are more shallow in Beverly Hills to the shockingly debased “Flavor of Love” in which former Public Enemy rap star Flavor Flav filled a mansion with terrifying specimens of the female persuasion and whittled them down week by week through a series of humiliating antics and cat fights. I saw only a few snippets of that show but it seemed to set the women’s movement back to somewhere just before the Mesozoic Era.
Kendall and I have mostly weaned ourselves off of all reality TV offerings. We were never into the more popular reality game shows such as “American Idol” or “Dancing with the Stars” but a few years ago we got suckered into a particularly heinous season of VH1’s “The Surreal Life” in which we were introduced to the diminutive gold-teethed Flavor Flav and his unlikely TV paramour, Nordic Amazon Brigitte Nielsen, ex-wife of Sylvester Stallone. Oy. We also watched, God help us, a spinoff of “The Surreal Life” called “My Fair Brady” (call the Lerner & Loewe attorneys!) in which a crazy young model chased after the middle-aged Peter Brady (Christopher Knight) and forced him to propose. The two reality stars then headed towards their impending nuptials like a 747 heading for its crash site. Continuing our cultural decline, we got hooked on the first season of “Breaking Bonaduce” in which former “Partridge Family” star Danny Bonaduce, a self-described train wreck, struggled with his alcoholism, drug addiction, bouts of violence, and several other undiagoned disorders on national television. With every episode of these shows we watched, we could feel our brain cells screaming in agony. I was determined to honor our moratorium on reality television until I caught a new show that debuted last month. I’ve been looking forward to each episode and I don’t even feel the need to do penance afterwards.
“One Punk Under God” on the Sundance Channel (and available on iTunes) details the activities of Jay Bakker, prodigal son of 1980s super-televangelists, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Jay was only 12 when his parents’ fundamentalist empire came tumbling down, thanks at first to revelations about Jim Bakker’s sleazy affair with church secretary Jessica Hahn and the hush money that was paid to her, and then a case of fraud that landed Jim in the clink for several years. The Bakkers handed over their massive ministry to friend and fellow evangelist Jerry Falwell who, in their view, then betrayed them big time by keeping it for himself and saying that in good conscience he could not turn the reins back over to the sinning Bakkers. Falwell called Bakker a liar, embezzler, sexual deviant, and “the greatest scab and cancer on the face of Christianity in 2,000 years of church history.” This from the man who blamed September 11th on abortionists, feminists, and homosexuals: “I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen,’” he said on “The 700 Club.” Host Pat Robertson readily concurred. Falwell is also the putz who said that “God is a Republican” and that “Jesus was the First American.” Huh? In the final analysis, Jim Bakker’s biggest sin may have been ever trusting Jerry Falwell.
I don’t know if I should admit this, but for a few years during its 1980s heyday, I consistently watched Jim and Tammy Faye’s wildly popular TV show, “The PTL Club.” I wasn’t a closet evangelical Christian, but I wasn’t watching purely to make fun of it either. Oh, I was horrified by the constant (and I mean CONSTANT) appeal for funds which included massive amounts of guilt-inducing manipulation (basically you didn’t have a prayer of getting into Heaven if you didn’t send a good chunk of your income straight to the Bakkers’ coffers). I was mesmerized by the power these two people seemed to wield. I watched as their gigantic Christian theme park and resort Heritage USA skyrocketed in popularity (in the 80s it was one of the top vacation destinations in the United States just after Disney World and Disneyland). Long before the scandals broke that would topple them, Jim and Tammy Faye would regale viewers with detailed explanations of their constant legal and financial problems with Tammy Faye breaking into mascara-smearing sobs at the drop of a hat.
Jim Bakker seemed like a high-tech snake oil-selling charlatan, but even with all of her excesses, there was something about Tammy Faye that I found endearing. She was easy fodder for comedians everywhere (two especially funny and brutal parodies of Tammy Faye were performed by Catherine O’Hara on “SCTV” and Jan Hooks on “Saturday Night Live”). One of the things that kept me glued to the show was Tammy Faye’s singing. Although her speaking voice could shatter glass and make you want to stuff communion wafers in your ears, her singing voice really did have an ethereal quality that seemed to come from the Divine. I couldn’t wait for Jim to shut up about his money worries and how he was being persecuted by the government so we could hear Tammy Faye trill for Jesus. The Bakkers would often parade their two young children in front of the cameras, Tammy Sue and Jamie, who seemed like bored snotty brats who would probably rebel from the so-called family values their parents espoused.
When the Bakkers fell from grace, I can’t say I didn’t join the clucking that they were finally getting their due. I watched their defensive rants on Larry King and was repulsed by the reports of their spending sprees including an air-conditioned doghouse, solid gold bathroom fixtures, and Tammy Faye’s wardrobe that made Imelda Marcos look like a country girl who’d taken a vow of poverty. But there’s nothing like being at the center of a well publicized scandal to give sinners a healthy dose of humility. The Bakkers lost their fortunes, the sprawling Heritage USA shut down, Jim got sent off to jail, and Tammy Faye divorced her husband, got remarried, and began a talk show with an openly gay co-host. Little Jamie Bakker, now calling himself Jay, dropped out of high school and fell into drug addiction before cleaning up his act and becoming a tattooed, pierced pastor in the Revolution Church, a Christian ministry that appeals to a decidedly more liberal crowd than his parents’ old TV show.
This six-part series details the activities of Jay Bakker, now 31 and still struggling with his identity as the son of Jim and Tammy Faye. We see how he has reclaimed his passion for Christianity, albeit a different version than the one his parents promoted, as well as his current relationship with mom and dad and his gorgeous rocker cool wife, Amanda, who is working on her PhD at NYU, and would just as soon see her husband drop his religious pursuits. I’ve seen three of the episodes so far and I was deeply moved by each one. The unabashedly sincere Jay welcomes everyone to his church and strives to prove that Christians are not all right-wing Christian Coalition neocons. “You can care about social issues,” he stresses. “You can care about the poor and the hurting.” Jay raises plenty of eyebrows in his church and risks his funding when he decides that he is pro-gay marriage. He visits his mom Tammy Faye who is sadly in stage 4 of inoperable lung cancer. The warm interplay between the two is heartbreaking and poignant. Jay tries desperately to see his father Jim, now out of jail and remarried with several new adopted children but his father seems reluctant to meet with him. They haven’t seen each other for over two years but finally Jim agrees to let Jay come and visit him and appear on the new television show he began a few years ago in Branson, Missouri. The meeting is awkward and painful. Jay still longs for a relationship with his dad, especially now that his mother is dying, but the workaholic Jim seems to be unable to relate to others except on his show. Following their reunion, Jay says, “I think my dad’s a pretty sincere guy. On TV.”
Whenever anyone is being followed by a TV crew, it obviously changes the dynamic of what’s going on. This is one of the reasons why “reality TV” is such a misnomer. But with Jay Bakker, it’s clear that the TV cameras have little effect on his earnestness. There is something so unusual about the personal truths that pour out of his mouth that I was moved to tears during each episode and worried about the lack of a protective shell around the vulnerable preacher. Unlike his dad, Jay never tailors his spiritual talks to cater to his followers (or their wallets), he speaks his mind and shares from his heart, no matter the consequences. Now that’s a religious calling I can respect.
I can’t stand the way many fundamentalist Christians invoke the name of Jesus to spread their message of intolerance and closed-mindedness, the very antithesis of Jesus’s teachings. But if Jesus were looking down on Jay Bakker and his ministry, I think he’d say, “Right on, brother.”