After televangelist Jim Bakker was found guilty of 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy, his talented wife, Tammy Faye, lost everything.
I could feel the colour draining from my face. My nostrils began to flare, my eyes narrowed and my throat tightened. The honey-roasted parsnips I had been salivating over lost all appeal in an instant. How dare my dinner guest offend me with his rude off-hand comment? It was vile, outrageous, unadulterated racism in anyone’s book. It made me sick. Around the table my large, mixed and multicultural family, well used to navigating the complexities of racial politics, froze. Meanwhile the foul-mouthed culprit laughed and tucked into his meal oblivious to the verbal grenade he had just de-pinned. Had it been a Twitter conversation there would have been a mass social media pile-on. Had it been a University campus the whole event might have been cancelled. But this was a family dinner. I needed to find a way through – one that called out the sin without driving out the relation.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is a movie that tackles a subject matter that, for me, is just as vile and distasteful as racism. Manipulative televangelism that preys on people with eloquent deceit and well-dressed hypocrisy to feed celebrity greed and egotism is offensive to all, including the majority of Christians I know. I cringed and shuddered my way through the film, grateful at least for the knowledge that there would be a come-uppance in the end and desperately hoping that the faith I know and love would rise above the unpalatable wrongdoings that were being portrayed in its name.
The eponymous Tammy Faye is the wife of Jim Bakker, the internationally disgraced televangelist, who at his height commanded global satellite TV audiences of 20 million people on his improbably successful show the Praise The Lord Club. He built the third most successful theme park in the US, bringing in over $1 million of donations each week from viewers who thought they were supporting international aid work and poverty alleviation. After a five-week trial Bakker was found guilty of 24 counts of fraud and conspiracy. Tammy Faye, his eccentric singing accomplice and the show’s eye-candy, lost everything.
For Christians in the UK these US televangelists are our embarrassing distant relatives. As in my dinner dilemma, we find ourselves torn between our common ties and our disgust at the offensive way in which their beliefs are communicated. Jessica Chastain, the actress who portrays Tammy Faye models this dilemma brilliantly and offers us a way forward that is particularly insightful.
Chastain, unsurprisingly, was originally dismissive of Tammy Faye, but this did not stop her taking a closer look. Behind the scandal, the garish cosmetic glamour and showbiz charisma fakery, she discovered a woman who had not only flaws and blemishes but also well-masked grace and beauty. Perhaps she saw the truth in Tammy’s addage: “We’re all just people, made outta the same old dirt and God didn’t make any junk.”
For Christians in the UK these US televangelists are our embarrassing distant relatives
The Eyes of Tammy Faye became Chastain’s personal passion project. She even purchased the rights to the documentary of the same name directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato and narrated by Rupaul Charles. In one of the most dramatic transformations I have ever seen on screen, Chastain not only captured Tammy Faye’s distinctive voice, accent and mannerisms, but managed to metamorphose into her body too – her younger body and her older body, her energetic camera-ready body and her broken world-weary body.
There is irony here, as thick as Tammy Faye’s heavy-handed eyeliner. Chastain relies on prosthetics and make-up to bring about the transformation that makes the film a powerful critique of our culture’s obsession with appearances. This was a huge personal and professional risk, but one Chastain was willing to take in order to help us see the real Tammy Faye Bakker, not just the Tammy Faye Bakker with her trademark mask of false eyelashes, mascara and kohl. The real Tammy Faye is not only a one dimensional on-screen entertainer but a worried, neglected wife, struggling with depression and self-image. She is not just a children’s puppeteer and manipulating fraudster, but also the abused and exploited victim of a critical mother, a judgmental church culture and the despicable monomania of her husband. Chastain’s sympathetic portrayal of the celebrity turned pariah helps us to experience life through the eyes of someone so totally different to us, it is like a trip to a foreign country. And, like a trip to a foreign country, there is discomfort and fascination. Both help to break down barriers. As we cross sociological, political and geographical lines without immediate judgement we become more empathetic, compassionate and understanding.
Towards the end of the movie, Jim Bakker is finally sent to prison and Tammy Faye ends up living alone, in poverty. As she returns home to her apartment on the rough side of town one day, she sees a group of boys ridiculing her. She takes a deep breath, walks right up to them and introduces herself. She wants them to meet her up close before they judge her, to know at least something about her before they write her off completely. This for me is the key that not only helps unlock this film, but reminds me how to deal with offensive comments by family members whether at the dinner table or across the Atlantic. Hospitality has to trump hostility. Compassion must shape our conversation. Maintaining relational integrity should motivate us even as we challenge mistruths. We have to move towards forgiveness and reconciliation, even if others disagree. In the end, perhaps this film of Tammy Faye’s life doesn’t just showcase a fall from grace, but offers us a call to grace.
The Eyes of Tammy Faye is in UK cinemas from tomorrow
A free faith guide is available now from cpo.org.uk