(Photo: Mindy Tucker)
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.
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?
Bakker: My concept of sin is the idea of cause and effect. It's the idea of when we're selfish, when we hurt other people, when we miss the idea of loving others, forgiving our enemies. For me, that's what sin is, sin is missing the mark of loving the other when we get so caught up and focused on ourselves and almost in a way we become the idol. Or the things we purchase become the idol because they're more important than the children picking the cocoa beans or the people mining for diamonds or policies that affect us positively but others negatively. To me, that's kind of the idea of sin, when we forget about the other.
CP: You also write in Faith, Doubt that God cannot be both gracious and angry, that He wouldn't punish people He's supposed to love. You also write that God is just. Does justice never require any suffering?
Bakker: Usually the idea of justice, you hear it a lot from the Neo-Reformed folks who say "well God's a just God and He requires punishment and He requires His pound of flesh. And we're lucky for those of us who do get there."
The idea of saying that justice is punishing someone for an eternity for temporal sin. The idea that how is that justice ... I'm not saying God doesn't punish us. If God created the laws of nature, we automatically have certain things like cause and effect. So when you stick your hand on a burner, you have a ring on your hand from the burner. That doesn't change the fact that God still loves you and is merciful to you. I just don't think God is this tyrant god ... What I find in God I have to see through Christ.
Things like reaping and sowing, that's not karma, that's just nature. So that's where I see God, [He] works in those lines. I don't think God breaks your car down because you've been bad.
CP: You're obviously LGBTQ-affirming, and appalled at how the Christian church in general has responded to homosexuality and same-sex marriage. The Christian Post ran a piece a few months ago featuring the viewpoints of some former gays and lesbians who believe God has personally called them to leave homosexuality and who say they believe homosexuality is immoral. What do you say to Christians with such a testimony?
Bakker: I used to have a friend who used to come and always confront me every Sunday and say "I think it's wrong, and I've been set free. What do you say to that?" I said "I can't tell you what your conviction is and what you want and what you don't want. This is just what I believe and I hope you can accept that." A year later, I got a text from her saying "you were right, I'm gay." I wasn't sure if she was upset or what was going on. Later she got in contact with me and said "I am who I am. I'm gay. I've met a woman and I'm in a relationship and I'm very happy." That was one of my experiences with that.
As far as the ex-gay movement is concerned, most of the folks I've met through that, I've seen more pain and hurt. The fruit of that ... I've seen marriages that have been ruined. I sat with a parent whose daughter took her life because she felt like she couldn't change. I've seen the things that are happening in Uganda. American Christians going down and preaching this message, and now seeing bills put out that are [against homosexuality]. For me, the majority of the fruit of the ex-gay movement have been a negative thing and doesn't seem to be something that works. There are people that say it works, but ultimately I think it's a dangerous thing. I think if someone says "this is what I want for me," that's fine. But as soon as they start saying "I think everyone else should be ex-gay," we start to get into a really dangerous territory.
There's a reason why we see that these movements are on the decline and why they're saying "we can't really change you, but we can help you." But does it work? And for me, the idea of that is if we're supposed to be known for our fruit and known for our peace, patience and kindness and joy and these types of things, why is the fruit of this failure, why is the fruit of this broken marriages, why is the fruit of this suicides and bullying?
I also think it's the civil rights issue of our time right now. Obviously, the president didn't allow Pastor (Louie) Giglio to pray at the inauguration. Some people are starting to realize that there's an issue, that these folks are being denied rights at the same time.
The question differs when it comes to a particular person who says "I'm ex-gay. What do you think about that?" For me, I can't think for you. I can tell you that I don't believe that this is something that you should have to do. But if this is what you want to do, then far be it from me to try and keep you from doing it. I will tell you my opinion if you want to know. But as far as when it becomes promoting it to other people and saying that this is the way God wants it to be, and this is the way you should be, I think that's a horrible mistake.
CP: What are some things that you think the Church should be doing in terms of the LGBTQ community?
Bakker: I think we should be opening our arms. I think we should be marching for equality. I think we should be ordaining folks in the community, who want that and who are looking for that. I think we should be honest ... that these Scriptures that we've used for so long, have been taken out of contexts. I think the Church should be embracing the LGBTQ community with open arms. I think we should be performing their wedding ceremonies. I perform weddings because I live in New York, I can do that. I think we should be treating people in the LGBTQ community the way we want to be treated, and loving them as ourselves. To me that's a no-brainer.
CP: What are some of the other defining issues, if any, that you've seen that you think the Church should get involved with and get more active about?
Bakker: I think the Church in the past has done great work with poverty and hunger. I think the Church should continue to work on that. I think the Church needs to be more aware of social justice issues, not just on LGBTQ issues. But stuff like diamond mines or ... what's happening in Uganda with this [anti-homosexuality bill]. Obviously the Church should be standing up and saying this is wrong, this is bad, we denounce this. It took Rick Warren months and months before he would denounce any of that stuff ... That shouldn't have taken him so long, but thank God he did it. But the idea that these folks who see this kind of stuff happening, are still going out there and still supporting this message is devastating. People are going to prison for the rest of their life because of their sexuality. Gay rights activists are being murdered every day. The American Church who has influenced so much of this, should be standing up and saying no this has got to stop, this is ridiculous. Not that the American Church is the end-all, but unfortunately, there's been a lot of folks who have been going into the countries there and stirring this pot up.
We've got to be better purchasers, we've got to be better with the clothes we buy, the products we buy, the politics we support, starting to think about what is it doing to others, instead of for us. The Church's job is, I believe, to increase our love for one another, to make sure that people are getting a livable wage, all these sorts of things. I think if you want to look at a really great model for the message of the Church, I think Martin Luther King, Jr. would be a prime example of what the message of the Church should be and should continue to be.
CP: At some point you were trying to reach out to churches with certain platforms to discuss LGBTQ issues. Are you still trying to do that, or have you given that up?
Bakker: I don't do it as outright as that. I was working with Soulforce and going to different churches and meeting with pastors. I still do meet with pastors. Often now, they want to meet with me privately to talk about the affirming issue and about the ins and outs and discuss some verses and the Scriptures, things like that. I still meet with pastors, just not on such a platform as I was with Soulforce. Any pastors out there who want to sit down talk about it, I'm always glad to do that.
CP: Is there anything going on with your church, Revolution NYC? Are there any projects you have coming up?
Bakker: The church here, we're just keep on keeping on and we have the online stuff that we're doing and continually trying to make a broader online community for those folks who might not even feel comfortable enough to attend church on Sunday.
I am working on a book right now on the ex-Christian movement. When I go on the road I meet a lot of people who have given up their faith, to the point where some just say "I'm an ex-Christian." Trying to find out different reasons why people are starting to lose faith and give up their faith. That's kind of what my hope is for my next book, that it will be on why people are losing their faith.
Pastor Jay Bakker, who co-founded Revolution Church in Phoenix, Ariz., in 1994, leads Revolution NYC services every Sunday afternoon at Pete's Candy Store in the borough of Brooklyn. His previously published books include Son of a Preacher Man: My Search for Grace in the Shadows (2001) and Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self & Society (2011). Bakker's latest book, Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I've Crossed: Walking with the Unknown God, was released Feb. 12, 2013, by Jericho Books.