I paid little attention to Tammy Faye Bakker during her PTL days. But I gave her close scrutiny the day before she died, when she appeared on Larry King Live. Her eyes, which formerly sparkled with an indomitable spirit, had faded. Tammy Faye's mascara, her trademark even when it ran with tears down her cheeks, foreshadowed her decay. Tammy Faye's skin hung off her cheekbones.
I saw defiance and a Christlike countercultural challenge behind her eyelashes. She lived publicly, and she died publicly. Tammy Faye was unafraid to show us the ravages of cancer and remind us of the decay that was brought into the world through sin. Tammy Faye reminded us that dignity comes from the character we display in the circumstances God allows for us, whether withered by cancer or in the peak of health.
After her televised farewell, how she died became as much a part of her story as her PTL days. I was proud to call her a sister in Christ.
Only a century ago, public deaths like Tammy Faye's were common. "In the early 20th century, it was not always easy to defend the bedroom of the dying from awkward expressions of sympathy, indiscreet curiosity, and all the other persistent manifestations of the idea of the public death," writes Philippe Aries in The Hour of Death, a survey of Western attitudes toward death over the last thousand years.
But by the second half of the 20th century, Aries writes, our culture had become horrified by death. Instead of residing in the home, where the most basic fact of human life could be openly acknowledged, death was transferred to the hospital, where only professionals and close family members needed to witness the indignity of terminal disease.
Lutheran novelist Walter Wangerin, who faces the cancerous rebellion of his own cells, complains that obituary writers declare "that so-and-so died 'after a long battle with cancer.' Are folks with cancer good fighters if they win? Bad fighters, failing knights, if they lose?"
"Why not use the imagery that acknowledges how one experiences dying?" Wangerin writes. "How one behaves in the face of death [and] what one has to offer those who stand by in love and relationship?"
The language of battle, which suggests potential victory, masks the true nature of death, which comes to us all. The language of death as a battle fails us another way, as well. It turns dying into a solitary event, a kind of cage match between a person and a disease. Nearly 400 years ago, one of the English language's greatest poets taught us how untrue that notion is.
A 'Dying Face'
"No man is an island," wrote John Donne, "every man is a piece of the continent. Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
Donne wrote these words from his bed as he lay racked by spotted fever. Church bells announced death after death as the epidemic tore through London. Yet Donne survived. He lived and preached and wrote, even as plague came and went and he grew steadily feebler.
Donne remained true to those words years later when his own death neared. As a final work, he edited and prepared for publication a huge collection of his sermons. Donne then traveled to London to preach before king and court. Donne, who had frequently been ill, terrified his audience. "When to the amazement of some beholders he appeared in the pulpit," wrote his friend and biographer Isaak Walton, "many of them thought he presented himself not to preach mortification by a living voice but mortality by a decayed body and a dying face."
As dean of Saint Paul's Cathedral, Donne was a public figure, his death a public event. In his sermon to the king, later called Death's Duel, Donne said, "Though from the womb to the grave, and in the grave itself, we pass from death to death, yet, as Daniel speaks, the Lord our God is able to deliver us, and he will deliver us." Walton wrote of the sermon, "Many that then saw his tears and heard his faint and hollow voice [professed] they thought the text prophetically chosen and that Dr. Donne had preached his own funeral sermon."
Tammy Faye adapted that tradition of the public death for the edification of us all. Like Donne, she preached mortality by "a dying face." And she offered the hope of every Christian: "I believe when I leave this earth, because I love the Lord, I am going straight to heaven." "Are you still a little scared?" King asked. "For myself," Tammy Faye said, "I know where I'm headed."
Rob Moll is a CT associate editor. He is writing a book on the art of dying.
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Christianity Today staff spoke with other evangelical leaders about Tammy Faye's role in evangelicalism.
David Neff blogged about "singing Tammy Faye's song."
Weblog links to many of the eulogies written about her.
Other Christianity Today articles on death and dying are in our special section.