The fact that the film Jesus Revolution was released at virtually the same time as the much publicized Asbury Revival looks like a very fortunate coincidence – although I am sure the film-makers would prefer the word “providential.” The film is an important and often moving study of revivalism in American history, but I will suggest that it does make some annoying mis-steps in how it presents the story.
Jesus Revolution concerns the Christian revival that occurred among hippies and counter-culture people at the end of the 1960s, and the creation of the so-called Jesus Freaks. Central to the story is Chuck Smith, who in 1968 was running a small conservative church in Costa Mesa, California. Following an encounter with Lonnie Frisbee, hippie evangelist and Jesus look-alike, Smith opened his church to hippies, who soon attended in very large numbers. Also in the movement was Greg Laurie, whose 2018 memoir (written with Ellen Vaughn) gave the film its title. Out of that crucible came several whole denominations. Calvary Chapel itself has a thousand affiliates, and Frisbee was deeply involved in the founding of the Vineyard. Another offshoot is Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, one of the country’s largest megachurches. The music that grew out of Calvary has a good claim to be the source of modern Christian rock, not to mention much of what is heard from praise bands across the country. The whole story is familiar to me because I used to cover it in fair depth when teaching my undergraduate classes on the modern history of Christianity.
As a film, Jesus Revolution is better than it has any right to be. At the outset, it looks so simple and predictable in its pious portrayal that it might be a Church group project grown to cinematic scale. We see the crusty Chuck Smith so scornful of the hippies (who need a bath, darn it!), and obviously, he is about to be converted to a new way of thinking. The revival then begins, with cheery and improbably well-scrubbed street people joining in their legions. But without giving too many spoilers, real tensions and schisms do emerge, focusing on issues that have surfaced in virtually every revival. How legitimate are healings and miracles, or are they just “theatrics”? What happens when a powerful preacher starts claiming to be a true prophet, not to mention staking a proprietorial claim in the whole movement? These are real questions, and they are well handled. Somewhere, Jonathan Edwards is nodding sagely.
Incidentally, the film’s depictions of explicitly religious themes and moments are powerful. The baptism scene is especially strong. The film does a great job of conveying the stripped-down but still potent evangelical message that proved so attractive to so many converts.
I had a few criticisms, a couple of which are broadly historical. The film brought home to me what a critical and dynamic figure Lonnie Frisbee was, but it omitted one large aspect of that story, which is easily found in any number of sources. Lonnie was widely known to be gay, at a time when American society was only beginning to liberalize in that area, and when most evangelicals were strongly negative. In theory, Frisbee himself likely believed that his behavior was sinful, so he lived a double life, making him an even more complex and conflicted character than we see in the film. (He died of AIDS in 1993). Exploring this topic would probably have demanded a whole different film, but it does cry out to be discussed.
Another historical detail is less significant, but still interesting. Watching the film, you are led to believe that the pre-revival Chuck Smith is a very staid mainline minister, who has to be awakened to these new spiritual realities. He really was not: his own denominational origins were with the Foursquare Gospel, which tracked back to Aimee Semple McPherson. On a personal level, his first job involved working closely with the charismatic healing evangelist Paul Cain. So while the thought of reaching out to unwashed hippies might have been surprising for Smith, the revival theme absolutely was not: this was not his first rodeo. The film depicts him otherwise for its own dramatic purposes, to suggest (and exaggerate) a radical transformation in his outlook.
My main criticism has nothing to do with the film’s religious aspects. Like many Hollywood productions, it is cast far too old, so much so as to make it on occasion deeply unconvincing, in a way that matters enormously in this context. Here are the three main characters, with their ages as they would have been in 1969:
Chuck Smith, 42 – played by Kelsey Grammer, who is 68.
Greg Laurie, 17 – played by Joel Courtenay, who is 27.
Lonnie Frisbee, 20 – played by Jonathan Roumie, who is 49.
The actual Chuck Smith was a generation older than the hippies he encounters, but he was their fathers’ generation, not their grandfathers’. In the film, we have to accept the (pardon the expression) elderly Kelsey Grammer with his improbably young wife, and teenage daughter.
Far worse is the representation of Greg Laurie, who is meant to be a high school student through much of the film, reflecting the real appeal of the counterculture to that age group, and providing a vital context for the subsequent youth revival, the Youthquake (note the word “youth”). This is a time when a very young man (and I do mean, man) really could be sent to found a major church planting enterprise. Greg’s girlfriend is played by Anna Grace Barlow, aged 28, who never once convinces as a troubled high school girl.
The film goes far beyond demanding mere suspension of disbelief. What we see is a decent bunch of mature and confident actors trying their best to look like confused teens and young adults, and rarely succeeding.
Do not by any means read this as a polemic against such mature actors working in films: rather, I think the casting detracts badly from the youth quality that is so essential to understanding and contextualizing this revival, and so many of its historical predecessors.
I would strongly recommend seeing the film, but you may groan on occasion. I am very glad I saw it.
There are lots of fine studies on the Jesus People revival, but the best has to be Larry Eskridge, God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America (Oxford University Press, 2013).