When I told my friend—a Cookeville, Tennessee native and my church and university colleague Mike Birdwell—that I was researching Cookeville’s hippy Christians from the late 1960s and early 1970s, he quipped that Cookeville only ever had one true hippy. Before I began my research, I would have believed him. In fact, when this project began, I was looking everywhere but Cookeville for legends and clues about the lost history of the Christian counterculture —my former homes in Chicago, Cleveland, or Detroit, a monastery in Kentucky, and of course the legendary California.
Tracing the lineage of my joyful radical Christianity to foreparents in the 1960s is a social question as well as a spiritual necessity—a personal quest requiring prophetic memory. In the early 1970s, my primary school consciousness made sense of my family’s devout Christian faith coupled with our unwavering support of the farmworkers and the feminists. There was a split in the lineage of the hippy-Jesus family tree around that time. Both Left and Right Christians of the era embraced the musical and cultural hippy vibe but diverged in politics. On the Left side, we descended from the Beat Generation, the Berrigan brothers, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers, from civil rights and the antiwar movements. Writers like mystic Thomas Merton or artists like Sister Corita Kent were visionary voices. On the Right side, the evangelists embraced the street people and ex-druggies with such fiery grace that, once converted, these so-called Jesus Freaks bought into an anti-abortion, apocalyptic agenda. What about the members of the Jesus revolution who stayed Left at the split? We are just the kind of people you will meet today at North Carolina’s Wild Goose Festival, see lobbying for universal healthcare or prison reform or even prison abolition, protesting the water shutoffs in Detroit, attending the 50th anniversary of the Selma-to-Montgomery march, or advocating for immigrants and workers. Living with endless war and the weariness of economic exploitation, it’s difficult to locate Jesus as liberator. But it’s this loving and liberating Christ who will show us how to preserve the 1960s revolutionary edge and communal spirit by inviting us to the Kingdom.
Endless resources already exist about the secular side of the hippy counterculture, and likewise, the Jesus People movement inspired numerous books, blogs, and bibliographies. A complicated but inspiring interrelationship resides between those secular and sacred subcultures, but with this present scholastic adventure, I uncover some lost links at the intersection between these subcultures, pieces that remain largely untapped in the existing academic and popular literature, especially the recent books on the Jesus Movement. This shows how fragments from the New Left became a newer Right—but that is not the whole story. Understanding the conservative rightwards shift causes an uncomfortable degree of dissonant friction. What is true? What is historical fiction? Research is a process where too many doors, windows, crawl spaces, and multidimensional Narnian wardrobes get tapped open, and the information is dizzying. But the answers to my questions weren’t down the rabbit hole of a search engine or online database but at home and down the street; I just had to trust my lineage and look deeper.
When I first realized that yesterday’s Jesus People are today’s Tea Party Republicans, I got sick to my stomach and wanted to quit the project. But this is what I feel God says I must do: chart a new trajectory between the pacifist collectives, campus movements, and underground church of the late 1960s and early 1970s and show how this Left alternative actually remains intact, in today’s resurgence of evangelical progressives also called the “emerging church.” Unlike the born-again Christian hippies of the 1970s who fanned the flames of reaction against revolution, the original hippy Christians of the 1960s displayed deep connections in the defining moments and movements of the decade that transformed the church and the continent.
Photo is Sister Corita Kent, scanned from an old motive magazine.
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