‘Jesus Revolution’ leaves out the tough stuff but gets the music right

The new film about the origins of the Jesus People is refracted through Greg Laurie’s memory, which is selective.

Kelsey Grammer as Chuck Smith, from right, and Jonathan Roumie as Lonnie Frisbee in

(RNS) — The new movie “Jesus Revolution,” a film about how hippies found salvation at a “little country church” in Costa Mesa, California, grossed an impressive $15 million at the box office this weekend. 

Then, and now, hippies loom large in the American imagination. When they descended on the Bay Area in California during the 1967 Summer of Love, these young idealists horrified and captivated the American public in equal measure. Film footage of mostly white 20-somethings from the suburbs, who had given up markers of social propriety in exchange for long hair, bare feet and a quest for peace and enlightenment (along with drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll) poured into American households on the news, and many parents worried about the deleterious effect of their counterculture on American society. 

Two of those parents were Chuck and Kay Smith of Costa Mesa, California. Like many of their white middle class peers, the 40-something minister and his wife shuddered to think what would happen if hippies were to invade their community in 1968. 

The film “Jesus Revolution,” produced by Andrew Erwin and Jon Erwin, explores how Chuck Smith, pastor of Calvary Chapel, changed his mind about hippies and how that change of heart revolutionized his aging, declining church, turning it into a thriving community and eventually a denomination. Rather than viewing hippies as a threat to the established social order, Smith and Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa began to see them as potential converts. In churchy language, hippies became, for Smith, “a field white unto harvest.”

"Jesus Revolution" poster. Courtesy of Lionsgate

“Jesus Revolution” poster. Courtesy of Lionsgate

The young man who helped Smith connect with the youths of the late 1960s and early 1970s was a “hippie preacher” named Lonnie Frisbee. After converting to Christianity in San Francisco, Frisbee is portrayed in “Jesus Revolution” as encountering Smith’s daughter Janette when she finds him hitchhiking down the California coast. Janette spends an evening talking with Lonnie about the things of God and invites him home to meet her dad. Smith is, predictably, scandalized by these events and concerned about his daughter.

The film finds odd-couple humor in the first meeting between Smith and Frisbee. Long haired Frisbee is a hugger and a discerner of “good vibes;” balding Smith is a buttoned-down dad. Smith is skeptical at first, but he eventually finds that Frisbee is an earnest convert to Christianity, and also a mystic of sorts. Convinced that Frisbee is the real deal, Smith invites him to speak at the tiny, stodgy Calvary Chapel. 

Frisbee’s rapport with the young, his charismatic preaching and his gifts as a healer and a prophet brought hippies from around the Los Angeles area to Calvary Chapel. The film shows how, by 1970, Smith’s once-dying congregation experiences a hippie revival. Young people sway to Christianized rock from Love Song, and Chuck and Lonnie hold mass baptisms at Pirates Cove Beach.

The “hippiezed Christians” from those days became known as Jesus People, and the revival they experienced as the Jesus Movement.

A short scene from the film illustrates the inherent tension between the traditional authority embodied by a deliberate Smith and the charismatic authority embodied by an impulsive Frisbee. In it, Smith grows concerned when Frisbee’s otherworldly, untamable gifts dazzle Calvary Chapel attendees. Clearly uncomfortable with Frisbee’s mysticism and worried about how Frisbee represents Calvary Chapel, Smith tries to manage his protege. 

So much could be made from Smith and Frisbee’s powerful, but ultimately unstable, partnership. Does Smith feel threatened by his protege? Could Frisbee’s talent be a form of narcissism? Filmgoers do not get to ponder these questions, because “Jesus Revolution” puts their relationship in the background. 

Instead, in the film, viewers learn how Smith mentored Greg Laurie. “Jesus Revolution” portrays Laurie as a fatherless young man with a traumatic relationship with his mother, whose hunger for love and belonging leads him to Cathe, a beautiful young woman who finds God at Calvary Chapel. The young couple join the Jesus People and are baptized on the sunny shores of Southern California. 

Joel Courtney as Greg Laurie, left, and Anna Grace Barlow as Cathe in "Jesus Revolution." Photo by Dan Anderson/Lionsgate

Joel Courtney as Greg Laurie, left, and Anna Grace Barlow as Cathe in “Jesus Revolution.” Photo by Dan Anderson/Lionsgate

Laurie finds a family at Calvary Chapel, and also a gift for preaching, which Smith encourages. In the end (spoiler alert!), Greg starts a church with Cathe’s support, and the Jesus Movement gets mainstream recognition.  

Laurie’s story takes center stage because “Jesus Revolution,” the film, is based on “Jesus Revolution” the book, which is co-written by Laurie. Laurie also wrote “Lost Boy,” a memoir, and executive produced a documentary by the same name.

In all of these projects, the Jesus Movement is refracted through Laurie’s memory, which is selective. Drug abuse and Timothy Leary’s encouragement to “turn on, tune in, drop out” is featured prominently as an inciting incident for the Jesus Movement, for example, but the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement and the women’s movement receive much less attention. 

Understanding the film as the product of Laurie’s imagined past may explain some of the casting and storytelling choices in the film. During the events depicted, for example, Chuck Smith was in his early 40s, but in the film he is played by Kelsey Grammer, age 67. Grammer’s Chuck Smith is not a man in his professional prime, but a man past the average age of retirement, who looks back over the substance of his many years of frustrating church work and finds it wanting.  

Jonathan Roumie as Lonnie Frisbee, left, and Kelsey Grammer as Chuck Smith in "Jesus Revolution." Photo by Dan Anderson/Lionsgate

Jonathan Roumie as Lonnie Frisbee, left, and Kelsey Grammer as Chuck Smith in “Jesus Revolution.” Photo by Dan Anderson/Lionsgate

Grammer is close in age to present-day 70-year-old Greg Laurie, and he bears a striking resemblance to the pastor. In fact, it’s hard not to see the film version of Smith as a stand-in for Laurie, who, like his mentor, became a prominent pastor with an influential congregation and media ministry. From this perspective, the film can be interpreted as Laurie’s invitation to Gen Z to find meaning and love and a family in evangelical Christianity.

Lonnie Frisbee, on the other hand, is portrayed by Jonathan Roumie, the actor known to audiences as “Jesus” in “The Chosen” (a casting Easter egg for evangelical media enthusiasts). At 48, Roumie is a generation older than Frisbee was during the events portrayed in the film. The film’s depictions of Frisbee’s recklessness and emotional turmoil (as well as Smith’s dismay when he finds his daughter spent a night with him) read differently coming from a man in his 40s than they do a 19- or 20-year-old. 

Anyone familiar with Frisbee’s story will be especially puzzled by his depiction in “Jesus Revolution.” In the film, Frisbee is married (somewhat unhappily) to a young woman named Connie; in real life, Frisbee’s sexuality was complex. He had sex with men (how he defined his sexuality is a subject of debate among those who knew him) and died of AIDS at age 43. The film does not include these details; the epilogue simply states that, “Lonnie died in 1993, still preaching the good news and dreaming of another Jesus Movement.”

Lonnie Frisbee’s depiction in “Jesus Revolution” will not surprise those familiar with 2021’s “The Jesus Music,” another film produced by filmmakers Andrew and Jon Erwin about contemporary Christian Music. Both offerings gloss over notable controversy and conflict in favor of feel-good evangelical Christian themes. 

Seeing the Jesus Movement through Laurie’s eyes is still instructive, however, because it shows how the aesthetics and theological motifs of “hippiezed Christianity” — the anti-institutionalism, the quest for authenticity and generational animus — were used to rebrand evangelical Christianity and political conservatism as the “real” form of counterculture and rebellion.

White evangelicals, according to the PRRI 2021 American Values Atlas, make up the largest Christian segment (31%) of an overwhelmingly Christian Republican Party (85% Christian), and “Jesus Revolution” is being marketed directly to them on conservative radio outlets as a form of evangelism. 

This revolutionary attitude lives on today in some Calvary Chapel churches, like Godspeek Calvary Chapel, which boomed in 2021 when the church rebelled against COVID-19 restrictions. Similarly, the aesthetics of Jesus People have been appropriated by the long-haired Sean Feucht, a “worship protester,” who defied COVID-19 restrictions and sells Jesus People-inspired merchandise.

Laurie himself, now a Southern Baptist, was among evangelical leaders who readily accepted Republican President Donald J. Trump’s invitations to the White House, spoke warmly of the president from the pulpit and provided his administration with prayers and praise

Laurie is certainly influential, but in the end, the music of the Jesus People reached more people than any particular pastor. Love Song was part of a much bigger cohort of young musicians from Southern California, and beyond, who began creating popular music with evangelical Christian messages. The songs of 2nd Chapter of Acts, Larry Norman, Love Song and many, many others — filled with end-times anticipation, a mystical connection to God and a fervent hope for revival — went far beyond Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa. 

The informal, impassioned worship style of the Jesus People, poignantly depicted in “Jesus Revolution,” is now ubiquitous in evangelical circles. The simple approach and broad appeal of those West Coast revivals might best be summed up by lyrics from Love Song: “People aren’t as stuffy as they were before, they just want to praise the Lord.”

(Leah Payne is associate professor of American religious history at Portland Seminary and author of a book about contemporary Christian music (Oxford University Press), which will be released in 2024. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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