NEW YORK – Pastor Jay Bakker of Revolution Church NYC has released a new book in which he encourages Christians to doubt, question and re-examine their beliefs and the Bible in pursuit of the "unknown God of limitless grace" that he's come to know through his own faith journey.
- (Photo: Mindy Tucker)
Son of televangelists Jim Bakker and the late Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, the 37-year-old self-described "evangelical punk preacher" believes the Christian Church has misrepresented God and contributed to the sufferings of many with its orthodox teachings on sin, salvation and eternity. More inclined to be filed alongside the works of Peter Rollins, Rob Bell, Brian D. McLaren and other so-called emergent Christian leaders, Faith, Doubt and Other Lines I've Crossed is heavy on love and grace and selective in its assessment of Scripture – apparently a continuing theme from Bakker's previous work, Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self & Society (2011).
Bakker's reflections on a faith that he feels needs to be reformed don't seem to rest on genuine biblical interpretation, as he chooses in Faith, Doubt and Other Lines I've Crossed to ignore the more troublesome and demanding texts that test his own views. He claims Christians who believe the Bible is inerrant don't take that same Bible "seriously." Yet the New York City preacher leaves plenty of room in Faith, Doubt and Other Lines I've Crossed for others to make the same claim about him – and not because he disagrees with a God-inspired view of Scripture or believes that Scripture leaves room for homosexual relationships, but rather because he separates the God of the Bible from much of what the Bible claims God has said and done.
Although Bakker's theology may cause some readers to bristle, his demands for a more biblically literate, compassionate and socially-conscious Christian Church certainly hold merit. As the preacher explained to The Christian Post this week, there is plenty that the Church has gotten right in terms of combating poverty and hunger, but he also insists Christians need to re-think the issues he believes much of the community has gotten wrong – especially when it comes to gays and lesbians.
Below is Bakker's discussion with The Christian Post, conducted via phone and email, about his new book, Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I've Crossed: Walking with the Unknown God. It has been edited for clarity.
CP: Please summarize Faith, Doubt and Other Lines I've Crossed. What's it all about?
Bakker: The idea is just that it's okay to question your faith. You usually come out stronger for doing so. Growing up I was always taught that doubt was something that was very forbidden. What I realized is that doubt is a part of faith, it's an element of it, not the opposite, as Paul Tillich said. I thought that it was important to write about living in a mystery and realizing that, if we want to serve a God that's actually God, we can't have God figured out.
CP: What kind of audience did you have in mind when writing Faith, Doubt and Other Lines I've Crossed?
Bakker: When I write books I don't really always even necessarily have an audience in mind as much as just people who like to read or people who are interested in spirituality. I guess my basic audience is usually those folks who've gone through Christianity and maybe have been disillusioned by the Church or disillusioned by faith. Your hope is always that even those folks who feel like that they've got it figured out read it too. You want people to think from all different sides. So I guess the intended audience would probably more likely be people who are a maybe a little disillusioned with their faith, but of course the hopeful audience is anybody who's curious about spirituality, who's curious about Christianity and maybe wanting to see it in a different light.
CP: When you mention "faith" in the book, what are you referring to? Faith in a person, a thing, an ideal...?
Bakker: For a lot of people I'm writing to, it would be Christianity and Christ. It's all three – thing, person, ideal. It's recognizing that faith by nature is necessarily in something of the unknown. Belief is in something known. Faith is about the unknown.
And so I'm trying to get people to really grasp the idea of allowing themselves to doubt in faith. I'm trying to get to deconstruct faith and say faith isn't about having it figured out. Faith isn't belief. Doubt is built-in with faith. Faith is not a fact. Faith has more in common with hope than it would [with] fact. There's always an unknowing when it comes to faith.
CP: You mentioned deconstructing faith. You also seem to deconstruct the traditional Christian doctrine of the atonement, the belief that Jesus died for the world's sins. In Faith, Doubt you write on page 58 that a God who asks us to love our enemies..."cannot also require some sort of 'payment' or 'satisfaction' or 'substitution.'" Please clarify that.
Bakker: Yes, I am definitely questioning the atonement and trying to discover how we can see it in a different way. We've got this image of God who needs some sort of flesh, some sort of blood, that needs some sort of vengeance to pay for sin. My experience of a loving God who's asked me to love my enemies – this isn't a God that demands something before you are accepted. I think Jesus died because Jesus was inclusive. God is inclusive. I think that the idea of God somehow being separated from us was more man's idea.
I talk about in the book how when Jesus died and the curtain ripped and there was nothing behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies. I think that our ideas of separation are our own. I think we're always coming up with other ideas of how we are separate from God, or for some reason why we have to be separate from God. I think that imagery of the temple curtain ripping and nothing being behind there is kind of the [same thing] as [God] saying "I've always been with you."
CP: I guess the next question would then be: who is Jesus? If you're putting the atonement aside, how do you explain Jesus to people?
Bakker: For me, it would be ... I still see Christ as the messiah and the Son of God. I still see Christ as the closest thing to God. In order to deconstruct the atonement theory really [it] all comes from the message of Christ, and the message of love and grace and acceptance and loving your enemies and forgiving those who persecute you. For me, Christ to me is still in my view messiah. It's just not seen as the way that Christ was necessarily this payment, as much as Christ was the full realization of God, or at least a glimpse of God. The God we've seen before who smited people, or demanded that babies' heads be crushed on rocks. Christ came to say "that's not me, that's not God. Your understanding of God is an understanding of you." Jesus came and kind of turned all that stuff on its head and said "now I want you to turn the other cheek, now I want you to walk the extra mile. I hang out with tax collectors and prostitutes. I have no reputation. I don't demand my own way."
So when Christ comes on the scene, we see a very different concept and idea of God. Then I guess the argument is if Jesus is the ultimate example of God, then we've gotten some things wrong and we need to take another look at it. So you kind of have to filter your view of the Bible through Christ, and I believe through Paul as well because Paul's writings are so earlier than even the Gospels. I think Paul gives us a glimpse of Christ that we don't necessarily get to see in the Gospels. So I think it's seeing the Bible with those eyes. Learning to see God and what other people have said about God and the concept of God through the eyes of Christ.
CP: You also question the afterlife and the traditional Christian belief that, based on one's relationship with Jesus Christ, there is either eternal fellowship with God or eternal separation from God.
Bakker: If you do a simple word study, you realize that hell is not Dante's Inferno. It's not God's retribution. To me, the hell concept doesn't match up with much of what Jesus said, even though people say Jesus preached about hell. But even when Jesus was preaching about hell, he wasn't referring what we think of as hell. He was talking about Gehenna, a place southwest of Jerusalem, or he was using the popular understanding of the afterlife to make a different point.
As for the afterlife, is it something that I hope for? That's one of those unknowns. I don't know. So I'm going to live my life here. A friend of mine was once asked "do you believe in life after death?" and he said "I believe in life before death, learning how to live life in the here and now, learning how to love my neighbors now and to love my enemies now."
I really don't believe in hell, but I hope for heaven.
CP: In Faith, Doubt, you come down heavily on the side of love and grace and that God is for everyone. Some might question, then, if God's love has any demands.
Bakker: If you think about First Corinthians 13:4-7, I believe it says there love never demands its own way, it's not irritable, it keeps no record of when it's been wronged. I think when you ask Jesus what are the two most important commandments, what are the two most important things, and Jesus said love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.
I think the demands are clearly love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself, and realizing that your neighbor is your enemy. When I see it as demands or laws or anything, I don't see this as a heaven or hell issue. I think of it more as the fruits of the spirit, like in Galatians  where it says if you live a certain type of life, your life will produce patience and kindness and joy. But if you do this, this and this, you won't receive the kingdom of God, but I believe the kingdom of God is the fruits of the spirit. I do believe that the kingdom of God is here on earth.
I think it's saying when we do things like ignore others or not love others or become selfish, or things like that, we miss out on the peace, we miss out on patience, we miss out on joy. These are things that we miss out on when we follow a more selfish way. That's how I see it, as rather than being punished for our sins, we're punished by them.
CP: You mention in Faith, Doubt your belief that some Christians get worked up about the wrong things. For example, you write on page 87: "Everyone in church is freaking out, yet they wear diamonds. They eat chocolate. They drink coffee, eat bananas, and run their whole lives from their iPhones, just like I do. These sins aren't as obvious as sleeping with your secretary. But they're real sins, and they probably have a more dire effect on humanity than the sins we gasp at. And they're the ones we all commit." What's your concept of sin?