This week I watched Jesus Revolution, the story of the Jesus Movement in Southern California, and it brought back memories of what, at least according to Time magazine, was the greatest spiritual awakening in American history. I was not familiar with the characters and events in the film, yet it all seemed so familiar from my experience in Kansas (of all places). The film might leave the impression this was a local event that spread, but it seemed more of a spontaneous combustion igniting across the country. Counter-culture, drug-culture, youth-culture meet Jesus was not an isolated event; at least it seemed spontaneous with us. Which raises the question as to what it was and what happened to it?
The most obvious lasting effect in most churches is the music (which to my ears started so sweet and has now become intolerable), the vague influences of the charismatic movement (mostly reduced to hand raising), casual attire, and the lack of concern with denominational markers. As portrayed in the film, the movement was intensely evangelistic – a lot of handing out tracks and dramatic personal testimony. The tenor may have been Hal Lindsey (the end is coming) meets David Wilkerson style evangelism, but there was also a sense of return to the early church and communalism (at least we made a run at it, as did many others). But other than the rise of new forms of worship and the “new paradigm” churches such as Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard Fellowship, the theology was more of the same. Even the focus on peace and love was gradually absorbed into the general evangelical ethos.
In the end, sociologically and politically, the movement captured a large portion of the counter-culture for the Republican Party and right-wing conservatism. The evangelical sub-culture became a social, cultural, and political force of mainstream proportions in the 1980’s, and a major contribution must have been that the Jesus Movement succeeded in preserving “traditional” values for many counter-cultural “radicals.”
The even greater irony – the anti-materialistic Jesus Movement gave birth to the church growth movement, with its pure materialism of bigger is better. The open acceptance in the Jesus Movement of youth culture, translated into a seeker-friendly anti-theological focus – not for the purposes of openness, peace and love – but for larger numbers. The unity of the Jesus Movement, in its rejection of denominational division – was a felt unity, the crossing of boundaries that has translated into bland sameness. The radical edge (however vague it was) is long gone and is unwelcome in groups seeking the largest common denominator. No mention of hard doctrine (certainly not anti-materialism, nonviolence or views of God and atonement advocating as much), politics, or pressing social issues, are generally welcome.
The Jesus Movement came with a lot of baggage, which no one was sure how to deal with, and which subsequently was translated into an already existing evangelical theological understanding. This is partly reflected in the Jesus Revolution’s treatment of Lonnie Frisbee. Lonnie came to Jesus during an LSD trip. He assumed Jesus had come to earth on a flying saucer, and he was an active homosexual, none of which is mentioned in the film. He must have adjusted some of his doctrine, but part of his radical appeal (he was the original draw for the large crowds) was his assumption that God was speaking to him and that he was a latter day prophet on the order of John the Baptist. He would eventually contract aids, but it is clear in subsequent interviews that Chuck Smith never knew what to do with his sexuality (other than that he should repent of it), let alone his free-wheeling theology. As Smith tells it, he backslid, contracted aids, and then repented. The bizarre, and obviously fragile human nature of Lonnie, was not simply his “weakness” but the very thing that drew the crowds.
The same thing could be said for Larry Norman, who is not treated in the film, but who claimed to be the father of contemporary Christian music. Larry came through our town in Kansas, and embodied the cool of Jesus Music. His were some of the most memorable lyrics of the period, but Larry suffered from mental illness, probably arising from childhood sexual abuse. Friends and family did not intervene or confront him; it just seemed that Jesus did not deliver him, and that he too tended to backslide. Evangelical theology was not and is not capable of accounting for the fragile, beautiful, but broken humanity with which it was openly confronted by the Jesus Movement.
The great joy of the time is the most memorable part of the period, and I think for many of us who passed through the period, that joy has been preserved, not through the focus on experientialism but through grappling at an intellectual and theological level with the deep things of God. The Jesus Movement was heavy with experience and light on theology, but many of us were naturally inducted, through thinkers like Francis Schaeffer (with all of his limitations) C. S. Lewis and others, into a deeper theological pursuit and a conversation that is unending.
This is my recommendation to this generation seeking revival (through what often seems a misplaced experientialism): the abiding experience of joy comes with an ever-deepening transformation of the mind.