Water parks, swirling cameras, gospel choirs, mink coats, televangelists and, at the center of it all, Tammy Faye. When the PTL (short for “Praise the Lord”) television network began broadcasting to 52 countries around the world, it’s hard to imagine what people outside the United States would have done with Jim and Tammy. Faye Bakker. Their was certainly an “American” mark of Christianity. Raised in the Assemblies of God tradition, the Bakkers embraced – perhaps even helped – shape the ‘American Dream’ of the 1980s with a love for Tonight’s show, Disneyland, Wealth and Jesus. What resulted from this unique combination was large-scale wellness televangelism, the third most popular theme park in the United States called Heritage USA, and a “prosperity gospel.”
The new cinema Tammy Faye’s eyes, and the documentary on which it is based, traces this roller coaster journey through American popular culture through the experiences of its most empathetic and perhaps most intriguing figure, Tammy Faye. it both helps the film and poses a challenge for the filmmakers and the audience. Tammy Faye is much more complex than the often uncharitable cartoons under which she is portrayed. Jessica Chastain delivers an exceptional and nuanced performance that immerses us in Tammy Faye’s experience and her significant contributions to society.
However, the religious and cultural phenomenon of the Bakkers’ unique brand of American televangelism, business, and Christianity shifts the conversation beyond biography and into the realms of theology, politics, and justice. this is where the film wants to go, the most revealing in its final scene which creates an almost hallucinogenic crossover sequence juxtaposing humble Christian redemption with American exceptionalism.
Along the way, the film and its characters raise important questions: Is God at war with a liberal agenda? Are ministry and trusting in God meant to bring financial success? Is there a limit to the love of God? Does being a Christian give someone the right to judge others as sinners? What is the role of television, video, and technology in sharing the message of Christianity?
That’s a lot to unbox in two hours, and the film does it somewhat unevenly. More often than not, he tries to highlight how Tammy Faye handles these things. She rejects the idea that there is a limit to God’s love, instead preferring to use her voice and platform to offer love and compassion rather than judgment. This is very movingly shown in an interview she conducted with Steve Pieters at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Pieters is a Christian pastor who, during the interview, declares that he is homosexual and that he has contracted AIDS. Hearing about his suffering and the lack of empathy he receives from Americans who identify as Christians, Tammy Faye, with tears in her eyes, pleads with her viewers to be more Christian and caring. It’s a great streak considering its audience and the fear and condemnation of the time. It’s all the more powerful as the film almost uses the exact dialogue taken from the original broadcast.
As to the question of God desiring material wealth for Christians and a “prosperity gospel” indicating God’s favor, the film is much less vocal. On the one hand, it shows how the desire for wealth corrupts Jim to the point of using others, destroying relationships, and breaking the law. On the flip side, he portrays Tammy Faye as oblivious or indifferent to the real source of the finances that support her lavish lifestyle. Absent is any presentation of the experiences of those who are leveraged financially. Like the surprising Oscar-winning documentary in 1972 Marjoe, the film seems more in love with the story of those who use religion to earn money than those who are persuaded to sacrifice their money. Only Tammy Faye’s mother raises an opposing voice, saying, “Serving God doesn’t feel like this should be an opportunity to make money. But even she is persuaded to accept a mink coat from her daughter.
Also intriguing is the virtual absence of any critical presentation of the appropriate use of television and the media to present the gospel. Christian television appears as such an ordinary facet of American life as the news channels whose Bakker blurbs fill the film. The subtext that Tammy Faye and Jim must be celebrated because they made “Christian TV” hugely popular? Does the popularity of television in America trump all other values or is it meritorious in itself? Consider here the esteem accorded Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Mother Angelica in American Catholic circles. Oddly enough, Tammy Faye and Mother Angelica made their TV debuts on Pat Robertson’s TV network. Tammy Faye explains her love for the camera by saying that “the camera is a person”. Positively, we can see how this humanizes the medium. Negatively, we can observe how he views the person as a passive, speechless recipient. Communication is one way. The stand easily lends itself to entertainment.
Are ministry and trusting in God meant to bring financial success?
Yet, in the midst of all of these complex questions, let’s not forget to celebrate something that the film powerfully highlights. At the start of the film, Tammy Faye, Jim and their newborn daughter are invited to Robertson’s lavish home for a party. Tammy Faye, alone looking after her child, fills her plate and walks towards the guests. She notices the women sitting at one table and the men at another. Jim, Robertson and the Reverend Jerry Falwell are seated at the top table engaged in religious and political discussion. Tammy Faye pulls up a chair and takes a seat at that table, despite obvious cultural and patriarchal resistance. The scene is exceptional as a symbol of his achievements as a whole. She sees no reason why she could not serve God on television like the others at this table. She has a god-given gift for connecting with people and refuses to let others stop her from using it.
This article also appears in the February 2022 issue of US Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 2, pages 36-37). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
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