If you’d told me back in the 80’s that the son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker would be one of the Christian speakers and writers I’d be most interested in hearing from in 2012, I … well, I guess I would have believed you; I’m not sure. I probably would have said, “It’s weird how things and people don’t turn out the way you expect, isn’t it?”
As the son of a famous (and then famously disgraced) televangelist couple, Jay Bakker could’ve gone one of two popular routes: the Franklin Graham “I’m going to be everything my dad was only even more conservative and reactionary!!!” route, or the Frankie Schaeffer “I’ve rejected all that and I’m faintly embarrassed I was ever associated with it” route. Jay Bakker didn’t go down either of those easy paths. After some years of adolescent and young-adult rebellion which included alcoholism and recovery, Jay discovered the message of God’s grace and now is a pastor — the hippest of hip pastors, tattoo’d and pierced and preaching out of a bar in Brooklyn, apparently.
To be honest, all this could just be window dressing for an ultra-conservative ministry as it is with far too many “cool, young pastors” if it weren’t for the fact that Bakker has also come out (as it were) as a gay-affirming pastor. There are very few people who teach what is an essentially conservative, evangelical understanding of the Bible and also openly welcome and include gays and lesbians in their churches, and as one of those LGBT-affirming evangelicals myself (but mercifully not a pastor), I’m grateful for Jay Bakker’s ministry.
All that is by way of introduction and context to say that I enjoyed this book, which is a pretty straightforward examination of the Biblical teaching of God’s grace, not dissimilar to what you might find in Philip Yancey’s book (highly recommended by me) What’s So Amazing About Grace? Some people will find Bakker goes too far in emphasizing grace over law; in my experience the people most likely to make that complaint are the ones who most need to hear the message of God’s unconditional love and acceptance. Yes, he goes to extremes in making this argument, but for those of us who have grown up in churches where lip service is paid to grace but huge emphasis is put on “right” behavior (always right as defined by that particular church community), it’s an extreme that needs to be gone to. We can’t hear often enough that God really does accept us as we are and that nothing we can do can earn or cancel out God’s grace.
A couple of chapters are also devoted to Bakker’s stand on gays and lesbians, which of course is controversial within his evangelical milieu. The Biblical exegesis of the passages relating to homosexuality is a little superficial (it’s important to remember that, like the rest of this book, this is written for a general audience; it’s not a scholarly analysis) but he does point the way towards some studies that examine the question more thoroughly, and places his approach to LGBT issues in the context of his teaching about grace.
What makes this telling of the gospel of grace unique is, as for any writer, what he brings of his own story to illustrate and illuminate the Biblical message. Obviously Jay Bakker has had a lot of experience in his relatively short life that has led him to place grace in such a central position in his belief system. He (along with a co-author; Bakker talks about having severe dyslexia and presumably needs help putting his thoughts in writing, which makes sense) tells many stories from his past to illustrate how he got to where he is today, but I’ll admit I wanted more of a memoir, and I’m not sure how much of that was a voyeuristic urge to know more about the great Bakker scandal, and how much was just a genuine desire to know how it felt to be Jay Bakker. I got a lot of information from the book but not a strong sense of how it was to go through those experiences: Bakker strikes me as a better preacher than a memoirist (he does have an actual memoir, called Son of a Preacher Man, but after reading this book and realizing that that one was written in 2001, I suspect it might not be reflective of the person he is and the way he views his past today, so I haven’t read it).
So, if you’re looking for a memoir about what it was like to be the son of a preacher man who lived through one of the most infamous Christian scandals of the last century, this book probably will not tell you everything you want to know, though there is a basic outline there. But that’s not the book Bakker was trying to write, as far as I can see. If you want a Biblical examination of the teaching of grace and its practical application, this one will make you think.