The Jesus Revolution Subverted

By C. Don Jones

Pastor Chuck Smith was astounded to see Jesus in his living room early one morning in 1969. Well, it’s Kelsey Grammar playing Smith and Jonathan Roumie (who plays Jesus in The Chosen series) as they appear in an invented scene in the recently released film The Jesus Revolution. Roumie portrays hippie-evangelist Lonnie Frisbee looking like a stereotypical white Jesus, and Grammar plays the strait-laced Smith.  The film is more about the origin of what a friend of mine described as “McChurch”—the franchising method of church planting used in the Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard Church movements. These denominations are conservative evangelical/charismatic in their theological orientations with a loose connection structure. 

The Jesus Revolution is a feel good “Jesus is just alright with me” film purporting to be about the greatest spiritual revival in U.S. religious history. I do not know how this compares with the First and Second Great Awakenings. Smith and Frisbee are both dead now, while the third person in the movie’s trinity, Greg Laurie of Harvest Christian Fellowship, continues in his work. 

The Jesus Revolution of the early seventies had a major weakness that happened also to be its greatest appeal. Because it was made up of people from the counterculture, it distrusted authority and tradition. However, its followers tended to take the Bible literally when they read it. John Wimber began the Vineyard Church movement with Frisbee when both became concerned about downplaying “the gifts of the Spirit.” Wimber asked, “When are we going to start doing the stuff?” He wanted to do miraculous healing, speaking in tongues, prophesy, and possibly raising the dead. Smith considered such desires to be egoistic theatrics. Conservative evangelicals decided they were duty bound to get involved lest the Jesus movement devolve into heresies or cults. 

“Unless the church can latch on to the Jesus movement and keep it doctrinally straight, we are going to miss the greatest opportunity we ever had,” John R. Bisagno begins his introduction of the 1971 book The Jesus Revolution. “We had better accept these kids and get hold of them and indoctrinate them.” Southern Baptist churches began outreach programs that appealed to the biblical literalist nature of many in the Jesus movement. At the end of the film, we see mega-evangelist Billy Graham (the late father of Franklin Graham) speaking to some “Jesus freaks” and chanting “one way” while holding his right index finger up toward the sky. Youth programs such as Spireno (spiritual revolution now) developed and trademarked by Richard Hogue were sold to various churches. 

The aim of this outreach was control. The problem, as seen by Christian fundamentalists, was that the youth were out of control because of the social degradation around them. One mark of that imminent collapse of society was, according to Bisagno, “the movement to legalize drugs and abolish the death penalty.” Getting the youth saved, indoctrinated, and controlled was important because the mystery of iniquity was at work, and the last days were near.

The Jesus revolution was antinomian, charismatic, and apocalyptic. Its messengers needed only the Bible and the Holy Spirit. They were effective with simple messages and rock-style religious music. They also studied The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey. These evangelists and the church leaders reaching out to them viewed this revival as the outpouring of the Spirit promised by Joel before the last days. Smith predicted the world would end in 1981. He lost a lot of people after 1981 and got out of the rapture prediction business. 

Unintended (perhaps) lessons

I take two important lessons  from the film. The first is the importance of welcome as service. Early in the film, the stodgy church people are confronted with barefoot, unwashed, and outlandishly dressed hippies in their sanctuary. The lay leaders of Calvary Chapel are offended. They let Pastor Smith know what they think. The hippies are messing up the new shag carpet with their dirty feet. The next time they arrive at church, they see a line of young people waiting to get into the church while Smith washes their feet and says, “Welcome, glad you are here” to every person. Some long-time church members leave after that. As a pastor, though, I was given something to consider about what it means to welcome the stranger. It is a service of lovingkindness. The hippies do not know about the complaint over the carpet. They were not required to do anything to be welcomed. As a religious socialist, I am not sure what to make of the scene. Foot washing, as a religious practice, is about mutuality. Churches often do this on Maundy Thursday (if they do it at all) to emphasize the “new commandment” to love each other. We do not see mutuality in the film. Instead, we see charity on several occasions. The leaders always show charity from a superior station. Frisbee buys Laurie a car. Smith rents the hippies a house. Smith gives Laurie a church. These acts of charity lead to conflicts that mutuality would have prevented.

The second lesson is that strong egos collide despite good intentions. The film details the essential conflict between Frisbee and Smith. Frisbee is an unpaid leader in the Chapel. Smith is the salaried pastor. Which of them has the real authority? Frisbee claims spiritual authority as a prophetic healer. Smith claims authority as the one who has provided the space for everything Frisbee does. He threatens to take it away even while he suspects Frisbee has been the one drawing people to Calvary Chapel. Frisbee walks away from it. 

I have never served a church where I did not have a competition over leadership. A few times the other person walked away from the church. A few times I did. Most of the time, the tension between me and the other person did not destroy what we were doing  because we decided that the work was more important. However, there have been times when one of us reached out to the other in a crisis, which relieved the stress on the relationship. In such cases, charity as loving kindness brought a better result than mutuality. 

The Jesus Revolution was ultimately subverted by conservative evangelicals who emphasized the conversion experiences, with a few people claiming to be miraculously healed from addiction or delivered from certain lifestyles. The film glosses over Frisbee’s inability to accept himself as a gay man. At the end of the film, we learn  that he and Smith reconciled before Frisbee’s death in 1993. We do not learn that he died, as many believe,  of AIDS. 

Glossy sanitized religious films are like clickbait headlines—they only appear substantive. The Jesus Revolution intends for the audience to desire religious awakening. It does not encourage critical examination of the results of the awakening it describes. 

(The film is now available for streaming on demand. The blu-ray/DVD release is April 25.)

C. Don Jones is a United Methodist pastor working in East Tennessee. He is a member of the Knoxville Area DSA. Don’s religious musings can be found on his blog Glorious Life on Patheos Progressive Christian.

Image credit: Dan Anderson/Lionsgate/TNS