It was difficult to look at what was left of Tammy Faye Messner when her final interview aired last month on Larry King Live. Filmed just days before her death, the woman who once was at the top of a Christian media empire now looked less than human. Her body was haggard from her long fight with cancer, her eyes sunken, her arms shriveled, her voice punctuated by gasps for air. It made me sad to see her like this. I was glad when they cut away to a 2000 interview that had reunited Tammy Faye with her ex-husband Jim Bakker, the man whose behavior had injured her in so many ways. Yet as they sat together, I could tell that she had really forgiven him, that she still cared for him, that when Jesus asked us to forgive those who hurt us 70 times seven times, Tammy Faye took that to heart.
It’s odd that I would mourn for Tammy Faye. After all, in their heyday, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were icons of everything that seems to me to be broken in American Christianity. Though they never spewed the kind of venomous hatred that’s always on the lips of figures like Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham, they were nevertheless spokespeople for an alternative culture that promotes a kind of plastic religiosity.
Between the Praise The Lord television network (a precursor to today’s TBN) and the Christian theme park Heritage USA, Jim and Tammy Faye built a ministry that soft-pedaled Christianity into our homes, a kind of consumer driven religion that suggests that if we only surround ourselves with the right things, a collection of pastel colored Jesus plates and a can-do-attitude, that nothing in our lives will ever go wrong.
But of course, things did go horribly wrong for Jim and Tammy Faye. Jim’s extramarital affair made headlines around the world, as did financial improprieties which resulted in jail time for Jim and a loss of everything for Tammy Faye. The woman once known for her smiley appearances alongside her husband now became known for her mascara-laden tears.
That’s the image of Tammy Faye that many people will remember forever. But I was only seven during most of that controversy. I didn’t get to know Tammy Faye until much later when as an adult I encountered her on countless television appearances. She always struck me as odd with her overdone make-up and her overwhelming optimism, but there was also something appealing about her. Her faith in Christ, while informed by a different sensibility than my own, always seemed genuine to me. She was a woman who had been wounded in her life, who had lost a great deal, and who had learned that there is no shame in suffering — that it’s part of what it means to be human.
In the last couple of years, Tammy Faye stretched herself even further. She tried to find her place in the world despite years of being entrenched in a Christian culture that tries to push the world away. She went on VH1′s “The Surreal Life” and struck up an unlikely friendship with porn star Ron Jeremy. She also appeared, quite sympathetically, in the Sundance Channel mini-series “One Punk Under God” which followed a year in the life of her son Jay — the founder and pastor of Revolution Church.
Jay represents a new kind of evangelical leader, holding church in bars and going all over town putting up stickers that say “As Christians we apologize for being such self-righteous bastards” and “Jesus is the savior, not Christianity.” Jay clearly learned from his parents’ mistakes but also from what they did right. The miniseries showed them praying and laughing and crying together as Tammy Faye began her long battle with cancer. Those images of Jay and Tammy Faye together made clear that faith is something they share, not something that divides them.
Tammy Faye died as she lived: with faith, humility, and charity right up to the end. While the controversy she endured nearly destroyed her, it also just might have saved her. May we all gain the wisdom and the clarity to grow so much from our mistakes, to awake from tragedy by surrendering to joy.