Rebellious son of infamous 1980s televangelists returns (sort of) to the faith of his parents, pastors a church, but now takes a decidedly liberal tack on the Christian faith.
That's certainly a compelling story for a secular magazine to cover, especially in this Lenten season.
But with her March 15-published interview with Jay Bakker, a self-styled "evangelical punk preacher," Time religion writer Amy Sullivan failed to critically evaluate Bakker's claims or present challenges to Bakker's theology from within the mainstream of orthodox Christian thought.
Indeed,Sullivan seems to sympathize with if not outright agree with Bakker's take on how Scripture can justify his stand on homosexuality (bolded sections are Sullivan's questions, unbolded are Bakker's responses):
Your book is about the concept of grace, something you say we hear and sing about but don't really understand. What's the difference between grace and love?
It's realizing that you're accepted completely. By God and by others. For me, grace gives me the ability to love people and love my enemies. Martin Luther King and Gandhi are people who really had grace. It gives us that ability to love beyond our comfort zone, which is something that's hard.
What you've described sounds straight out of the Gospel. And yet you say it's a controversial idea.
Yeah, it's funny because even before I became a gay-affirming pastor, I was getting in a lot of trouble at churches by preaching grace. We've made Christianity so much about morals and dos and don'ts. It takes away the power of guilting people and threatening them when you say, "The truth is, you're accepted just as you are." Christians are known more for what they're against than what they're for these days. So many pastors make religion about works and deeds and laws. That creates tension, but it also takes away the responsibility to go beyond just following rules. There's no consequence when I don't. But, of course, the consequence is the homeless person who continues to go hungry. Or the people who continue to die halfway around the world.
If God accepts sinners "just as [they] are" how does that square with biblical and traditional Christian teaching that followers of Christ are to forsake sins such as homosexuality in obedience to Christ as Lord and Savior? And just who are these pastors who "make religion about works and deeds and laws"? Considering Protestant Christianity thoroughly rejects the notion of works-based righteousness, it's a serious charge to level against other Protestant ministers. Yet Sullivan failed to ask these questions.
Instead the Time religion reporter prompted Bakker to flesh out how he sees conservative evangelicals who believe homosexuality is sinful to be the self-righteous elder brother in Jesus's parable of the prodigal son:
The parable of the Prodigal Son is maybe the most famous Bible story about grace. Is the problem that too many people think they're the good son?
[Laughs.] I think we're really called to be the example of the father in the parable. He says, "You're both my sons," and calls them both back. That's a great example of grace, the idea of calling us all together. Unfortunately, we don't know if the oldest son ever comes in or not at the end of the story. We all have to be willing to sit down at the same table, even with people we may be tempted to believe don't deserve God's grace as much as we do.
Of course, in that parable, the younger son repented of his profligate and sinful lifestyle, sheepishly returning home to his father willing to work as a hired servant if his father would allow it. The forgiving, lavishly gracious father is not a picture of acceptance of the son's sinful lifestyle, but a joyous celebration of his penitent, broken turn from his rebellious, sinful past.
With her next question, Sullivan practically cheered Bakker for his combat with conservative evangelicals on matters of biblical authority:
I love the phrase "clobber Scriptures" that you use to describe verses that get held up to condemn certain people or actions.
Those clobber Scriptures are the seven or eight verses people use to say that homosexuality is a sin. I feel they've been abused and people have purposely ignored the context of when they were written.
Sullivan did concede that "some Christians would say, 'We'll welcome gay and lesbians, but they have to go and sin no more. That's what Jesus would do.'
In answering that question, Bakker argued that to do so would show that "you're not loving and accepting folks where they're at," yet Sullivan failed to press him on whether he thought Jesus was not "accepting" of sinners "where they're at" by telling them to forsake their sins.
There's only so much Christian critics, myself included, can expect of non-Christian reporters writing for secular organizations. But a softball interview like Sullivan's only serves to preach to the choir.