The following is an excerpt from Jay Bakker's new book Son of a Preacher Man: My Search for Grace in the Shadows. Bakker is the son of the scandal-ridden televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.
The Keys To the Kingdom
If anyone had an excuse to lose faith in God, it would've been me. I'd been beaten up so often by traditional religion that turning away from God, as so many others my age did, would have been the most natural reaction.
I started life on Christian television. You would think that, based on my family, some of the most influential Christians in the world, I would have led an exemplary life. As it turns out, I wasn't so different from other pastors' kids, who are notoriously rebellious. After all, we have pretty high expectations to rebel against.
The gospel my father preached and my mother stood for is often flattened out by others to one of material riches. I hate that. My parents' real message was always about prosperity of the soul: charity, love, forgiveness, and respect for others. Unlike so many other ministers, they believed that only God had the right to judge. But I lived life in the shadows of that ideal.
Yes, my family did things wrong. And so did 1. It would be a long time before we would get back to the light. In the shadows where we walked, I would see many dark things and meet many dark people. Along with my family, I experienced the dark side of a Christian message that no one should ever have to endure. I lived through the dark side of my parents' marriage, which ultimately did not stand the test of time or hardship. And I dove headlong into the dark side of myself.
Considering how my life began twenty-five years ago, on December 18, 1975, that's a far cry from how things were supposed to play out. The doctors had told my parents that my mother would be in labor with me for at least eighteen hours. So my dad, per my mom's wishes, went ahead as usual with his TV ministry show. But when the doctor was forced to perform a cesarean and cut me right out of my mom's belly, Dad was still on camera. As soon as the program directors got word that I'd been born, they flashed "It's a boy! It's a boy! It's a boy!" across the screen. I think the TV audience knew I'd arrived before my dad did.
Having millions of television viewers share my life would be the norm for me for the next eleven years, for I was basically born into the premier family of a megamedia church. I was required to appear on TV with my parents every Sunday for church services, every holiday, and anywhere from twice a month to five times a week on top of that.
It was an amazing time in Christian America. My father was at the forefront of a group of men and women who forever changed how Christ's message was received. He, like Oral Roberts, Robert Schuller, and Billy Graham, among others, found a way to broadcast sermons to millions from coast to coast. And in the process, people began to look for him for guidance. In short, our lives revolved around my parents' television ministry, called PTL, which stood for, "Praise the Lord."
I guess we were supposed to be the perfect Christian family. But even though my parents openly discussed some of our problems on camera, things weren't really what you'd think.
PTL was my father's dream, one he worked hard for. My mother and father's ministry had come a long way from hand-made puppet performances on Pat Robertson's fledgling Christian Broadcasting Network, their life a long way from hanging their own wall paper in a one-bedroom third-floor walk-up rental.
My parents weren't born into the abundance I was. My mom grew up poor in rural International Falls, Minnesota, with a mother who was ostracized because she had divorced, a loving stepfather who worked in the local paper mill, and seven younger brothers and sisters she had to help care for. They kept their clothes clean with a wringer washing machine, depended on an icebox instead of a refrigerator, and, despite twenty or thirty below zero winter temperatures, had to use an outhouse instead of an indoor bathroom.
My dad's family had a little more money, but not much.
My parents met in North Central Bible College in Minnesota, where they were both studying for the ministry. They married soon after, on April 1, 1961, left school, and became itinerant evangelists. Mom played the accordion and sang, and Dad preached. During Sunday school, they would perform a puppet show for children: Mom provided the voices and action for Suzy Moppett and Allie the Alligator, while Dad stood out front and talked to the puppets.
In 1966, that show landed them on Pat Robertson's new TV network. The audience loved them, and what was supposed to be a one-time appearance became a regular feature. The puppet show's success also led to Dad's hosting a Christian TV show called the 700 Club, which he had modeled after Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. The talk show proved an instant hit, and the station's viewership and donations soared. Since the new television ministry didn't sell advertising, its existence was completely dependent on donations. And with this new format, TV religion began to sweep across the nation and eventually around the world.
After eight years, Mom and Dad moved away from Pat Robertson. After helping found TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network), they launched PTL. Their show was so popular in Charlotte, North Carolina, where they'd moved that Dad decided to buy time on some fifty stations — one station at a time — across the country to see how it would do nationally. The overwhelming success that washed over them seemed heaven-sent.
Indeed, throughout their careers God had provided for them whenever they were in need. This was no different. PTL grew 7,000 percent in its first year and a half. Th e rise was so swift that there was not way to accurately chart the TV ministry's growth projections.
The money that followed this growth allowed my parents to build Heritage Village, a miniature reproduction of Colonial Williamsburg, complete with red brick buildings, a steepled church, and landscaped grounds. By 1978, Dad had his own satellite network (one of only four in the world), with over twelve hundred cable systems carrying his show into 13 million households across the country. (At its peak, nine thousand cable systems and two hundred broadcast stations would be connected to that network.) It seemed obvious-God wanted them to thrive.
My parents didn't invent the gospel of prosperity. Oral Roberts and others started preaching that God wanted his people to live well in the 1950s. The message took root and became almost a tradition, especially in the charismatic movement. "God wants you to prosper" became almost as common a message as "God wants you to do good," "God loves you," and "Rock 'n' roll is the devil's music." With his satellite network, Dad was simply spreading the word to more people than ever before. And because they liked what they heard, his ministry reaped the financial benefits. Meanwhile on Wall Street, of course, prosperity was taking off in another direction. It was the perfect religion for the time.
The world at large has focused on my parents' preaching of prosperity, but as I sat in their room late at night and listened to them talk while playing with my little toy action figures, my men as I called them, I heard a different message — one of forgiveness and the abundance of God's love. In addition to preaching that on TV, they put their beliefs into action. I remember my dad always seating a mentally handicapped man in the front row, focusing on him, and periodically hugging him. When a little girl was abandoned at the church, my parents brought the toddler home and took care of her for a day until the mother returned to pick her up. They could have pawned her off on any one of a thousand employees or passed her over to the authorities. Instead, they incorporated her into our family and probably would have adopted her had her mother never shown up. And when vandals burned an African American church down, Dad made sure its parishioners got the funds they needed to rebuild. He even sent his own staff to quicken the restoration. His goal was to make PTL a place where anyone with a need could walk in off the streets and have that need met.
Strangely, especially since we were considered by many to be the first family of Christianity, I don't remember my parents talking to me about religion or even reading me stories from the Bible. It was as if I'd absorbed the gospel through my skin during Dad's sermons.
When I did think of heaven, I pictured big white clouds, mansions, and streets paved with gold (I suppose because gold's deemed our most precious material on earth; God's kingdom would be so wonderful that we would be able to metaphorically walk on gold!)
Hell, on the other hand, could be summed up in a single word: fire.
And grace? That was just a song.
Like any good Christian kid, I went to Sunday school and was a member of the Royal Rangers (the Christian equivalent of the Boy Scouts). Between those experiences and the many speakers I was exposed to at PTL, confusion was bound to arise. I remember one of the guests who came on my parents' show announced that Smurf dolls were satanic. I had given my sister a bunch of Smurfs as a present — she threw them back in my room so the devil would get me instead of her.
My Sunday school teacher preached a lot about the rapture, stressing that if we did something wrong, Jesus would take everyone but us to heaven upon His return.
"Are you going to be read?, when Jesus returns, or will you be left behind?" he regularly questioned.
I remember coming home a couple of times and panicking because the house was empty. Frantically running from room to room in search of my parents or my sister, Tammy Sue, or anyone else, I would think that Jesus had taken them all away and left me behind because of something I'd done or neglected to do.
Despite the theological discrepancies and lack of overt teachings from my parents, I basically took for granted the fact that I loved Jesus, just as I took for granted the fact that my parents were just about the biggest pastors in the country.
That alone shaped my life in ways that I'm still not completely aware of.
Growing up in the religious limelight and having over one hundred death threats every year meant full-time bodyguards almost from the moment I was born — we even bad a guardhouse at the entry to our Charlotte home that was manned twenty-four hours a day — plus a housekeeper and a maid who were like family, groundskeepers, and people at PTL who gave me anything I wanted.
Ironically, though we were held up by many as the Christian family ideal, I didn't always experience that firsthand. Though my parents loved my sister and me, like so many other parents these days their busy lives tended to get in the way of how much time we could spend together as a family. In addition to the television show they did together, my mom taped a second PTL show called Tammy's House Party. Dad not only functioned as the pastor and managed PTL's multiple ministries, he basically turned himself into an urban planner. (The has scope of what he accomplished still amazes me.) By the time I was two, Heritage USA, the sprawling Christian retreat my dad created, which would become the nation's third most popular attraction, was already being built. I was five when it opened to the public.
During the next six years, my whole life would revolve around that magical Christian retreat and entertainment facility, which included a state-of-the-art TV studio, various ministry buildings, hotels and motels, campgrounds, a residential subdivision of vacation and retirement homes, shops, restaurants, tennis courts, a pool, and a roller skating rink. I even attended school on the grounds. And our house — Tega Cay — was about fifteen minutes away, Heritage USA served as my backyard, my playground. My friends and I rode motorbikes around its twenty-two hundred woodsy acres, and we ran around the Grand Hotel playing the Miami Vice version of cops and robbers, the gospel according to Sonny Crockett, brought to you courtesy of PTL!
Back then I wanted to be Don Johnson, who played Sonny Crockett, so bad it was ridiculous. I had my hair cut to look like his, wore sports coats over pink or peach T-shirts, and even had a shoulder holster with a toy gun that looked real. My friends and I would set up fake drug deals. I would load Ziploc bags with flour and put them in a duffel bag, and we'd go buy tons of fake money at the general store in Heritage USA. We'd wrap stacks of cash and put them in another bag. I was always Crockett, and my friend Matthew was always Tubbs. So we'd set up the drug deal, with our other friends playing the bad guys. As soon as we made the exchange, we'd pull out our guns and yell, "Freeze! Miami Vice!" and then chase the "perpetrators" around Heritage and inside the Grand Hotel, screaming around corners and scaring little old ladies almost to death. My dad would routinely reprimand me, but I think it kind of tickled him a little bit.
I had it all.
The keys to the kingdom.