Jesus Land

It seems that I’ve been immersing myself in stories about toxic Christianity lately. Julia Scheeres’ memoir of growing up with her adopted black brother David in a hellish “Christian” home hasn’t made me feel any better about the evangelical subculture. In fact, I am beginning to wonder if Christianity itself might be broken beyond repair. Though a harrowing read, the book is a beautiful testament to the power of hope and love (and the corrosive power of twisted faith). Scheeres and I are around the same age (and even attended the same college), and I found myself nodding in recognition of some of the trappings of Christian life in the 1980s: Keith Green, Sandi Patti, Petra, the mistrust of anything “secular”, the obsession of our youth leaders with sexual immorality and especially abortion. The difference is that I spent my teens in a safe, happy place, and Julia spent hers in a tyrannical Christian reform school in the Dominican Republic. Julia and David cling to each other during this time and her descriptions of both the horrors of the school’s “Program” and her rare moments of freedom with her beloved brother are written in the immediacy of the present-tense, like a teenager’s diary. This is powerful stuff, and by the end, I was amazed at her and her brother’s resilience. With the traditional safe places of family and church twisted into abusive prisons, her relationship with David is a lifeline for both of them.

At times I was shaking my head in disbelief, but on her website, she includes supporting documents from Escuela Caribe, the reform school she was sent to by her parents after a little too much teenaged rebellion. And she links to a site for “survivors” of the school’s regime, which may bring some much-needed catharis and hopefully shut Escuela Caribe down and other places like it. Yes, incredibly, the school is still operating. I’m happy and amazed that Julia has been able to make a life for herself as a writer, and a good one. She is happily married and has just had a baby girl, and though her faith has been completely shattered, I know that her daughter will receive a far more “Christian” upbringing than she ever did. In these days when the rise of the Christian Right seems to have caught us all by surprise, it’s good to see that these dark undercurrents have been there all along.

In more happy fun religion news, next month’s Doc Soup screening will be Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Another story of religious madness in the Caribbean jungle. Can’t wait.

One Punk Under God

One Punk Under God

Beginning December 13, the Sundance Channel (unfortunately, unavailable here in Canada) will be airing a new 6-part series called One Punk Under God. It’s a documentary that follows Jay Bakker, the only son of former PTL Club founders Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, as he tries to deal with the pressures of pastoring his own “alternative” Revolution Church.

Jay certainly didn’t intend to enter the ministry. After his parents’ ministry collapsed in the late 1980s after charges of financial impropriety and his father’s affair, Jay abandoned the church and the faith and plunged into a lifestyle of substance abuse, punk rock, and tattoos. He’s left the drugs and alcohol behind, but the do-it-yourself ethic of punk (and more than 60 tattoos) remain at the heart of his ministry. He calls Revolution a church “for people who have given up on church” and “those who feel rejected by religion.” Part of the revolution plays out in front of the camera and involves his embrace of the gay and lesbian communities, which causes rifts with some of his original backers.

Jay is a tremendously likeable character trying to escape the lengthy shadow of his parents’ legacy, and though there are still a few moments that make me cringe, I find myself rooting for him. In the first episode (available free at the iTunes store), he revisits Heritage U.S.A., the “Christian retreat center” (theme park) founded by his parents. Now abandoned and overgrown, the site seems like a metaphor for the ministry of Jim and Tammy Faye, who, despite their obvious faults, come across as basically decent people. Jay is trying to follow Christ as authentically as possible, with the added burden of feeling somehow responsible for his parents’ many sins.

The show is extremely compelling to me personally. As someone who has had a rocky relationship with the (admittedly milder Canadian version of) evangelical subculture, this speaks to me deeply about wanting to keep Christ while ditching so much of what passes for organized religion today. Sure, the appeal of Jay Bakker’s church to younger people might appear trendy and shallow. But it might just be an expression of the sort of unconditional love that the gospel is all about.

Unfortunately, the screener DVD I was sent only contained the first four episodes, and by some horrible twist of fate, episode 2 was repeated twice while episode 3 was missing entirely. So, until I can download these for myself, I’ll just have to assume that the rest of the series is as interesting as the first hour.

Good article about Jay Bakker from Radar Magazine

One from the New Yorker and another from New York magazine.

P.S. Make sure you click the Heritage U.S.A. link. There are some really great photos of what the park looks like now, and no matter how you might feel about Christian theme parks, there is something sort of sad in these pictures.

P.P.S. How annoying that the Apple Store in Canada doesn’t have the free episode, and any attempt to set up an account at the U.S. Apple Store fails because my credit card has a billing address in Canada. I can’t even download free stuff. Bad Apple!!