Monday, July 23, 2007

In Memoriam

Numerous tributes to the late Tammy Fae (Bakker) Messner have already appeared on the internet. Given that she was never an individual that I paid close attention to, I hadn't planned to comment on her passing. This morning, however, it occurred to me that writing a post about her was precisely what I needed to do.

Growing up I don't recall ever watching the PTL Club. I was certainly aware of the Bakkers, steeped as I was in the Christian subculture at an early age, but I never paid much attention to televangelists. I remember when the Bakkers started building their Christian theme park, which seemed like a rather materialistic project yet possibly an interesting place to visit. I remember when they footed the bill for their daughter's Christian music album; it was poorly produced, and the one single I heard on the radio didn't get airplay for very long. And, of course, there were all the jokes about Tammy Fae's makeup, which everyone my age found endlessly hilarious at the time. In short, the Bakkers were the epitome of '80s evangelicalism.

Then the PTL scandal hit, and overnight the Bakkers became personas non grata in the Christian community. Jim went to jail, Tammy got a divorce, and nobody seemed to want to talk much about what happened to their kids. That scandal was only one of several, as Oral Roberts had recently made a spectacle of himself with his vision of a homicidal 90-foot Jesus, and it wouldn't be long before Jimmy Swaggart (among others) fell from his lofty perch as well.

There was never a lack of prominent Christians to gossip about in those days. That was also the time period when Amy Grant took heavy flack for "crossing over" and allegedly compromising her message. I personally loved Unguarded, but still briefly jumped on the "pummel Amy" bandwagon when she appeared in a music video with Peter Cetera wearing (gasp) a tank top and singing a love song with a musician who wasn't her husband. Oh, the horror.

A few years later Tammy Fae was back in the news when she co-hosted a talk show with the openly gay Jm J. Bullock. The show didn't last long, but it gave us "good" Christians all the proof we needed that she had gone off the deep end. Surely no God-fearing individual would actually associate with an unrepentant homosexual, after all. (And of course I wasn't gay; it was just a phase I was going to grow out of any day.)

After that I didn't pay much attention to Tammy; she seemed to be little more than a tabloid celebrity, and I'd never cared for tabloids. In short, I judged and convicted her in the almighty courtroom of my mind. I may not have made a lot of noise about it, just as I was seldom openly militant about any of my opinions, but I had decided that I knew everything I needed to know about Tammy Fae Messner. Such judgments color and taint everything that we say and do, even if we never directly articulate them.

And so I reduced her to a two-dimensional caricature. It's very easy to do, certainly far easier than actually taking the time to get to know a person. Three-dimensional people are complex and confusing and they don't fit neatly into our boxes, and who really wants to expend the considerable effort that it takes to delve into all of that?

It's only fairly recently that I've begun to learn about the other side of Tammy Fae - the compassion that she extended to the gay community at a time when the rest of the Christian world was sitting back and smirking at the AIDS crisis, the grace that she offered to those who crossed her path, and the peace that she displayed when it became clear that her days on this earth were coming to an end. Even if it turns out that she wasn't correct in every aspect of her theology, it's love of the kind she modeled that will echo throughout eternity, long after all theological disputes have been wiped away and forgotten in the instant of our first encounter with God face to face.

So to Tammy Fae I now say (belatedly): I'm sorry for judging you. Judging may be what we Christians do best, but that doesn't make it a Christlike thing to do. With God's help maybe I'll get it right next time.


Anonymous said...

Nice tribute....very touching

BentonQuest said...

Thanks! I resonated with what you said. I was also from the "I ran into Tammy Fay at that Mall" t-shirt generation and really didn't think about how I had also considered her a charicature. I apologize too.