This film is based on real events. In 1968, Chuck Smith, a Southern California pastor, finds that his Calvary Chapel church is slowly dying and that he is unable to connect with a younger generation. Then, his daughter, Janelle, gives a colorful hippie hitchhiker named Lonnie Frisbee a ride. Frisbee is travelling the country, telling people about Jesus; and Janelle offers Frisbee a place to stay temporarily.
Chuck Smith, at first suspicious of Frisbee, eventually warms up to him. Soon Smith is welcoming bona fide hippies both to his house and church. Frisbee even takes on the majority of the preaching duties in Smith’s church, and his charismatic preaching style attracts crowds of disaffected, hippie youth.
Meanwhile, high-school student Greg Laurie runs away from his Junior ROTC class and joins a girl named Cathe, who “turns him on” to a Janis Joplin concert. However, Cathe is not exactly a hippie true believer. After her sister almost dies from a drug overdose, Cathe begins attending Calvary Chapel. Greg, however, is ambivalent about drugs, the Chapel, and even Cathe. Nevertheless, with time, Greg’s doubts are resolved. He accepts Jesus as his personal savior, and he and Cathe begin their own ministry in an abandoned church near Calvary Chapel. That ministry explodes in popularity, sparking a “Jesus Revolution” that becomes a Time cover story in 1971.
So, what did I think about Jesus Revolution? Well, the film certainly isn’t as relentless as most Christian faith films. Nevertheless, I cringed when Lonnie Frisbee was baptizing people in the Pacific Ocean and asked them beforehand things like, “Do you believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins on the cross and rose again from the dead?” If I were to watch Jesus Revolution again and take notes, I could come up with most of the Fundamentalist Christian tropes that I suffered through in the Baptist Church of my youth. Words like “sin,” “Devil,” “Hell,” and phrases like “born again” fall heavily on my ears.
Moreover, Jesus Revolution is saccharine sweet and mostly predictable. There’s a conflict between Greg and Cathe, but we know that they will reconcile and that true love will win out. Nor are we surprised when Chuck and Lonnie have a falling out over Lonnie’s Pentecostal ministry of healing. And we suspect that Greg, in spite of his faith struggles, will launch a movement—a movement which morphs into a “Jesus Revolution.”
Do I recommend Jesus Revolution to Old Chatham Friends? Well, it depends. If you’re curious about the Jesus Freaks of the 60’s and 70’s, the film might well serve as an interesting introduction to the phenomenon. However, those who are not so curious could well pass on this film, so alien to the spirit of unprogrammed Quakerism. As for myself, I’m still entranced by some scenes in Jesus Revolution.
For example, after one of Chuck Smith’s older parishioners complains about the hippies’ bare feet soiling the church carpet, Chuck washes their feet, re-enacting Jesus’ similar service. And although the hippies being baptized in the ocean react with cloying enthusiasm, I still remember the ecstasy and joy I felt when Father Joe baptized me with a gallon of water. Perhaps my own Christocentric Quakerism is not so different from evangelical Christianity—at least in some respects.
~ Richard Russell
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