The Eyes of Tammy Faye through Mars Hill Lenses

By Peter K. Levy – https://www.flickr.com/photos/28698046@N08/22407116907, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71232267

‘Tis the season for tales of fallen evangelical leaders. The last few years have brought reports of scandal and abuse from mega-church leader Bill Hybels, internationally-known minister Ravi Zacharias, and former president of Liberty university and defender of Donald Trump, Jerry Falwell Jr

This year, Christianity Today released a podcast detailing the fall of another evangelical leader, Mark Driscoll. The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast chronicles Driscoll’s rise to fame and asks hard questions about the role the larger evangelical culture played in his ministry and various abuses of power. 

And last month, Searchlight pictures released The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a biopic about the flashier half of the disgraced televangelism duo, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

Going into the theatre to watch The Eyes of Tammy Faye, I wondered if this would just be another cynical send-up of yet another corrupt religious leader. What I didn’t expect was to leave the theatre intrigued and inspired. This was especially surprising given the steady diet of The Mars Hill Podcast I’ve been on since its first episode released. These days, when I hear about fallen Christian leaders, I’ve come to expect intense nausea. Still, The Eyes of Tammy Faye left me with a far different taste in my mouth than The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, no matter how similar their tales of corrupted Christianity might seem on the surface.

Those surface similarities are striking. Both Tammy Faye and Mark Driscoll experienced a dramatic, supernatural call into ministry. For Tammy Faye, it took the form of an ecstatic movement of the Spirit. In the film, she speaks in tongues and writhes on the floor of her small, charismatic church, and the congregation affirms it as a sign of God’s movement. Tammy Faye (played perfectly by Jessica Chastain) follows that sign all the way through the rise and fall of her ministry with Jim Bakker.

Mark Driscoll’s dramatic call came in the form of God’s voice telling him in no uncertain terms that his mission in life was to preach the Bible, marry his then-fiance Grace, and teach men. He built his whole ministry around the narrative of that dramatic calling. 

Both Tammy Faye Bakker and Mark Driscoll utilized mass media to advance their ministry. The Bakkers used television, helping to start the 700 club before starting their Praise The Lord program, which mixed traditional music and preaching with a talk-show style format. They reached millions via their impressive, expensive satellite broadcast.

Driscoll’s ministry grew up alongside the rise of streaming and social media. He was among the first to stream his sermons and to put everything he did as a pastor online for the world to see. As Mars Hill church grew by leaps and bounds in Seattle, it also grew far beyond that city through the vast, rapid reach of the internet.

So mass media was crucial to the success of the Bakkers and Driscoll. And by all accounts, the mixed bag of multi-media celebrity status played a key role in the downfall of each as well.

Finally, the most obvious connection between the two is their terrible fall. Both resigned amidst scandal. Both left hurt and betrayed followers in their wake. Both ministries speak to what happens when Christian ministry gets in bed with power.

With so many similarities, why is it that each new episode of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill leaves me angry, while The Eyes of Tammy Faye left me hopeful?

Some skeptics may answer that the film treats Tammy Faye more sympathetically than The Mars Hill podcast treats Driscoll. The film allows us to view Tammy Faye as partly a victim of circumstance, an unwitting pawn in Jim’s grifting game. The Mars Hill podcast, by contrast, portrays Driscoll as a manipulative jerk who knew exactly what he was doing to exercise control over his parishioners. 

In The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, Driscoll plays the part of a yelling, cursing villain who hates women. In The Eyes of Tammy Faye, Tammy Faye is the oppressed woman who longs only for a seat at the men’s table and for the world to know God’s love.

But the truth is that neither portrayal presents its subject as all good or all bad. One of the strengths of the Mars Hill podcast is the way it discusses the fruitful ministry of Mars Hill under Driscoll’s leadership. It talks about changed lives, about women saved from abusive marriages, about broken families being restored. The podcast challenges us to hold two opposite ideas in tension: that Driscoll’s ministry was both helpful and deeply harmful. 

The Eyes of Tammy Faye also relies on an audience’s ability to hold two contradictory truths at the same time. Tammy is at once ridiculous and respectable; in a particularly moving scene, the disgraced Tammy Faye confronts her teen neighbors for making fun of her. She smiles and introduces herself, carrying herself with grace, shaking their hands. Her bold and winsome demeanor overcomes their ridicule. Then, in the next moment, she offers to sign a headshot for them, oblivious to how cringeworthy such an offer is. 

The film never makes fun of Tammy Faye, nor does it ignore her outlandish style and behavior or shy away from the terrible implications of the Bakkers’ prosperity gospel. Tammy Faye is a beneficiary to a broken, exploitative system. She also genuinely wishes to help those who are broken and exploited. When Tammy Faye cries, asking Jim whether they’ve been teaching all along that God doesn’t love poor people, her pain at getting it wrong seems genuine. Those clownish tears are signs of Tammy Faye’s deep compassion. 

It is perhaps Tammy Faye’s unapologetic emotion that most illuminates the differences between these two fallen spiritual leaders. Looking at the weeping Tammy, it’s hard to imagine two people more diametrically opposed than Mark Driscoll and Tammy Faye Bakker. 

Indeed, Tammy Faye and her entire aesthetic form the antithesis to Driscoll’s ministry. In one episode, he specifically contrasts the Mars Hill ministry with the frilly churches of his youth that boasted floral wallpaper and other soft, feminine touches. Driscoll saw evangelical Christianity as infected with a kind of over-feminization. The solution? A relevant, no-frills style, meant to attract men back to church.

Of course, if Driscoll’s complaints had only been a matter of style, his ministry would not have gone downhill the way it did.  Driscoll’s theology and his particular brand of reformed Christianity depended on models of authoritarian, patriarchal hierarchy. The podcast documents instance after instance of the ways Driscoll’s teaching, preaching, and attitude hurt and objectified women and subjected them to abuse and shame. The podcast fails to air some of Driscoll’s most egregious public statements, but even what it includes is damning, as Driscoll moves from misogyny to homophobia in shocking, crass language. 

Tammy’s message, from the start, was God’s love. An outcast as a child of divorce, Tammy Faye saw her calling as one to spread God’s unconditional love. “God loves you — he really does!” became the Bakkers’ catch-phrase, and while the film lets the viewer feel the uncomfortable cheesiness of the phrase — especially after their scandal breaks — it also leads us to believe that Tammy Faye really meant those words. God’s love was her central message. 

That she clung to that message while ministering to the AIDS-beset LGBTQ community is one of her most enduring claims to fame. The scene in the film where Tammy Faye interviews Rev. Steve Pieters, a gay Christian, is faithful to the original interview, and a moving reminder of the power of God’s love in action. 

Though some suggest that Tammy Faye’s version of God’s love is cheap because it does not demand repentance (Brett McCracken calls it a “feel-good, pithy assurance-of-pardon moment”), I see nothing cheap about Tammy Faye’s gracious love. In interviewing a gay Christian with compassion, Tammy Faye put her reputation and ministry on the line. But instead of wrecking her ministry, that interview, along with Tammy Faye’s other statements about God’s love for the LGBTQ community, have strengthened her ministry and preserved her legacy. 

So what is the difference between Tammy Faye’s rise and fall and Mark Driscoll’s? In the face of damaging theology, scandal, and abuse, the game-changer was and is love.

Now, that may sound cheesy, but it isn’t cheap. Love requires vulnerability and risk, two qualities that Tammy Faye possessed in heaps.

Last week, Mark Driscoll posted a video condemning Critical Race Theory as a tool of Satan. Instead of listening to criticisms of his work, he has chosen to jump on the anti-CRT bandwagon as a way to shut down any criticism. He signs off his video saying, “If you’re one of those woke, joke folk you’re welcome. You’re going to be offended.” 

Tammy Faye’s post-fall messaging was one of love and acceptance. She appeared on the reality show, The Surreal Life, where she preached about letting go of past hurts. Her loving example so moved her castmates that one said, “I thought she was going to be a Bible-beater and judge me,” “but she took care of me” (Dr. Leah Payne for Religion News Service).

Jesus said  that the world will know we are disciples by our love. Turns out that’s still the case. 

God loves you. He really does.