At long last, my interview with David Di Sabatino, the director of Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher, is up at CT Movies. The film premieres at the Newport Beach Film Festival this coming Sunday, April 24.
The CT version of the interview is only about half of the full transcript, so I’ll be posting a longer version here in a few days — keep an eye on this space!
APRIL 22 UPDATE: Here it is, the full unexpurgated interview! My editor gave me a word count that turned out to be less than half of what I had in the transcript, so between the two of us, we hacked and trimmed lots of stuff. This is what we started with.
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Miracles and visions, signs and wonders, scandal and sin. If any of the stories about Lonnie Frisbee are true, he must have been one of the more dynamic and controversial figures to stride upon the evangelical scene in modern times.
Frisbee was still just a teen when he met Chuck Smith, an evangelical preacher who was looking for a way to reach young people in the late ’60s. Together they turned Calvary Chapel into a thriving epicentre of the Jesus Movement — that tumultuous moment when counter-cultural youth and Bible-believing baby-boomers came together in a heady mix of dispensationalist theology, social experimentation and evangelistic rock ‘n’ roll.
Some years later, Frisbee met John Wimber and played a key role in the origins of the Vineyard movement. But his name has largely been written out of the history books. Why? Because he struggled with sin. Specifically, sexual sin. And even more specifically, he struggled with homosexuality, and he died of AIDS in 1993.
David Di Sabatino was researching a book on the Jesus Movement when he came across Frisbee’s story and decided to restore him to his rightful place in evangelical history by producing a warts-and-all documentary on the subject. Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher — rough cuts of which have already been shown at several evangelical churches and schools — premieres at the Newport Beach Film Festival on April 24.
Di Sabatino, who quit his job as editor of Worship Leader magazine to focus on filmmaking, spoke to Christianity Today Movies about his film.
Let’s start at the very beginning. The opening credits call this “A Bible story by David Di Sabatino.” How would you justify calling this a “Bible story”?
Lonnie’s life is very much like the characters that you would read about in the Bible; it’s not a Bible story per se in that it comes straight from the Bible, but in another sense, a sideways sense, it does. You look at Lonnie’s life and you parse it, and you see the foolish things confounding the wise, you see the eccentricities and the whacked-out character of Ezekiel, you see the frailties of Samson in his life, you see the prophetic, miraculous kind of stories that swirl around him like they did around Elijah and Elisha — so in a lot of ways, I stand behind that. Here’s a guy who was flawed, and yet God used him. I don’t expect people to take it literally. I expect people to say, “Yeah, that’s just like something I could have read in the Bible.” I could have nuanced it or softened it and said “a modern day parable” or something like that, but I figure people are smart enough to understand what I’m trying to say. Who said the canon of Scripture was closed anyway?
How did you come across the Lonnie Frisbee story?
I came out of the Pentecostal movement, so I grew up with all these larger-than-life figures thrown about in front of my eyes, and when I started doing research on revivals and the Jesus Movement, I heard about Lonnie and just was fascinated by him. And I was drawn in initially by the stories, the larger-than-life stories, but as I went to flesh him out, I found a real human being with a lot of problems, and in order to contextualize it, I had to deal with all of it — which was extremely difficult, because some of the things he was dealing with, I really had no understanding of. So I had to rely on going to other people and ask, you know, “What does it mean to be raped as an eight-year-old child? What does that do to you?” So it stretched me in that sense. I don’t know much about psychology, but I feel that I have some grasp now, of at least what he went through.
Are you still planning a project on the larger Jesus Movement?
Yeah, I am.
Were you surprised by these flaws that you saw in Lonnie?
At first, of course. We grew up with the holiness impulse in conservative evangelicalism that says once you are saved, you’re striving for perfection. So yeah, I didn’t know what to do with it, because my matrix was so black-and-white, and as I’ve gone along, my life experiences have filled in, and I realize there is a lot more grey than there ever was black and white. So again, I go back to Lonnie being raped as an eight-year-old. What does that do to somebody? It fragments your identity, and now I can’t say that I’m surprised at all.
Lonnie could cause a lot of problems. What’s that U2 song, “I have spoke with tongues of angels, I have held hands with the devil” — so you’re both of these things, you’re angel and devil — and that’s all of us, really. We’re capable of great, great things. We’re also capable of great devastation. Paul is wrestling with this throughout his writing. But there’s another side to that, too. It’s funny, because a lot of people wonder why it’s the Pentecostal people who are always into the fleshly problems, but it would seem that this paradigm attracts this kind of thing, and I have a bunch of theories on this, but nothing tangible.
It does seem that a lot of the pro-gay evangelicals tend to have a Pentecostal or charismatic background.
It’s surprising. We used to talk about this when we were young, because we noticed it. I don’t know what it is — is it because the Spirit is feminine, and there is a feminization when you’re closer to the Holy Spirit than some of these more doctrinaire churches? I don’t know. Lonnie would talk about how, as the Spirit would come upon him, all of his faculties were absolutely kind of enlivened and animated, including his flesh, so that when the Spirit would — not depart from him, but stop being upon him for that moment — his flesh was still wild, and it needed an outlet. He’d talk about these revival meetings as a place where the flesh is whipped up and stuff would happen after these revival meetings were over. And I think that’s true. People would ask, how can you go from the presence of the Lord and do these things? Well, there’s something going on in your body, and if you have not had that kind of intense experience of God where you feel enraptured by the Spirit, I don’t think you can really wrap your head around it unless you’ve experienced that sort of thing. That gets mystical, and a lot of people say what the heck are you on about, but . . .
You could say it works in reverse, too. Someone in the film makes the point that all the experimentation with drugs back then opened people up to the supernatural, and thus to God. And some people might ask whether Lonnie was really moved by the Spirit, or whether he was just on another trip.
A lot of people can’t get their heads around that, because the way we just look at drugs is so anti-whatever; but you have to remember, too, the context of back then. LSD wasn’t illegal. It was illegal in, like, the beginning of ’68, but before that, it was a horse serum, and they used it like a truth drug. It’s like ecstasy in its first infancy stages — you could take it and the government wasn’t involved — and I think it was the lubricant for a lot of spiritual experiences. And if you were really searching, that search ended up with some sort of faith. So when these missionaries came up to the Haight-Ashbury district, they didn’t have to offer up an apologetic for God — that was a really open time, and drugs were just part of the story. Lonnie was searching. He went through a lot of stuff before he got to God, and a lot of people will look at that and say it was false, and they will say God can’t bring people through a lot of that mess, but he did with Lonnie.
What about the miracles? Do you think they were genuine?
It’s a “Bible story.” Yeah, sure, why not? I don’t have a problem with them. Stories are what they are. Not that I’m trying to prove anything to anybody, that this is true or false or whatever, but there are people there that didn’t really like Lonnie, and 20 years later, their 15-minute encounter with him is the formative shaping moment of their life.
I have a ton of other miracle stories that I didn’t put in there. One of the reasons I didn’t is that it’s too overwhelming to a non-Christian, to somebody who doesn’t have a matrix for any of this. I didn’t want this to sound like I had an agenda, that I was propping him up as some sort of faith healer. But I’m telling you, the people I spoke to saw things that didn’t make sense to them. Chuck Smith Jr. is something of a Thomas, he’ll tell you this, he’ll be the first to say “Yeah, right” about a lot of the stuff that happens in Orange County, but he was there and he says Lonnie was real and genuine and almost impossible to explain because it was too weird. None of them could explain Lonnie. This guy is so far outside of the matrix of anything we understand rationally. Systematic theology does not apply to Lonnie Frisbee. That’s pretty much how you will get the story if you talk to people down here. But I’m open to people saying, “Yeah, right. I don’t believe a word of it.” There are other things about his life that are interesting. This story is multifaceted.
In Russian Orthodoxy, they’ll tell you about the “holy fool,” and that’s where you’ll find Lonnie. These holy fools would do things that would so provoke you to say there is no way that God could work through this person, and yet you had to realize that the only way that these things that were happening through him were actually happening was that it was God. In other words, the vessel was so frail, and so rife with contradictions, that the fruit that would emerge from their life and ministry could only point to the graciousness of God working through such a fragile vessel.
What about Hank Hanegraaff and others who have dismissed Lonnie as a “hypnotist”?
Guys that were there still don’t know what to make of it. And because they have a black-and-white matrix, some of them go towards the black and say, “This is nefarious.” And that’s for other people to judge. I find that foolish because, just looking at the story from a macro view, the negative stuff Lonnie did is far outweighed by the positive stuff that grew up. I mean, that prophecy that was given by Kay Smith [wife of Chuck Smith, Sr.], that the Lord was going to bless the whole coast of California — the coincidence of Lonnie being in the centre of these two major movements [Calvary Chapel and Vineyard] should suggest that there’s more good that has come out of Lonnie’s life than there is that is bad.People in the film talk about how difficult Lonnie could be, and hearing so much Larry Norman music in the film, one is reminded of his reputation for being difficult, too. Is this characteristic, somehow, of the people involved in the early Jesus Movement?
Not all of them. Larry Norman and John Fischer used to have this conversation. Larry was always enamoured of John because he was able to stay in the institution and work within the churches, and John was always enamoured of Larry because he got to stay on the outside. Personally, I identify with the guys on the outside looking in like Larry Norman. I also identify with Lonnie. Larry Norman’s music perfectly echoes Lonnie’s life; he’s singing Lonnie’s life, really, because they were very similar. But there are lots of folks who emerged from that time that stayed within. So I don’t think it was endemic to all the Jesus People, because you look at Debbie Rettino Kerner or Paul Clark or some of the other folks — they’re still within the church, doing what they do. It depends on what your thing was. I like the counter-cultural personalities. I find them way more interesting than the institutional people, ’cause they’re a heck of a lot more honest. Yeah, Larry’s difficult, but in his lucid moments, I’ll take him any day over some of the other people. He speaks with clarity. So did Lonnie. There were no games.
Lonnie’s ex-wife seems to have been interviewed extensively, and at multiple times — but considering the role that his homosexuality plays in his story, it is striking that we don’t see any firsthand interviews. Do you have that material?
This was a tough thing. I brought to light some things that not a lot of people knew. I’ve been in rooms with his family where I’ve had to tell them that he defined himself as gay, way back. Nobody knew that. There’s a lot of hubris in that, to come to people who loved him and prayed for him, and to stand there and say, “You didn’t really know this, but…” And there’s been some tense moments behind the scenes. Now I love these people, and they let me into a deep, emotionally charged place in their lives, and one of the things I wanted was for them to give the thumbs up to this story, but there were times when we battled. I would go over to his friends’ house and play this thing and they would reel, because I had things from Mel [White, an evangelical author turned gay activist] or Troy [Perry, a bishop with the pro-gay Metropolitan Community Church], and they would say, “How could you do this?” But by the time we screened it at Set Free Church, earlier this year in February, I think things had calmed down. I think I had properly parsed what I needed to do with his homosexuality, and they appreciated what I was trying to do. There were things of course that they were uncomfortable with, but that’s the nature of the beast. That’s what’s going to happen. I tried to make everybody happy, but that’s not realistic.
Too, everybody has a certain view of Lonnie that is limited. They saw him in the context of their friendship, and that’s not a narrow thing, but that’s all they know of him. And to have somebody like me come and take not only what they said, but what other people say too — that changes things. So, there have been some that say to me, “That’s not the Lonnie I know.” The fact of the matter is they have a certain identifiable memory of Lonnie, but that is going to be different from somebody else’s. In a family, different siblings have different relationships with the father or mother. If they interview you and your brother or sister, you’re going to give different impressions of your parents. So somebody who never saw any inkling of Lonnie acting out as a homosexual is going to flip out when the movie gets into the fact that Lonnie had these tendencies that he acted on once in a while.
The hardest thing has been with some of the women who had a really close relationship with him, not in a physical sense but in a brother-or-sister sense. Lonnie admitted a lot of things to them, but I think he stopped short of telling them a lot of his sexual dysfunction because he didn’t want to hurt them, or because he didn’t want to be hurt. His early testimony at Calvary Chapel was that he had come out of the homosexual lifestyle, but he felt like a leper because a lot of people turned away from him after that, so he took it out of his testimony — and I think that’s an indictment of the church.
What sort of audience have you made this film for? The narration often seems like it was put there to explain things to people who are not familiar with the Christian world.
Speaking in tongues — it’s religious craziness, but the viewer understands that people do this, and you learn it as you go. The people in the movie use expressions like “the Spirit came down on me,” because that’s just how they speak. And I wrestled with this — how am I going to explain this to non-Christians, this is such a churchy story. The narration was written so that it could allow people from a non-Christian framework to step into the story at points where they might not otherwise if I was presenting this like an insider. The managing editor of the OC Weekly, who wrote a cover story article on the documentary — he’s not a Christian, but he flipped over the story. He’s the reason we’re in the Newport Beach Film Festival. So, I think I’ve been somewhat successful in allowing different points of entry.
And in answer to your question, I wanted to reach all interested audiences, Christian and non-Christian alike. But I wanted to make sure that I would bridge that gap. Larry Norman’s music was picked on purpose because it’s the best of the best. I tried to be all things to all kinds of camps. Whether it succeeds or fails, I don’t know, but at this point, it’s looking pretty good.
I also put the footage from Marjoe [an Oscar-winning 1972 documentary about a Pentecostal preacher exposing his own ministry as a sham] in there for people who believe that religion is nothing more than a fraud. There are charlatans out there, and Marjoe was one of them, a self-admitted one, but I wanted to say to skeptics, “I hear what you’re saying. I know. I understand.” I want to make sure that it gets across that I think religion can be a circus, but that I don’t think Lonnie was about that. He wasn’t about the money, at least.
What do you mean, “at least”?
I think any time you get into those ministries, the motivation is never pure. There’s an admixture of wanting to help people, and stuff that is all about you and your ego. But there is no way that you could say Lonnie was doing this for the money. He had plenty of opportunity to cash in on this, but he never did. Other people got rich off of Lonnie, but he never did — he never had a penny to his name.
At the risk of sounding cynical — or optimistic — do you think your own documentary might help you to get rich off of Lonnie?
[ laughs ] I can’t answer that. Other people would have to answer that, and I think they would come to my defense. I’ve been doing it for too long. I’ve been researching Lonnie for 12 years, so that theory doesn’t make any sense. We started this before Michael Moore had put documentaries on the top of the ladder, so I can say without equivocation that the impulse to do this was out of my historical research, out of my passion to right what I thought was a wrong.
But if you don’t think that I want to make money off of this — I want to make a ton of money, because I like doing this stuff, and I want to keep on doing this! This is fun. So I’m glad that Michael Moore has put documentaries on top like that. And it’s shocking to me how quickly this buzz has happened. Some of the conversations that I’ve had have been quite amazing.
Would you consider sending this film to gay and lesbian film festivals?
Absolutely. And I’ve already applied for some of them. That’s where I want this played. I have made no bones about this. My primary goal was not to make a documentary for Christians. I would like them to see this, but that’s not my primary goal. I want to go to the people that Lonnie went to, and that would be the disenfranchised.
I have made this documentary in the spirit of Lonnie — edgy, on the cusp, on the periphery, truthful, and with an eye towards those who were on the margin of society. And the premise of the movie is, “If God can use this guy, then you’re all invited.” And the ironic thing is that the face of God on earth, the Church, is turning people away because they’re not up to snuff. And I think we need to revisit that.
What if people accuse the film of being pro-gay?
That’s okay. I’m pro-people. I’m not pro-gay. I went to those guys [White and Perry] out of the honesty of my heart. Who better to talk about being part of the evangelical community and being ostracized? And I went to people who were gay and came back and said I’m not gay any more, but I thought, I want to go to Troy and to Mel and see what they have to say. And I shared my convictions with them. But I like them, and they were honest.
Honestly, how many times a day do we look at something and say, “I don’t agree with this?” Why can’t we do that with a film? This does not glorify that lifestyle. Nor am I in a position to make some sort of theological statement about it. I make theological statements, but that’s not one of them. I like Brian McLaren’s statement in Time magazine when he was asked what his views were on homosexuality, and he said, “There’s no way that I can answer that without offending somebody.”
I would go even further. I thought one of the great scenes of Bowling for Columbine was when Michael Moore asked Marilyn Manson, “What would you say to the kids of Columbine?” And Marilyn said, “I would say nothing, I would just listen.” And I think we need to listen to the gay community, to listen to their heart. And I’m not sure I would know what to say even if I wanted to answer or to make some theological point.
And one more point. Lonnie is not the poster child for gay Christianity. That would be a horrific thing to do to his memory. Voltaire said history is playing a pack of dirty tricks on the dead — turning Lonnie into a “gay preacher” would be a horrible thing to do to him. But neither is he this kind of Damascus-Road, I-once-was-gay-and-turned-away-from-this-lifestyle guy. He struggled. I’ve been accused of being gay.
Just because you made the film?
Because I went to Mel and Troy. I’ve had people ask me, “What’s your agenda here? Are you gay?” My standard line is, “I don’t dress well enough,” which is a slur on its own, but oh well.
How difficult was it to get people to talk about him?
His friends would talk. The people who were there would talk. The institutional people were a little more difficult, the people who were involved in those circles. The Calvary Chapel people were a little more closed-lipped than the Vineyard people, but the Vineyard movement has become a lot more decentralized since John [Wimber] died. Getting Chuck Smith Jr. to speak was a kind of coup. He’s just such an honest guy, and I wish I could run the whole interview. He’s just great, he’s an honest man. And I really, really appreciate that about him. Now, we’ve had words about it — because it’s his dad, and it’s been tough, because we’re trying to get it right — and there have been conversations, and there’s been heat, but that’s to be expected. They’ve had reservations about it.
Both the Calvary Chapel people and the Vineyard people have come back to me to point to books where Lonnie’s been mentioned, but I’m careful to say in the movie that his influence has not been properly contextualized. I don’t think putting his name in one of the lines in a book means anything. There was a concerted effort not to talk about Lonnie. I think John Wimber went through a lot of sexual scandal in his church that freaked him out, in the early parts, and to a large extent, he went through this kind of scorched-earth theory with regard to Lonnie and another guy named Blaine Cook — tapes were erased and so on.
Now, to his credit, Wimber went on to found Desert Stream ministry, which is one of the great ministries to gay and lesbian people in the last 20 years. I think the failure, with regard to what happened to Lonnie and Blaine, spawned this reaction which culminated in the Vineyard being at the forefront of ministry to gays and lesbians, to people that were struggling with sexual addiction. So when I parse Lonnie’s story and say, “Okay, they failed in certain respects,” that doesn’t mean that they didn’t then turn around and keep making these mistakes.
But that’s another story. I’m interested in Lonnie’s story, and they did contribute to his spiraling out of control, because they did treat him with contempt and they did spurn him. How much blame should his mentors shoulder when they said to Lonnie, “You’re not welcome here, you’re not one of us”? I don’t want to let Lonnie off the hook, but what does that kind of treatment do to a person who’s already hurt? My intention is not to smear these guys, but I think in this instance, they did some things that were worthy of a rap on the knuckles.
What was your motivation in telling this story?
When I was at Queen’s [University] in grad school, I remember telling this story to people, and their mouths just dropped, and they said this was a great story — even people who didn’t care about the evangelical world, who looked at it as a circus, just resonated with the story. And I remember Mark Noll coming to Queen’s that year and talking about the fact that, up until that point — and I think Scandal [of the Evangelical Mind] was just released the previous year — he said his best-selling book up until that point had sold about 700 copies, and I thought, “If he can sell only 700 books, then what am I going to do?” We have to learn how to tell stories in a different way, and get out beyond our comfortable circles, and that’s really where this was born, and looking at people who have done that. U2 have been able to go out into the marketplace and bring stories, bring artistic endeavours, to a different level, and not necessarily with an eye on the Christian community.
So you expect over 700 people to see this film?
They already have. And I’m expecting to show it to a heck of a lot more.