The Jesus Movement of the late-’60s and ’70s hit the big screen and wider public awareness recently.
Movie theaters became expensive nap spots for me about six or so years ago. But “Jesus Revolution” intrigued me enough to venture into the unfamiliar land of senior rates and assigned seating.
Those of us who lived through some Jesus Movement experiences are getting a dose of nostalgia. And a chance to reflect upon those influences on our lives, then and now.
It was a time when formalities of institutional faith were loosened up. It was a way to be Christian and cool, at least in our minds.
One-way signs were flashed, ἸΧΘΥΣ medallions were worn. Songs from beyond the hymnal were sung to acoustic guitars. Many are still lodged in our minds.
Some hymns were abused. Yes, we sang “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.”
To be a real Jesus freak, however, seemed to require first being a real hippie — having bought into Timothy Leary’s mantra, “Tune in, turn on, drop out.”
Mostly, I was a poser who didn’t drop out of family or school — just skipped a few haircuts.
This movement with a hippie vibe and a Jesus focus — that swept west to east across the nation — did, however, impact even the hills and hollers of north Georgia.
My friends and I took some of that vibe to church with us.
A classroom painted Sunday School pale green could be made cool with tabletop candles and acoustic music — often proclaiming the near-certain return of Jesus before we reached the fullness of adulthood.
Youth Vacation Bible School, at our traditional Southern Baptist Church, transformed from familiar civil religion pledges and grape Kool-Aid to a groovy, dimly lit space with floor seating that we called “The Whale’s Belly.” (And we did that without mind-altering substances.)
Encounters with real Jesus freaks took place at the Yellow Deli (or its downtown hangout at the time, The Areopagus) in Chattanooga. There we found a delicious mix of hot sandwiches, chilled papaya juice and Jesus-themed music, all set in a soothing hippie décor.
The controversial (deservingly so, we’d later learned) Vine Street Community ran the delis. They were a Christian community in the sense of dropping out and sharing life in common.
We were live-at-home, school-enrolled, go-to-church teenagers who loved the music, the food and the hippie vibe of the Jesus freaks.
We mimicked their fashion style of bell-bottom jeans, colorful shirts and longer hair — a look that had the clean-cut fundamentalist students at Tennessee Temple continually seeking to save our souls.
It’s easy to look back and laugh at ourselves and others a bit. And that’s a healthy thing to do.
But despite some bad theology served with good carrot cake, there were some positive influences from that movement on many of our lives.
We learned to think beyond the constraints of our inherited religious structures. And, if observant and critical enough, one could see the dangers and benefits of a social movement that called for more inclusive and radical love while failing to erect guardrails to avoid authoritarian abuse.
Reflected in both traditional and innovative Americanized Christianity, the call to “accept Jesus” rather than “follow Jesus” doesn’t necessarily lead to the latter. Today, we see the tragic, self-serving results of a primarily get-out-of-hell-card faith.
My interest is not in critiquing the movie, but a couple of helpful church leadership tips can be found in the script.
When confronted by inflexible lay leaders about their discomfort with the hippie-types coming into the church, pastor Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer) confessed: “Perhaps I haven’t made us uncomfortable enough.”
Indeed, the gospel should disrupt our comfort.
In a moment of struggle, Chuck offers yet another confession: “With so many voices, it’s hard to hear the truth.
His wife, Kay (Julia Campbell), replies that the truth is often quiet — “It’s the lies that are loud.”
The Jesus Revolution era taught us some important lessons if we will just stick with them.
For one, there is no single cultural context to which Jesus solely belongs. His calling is too radical and counter-cultural to be fully institutionalized.
Two, Jesus crosses generations and other demarcations as boldly as he walked across Samaria with his confused and fearful first disciples — and engaged and affirmed a woman considered out of bounds by reputation, ethnicity, religion and gender.
In other words, the life to which Jesus invites us to follow is wide open and readily available.
As Cathe, in the movie, said to her father: “It’s not just for hippies.”
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.