What has Chuck Smith’s and Lonnie Frisbee’s hippie revival wrought?
Last weekend The Jesus Revolution, a widely distributed film (2475 theaters) about a 1970s spiritual awakening among hippies in southern California, grossed nearly $16 million. The film was no match for Ant Man and the Wasp or Cocaine Bear, but it still exceeded all box office expectations.
The movie tells the story of a branch of the Jesus People movement led by Chuck Smith, a veteran pastor of a dying congregation in Costa Mesa who learned to love hippies, and Lonnie Frisbee, a charismatic hippie preacher who got saved at Haight-Ashbury and then headed to southern California to proclaim the Gospel. The Jesus Revolution is based on the memoir of Greg Laurie, at the time a troubled teenager who fell under the evangelical spell of these two spiritual leaders and eventually became one of Smith’s most successful disciples. Today Laurie is the pastor of a Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California, and an evangelist who leads Billy Graham-style crusades around the country.
The film follows two interconnected storylines: the often-times contentious partnership between Smith and Frisbee, and the relationship between Laurie and his future wife Cathe. While Chuck and Lonnie were fighting over the best way to keep the Jesus People revival under control, Greg and Cathe were falling in love and finding an alternative to the drugged-out counterculture in the Holy Spirit-filled rush of born-again Christianity.
As someone who shares the same faith as Chuck Smith and Lonnie Frisbee, and who embraced evangelical Christianity about a decade after Greg Laurie, several scenes in this film prompted longings—some nostalgic, some not—for a pre-Religious Right evangelical world where expressions of Christian faith were devoid of politics.
In one scene Chuck Smith (played by Kelsey Grammar) rebukes the members of his congregation who don’t like having so many hippies worshiping in their sanctuary. He tells his straight-laced members that Jesus not only came to save souls but to care for the outcasts, the poor, and sinners. Jesus preached a countercultural message that threatened the upper-middle class sensibilities of some of Smith’s parishioners. Most of them left the church. I’m sure some of them would one day give money to Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority and cast a vote for Ronald Reagan.
A chill went up my spine (was it the Holy Spirit?) as I watched the scene depicting Christian joy and communal celebration as dozens of hippies, including Greg and Cathe Laurie, got baptized in the Pacific Ocean. It reminded me of my own baptism as a teenager in a mountain-fed lake in northern New Jersey as my fellow believers at Gilgal Bible Chapel stood on the beach and cheered. These scenes, and others like them, remind us that American evangelicalism can embody the best of the Christian tradition. Frisbee, Laurie, and their friends were on a serious quest for meaning and purpose, and they found what they were looking for in the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Augustine put it, “our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.”
Like most feature films, the writers, directors, and producers play fast and loose with the historical record. As religious historian Leah Payne wrote in her review of the film, “the Jesus Movement is refracted through Laurie’s memory, which is selective.” The most glaring omission is Lonnie Frisbee’s homosexuality. It was an open secret that Frisbee would party on Saturday nights with members of the Southern California gay community and preach born-again Christianity on Sunday mornings. The end of the film mentions that Frisbee died in 1993, but it does not mention that he died of AIDS. (If you want a more thorough and accurate treatment of this story I recommend Larry Eksridge’s God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America.)
The Jesus Revolution makes bold claims about the significance of this hippie revival, describing it as the “greatest spiritual awakening in American history.” But I want to offer a less grandiose historical interpretation. Rather than seeing this film as something akin to the story of a third great awakening, it is better understood as a depiction of the origins of Smith’s Calvary Chapel movement, a national association of evangelical churches that today boasts 1700 congregations, a Bible college, and a network of Christian radio stations. The churches in the Calvary Chapel Association are known for Biblical preaching, a dispensationalist view of the “end times” (think the Left Behind novels), and contemporary worship music.
So how might we assess the legacy of Chuck Smith’s and Lonnie Frisbee’s southern California hippie revival portrayed in The Jesus Revolution? There is no doubt that tens of thousands of people—young and old—had life-changing experiences because they found a Calvary Chapel congregation. The gospel transforms lives. And many Calvary pastors, including Greg Laurie, have remained true to the proclamation of this Good News.
But in the last seven years, the apolitical gospel message portrayed in some of the most powerful scenes in The Jesus Revolution has, sadly, given way to a politicized gospel. Calvary Chapel, or at least some of its most prominent pastors and congregations, offers a revealing glimpse of this change.
Consider Jack Hibbs, the pastor of Calvary Chapel in Chino Hills, California. Hibbs garnered national attention when he refused to close his church during the COVID-19 lockdowns. He preached against wearing masks and told his congregation not to take the vaccine. Hibbs parlayed his newfound fame into preaching and punditry opportunities on conservative radio, Fox News, and other outlets in the MAGA media infrastructure. He often invites politicians and pro-Trump speakers to his Sunday morning services. Hibbs also dabbles in history, offering bad takes on the American founding that might even make evangelical pseudo-historian David Barton cringe. Is this what the “Jesus Revolution” has wrought?
Or consider Rob McCoy, the pastor of Godspeak Calvary Chapel in Thousand Oaks. He is a religious mentor to Christian nationalist and Trump-loving loudmouth Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA. In 2020 McCoy joined his most beloved disciple in condemning pastors who participated in Black Lives Matter protests. McCoy once prayed publicly that Marjorie Taylor Greene, a conspiracy theorist who holds one of Georgia’s congressional seats, would one day become president of the United States. He openly affirms his goal to legislate Christian morality in America and, like Hibbs, kept his church open during COVID-19. In 2020, McCoy chided evangelicals for not doing their part in preventing Biden and the Democrats from stealing the election from Donald Trump. Is this what the “Jesus Revolution” has wrought?
And what about Greg Laurie’s Harvest Christian Fellowship, a flagship Calvary Chapel congregation? During the Trump era Laurie was a court evangelical, the phrase I use to describe the clergy who supported Trump during the campaign and regularly visited the White House to flatter the president and seek photo-ops.
During one of those visits, Laurie gave a speech connecting the eighteenth-century religious revival known as the First Great Awakening to the coming of the American Revolution. He argued that this colonial-era revival, propagated by the likes of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, brought a “moral change to American culture” that allowed liberty to flourish in 1776.
There were roughly forty years between the First Great Awakening and the American Revolution. During that time, according to Lurie, God allowed the seeds of evangelical revival to grow until they finally blossomed into a Christian nation. And if revival created the soil for the birth of the United States in the 1700s, Laurie argued, it can also create the soil for the reclamation of America as a Christian nation in the twenty-first century.
Forty years (roughly) is also the amount of time between the Jesus Revolution that Laurie experienced in the 1970s and the birth of the MAGA movement. So one wonders: Is the rejection of public health regulations, the questioning of climate science, and the genuflection before a corrupt, deceitful, twice-impeached president the real fruit of the Jesus Revolution? In his White House speech, Laurie said that revivals always come with moral change. The obvious question: Is Trumpism the moral change the Jesus Revolution brought to the United States?
Recently, when a podcaster asked Greg Laurie about Lonnie Frisbee’s failures as a spiritual leader Laurie said, “God uses flawed people.” Hmm . . . it seems like I’ve heard that line before.
John Fea is Executive Editor of Current.
John, I think your account of the movie, its current context, and the historical trajectory of some things depicted in it is fair. And I found it moving too (I was a little closer in time and culture…close enough to say I was part of the “Jesus movement” in the mid-70’s).
One of the things that resonated the most about the revival depicted was the notion that the counter-culture was right in much of its rejection of the prevailing American culture–the great tragedy was that lawlessness and drugs (for example) were not an adequate foundation for a genuinely alternative society or culture. Christianity–for me and lots of others–turned out to be what we were looking for.
Larry Eskridge’s history of the Jesus movement ends up concluding that its lasting legacy was contemporary Christian music, and if he’s right that’s another tragedy. The new boss turns out to be the old boss, culturally and politically, because the constant temptation of the church is to sell out to Babylon under the delusion that the kingdom of God is “of this world,” meaning the delusion that it functions by the methods of this world, not that it has no relevance or effect here.
Just one aging Jesus freak’s take…
John Fea says
Thanks, John. My wife and I saw the movie this afternoon. Well done. And really took us back to our own “J Revolution” days, just after what was depicted, i.e., 1975-77.
In my brief stint as a disc jockey at a contemporary Christian music station in southern N.J., I was exposed to “Love Song” and the whole gamut of Jesus Music (Keith Green, 2nd Chapter of Acts, Honeytree, et al) — all of which God used mightily in our spiritual growth. As such, I’m more sanguine about CCM than your commenter, Storm! The music still throbs in my head and heart today, and back then it beautifully augmented the hymnody of our home church, Tenth Presbyterian in Philly. Wonderful days.
Wish I could comment on the political aspects of your review — the heart of it! — but my work in journalism probably precludes that. But you raise great and sobering questions — let’s just say that. Life is complicated — and confusing. But…. Soli Deo Gloria.
John Fea says
Thanks for this, Rob. I hope my keep captured the complexity you note in your comment.
I am with you on the Jesus Music. I often go to Keith Green when I need a dose of pre-Christian Right evangelicalism. I was a new believer when Green died. I remember coming to youth group one day in 1982 and everyone was somber–some were even crying. Green had died in the place crash at age 28. That was the first I had ever heard of him.
Christopher Shannon says
Thanks for this, John. It gives me a glimpse into the backstory of the experience of my brothers–the oldest, one of the first generation of “Jesus People,” and the other, just a year older than me, a one-time Assistant Pastor and music minister at a Calvary Chapel community in the Rochester, NY area.
Hey, I’m with y’all on the music of the Jesus movement. It was a powerful part of my life and the life of the alternative community. I hauled amps and preached all around the midwest with our church’s band, and Love Song, Larry Norman, Mcguire, Keith Green and the early Talbot brothers are still in my regular rotation. What I meant was literally modern CCM–and that may be just a musical and cultural prejudice of mine.
Rob, I knew Jerry Bryant when he ran the Jesus Solid Rock show out of Carbondale, IL–a Jesus music show that I think ended up nationally syndicated…
Still only visiting this planet,
Rob Vaughn says
Storm — gotcha.
Thanks for the follow-up note. I don’t listen to a lot of today’s CCM. You may be right. As a 60-something old guy, I’m stuck in the 70s — either 70s pop music or 70s Jesus music — as 60-something men should be. Ha.