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

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