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Bakker - Son of a Preacher Man: My Search for Grace in the Shadow of the Gospel of Prosperity
Son of a Preacher Man: My Search for Grace in the Shadow of the Gospel of Prosperity
by Jay Bakker. Published by HarperCollins.

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It seems likely that just about everyone has heard of Jim Bakker, the televangelist. However, does everyone remember what exactly he did? More importantly, perhaps, does anyone know just what his transgressions and his punishment did to his family? Indeed, does anyone even think about his family? The recently published memoirs of his son, Jay Bakker, are a useful antidote to the common ignorance of forgetfulness of what happened.

Many people may not realize that Jim Bakker was largely responsible for the development of televangelism in the United States during the 1970s. Jim and Tammy Fae came from poor families and met while they both were attending the North Central Bible College in Minnesota. They married in 1961 and thereafter worked as itinerant preachers, going from church to church where he preached and she played the accordion.

They became particularly sought after because of their work during Sunday school, where they performed a puppet show for kids. Tammy Fae would work the puppets and provide the voices, while Jim would interact with them. This show eventually landed them on Pat Robertson's nascent Christian TV network in 1966. They were invited for a one-time appearance, but were so popular that they came back time and time again.

Eventually, Jim was asked to host the new 700 Club show, a sort of Christian version of the ever-popular Tonight Show. This, too, was an instant hit - it is worth keeping in mind that this show's success was due in large part to the effort of Jim Bakker, not Pat Robertson who hosted it only much later on.

In the mid-1970s, the Bakkers left Pat Robertson's network and helped found the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), where they developed the PTL, the show which would make them famous around the world. It's local popularity prompted Jim Bakker to start buying time on other stations around the country, giving him a nationwide audience and a nationwide source of donations. Jay Bakker reports that in their first year and a half, the PTL grew about 7,000 percent.

With the increasing amounts of money, Jim Bakker began the construction of Heritage Village, a Christian-oriented reproduction of Colonial Williamsburg where PTL viewers could come and relax. In 1978, Jim had his own satellite network - one of only four in existence at the time - giving him the ability to reach viewers around the entire world and over 13 million homes in the United States alone. This, it seems, led to no small amount of jealousy among other televangelists who had to spend a great deal of money to buy time on broadcast TV stations. No one had quite the reach and popularity of Jim Bakker.

It couldn't last, however, and Jim Bakker's televangelistic empire was brought down, in part due to his own errors and in part due to the jealousy and schemings of others. The marriage between Jim and Tammy Fae had been on the rocks for quite a long time, and in 1980, Jim had a quick tryst with Jessica Hahn. According to his own confessions, it was largely done in an effort to make his wife jealous, but he decided to keep it from her and work on his marriage.

Later, she tried to accuse Jim of raping her; but unbeknownst to Jim, she was paid off by PTL's general manager Richard Dorch in an effort to preserve everyone's image. Such secrets don't stay secret for long, however, and the word soon got out. An important figure in this was Jimmy Swaggart. Swaggart was, along with Jim Bakker, a minister with the Assemblies of God Church. However, they were not close friends - Swaggart actually spent a great deal of time attacking the PTL, Bakker and Heritage USA.

This scandal was an excellent opportunity for Swaggert. Why? Because if Bakker fell, then the entire PTL empire would revert back to the Assemblies of God Church - and Swaggart was the most important figure in that organization. In effect, Swaggart could ruin Bakker and control his television empire in one stroke. However, Jim Bakker thought that he had a saviour: Jerry Falwell.

Falwell stepped in and suggested that Bakker step aside for a month or two, thus allowing the scandal to settle down without having to give up complete control of PTL. Tammy Fae advised against it, but he thought it was the best way out of a bad situation. He trusted Jerry Falwell, and that would prove to be his ultimate undoing. After Bakker announced that he was ready to return, he found that Falwell had deliberately cheated and lied to him.

Falwell publicly attacked Bakker whenever he had that chance. He managed to convince the board of directors to turn control of PTL over to him. He even manipulated Bakker by taking personal correspondence out of context in an attempt to publicly humiliate and condemn Jim Bakker. Granted, Bakker was no angel, but Falwell displayed some of the absolute worst traits possible in how he treated his former colleague. In time, Jim and Jay Bakker forgave Falwell, but it is worth noting that Falwell has never specifically admitted any wrongdoing, much less apologized for his specific sins and unethical conduct.

Eventually, Jim Bakker was convicted of fraud and sentenced to 45 years in a federal penitentiary. I cannot say with any great confidence just how guilty Bakker really was. It seems that he probably did some things he shouldn't have, but it also seems that some of what he was accused of was not accurate and based upon misunderstandings.

Unfortuantely, Bakker had the misfortune of being disliked by a public which had grown to despise televangelists. He also had the bad luck of facing a judge who had a reputation of always handing down the maximum sentences possible. If Jay Bakker's description of the judge's conduct is at all accurate, he is an embarrassment to the legal profession and doesn't deserve to sit on the bench.

All of this had a very negative impact upon Jay Bakker's life - he lost focus, lost security, lost his father, and even later lost his mother when she divorced Jim and moved to California. Jay suffers from a severe form of dyslexia which caused him problems in school and played a role in his eventually dropping out; he also became addicted to alcohol and abused a variety of drugs. He came to question the Christianity he had grown up with, but it does not seem that he ever actually left it and in fact later became a minister in his own right.

In large part because of what he went through and because of the treatment his family received at the hands of "good Christians," Jay has very deliberately rejected the all-too-common attitude among many evangelicals which inclines them towards being judgemental and condemnatory:

If possible, we were judged even more harshly by the very people we might have expected to support us. I'd turn on the TV and see pastors preaching against my parents. All the big guns who had surrounded my dad turned on him with words of judgement and destruction.

Jay accepts people as they are and tries to work with them. I don't know what his opinion is of atheists specifically, but I get the impression that he wouldn't attack them and would welcome them in his company. Both he and his father also apparently support the separation of church and state, another stance uncommon among many evangelicals today.

His is an interesting story. It is designed to be an "inspirational" memoir of how a person who grew up with Christianity came to question it, but later returned and now ministers to others. As such, it may be popular among those who already believe. Nonbelievers, however, can still find it productive to read about the world behind the scenes of televangelism and to learn more about what happened to Jim Bakker and his familly.

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