Jay Bakker’s latest book, Fall to Grace: A Revolution of God, Self and Society (Faith Words 2011) is on the face of it a part-biography, part pop-theology meditation on the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.
Bakker is the son of televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, made infamous in the US in the 1980s for their dramatic fall from grace with the collapse of their Praise the Lord (PTL) ministries due to financial and sexual scandal. Bakker has told some of his story before in Son of a Preacher Man: My Search for Grace in the Shadows (Harper Collins 2001).
So Fall to Grace is something of an update of that story, recalling his own struggles with drugs, alcoholism and cruel and unforgiving versions of Christianity. But it’s more than that. Bakker is one of the founders of Revolution Church New York City. Among Revolution’s original intentions was, as their website puts it, to identify with people ‘the church was ignoring and even blatantly rejecting … based on their appearance and lifestyle.’
While originally that might have meant Goths or skater kids, of late Bakker and Revolution have become better-known for welcoming and affirming people from the LGBT community.
Within many expressions of Christianity, that’s not the ‘right’ or ‘proper’ attitude to have towards homosexuality. I’m sure I don’t need to rehearse the arguments on this website, but here it goes: homosexuality is a sin, therefore gay marriage should not be allowed, and Christians should do everything in their power possible to stop it (including making laws so gay people outside the church can’t get married).
In the YouTube clip below, you can see the reaction of the congregation at Grace Church, described as a gospel church, when Bakker says: ‘I’m pro gay marriage. I don’t believe it’s a sin.’ The once enthusiastic crowd greets him with a stony silence.
While it is not the main focus of Fall to Grace, Bakker dedicates a significant portion of the book to explaining how he arrived at his views on homosexuality and gay marriage. This includes some personal stories – it’s clear that Bakker has been profoundly influenced by friendships with people who are openly (or not so openly) gay.
But having experience of Christian traditions that have used particular passages from Scripture to argue that homosexuality is a sin, Bakker is keen to root his own position in Scripture. His argument is based on two premises:
- Old Testament references to homosexuality, such as Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, are as outdated as Old Testament prohibitions on eating shellfish, cutting sideburns, getting tattoos, interracial marriage, slavery, and treating women like property (p. 169). Baker argues that Christians who today use these passages from Leviticus to make their case, claiming a so-called Biblical high ground, are in fact taking a pick and choose attitude towards Scripture.
- New Testament references to homosexuality (in I Timothy, I Corinthians and Romans) have been mistranslated and ‘actually refer to acts like male prostitution, ritual sex, and inhospitality to strangers – all things that Christians discourage, whether gay or straight’ (page 170).
It’s worth thinking about this second point, because Christians who use these Scriptures to condemn homosexuality are likely to say that the charges of ‘mistranslation’ are simply political correctness gone mad, and an attempt to make the church conform to modern, secular ideas. So to give one example of how Bakker expands his argument:
‘… Paul uses the Greek words malakois and arsenokoitai in I Corinthians, which are often mistranslated as “male prostitutes” and “homosexuals” respectively. But the latter, mistaken translation hasn’t been around very long. The first time the word homosexual ever appeared in an English-language Bible was in 1958. Greek language scholars have begun to recover the true meaning of the word. Malaokois, we now know, probably meant “effeminate call boys” – young hairless men who were used for sexual pleasure. Arsenokoitai, meanwhile, referred to the married men who hired them for entertainment. So Paul was talking about prostitutes and the men who hired them, not adults engaged in consensual same-gender love.’ (p. 172)
Chapter 15 includes an extended treatment of this topic, including consideration of that tricky passage in Genesis about the destruction of Sodom.
Bakker is aiming for the most generous interpretation of Scripture possible in regards to homosexuality – not only is it NOT a sin, but the way that many Christians today treat homosexuality is counter to the example of Jesus.
Jesus, after all, never speaks about homosexuality in the Bible and he was known for hanging out with the people that his co-religionists considered ‘sinners’ – tax collectors, prostitutes, etc.
Fall to Grace is about much more than Bakker’s position on homosexuality. The book is saturated with his own experience of grace – feeling deeply accepted by God for who he is. He thinks that extending acceptance to outcasts, and not demanding that they change to become just like us, is not an ‘anything goes’ approach to Christianity. Rather, Baker sees it as a more authentic interpretation of what it means to follow Jesus.
I agree with Bakker – at the least I’d like to give him some more space to get a genuine conversation (not a shouting match, punctuated with cut-and-paste Bible verses) started.
We should not be afraid to question whether the way Christians use Scripture to arrive at positions on a range of matters – homosexuality is just one of many – is the way that Christians actually should use Scripture. We should not be afraid to consider the possibility that we might be wrong, and be open to hearing what others’ interpretations may be.
Most of all, we should not use Scripture to build our ‘Christian’ walls ever higher, alienating people and cutting off relationships with them.