23 January 2005

Sharlet: John Leland, author of Hip: The History, retreading the oft-told story of Jay Bakker, punk-rock-son-of-a-preacher-man? I was about to trash this piece of reporting-without-ideaswhen I recalled a young guy I met a little while ago, whom I’ll call Raf.

Raf lives in seriously churched-up city, a gathering ground for divisions of moral values Christian soldiers. He is a Christian himself, which is to say, he’s keen on Jesus. Really keen: His dark eyes go wide when he hears that my friends, whom he knows, and I are talking faith at the bar into which he’s wandered, and he scoots up a chair and grins a buck-toothed grin and waits to be enlightened.

He’s carrying a library book; it’s G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy. But Raf is no intellectual. He mostly listens, speaking only to enthusiastically agree with just about everything. His laugh bounces off the walls and overwhelms conversation. He is excited about bands.

Raf wears bright new Converse Chucks and dark stiff blue jeans and his hair in a bowl cut — the effect is either self-conscious hipster, or spruced-up homeless. One of my two friends — they both know Raf — later comments that she doesn’t really know if Raf has a job; the other says that Raf is, in fact, some kind of computer genius, and well-paid for his labors.

Around this point, Raf’s head starts glowing. His scarf has draped onto a candle and caught fire, in a big way.

“Oh,” Raf says, “oh, oh.” His grin holds, but just barely. He looks scared — not of the flaming scarf, which he quickly stomps into charred submission, but of the disruption he’s caused. “Oh,” he says again, holding the scarf, an orange and brown, knitted synthetic blend that has melted into a noose. “I’m really sorry.”

Raf belongs to a young, “postmodern” church much like Jay Bakker’s “Revolution,” the name of which is so particular that to identify it will be to identify Raf, who was terribly ashamed of what he’d accidentally done to his scarf. So I’ll give it a roughly accurate pseudonym: Rejects n’ Rabble. One of Raf’s fellow Rejects had put that scarf into a bin at the church, and Raf, in need of a scarf, had taken it, inordinately pleased to have his neck warmed by a Reject reject. Now he sat staring at the melted mass, twisting it in his hands. I lamely suggested that maybe it could be re-knitted.

Raf tried to brighten at the possibility, but gave in to despair. “I’d better go,” he said, “I’ve already started a fire.”

And with that, he left, leaving my two friends and me to regret that we hadn’t come up with any greater consolation, and to face what one of my friends offered as a small-d definition of sin. Hadn’t we all, she asked, been annoyed with Raf when he let his scarf catch fire?

Of course we had.

What’s the burning scarf have to do with Jay Bakker’s punk rock church? At first, I was annoyed with Leland for giving Bakker’s conservative theology a free pass, for reporting only on the aesthetics of his congregation rather than the substance of their belief.

Then, when I read that Bakker avoids taking a stand on abortion and homosexuality, I got annoyed with him — that strikes me as a disingenous maneuver, spin for the NYTimes man.

But — because I was thinking of Raf — I wondered if maybe it’s not. If Bakker’s church, “Revolution,” aesthetically and theologically in the same vein as Raf’s Rejects n’ Rabble, if the self-described “emerging church,” the loose network of hipster evangelical congregations led by tattooed pastors, isn’t actually something new. Or rather, something small. A little church that exists for the solace of its congregations, that finds shape in their weaknesses and awkwardness, that doesn’t so much eschew politics as simply exist beneath them.

Maybe the Times‘ Leland, chronicler of hip, scouting for cool, accidentally captured that lovely insignificance. Maybe such churches aren’t, as I used to believe, a stealth front of politicized evangelicalism, but rather, hiding spots within the shadow of political religion. Places for men and women who are a little bit ashamed — of their faith, of themselves, of the scarf fed into the fire.

Or maybe I’ve been suckered — by the Times, by Raf, by the Rejects n’ Rabble ethos. Bakker tells Leland that he’s “just” about Jesus. Leland believes him, as if Jesus was ever about anything but everything. We learn that Bakker clashed with fellow seminarians he found too preppy, but we don’t learn why. Was it all about style, as Leland suggests? Or were there theological differences? “Religion kills” is Bakker’s motto, but it could also be said that religion distracts: “religion,” after all, involves ideas that can be discussed, debated, differed on.

L., one of the friends I was drinking with that night, said at one point that the so-called “emerging church” represented the future of American Christendom. That’s hard to believe — Raf isn’t going to lead anyone anywhere, and Bakker wouldn’t be in the news were it not for the scandal of his father and the camp glory of his mother, Tammy Faye.

But L. qualified her claim. The future of the church, she said, lies neither in the creaky old bitterness of Jim Dobson nor in hipster enclaves with names like Revolution, Rejects, and Journey. The future will emerge, said L., from the failure of such endeavors.

Think of the evangelical church not as it’s seen at the moment, an 800-pound political gorilla, but like a phoenix. Or a scarf, the ends of which are melted together.