What is God like? Is doubt harmful to faith? Who do Christians marginalise? Those are just some of the questions explored in a new book by Jay Bakker, Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed: Walking with the Unknown God (Jericho Books, 2013).
Bakker, who will forever be known as the son of scandal-ridden American televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, is among the more recognizable leaders in the Emerging Church Movement (ECM). He has been a co-pastor at Revolution Church in NYC, but this month moved to Minneapolis to start another “church in a pub.” His Revolution Church in Minneapolis will meet in Bryant Lake Bowl & Theater from 12 May.
But next week, he’ll be in Belfast at “The Idolatry of God” event with Peter Rollins, where he’ll be interviewed by BBC presenter William Crawley on Tuesday 23 April from 9.00-11.00 pm in the Dark Horse.
(You can access the event in two ways: purchasing a ticket for the full four-day event at £250, or purchasing a bargain £20 ‘”Fringe” pass that includes the Bakker interview, pub movie night, a lecture by Katherine Sarah Moody, and a gig by Duke Special.)
Faith, Doubt, and Other Lines I’ve Crossed is written in a similar style to Bakker’s previous book, Fall to Grace – part confessional, part meditation on scripture, and full of passion and humour.
(If you don’t want to miss all of his sly jokes, make sure you read the footnotes.)
Through a series of short vignettes, Bakker shares personal stories, explains why we should read the bible differently, and tells us some of our traditional images such as the God of “wrath,” or the God of “justice,” cannot be accepted as told to us by our (primarily evangelical) churches.
These are themes that are frequently taken up within the ECM, and for those familiar with its “conversation,” there are few surprises in what Bakker has to say. For example, Bakker’s God is not the one who answers the prayers of rich white Americans looking for parking spaces and ignores genocide in Darfur, to have this all explained away as “mystery” or “God’s will.”
Bakker also observes that our Gods tend to hate what we hate, and love what we love (p. 8).
He wants to get beyond that, and for Bakker this happens through “grace” and “love.” Bakker focuses on the “unconditional” aspects of God’s love, pointing out along the way how our churches have placed conditions on love through insisting we sign up to certain beliefs, creating elaborate disciplinary processes when people sin, and ultimately excluding people from our churches.
Critics have already claimed that Bakker’s conception of God neglects “the full gospel of Jesus Christ.” As Aaron Gaglia writes, “We cannot reject the idea of wrath and judgment because it does not mesh with our idea of love.” Conversely, it could be argued that Bakker’s presentation of love is not his alone, but the one presented by Jesus. Indeed this seems to me to be what Bakker is saying. Bakker may interpret the bible very differently than his critics, but it is significant that he still appeals to the bible.
“Doubt” has been a long-standing topic of conversation within the ECM, but Bakker brings fresh perspectives based on his wrenching personal experiences, his friendship and dialogue with Peter Rollins, and Paul Tillich’s theology.
Bakker also produces one of the best one-liners on the relationship between faith and doubt that I’ve come across (p. 185):
“I am no longer concerned with eliminating doubt – my faith has become the life partner of my doubt, and I love how cute they are together.”
For Bakker, embracing doubt means that no questions are off-limits, and it means rejecting the certainty that has been masquerading as “faith.” He writes (p. 174):
“Certainty isn’t faith. … If you’re certain about something, you don’t need faith. … When you have faith in something, you’re open to the idea that you might be wrong. Many in the church have lost their faith and traded it for certainty. In the process, they have lost God.”
Bakker says that the churches’ addiction to certainty means that they are not open to new perspectives and suggestions that they may be wrong on a number of issues, including what is for him one of the most important: Including LGBTQ people fully in the life of the church – without insisting they change their sexual orientation.
In the biographical vignette inside the book, Bakker chooses to describe himself as “a gay rights activist,” so it is clear that this is one of his most pressing concerns. Of all the public figures associated with the ECM, he was among the first to be openly affirming in his congregation and to speak out publicly for LGBTQ inclusion.
For Bakker, this isn’t simply adopting a liberal political agenda; he sees it as following the gospel as proclaimed by Jesus. In Fall To Grace, he supported this position with reflections on scripture and as he does here, argues that Christians’ use of scripture to condemn and exclude LGBTQ people is just like what they did with slaves and women. He writes (p. 107):
“Our rejection of those who don’t fit without our clear-cut worldview is destroying people. Jesus said we would be known by our love, but when it comes to the LGBTQ community, we are known by our uncomfortable silence, our fight against their civil right to marry, our moral outrage, our discrimination, and our stereotyping.”
Further, Bakker challenges Christians who agree with him to ask people to ask their pastors and leaders: “Are we able to welcome and affirm LGBTQ people in our church?” (p. 107). He recounts how pastors and leaders have told him they cannot be affirming, not out of personal conviction, but because they might lose their jobs, other staff might lose their jobs, financial donations would cease, or people would leave their church.
Comparing how Christians used the bible to prohibit interracial dating to the question of LGBTQ inclusion (p. 110-111), Bakker says Christians have no excuse for remaining silent. He recognises that some will lose their jobs, financial security, be kicked out of their churches, and so on. Bakker has himself experienced these things, which makes his call to action more credible. (You can watch him speak about this in the video below.)
As he says, “I don’t want to be the person who says nothing. And so I’m going to keep talking” (p. 112).
Bakker’s point about what Christians have to lose by affirming LGBTQ people, or by espousing the “radical” ideas about God, doubt and the bible that are developing within the ECM, hit home for me when reading the “Writer’s Note” at the end of the book by Andy Meisenheimer. He worked with Bakker in writing the book.
Meisenheimer says that:
“one of the very first things Jay ever told me on the phone was that I was going to need a pseudonym to write with him. … Jay was just worried that my career in Christian publishing would tank after I became associated with him” (p. 188).
Meisenheimer proclaims that he wants his name to be associated with these ideas, and the action that Bakker advocates. What about us?