September 21, 2009

Televangelize This!

photo by William Hereford

From out of the Bible Belt, a young preacher comes to grace, and Brooklyn. Jay Bakker's Revolution Church.

First published in WG Magazine on September 19, 2009.

What is surprising about pastor Jay Bakker is not that he is covered in tattoos and wears a lip ring and preaches Galatians on Sundays at a bar in Greenpoint. And not that his ministry, the Revolution Church, which he shares with a dapper Lutheran from Fresno named Vince Anderson, is gay affirming.

No, what is surprising about pastor Jay Bakker is … that this is not performance art. The Revolution Church has been holding services in the neighborhood for nearly three years. And the fact that a radical Christian church operating out of a popular music venue, can hold its ecclesiastical own and not get absorbed as just another idea, is at the very least a notable turn in the discourse of the Williamsburg art scene.

Bakker, who is 33 and hails from the Carolinas, founded the church with a few friends in 1994 in Phoenix, Arizona. There are a few branches in other cities, and the great majority of its members are online. But about 30 people a week attend sermons in the back of Pete’s Candy Store on Lorimer Street, where we recently sat down with the two pastors. Jay looks like an impassioned rocker, Vince like a radiant hipster. Jay has roots in the AG (Assemblies of God) and Baptist circles, Vince in mainline Protestantism. Beyond that, they are exceedingly down to earth. They read the Bible in context, not literally, and their abiding theme is grace — grace and restoration.

Bakker is the son of Jimmy and Tammy Faye Bakker, the founders of the evangelical megachurch PTL that was seized by Jerry Falwell in 1987 in the wake of financial and sexual scandal – one of the biggest churches, and scandals, in the history of American Christianity.

The church survives on donations. Once, there was grant money and a paid staff. “But because we are a gay-affirming church,” says Bakker, “I knew that was going to cost us a lot. When I made that decision, I also had to lay off the whole staff in Atlanta. We’re definitely following our convictions. We’re not in it for the glamorous lifestyle. But it’s definitely worth it. I get to read and study the Bible, challenge people, and see people redeemed. That’s what I love to do.”

It is apparent that Bakker is still bracing himself against the Christian conservatism with which he has broken ties. The schism occupies his discourse, certainly more so than the possibility of getting any flack from the odd marxist or pagan in Williamsburg. He confesses in a recent sermon to being “hurt” by constant buffeting from other Christians. But it seems to be a reference to something somewhere out in right field, and a little lost on the Brooklyn flock. The congregation includes a number of avowed atheists. (“We love our atheists,” says Anderson. “They stimulate great conversation.”)

The Sunday meetings draw mostly an under-forty crowd. The congregants drink beer, and Bakker pulls on a soda with a wedge of lemon in it. iPhone lights flicker as congregants check the time or emails. It’s not your grandmother’s church.

Bakker has the evangelist’s talent for moving easily between scripture and popular idiom. But his interests extend also to subcultures, and his sense of artistic existentiality is just about pitch perfect. His sermons are speckled with references to his favorite bands, legendary tattoo artists, the redemption of Mike Tyson.

He begins a recent sermon with the news that the Lutheran clergy has just decided to accept ministers and lay leaders who are in committed same-sex relationships. Then he moves on to Acts 10, the story of the apostle Peter going among the “unclean” gentiles in defiance of Jewish law.

Bakker’s mother Tammy Faye, who died in 2007, broke the ice on Christian television in the 1980s by showing compassion for gay men with AIDS. And her popularity among gays at the time was probably also not hurt by her over-the-top fashion sense. “She was a great influence on me with regard to tolerance and compassion.” But Bakker is not gay, and he admits he was uncomfortable with his mother’s stance at the time. His realization about the need to be gay affirming came only later as a spiritual epiphany.

photo by William Hereford

Bakker struggled with substance abuse, hard partying, and the fallout from his parents’ dizzying rise and fall at the helm of the biggest evangelical network in America. He feels that his parents were severely treated, “excommunicated” by Falwell and the born-again community, when they should have been helped and “restored.” And he became generally disillusioned with what he views as too much emphasis in evangelical circles on repentance and conduct.

“The message I got in my church was that good works could earn your way to God. I didn’t really learn about grace and restoration until I was about twenty. In the church I grew up in, it was all about control. But with faith, you give up control. And it’s tough not to want to grab the reigns.”

And so Jay Bakker turned away from an Angry God. Tried, as we all do, in so many words of the great American theologian Jonathan Edwards, to work his own way out of a pickle.

“I was finished with God. I was trying to earn my own salvation, rather than receiving it from Christ. Because in my church, all the emphasis was on conduct. If you didn’t speak in tongues, you didn’t have the Holy Spirit. Things like that. When I finally learned about grace and restoration through Christ, it blew me away, it changed everything. I realized you could read Galatians and Romans, and then read the gospels in the light of grace.”

“If anything, we get accused of teaching too much grace,” says Anderson. “They say we practice ‘cheap grace.’ But to that, I say the other churches practice ‘cheap repentance.’ If you look at the Bible through a legalistic lens, you will see it as a set of rules. But when you read the scriptures in the light of grace, they become transformative.”

“It’s not even about being saved or not saved,” Bakker adds. “It’s just that the rules don’t give grace.”

It is a predestinarian position. But there are shades of difference between the two preachers. Anderson is a Universalist: “We’re all saved.”

“To say that would have been heresy in the church I grew up in,” says Bakker. “I still talk about repentance. But for me, it’s about process.”

“He hangs on a little more,” says Anderson. “We work well as a team. We teach an attitude of repentance. Not the traditional view where … I was wrong, now I’m right and everyone else is wrong.”

The main evangelical movements in America are about a hundred years old, and they presently risk hanging their collective hats on a few words of scripture that have long been scientifically disproved, in many species on the planet. But for Bakker, this is not just about a no-brainer like acknowledging the normality of gay and transgendered people. Bakker is a theologian who has come to join the philosophers, in a general discussion of identity, ethics, and struggle.

“Transparency and honesty are a big part of what we practice. We are as earnest as we can be, and as honest as we can be, and my example is Christ.”

Jay Bakker takes speaking engagements, he is the author of “Son of a Preacher Man,” and the subject of the 2006 documentary “One Punk Under God.”

Vince Anderson plays with his band “Dirty Gospel” at Union Pool.

Revolution Church services are held on Sundays at 4pm at Pete’s Candy Store, 709 Lorimer Street. Listen to sermons at

Visit the blog at

September 18, 2009

Council-Manic Followup

Well there you go. Our candidate Evan Thies came in fourth of the seven contenders for the city council seat from Brooklyn’s 33rd District. The winner was Stephen Levin, who won by a landslide with 5199 votes, or 33.71 percent of the return. Levin ran with the endorsement of US Senator Chuck Schumer, and was generally considered the candidate to run against.

This was an energetic and very competitive race. But at the same time, voter turnout was abysmally low in this district. Joe Anne Simon came in second (3109 votes), followed by Isaac Abraham (1937 votes), Evan Thies (1915 votes), Ken Diamondstone (1324 votes), and two others with about a thousand votes each.

These numbers are no larger than popular facebook pages. If you could commit 20 friends, that was big. If you could lock in a housing project or a senior center, that was a landslide. And canvassing outside the Park Slope Food Coop, for example, was quite a different thing from canvassing the subway rush hour at Grand Army Plaza. At the Plaza, I was amazed by how many hipsters I encountered who clearly had no intention of even remembering that it were an election day.

I was also surprised by how many Republicans there are in Park Slope, streaming out of the subway in seersucker suits and Tilly hats, into the brownstone neighborhood. And they were politically more alive than most others in the crowd. This is from the street, not statistics, but time and again it was, “Nope, not voting, I’m a Republican.” (Remember, this was technically just the Democratic Primary, but in a heavily Democratic district where the GOP will probably not waste money running a candidate in a final election.)

In theory, had Diamondstone and Thies thrown their support behind Simon, the seat would have gone to Simon. But then the race would not have been nearly as interesting or as revealing of the political dynamics in this part of Brooklyn. The 33rd includes, as I remarked last time, those parts of Brooklyn that you see in the movies: most of the famous waterfront and bridges, all of downtown Brooklyn, and most of the Brooklyn neighborhoods that have gentrified fastest over the past twenty years. It is no wonder this district is heating up politically. Only two of the city’s 51 council districts ran more than six candidates in this election. Most ran three to five. A district in northern Manhattan ran eight candidates, and the 33rd in Brooklyn ran seven.

Evan Thies probably did best in Williamsburg and Greenpoint, where he lives and has a strong base among young veterans of the Obama campaign. He was also the only candidate in the race who lives in the northern reach of the district.

The 33rd is a gerrymandered district whose northern provinces of Williamsburg and Greenpoint have been long subsumed by the political clout of downtown Brooklyn. This is a situation that will probably change as Brooklyn’s industrial north steadily fills up with artists and yuppies, and the area begins to get political traction in the form of people like Evan Thies.

The 33rd district should be reorganized. Its two parts are culturally and geographically quite different. It should be severed at the narrow strip of waterfront that presently connects its northern and southern reaches. Williamsburg and Greenpoint should be joined with their neighbors East Williamsburg and Bushwick (which presently reside in the 34th district) to form a contiguous northwest council district for Brooklyn.

There may be a political archeology to be uncovered in the present configuration, which may point to an attempt to divide and conquer the ancient “City of Williamsburgh.” That city had its own town hall and opera house up until 1855, when it was merged with the City of Brooklyn.

September 12, 2009

Evan Thies for New York City Council

Evan Thies, candidate for the 33rd city council district

There are seven people running in the Democratic primary for a seat on the New York City Council that has a tradition of being a political hot seat. That may have something to do with the fact that the 33rd councilmanic district takes in both the brownstone south and the industrial north of that part of Brooklyn that you usually see in the movies.

The two parts of this district are culturally and geographically separate. The south part includes the leafy warrens of Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, and other brownstone neighborhoods. The north part is an area of industry, tenement buildings, and traditionally working class town houses.

The two reaches of this council district are connected by a narrow strip of waterfront, where there is a long-standing restaurant called Giando's. Years ago, I stood on the patio of that restaurant with Ken Fisher, who was the councilman at the time. We talked about development. Giando's had hosted a presentation by the local community board for a housing development on the Williamsburg waterfront. Already, waterfront development had become the subject of a viscous firefight among several factions in the neighborhood.

The Williamsburg waterfront at that time was still a magnificent wilderness of rust. Valleys of surreal industrial jungle were interspersed with the huge gaping caves of empty warehouses. It was an apocalyptic landscape of dense industry in the process of being reclaimed by nature. And it was in this environment that the first big wave of badass college kids in the neighborhood took up what had been a tradition among badass local kids — the warehouse party! Our parties were probably more self-consciously Nietzschean in conception than those of the Brooklyn gangs of the 1970s. But then again, maybe not. You never know. That was the joy and the mystery of it all. One thing is for sure, though, they were better publicized.

If the artists hold some responsibility for gentrification and the ridiculous piles of crap that now stand empty all over Williamsburg — and look like they were airlifted in from Boca Raton — at the very least we can say this: We did gentrification better, and our vision was better. It was during a recession in the early 90s that artists filled the empty warehouses, lofts, and storefronts of Williamsburg with myriad forms of activity.

Today, the real estate developers have botched the game. They have not held up their end of the gentrification bargain, have they now. They have blown who knows how much carbon into the atmosphere, and now they can't sell their pathetic cubicles of sheetrock. Their excuse is the economy. But in the artists' manual, that is a wimpy excuse. It speaks to a lack of imagination. And development in Williamsburg has been anything but imaginative.

We are accustomed to viewing artist culture as a prelude and a part of real estate development, where there is a trajectory from art to real estate. But that model comes into question now. Hipster-bohemian culture continues to expand and evolve in all kinds of ways into Williamsburg, East Williamsburg, and Bushwick. New condo development, on the other hand, not only stagnates, but it is also out of key with the vernacular of both the bohemian and the local culture. Why would you want to move to industrial, gritty, cool Brooklyn, to live like a piece of chatska in a display window? It is not just that the economy is slamming the developers, it's that the developers don't "get it." Their product is fundamentally unhip, in a market that demands hepitude.

It speaks, in other words, to a lack of vision. And this goes for the drones in city government as well, who for decades have systematically ignored the community and kissed up to real estate interests. The result is crap-shoot development. "City planning" in this picture amounts to little more than some landscaping for the high rises on the waterfront. Well, the city and its clients have made their bed and they can sleep in it. They wanted in and out, fast, and they got snagged. Too bad. So much for a fast buck. But worse, they have left nothing interesting, nothing of substance, nothing sustainable, nothing of enduring value to the community.

On September 15th I will vote for Evan Thies in the city council primaries. I believe he is earnest about responsible development in Brooklyn. Thies would also represent downtown Brooklyn, where a major sweetheart deal between the city and a big developer has also stalled on account of a bad economy and a dim vision.

To be sure, the Atlantic Yards area near downtown Brooklyn should be developed. It is presently a fallow holding lot for subway cars. ("It's embarrassing," said one Thies campaign worker.) But the plan that has been force fed to the community is tone deaf. The idea for a Major League basketball arena, for example, is seated in the nostalgia of a few old men. They want to recreate an Ebbets Field, bring back the Dodgers, whatever. It is not where Brooklyn is going. Better to have skateboard ramps and boxing rings.

Moreover, the properties around Atlantic Yards should not be sold off at a fraction of their market value. This cheats the people of New York City. Evan Thies thinks the plan is illegal and he is considering suing the city on that account. Thies wants to put the Atlantic Yards properties up for public auction, piece by piece, and look at a variety of ideas from the real world, and "See what we get."

My assessment of Thies is guided in part by the old maxim of judging the people around the man. There is a strong component of New Brooklyn here, untainted by the kind of cloying patter that so frequently dampens politics in this borough, on the left and the right. There is just something fresh about this candidate.