Monday, February 27, 2023

From Jesus Revolution to the Revolutionary Jesus: thoughts on a movie, a movement, & more

pictured- the cover of the the first volume of the only Lonnie Frisbee autobiography, which was consulted in the composition of this piece

While it might not have bested Ant Man or Cocaine Bear, the movie Jesus Revolution opened to surprisingly strong numbers, drawing down $15.5 million for its opening weekend. Hot on the heels of the "He Gets Us" ad campaign and the Asbury Revival, Jesus is making mainstream headlines. 

To be clear, the new movie is intimately groovy and gorgeously shot through with that shimmery ambiance of oh-so-many California sunsets. It’s well-produced and deeply moving, as if to convey some cinematic smells along with the accurate costumes and folk-rock sounds, as much as any other Hollywood psychonautical time machine. And there have been many. 

The film has multiple main characters, including several key figures from the actual Jesus People movement, with evangelist and author and pastor Greg Laurie, being one who is still alive, here to help manage the movie’s buzz and make sure it fits his particular theology. While Laurie’s story in the film is strong and moving, the emotional heart of the story centers around the generational culture-clash between an older preacher named Chuck Smith and all the barefoot long-hairs who were everywhere at the time; Smith navigates his anxiety about the hippies by ultimately embracing them. 

After seeing the flick, I was immediately eager to discuss it with fellow-travelers on social media. Folks on lefty religious Twitter were all immediately speculating if the numbers would have been so strong if the film had been more transparent about one of its several protagonists, the gritty and gregarious Lonnie Frisbee, who makes sure we keep a bit of the freaky in the Jesus Freak movement, even as the straights and squares are bent to take over. Frank conversations about this unconventional preacher are percolating on the margins of the movie’s buzz. 

For several years, I immersed myself in studies of the Jesus hippies, as I was inspired by them and felt intuitively that I descended from them. From the folky psychedelic music to the beach baptisms, it all had an intoxicating attraction to all spiritual seekers. Reading, viewing, and studying primary sources can expand our interpretations of the film, and these are behind my comments here.

So Frisbee’s visionary pedigree takes us right through the lysergic technicolor tapestry of the Summer of Love, where the teenage art school dropout was at the center of everything from the politics to the partying. His incessant seeking finally gave way to extravagant encounters with an expansive God, who Frisbee found in the voice and person of Jesus, who came to him while buck naked on one of his many hikes up Tahquitz Canyon down near Palm Springs. Frisbee wasn’t just a trippy hippy. He was also a queer man, who later died from HIV-AIDS complications in the early 1990s, at the age of 43.

If we were willing to have this conversation, I mean really just go there, understanding this film and embracing Lonnie Frisbee, this could mean that the larger church could finally confront its toxic masculinity and terrifying war of hatred against the LGBTQ community. But don’t ask Greg Laurie, who is making the podcast circuit saying how much he loved Lonnie Frisbee, while calling him an immoral prodigal and backslider who repented from his “lifestyle” while in hospice, emaciated from his disease. The church still doesn't understand that being LGBTQ itself is not a sin. The church needs to repent from homophobia, for the queer folks are queer because God made them queer.

Outside the liberal mainline churches and a tiny scattering of enlightened evangelicals, the church is as institutionally dangerous and demonic as ever when it comes to its bullying and blind-spots and virulent exclusion of sexual health, from refusing to recognize and celebrate queer folk to enforcing purity codes on young females to enabling powerful and predatory male pastors. 

Another conversation this movie could inspire, but it probably will not, outside of a few small circles, concerns the vitality of the psychedelic experience for spiritual seekers and the role that sacred substances have played (and could play) in our understanding of religious awakening and conversion. The hipper of the hippies clearly knew the difference between the body-destroying hard drugs and the mind-expanding mind medicines, but the jump-cuts in Jesus Revolution between the churches and the be-ins, between Timothy Leary and Lonnie Frisbee, could not have been more austere and simplistic, bordering on a Go Ask Alice level of paranoid fear-mongering, as if it repeated the singular goal of scaring everyone straight. Drugs bad. God good. End of story.  

Of course, cats like Lonnie Frisbee probably didn’t need drugs to get high or stay happy, but their particular flavors of vagabond mysticism are anything but square, straight, or conformed to the mundane aspects of this world. One of Lonnie’s early groups was a commune called The House of Acts, which among other things, scavenged for day-old-bread and bruised-vegetables to create perpetual Food-Not-Bombs-style free feeds. While some may bristle at calling such arrangements communist or socialist, they sure as heck were not capitalistic. Lonnie traveled the byways and highways with a wine bottle filled with oil, mixed with frankincense and myrrh, cinnamon sticks and witch hazel, all for the purpose of anointing people. 

Lonnie believed he was walking in this Bible verse: “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” He described the movement as unapologetically freaky and nonconformist, “born out of the cow manure” to be the proverbial “blade of grass that came up through a crack in the concrete, because we had to have the sun.”

All these vividly visionary vibes and mystically manic moods, this makes things ever wonkier, when we understand how completely co-opted this Jesus movement was from the beginning, taken in for hardcore evangelical conservative values around everything from patriarchy to abortion to Israel. 

On the surface, the recent ad campaign "He Gets Us" and the Jesus Revolution are gloriously off-brand for conservative Christians. Nothing about hating the gays or keeping your wife submissive at home in any of that. I keep thinking, maybe the audience most eager for this movie, today’s evangelicals, might meet the actual revolutionary, that first-century homeless criminal and mystical outlaw that we call Jesus. But just like we learned that the fuzzy warmth of He Gets Us was funded by some pretty brutal right-wing actors, the “Jesus Revolution” movement that descends from the counterculture depicted in the film, this was not revolutionary at all. It was actually quite reactionary. 

There’s a direct counter-revolutionary lineage from that original Jesus People movement straight through Billy Graham and Richard Nixon, then through Jerry Falwell and Ronald Reagan, and right up through the wild and contemporary apostolic and prophetic scene that anointed Donald Trump. Sadly but not shockingly to anyone who studies this, there is a direct line from the so-called Jesus Revolution to the January 6th Insurrection for a right-wing white-supremacist Christian-nationalist autocracy. 

America has yet to recover from this calculated bargain with Babylon, though the entire crusading history of Christianity is so crammed with such crimes against humanity, which is not to say the wide-eyed and hungry participants at the time of the Jesus hippies, especially those kicking hard habits and sincerely seeking something real, were simply pawns in some predictable authoritarian pathos. There was a passionate love and humble sincerity there then, just as there might be in the people who attended the recent Asbury revival, its problems notwithstanding. 

By the time the Jesus Movement got to Texas in the summer of 1972 for its “Godstock” festival, the Jesus hippies were needed to help re-elect Richard Nixon and build up youth support for the war in Vietnam. Sojourners magazine founder Jim Wallis, then himself a young Jesus rebel, was not received fondly when he and friends tried to stage an anti-war protest from within the Cotton Bowl, where 75,000 had gathered to rock out for the Lord. 

While all this was going on, I was born into the Christian hippy movement in the Midwest, and I know that not everyone got played by the conservative evangelical exploitation of existential craving and colorful expressions. Born in the 60s and coming up in the 70s and 80s, I remembered some things. 

Not all the hippies and freaks got co-opted by the straights and the squares. Not all of this was superficial and lifestyle stuff, either, but the radical core values of an anti-authoritarian loving Jesus, whose face appeared on mock-“Wanted” posters, for his alleged practice of vagrancy and conspiracy of “criminal anarchy.” Other versions of this poster produced by the Christian World Liberation Front might include citations for “practicing medicine, winemaking, and food distribution without a license”; “interfering with businessmen in the temple”; “associating with known radicals, subversives, prostitutes, and street people.” Finally, to catch this at-large and “notorious leader of an underground liberation movement,” the public is advised to look for the “typical hippie” with long hair, beard, robe, and sandals, hanging out in the slums or sneaking out in the desert.  

When it came time to finish my Master of Theological Studies thesis at Vanderbilt in late 2014 through early 2015, I got duly disillusioned by all the articles tracing the Jesus hippies to the far-right, so I ditched my original idea to talk about the drugs and music as they intersected with the California Jesus scene. Instead, I fortuitously met my friends Calvin and Nelia Kimbrough, who way-back-when (1964 to 1971, to be exact) were living out a much different version of the Jesus revolution, right here in Cookeville, Tennessee, at the public university where I have worked since 2001. There was actually a “left wing” of the movement that never veered right, and a version of that was rooted in the United Methodist campus ministry in my adopted hometown. 

For some, the values where hippies intersected with the New Left, including pacifism and antiwar, vegetarianism and environmentalism, feminism and queer liberation, socialism and anarchism, black and brown liberation, the entirety of revolutionary anti-establishment everything, all these were seen as stemming directly from the radical witness of the crucified Nazarene, who was found guilty and executed for the crime of abolishing the boundaries between heaven and earth, human and divine. If this all seems like a bit much, it was and is, as controversial as embracing crooks and hookers, as radical as feeding the thousands from a few scraps or defying your imperial executioners to rise from the grave.

But as to the American counterculture versions of this, thank goodness there are primary documents that a person can view in university libraries. There are also a handful of these veterans of the left side of the movement, who never sold out, never veered right, and never adopted the secularized and sanitized versions of the new age or social justice movements, where the plain freaky and supernatural sides of the religion itself still weird-out the only-the-facts and only-the-science crowd.

It’s my fervent prayer that some folks seeing Jesus Revolution will actually seek out the revolutionary Jesus, who would have no part in the cruel, creepy, and outraged Republican counter-revolution currently simmering in the state legislatures of the former confederate states. Also praying that confusing detours around cancel culture and political correctness on the established left or the uncomfortable realization that the Q Anon Shaman actually looked a lot like Lonnie Frisbee, praying that these are just tempting mind-trips to distract us.

Seek ye first, the Beloved Community. Seek this: the unconditionally redemptive truly revolutionary message of Jesus, and imagine it once again finding itself in the service of the marginalized and against the imperialisms and materialisms of late capitalism and empire that would destroy God’s good earth and God’s good people, all in God’s name. And never forget: God is revolution. God is liberation. God is love. 

-to read a PDF version of the Master thesis Banjo & Bread or its sequel on the Submarine Church, send an email to preacherandrewsmith [at] gmail [dot] com

-@presbyhippy Andrew William "Sunfrog" Smith is a poet & DJ, a "hippy Jesus freak" of the left-wing variety, a preacher, teacher, & sober creature living on the occupied Cherokee land of Tanasi

Saturday, February 25, 2023

The Rainbow Sign - a sermon for Lent

Did you know that some communities are trying to ban public displays of the rainbow flag? {I don't want to guess how many of those also fly the 'thin blue line' or want to fly the so-called Christian flag. If you were to ask me, the last thing Jesus needs is a flag. But I do feel differently about the rainbow flag. Read on.]

The Rainbow Sign -A Sermon for Lent 1 preached two years ago (2021) around this time at the United Church of Cookeville (UCC)

As I prepare to preach my topic, The Rainbow Sign, my notes say I need a short disclaimer about church hurt. (Add your own story of church hurt, here).

So, you want to start a fight with a fundamentalist? 

Tell them that the Noah story, as depicted in Genesis, is not a perfect fact. Suggest that, perhaps, the story of the flood is mere myth or parable, or at the very least an exaggerated rendering of a lost legend, or tell them that the earth really is more than 4 billion years old, then we might be ready to rumble.

Taking this further, we could also suggest, that while the science behind a young earth and global flood are sketchy, that is not all. 

We can hit this difficult text harder, by reminding folks that any God who would destroy the entire human race, save one family, with a dramatic weather event, that this monstrous mercy might not be appropriate for Sunday school singalongs, might not even reveal the good God we have come to know as love in our lives, in the wisdom found in other parts of the world’s sacred scriptures, in the person of Jesus. 

In recent years of floods and wildfires, of hurricanes and tornadoes, of even this week of ice storms and snowstorms, it’s more than a little problematic, perhaps even cruel, to suggest that God controls the weather as some kind of disciplinary mechanism against our communities. Just last spring, when describing to someone how close in proximity that the March tornado came to my house, that someone suggested that my house was spared, because I was “right with the Lord.” 

Really? And the folks who died in the tornado, our God had it out for them? I must rebuke this way of thinking.

Yet this idea that God controls the weather, that Noah’s Ark is strictly reliable as history, these are taken by so many as unquestioning articles of faith. Which might make me a really, really bad preacher, for my lack of faith in these epic events and their standard-issue interpretations. 

But perhaps Noah’s Ark is a parable about loving the earth and respecting the creation. Interpreted today in light of climate change, we can see how the human wickedness of unchecked greed and pollution and progress are contributing to melting ice caps and rising sea levels. 

We will never know for certain if God destroyed all creation by water as depicted in Genesis, to teach us a lesson about our own evil. But with the evidence and knowledge we have now, we can interpret the Biblical flood as a cautionary tale. We do know that we have it within our collective power to at least mitigate future floods by changing our way of life.

As controversial as debates about the factuality of Genesis or the theology of meteorology might be, today’s text ends with an unendingly hopeful and yet even still controversial image. The Rainbow Sign. In these few verses that we read today, the covenant between God and creatures and creation has been restored. The rainbow recommends a future bright and light. 

Fast forward to 20th Century pop culture and the rainbow remains a compelling image in song, from Judy Garland’s “Over The Rainbow” in The Wizard of Oz to Kermit and the Muppets and “The Rainbow Connection.” The rainbow redeems even the gloomiest rainstorms of moods, so much as to create the cynical reminder that life isn’t only rainbows and unicorns. To which I like to reply, some rainbows and unicorns would be nice. 

In 1984, when civil rights leader, the Reverend Jesse Jackson ran for President, he did so under the banner of the Rainbow Coalition. Jackson spoke, “Our flag is red, white and blue, but our nation is a rainbow - red, yellow, brown, black and white - and we're all precious in God's sight. 

Jackson continued, “America is not like a blanket - one piece of unbroken cloth, the same color, the same texture, the same size. America is more like a quilt - many patches, many pieces, many colors, many sizes, all woven and held together by a common thread. 

The white, the Hispanic, the black, the Arab, the Jew, the woman, the native American, the small farmer, the businessperson, the environmentalist, the peace activist, the young, the old, the lesbian, the gay and the disabled make up the American quilt.”

Now, I am guessing you also understand why even the rainbow itself, as a symbol, causes controversy for us now. The same conservative Christians who spend millions to build larger-than-life Ark replicas, they also accuse the LGBTQetc community of stealing the rainbow from Noah, to celebrate it on our flags. And what beautiful flags they are.

In the late 1970s, Gilbert Baker is credited with the first Rainbow Flag to be used as a symbol for Gay Pride. Baker reflected,

“In 1978, when I thought of creating a flag for the gay movement there was no other international symbol for us than the pink triangle, which the Nazis used to identify homosexuals in concentration camps. 

I almost instantly thought of using the rainbow. To me, it was the only thing that could really express our diversity, beauty and our joy.”

In 2014, I was given this rainbow scarf by the More Light Presbyterians, when we went to the PCUSA General Assembly in my former home of Detroit, Michigan, to advocate for and achieve marriage equality in our denomination, one year before the Supreme Court decision to make equal marriage the law of our land. This came just a few years after we relaxed our ordination standards, removing the requirement that our pastors must either be married heterosexuals or chaste outside of marriage. 

Those of you who know your United Church of Christ history might mention to the Presbyterians, that we were late to the party. Bill Johnson was the first openly gay minister to be ordained in a historic protestant denomination. He received his ordination through the United Church of Christ back in 1972. 49 years ago.

The UCC passed an equal marriage resolution in 2005, which included this language:

“Let us explore our faith in relation to these issues: the meaning of Christian marriage, the blessing of unions among same-sex couples, the honoring of diverse expressions of loving and caring human relationships, being guided in all things by the love of Jesus. Above all, may these conversations be ventured in humility and prayer.”

Today, in addition to the UCC and PCUSA, other mainline Christian churches where we are likely to see same gender marriages widely affirmed include the Evangelical Lutheran Church, and the Disciples of Christ.

Despite so much progress for the LGBTQetc community in many churches and in our culture at large, instances of significant pushback, even hatred and homophobia and discrimination, occur every day. 

Each year, the Human Rights Campaign monitors what it calls “the slate of hate” in Tennessee and other states. Just this year, our state is trying to prevent transgender students from participating in high school and middle school sports. Just last year, Governor Bill Lee signed a controversial measure that would let religious adoption agencies deny service to same-sex couples. 

During Pride Month the last few years, President Trump prevented the United States embassy in places like Israel, Germany, Brazil and Latvia from flying the rainbow flag as a sign of solidarity with the LGBTQetc community. 

Many churches that fly the rainbow flag or have rainbow banners announcing their generous welcome for the LGBTQetc community have been victims of hate-speech vandalism, something strongly on the rise since 2016.

Queer Christian writer John Russell Stanger sees Lent as a time to take the ways that the world has humiliated us, in all our variety and diversity, and how the world has derided our dedication to said diversity, Stanger suggests, with Jesus, we can take all that and flip it around, all the way to the Palm Sunday parade, all the way to the cross, all the way to resurrection. Stanger writes, 

“This Lent, reflect on the places you’ve internalized shame because other people have feared all that you’re bringing to the parade of life. And then ask yourself, what if I was proud of what others would seek to humiliate me for?” So for this Lent, let us give up shame. For this Lent, let us give up those negative internal messages imposed by society to make us feel less than.

Another adjacent sermon might help us unpack the so-called bully passages to see how the Bibe has been incorrectly weaponized against the queer community, that will have to wait for another time. Yet remember: God made us in all this beauty and diversity. God made us for this rainbow sign. No need to be ashamed of the people that God made us to be. Let me say it with some playfulness and much conviction, it can all be the same rainbow sign. 

The rainbow mentioned by God to Noah in Genesis, but also the rainbow that Judy Garland and Kermit the Frog sang about. The same rainbow sign. The rainbow that the Reverend Jesse Jackson called a coalition and spoke so eloquently about when he was running for President. The same rainbow sign. The flag made by Gilbert Baker and many others from the 1978 pride parade decorations committee and the flag that still flies today in so many places, even at so many UCC churches. It’s the same rainbow sign. 

The rainbow covenant read strictly reminds us that God will never destroy the world by water again. A new rainbow covenant suggests that Christians of conscience will share solidarity with the LGBTQetc community and wave the rainbow flag proudly and say “no hate in our state,” undoing generations of church hurt and theological malpractice. 

It’s the same rainbow sign. Because this rainbow is for hope and love and inclusion for all of God’s children. That is the new rainbow sign but also the same old rainbow sign. The same, beautiful, multicolored rainbow for our world of multiple beauties, like each of you. May it be so. Amen.