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Jay Bakker
Jay Bakker returns to the area where he grew up in Fort Mill, S.C., where his parents established the long-closed Christian theme park, Heritage USA, seen in the background. (AP Photo/Sundance Channel, William Glasheen)

This Bakker preaches revolutionary change

NEW YORK -- He was born into the glare of televangelist parents Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Then the "Praise the Lord" empire collapsed in scandal. His father went to jail for fraud.

Jay Bakker spent his teens in the darkness, rebelling and bent on self-destruction from alcohol and drugs.

But now, about to turn 31 on Dec. 18 this tattooed, multi-pierced pilgrim is on a righteous path: preaching God's grace to a flock of young, downtrodden, and disillusioned parishioners most any other church would turn away.

Jay is the focus of "One Punk Under God: the Prodigal Son of Jim & Tammy Faye," a reality series about the back-to-basics church he calls Revolution, which, notwithstanding his decade-long sobriety, holds services in an Atlanta bar.

Keeping the faith while keeping Revolution going will prove to be a challenge for Bakker.

"I think Revolution is kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place," he muses in the first episode, airing tonight at 9 on the Sundance Channel. "With some groups we're too Christian, and with the Christians we're not Christian enough."

But Bakker has other concerns as the six-episode series unfolds.

His mom is gravely ill from cancer; Jay will be traveling to her North Carolina home for tender visits. His dad, now remarried and with a new TV ministry, is estranged from him -- a rift Jay will make great strides repairing.

And after several years' devotion to his church, he will be uprooted when wife Amanda, a young woman with fluorescent red hair and a beatific smile, is accepted by New York University for its doctoral program in psychiatry.

In short, 2006 is eventful for Jay Bakker -- far more than he imagined when "One Punk Under God" began filming in February.

He was initially reluctant to sign on, and even camera shy, he insists during a recent interview.

"I feel like I'm just a guy who has a church with 15 people that meets in a bar," says Bakker, who left the Atlanta church in another minister's care to start a new branch that meets in a Brooklyn pub.

He has no wish, he adds, to leverage his TV exposure into an ongoing video pulpit, as his parents had with "The PTL Club," which at its peak reached some 13 million cable households.

"If anything, I'd like to write more books," Jay Bakker says.

Five years ago his first book, "Son of a Preacher Man: My Search for Grace in the Shadows," testified to his troubled past and deliverance from it.

Now "One Punk Under God" finds Bakker continuing a mini-crusade for an alternative to the God he could never make peace with: a wrathful God who hated him for all the flaws he hated in himself.

"God loves us for who we are," contends Bakker, explaining that it comes down to "grace": "God's love for all people, and his unconditional love."

In defiance of both his billing as "punk" and his calling as preacher, Bakker is an affable, unassuming chap who happens to wear a stud in each ear as well as a lip ring. And tattoos: He got the first of many -- it praises Revolution -- at 19 while living in Phoenix, where he helped found the church. In the series' finale, he will get a tattoo in tribute to his mother.

He never set out to be the punk anti-Bakker for a lost generation. Nor has he disavowed his parents, whose past disgrace could easily fuel skepticism about his own ministry.

"I don't have a strategy like, 'OK, I'm gonna distance myself from them, so I can build a church and be my own man,' " he says. "Me and my dad have a hard time getting along, and now, with my mom being as sick as she is, that's hard -- but I love them, and they did a lot of great things, as well as make mistakes."

A mistake of theirs he means to avoid: building a church so big and all-consuming that its own sustenance is its primary cause.

In episode two, Bakker will make a tough decision that could threaten his church: Should he declare himself a gay-affirming minister?

"Absolutely, without question," Amanda says, but warns of a backlash.

She's right. A conservative foundation wastes no time pulling thousands in funding.

That's OK. "Salvation is free. It's a gift," Bakker says.

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