Movie Review: Jesus Revolution
Growing up in California during the ’60s and ’70s allowed me to be both an observer of and a participant in the Jesus Revolution.
The Jesus Revolution — alternately known as the Jesus Movement, Jesus People, or the somewhat pejorative Jesus Freaks — was a spiritual awakening with an epicenter in California that expanded across the nation and worldwide.
It was the sixth major revival in American history, the first dating back to the Great Awakening of the early 18th century.
The Jesus Revolution was primarily a youth revival and echoed the youth movement of its time while offering a message of hope to which disaffected youth could relate. It engendered “Jesus Music,” a kind of folk-rock worship music that evolved into the “Contemporary Christian Music” industry. See History of Explo ’72: The Apex of the Jesus Movement.
Jesus Revolution: The Movie
The new movie, Jesus Revolution, gives an overview of the movement’s beginning in late ’60s Southern California and into the early ’70s. As of this writing, the film has done well in wide release in 2,000-plus theaters, more than doubling industry estimations, earning 200M globally based on a budget of just $20M. While critics are mixed, audiences have scored it 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Backdrop of the Jesus Revolution
The story picks up after the “Summer of Love” at Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, and with an inevitable disillusionment of peace through drugs.
1. Lonnie Frisbee: the Hippie Street Preacher
Lonnie Frisbee, played by Jonathan Roumie, is hitchhiking from there to Southern California with a fresh message of the “good news” of Jesus. Lonnie, a charismatic street preacher, looks like a hippie with long wavy hair, a beard, and a large smile. When he is told he looks like Jesus, he replies:
“I can’t think of anyone I’d rather look like.“
Ironically, Roumie plays Jesus in the streaming series The Chosen.
2. Chuck Smith: the Pastor
Chuck Smith, played by Kelsey Grammer, has been watching the hippie movement on TV and tells his daughter he doesn’t understand them but would like to talk to one. He’s the pastor of a small traditional church called Calvary Chapel. He’s introduced to Lonnie, and young vs. old begin to connect. Frisbee explains to Smith that there is an opportunity to reach hippies who have been disenchanted with drugs, searching
“for the right things in all the wrong places.”
The right place, he explains, is the good news of Jesus.
The film does an excellent job of capturing the spirit of that age, identified at that time as:
- The “Generation Gap”
- When you weren’t to “trust anyone over 30”
- Widespread rebellion against “The Establishment”
Smith invites Frisbee to join him in preaching at his church, where he now invites in hippies, much to the dismay of some more “conservative” church members. Smith and Frisbee sponsor mass baptisms at Pirate’s Cove in the Pacific Ocean, foot washing, and a tent revival. As Smith goes on to describe,
“It’s not something to explain. It’s something to be experienced. What you’re seeing is a symbol of new life. Every doubt, every regret, all washed away forever.”
3. Greg Laurie: the Young Rebel
A parallel plot line involves a high school student named Greg Laurie, played by Joel Courtney, who appeared in the 2011 J.J. Abrams/Steven Spielberg film Super 8. Laurie is from an alcoholic single-mother household and is frustrated with his “square” military school education. He transfers to a public school, meeting a lovely student named Cathe, played by Anna Grace Barlow. The attraction is immediate and mutual. They do drugs together, but she becomes afraid after her sister almost overdoses. They begin to seek truth elsewhere and find Frisbee and Smith.
4. Josiah: the Writer
A side character, an “investigative reporter” played by DeVon Franklin, wants to remain an objective observer as he witnesses the baptisms, the worship music, and the miraculous healings. We find out who he writes for at the end of the film.
It turns out the narrative became the subject of the June 21, 1971 cover story in TIME Magazine titled “The Jesus Revolution.”
“There is an uncommon morning freshness to this movement, a buoyant atmosphere of hope and love and the usual rebel zeal. Their love seems more sincere than a slogan, deeper than the fast-fading sentiments of the flower children; what startles the outsider is the extraordinary sense of joy that they can communicate.”
A Christian Counterculture
“Turn on, tune in, drop out.” — Dr. Timothy Leary
I wrote about this in my 4-part series on The Summer of Love: Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll. The flower children did not survive the summer, and within a couple of years, their ultimate fruit were street people and drug addicts.
This revival hadn’t started with the established church but with the counterculture. It appealed to rebellious young Baby Boomers.
The film score is moving and sometimes “soaring.” But the soundtrack’s songs are “right on,” as we’d say back in the ’60s.
The soundtrack included the music of the day from the Doobie Brothers, America, Rare Earth, and The Edgar Winter Group.
But the most interesting musical notes are by the nascent band Love Song. I saw them perform live back in 1972; I saw them do all the songs they did in this movie. While not originally a Christian band, many became Christians before the film takes place, and they perform a “contemporary” style of worship music that seemed out of place in Chuck Smith’s dwindling church. But their music connected with the young people and sparked a music revolution of its own.
Epilogue of the Jesus Revolution
The epilogue at the end of the movie explains where each of these threads led:
- Explo ’72 in Dallas is mentioned as a gathering of 80,000 to 100,000 students at the “International Student Congress on Evangelism.” I was there.
- Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel from Costa Mesa, California, is now an association of over 1,000 churches.
- Greg Laurie matured from being a 19-year-old Bible teacher in the film to leading the Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, CA, with a weekly attendance of 15,000 across campuses in four cities. It is associated with the Calvary Chapel Association and, as of six years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention. I’ve seen Laurie preach; he’s an engaging preacher.
- Smith and Frisbee split in 1971 after he expressed dissatisfaction with Frisbee’s “theatrics,” as the movie describes. Smith and Frisbee eventually reconciled, and Frisbee subsequently helped inspire the founding of the Vineyard Movement.
I enjoyed the film immensely, though it lost its narrative footing in the third act. This movie is a moving account of a few threads of the “Jesus Revolution” over half a century ago. It is based on the book of the same name by Greg Laurie and Ellen Vaughn. I wrote about some of the other major threads of the phenomenon here.
Word-of-mouth promotions for the film have been strong and got me to attend. After decades of studying theology and history, it’s refreshing to be reminded of the simple message about Jesus: God sent Jesus to a sinful world so that those who repent of their sin and believe in him would have new life.
It’s a story of redemption that never gets old.
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian