The True Story Behind the Faith-Based Surprise Hit
Mar 11, 2023
Jesus Revolution, the surprise indie box office hit, tells the story of the real life “Jesus freak” movement through the eyes of youth minister Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney). The Jesus movement of the late 1960s and 1970s was primarily based in California. It essentially tried to blend some of the beliefs and practices of the hippie counterculture with Evangelicalism. This blend led to some unsurprising conflicts (hippie preacher Lonnie Frisbee, portrayed in the film by Jonathan Roumie, prohibited homosexuality despite being gay). But it also resulted in a rapidly expanding movement of young rebellious people who found an alternative lifestyle in the form of born-again Christianity.
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As we’ll see, there are some controversial beliefs espoused by the film’s real life counterparts that are largely ignored in the film. Nonetheless, these controversies are not essential to the film’s plot and Jesus Revolution is, overall, an accurate portrayal of a fascinating and unique religious movement that has largely been forgotten.
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The “Jesus Revolution” Was a Real Phenomenon
Image via Lionsgate
The so-called Jesus movement of the ’60s and ’70s started in California and quickly spread throughout the world. It sought to combine the 1960s counterculture and the “Me decade” attitude of the 1970s with evangelical Christianity. After years of rebellion against the establishment values of mainstream America, young hippies found something both comforting and refreshing about the Jesus movement’s rebranding of old-school Christianity.
Many adherents of the movement lived on communes, where a left-wing alternative lifestyle could be combined with strict social conservatism. In other words, the Jesus movement managed to find a way to appeal to rebellious youth without fundamentally compromising their Christian beliefs. As the movement grew, it attracted significant attention from mainstream news outlets, perhaps most notably in the form of a Time magazine cover story in June of 1971.
The Jesus movement is also credited with launching and popularizing the Christian rock music industry. The nascent genre simply added Christian-themed lyrics to a popular sound, thus making religion more appealing to a generation of youths that found Gospel music to be too old-fashioned.
Lonnie Frisbee Was One of the Revolution’s Most Charismatic Leaders
Lonnie is one of the primary characters in Jesus Revolution and perhaps the most interesting character as well. On a superficial level, he looked like one would expect a hippie preacher to look. He had long hair, a beard, and tended to dress in fashionable countercultural style. His influence on Christianity in the United States was considerable. He co-founded a network of communes called House of Miracles, which later grew into the Shiloh Youth Revival Centers. Through these institutions, Frisbee reached out to disaffected and sometimes drug-addicted youth who were desperately in need of some sort of salvation.
As detailed in a feature documentary about Frisbee, his legacy continues to be debated among both believers and nonbelievers to this day. On the one hand, he was a charismatic preacher who claimed to be a prophet and have the ability to speak in tongues. He preached a message consistent with mainstream Christianity, meaning he regarded both drug use and homosexuality as sins. On the other hand, he was a closeted gay man who sometimes used illegal substances himself.
Eventually, Frisbee’s Shiloh Youth Revival Centers would peter out of existence in the late 1980s, along with the rest of the Jesus movement. Frisbee would tragically die of AIDS in 1993, at the age of 43.
Most of What’s Depicted in the ‘Jesus Revolution’ Film Really Did Happen
Image via Lionsgate
Pastor Chuck Smith’s (Kelsey Grammar) Calvary Chapel really did begin inviting hippies and other members of the Jesus movement into the church. At the time, Calvary was struggling to boost its membership numbers and improve its finances, so the acceptance of Jesus freaks helped grow the church’s congregation. At the same time, the older church members sometimes clashed with the younger folks. In real life, some longtime members left the church in protest over the inclusion of these Jesus freaks.
As depicted in the film, followers of the Jesus movement were indeed baptized in the Pacific Ocean. One of the producers of Jesus Revolution has said that a pastor from the Jesus movement actually baptized some people while on set.
The film also accurately portrays Greg Laurie’s introduction to Frisbee. Laurie first heard Frisbee speak on a high school campus in California. This sparked Laurie’s conversion to Christianity, and he soon began attending Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel. In 1973, Laurie founded the Harvest Christian Fellowship, a megachurch that still exists today and counts around 15,000 people as its members.
The Story Has Some Controversial Elements Not Fully Explored in the Film
Image via Lionsgate
While Jesus Revolution is meant to be an inspiring faith-based film (and it certainly achieves its goal), it does tend to avoid certain controversial details. Admittedly, these details are not crucial parts of the story. Nonetheless, it’s hard to fully form an opinion about the real-life people involved without knowing the extent of their beliefs.
Aside from Frisbee’s controversial legacy, Chuck Smith is also well-known for wrongly predicting that the world would end by 1981. Members of Calvary Chapel gathered on New Years in 1981 in anticipation of the apocalypse, only to go home alive and confused. Smith also suggested that the September 11th terrorist attacks might be God’s punishment for legal abortion.
Laurie has also faced criticism for being anti-gay, most notably when advocacy groups called for him to be disinvited from participating in National Day of Prayer events at the Pentagon in 2013. This is not exactly an uncommon criticism for many Christian pastors, although it does highlight the fact that participants in the Jesus movement were generally not socially liberal, despite their appeals to the liberal counterculture.
The Jesus Movement Helped Bridge Divides Between Generations
One of the film’s biggest themes is the idea of Christianity being used to bridge the cultural divide between two generations. The real events surrounding the film certainly back up this theme. Although some members of Calvary Chapel did leave the church due to the influx of Jesus freak hippies, most stayed and formed meaningful bonds with members of a generation they previously didn’t understand and/or care for. Despite the ability of shared religious faith to unite disparate groups of people, Christianity nonetheless continues to struggle today with the schism between more liberal believers tolerant of the LGBT community and older adherents who stand by their belief that homosexuality is a sin.
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