Monday, January 08, 2007

Review of One Punk, Under God (episode 1)

Frankly, I wouldn’t make much of a film/television critic, for my reaction to most shows is usually: “It could have used more ninja/samurai” or “wasn’t she beautiful!” (My ideal show would star Jet Li and Penelope Cruz.) In writing about One Punk, Under God—a documentary series about Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker—I don’t try to gauge its general quality as a television show or documentary; instead, I’ll write about issues raised and lessons learned regarding Christianity. Having said that, I have enjoyed watching it and find it reasonably well done (though, of course, a few ninja wouldn’t hurt).

Likable Jay. The first episode of One Punk, Under God introduces us to Jay Bakker, his church, and his background. My first impression is how overwhelmingly likable Jay is. He just wants to love the people in his church and be loved by them. He honors his father and mother and is trying to reconcile with his estranged father. Maybe because this episode emphasized his family background, but I viewed him more as a little boy, who gets excited seeing where he used the play with his Star Wars action figures, than as a tough punk—though he is covered with tattoos, body piercings, and ragged clothes.

Evangelical rumspringa. The show’s hook is that Jay grew up in conservative Christianity, left it to go wild with drugs and the punk lifestyle, and returned to it retaining his “punk” identity. This religious trajectory reminds me of the Amish rumspringa. The Amish raise their children in the church until age 16 when the children have to make their own decision to join. At this time, many of the kids get a little crazy, doing things from going to the mall (apparently the first thing to do) and driving cars to partying and doing drugs. (For a great portrayal of this, see the documentary The Devil’s Playground). After months-to-years of “Amish gone wild”, the majority of them rejoin the church. Maybe what Jay Bakker did represents an “evangelical rumspringa,” in that he, like the Amish kids, had to get away from his strict upbringing to return to faith on his own terms. I believe that Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham, went through a similar time of rebellion.

Hypocrites! The most groaning, eye-rolling scene of the first episode was Jay Bakker’s interview on Air America—the liberal radio network. Jay makes no secret of his liberal politics, so he probably thought he was among friends when he went onto this show. Wrong! In the two-minute interview, the Air America interviewer, in discussing Jay’s ministry and parents, used the words “hypocrite”, “baggage”, “exploitation”, “corruption” (twice), “scandal”, “fraud” (twice), and “fall” (twice). Poor Jay—he wanted to get word out about what he is doing, and this interviewer turned it into another Christian slam-fest.

The “where” of Christianity. Christians think a lot about the “who” of ministry—who should be doing what, what our gifts are, and so forth. We think less of “where” we should we be doing it. The American church has fallen into the bad habit of hosting most of its faith events in special clean buildings usually located away from most peoples’ daily activities. In contrast, Revolution (the name of Jay Bakker’s church) was meeting in a bar, with some of the crowd drinking and smoking. In fact, Jay Bakker encouraged his church-attendees to order something from the bar and to tip the bartender. Revolution also held bible studies in coffee shops. Another branch of Revolution (there are three, I think) meets in a candy store (kid’s outreach?). This is breathtakingly cool. It is also biblical. Jesus spent time in funky places which with sketchy people, and so the typical spatial isolation of modern-day Christianity may miss the mark.

It’s still a bureaucracy. My fear for the future of Jay’s ministry was illustrated in a short scene between him and one of the church elders. The elder, a business person, started drawing a organizational flow-chart showing with lines of authority and communication within Revolution. Jay looked horrified and stammered a dismissal of this formal, hierarchical approach—saying that it’s not what revolution is about. For Jay it’s about love and relationships. Here’s the problem: Any church needs proper organizational structure to grow and sustain itself; without it Revolution will have trouble getting beyond a short-term, rather small endeavor. Can Revolution keep its spirit amidst conventional organizational structure? (This tension that bedevils all churches.) Ironically, Jim Bakker’s (Jay’s father) ministry collapsed for want of proper organizational structure and oversight. Here’s hoping that Jay avoids this.

I’m looking forward to the next episode, and, who knows, maybe it will feature Jet Li!

This post is part of a blogalogue with Dan Myers. To read his post. We welcome all comments.


Dan Myers said...

Great inventory of some critical issues in Episode one!

I'm intrigued in particular by two of your observations. One is the rumspringa and it makes me wonder about what are the typical kinds of teenage rebellion evangelicals and preachers' kids engage in. I knew a lot of PKs growing up, of course, and there was a general sense that PKs were either angelic or devil spawn, with not much in between. Plenty of rebellion going on, but pretty different types depending on which of these groups you were in. I always considered myself "normal" and in the middle with my non-PK friends--I did some stupid things, but wasn't exactly shooting up behind the school during lunch hour.

Second, that radio scene must have been discouraging for Jay. I don't think the interviewer really intended to get off on that track, but she did, maybe for two reasons. One was just the impact that the Bakker scandal had on America (as Jay notes at some other point in the episode). It was not a small deal as evidenced by the reaction people are still having to it 20 years later. The second was that Jay refuses to disavow his parents ministry. I'm sure some epople, including this interviewer, have a hard time giving him legitimacy if he won't blast away on that enterprise some. On the other hand, he cannot really do that because it is part of the identity integration task he is involved with for himself and for defining his own ministry. (The main subject of my post on episode one).

marc said...

I also really like your rumspringa parallel. I'm a PK who was born in Lebanon County PA, so this hit home a bit. Like Dan, I considered myself normal, or "angel" said my parents, compared to the "devil" actions of my PK peers. Yet, I left the church after marriage (not because of it!), unlike some of the same crowd who returned. So maybe I'm more like Kelly McGillis in Witness than a rumspringa guy.

Thanks for covering this, by the way, I look forward to more!