The newly released movie “Jesus Revolution” brings to life the awakening that saw hippies come to Jesus Christ in the 1960s and ’70s. The movie stokes a sense of promise for each of our lives, no matter who may have rejected us or whom we may have offended, while telling the true and inspiring love story at the founding of Harvest Christian Fellowship and Virtue Ministry.
In an interview, “Jesus Revolution” producer Kevin Downes (“Courageous”) extolled the film crew’s unity of purpose in helping viewers come away with an authentic experience of God’s love. “From conversations we had with the real-life characters, to depictions of clothes people wore,” said Downes, the team collected memories in order to share a story. Its message is that “there’s nothing fake about the experience of coming to Christ. And that’s what we are seeing in the heartfelt, massive audience response.”
In the shadow of the Vietnam War and the carnage of drafted friends, the ’60s stirred in many an urgency for greater truth that sought “love in all the wrong places,” Downes said. He aims to “present stories showing people genuine love, as it is defined in the Bible.”
A sign that sacrificial, redemptive love is more in demand than ever, today, drug overdose deaths are multiple times those of the ’60s and ’70s, and deaths of despair have doubled since then.
Roots of the Film
Film co-director Jon Erwin (“I Can Only Imagine,” “American Underdog”) came across a 1966 Time cover asking, “Is God Dead?” While that article featured secular commentators, a cover of the same magazine in 1971 heralded “The Jesus Revolution,” a revival from the cliffs of California to college halls in Kentucky. The divergent covers caused Erwin to wonder “what happened in those [five years]. What changed in the culture?”
In “Jesus Revolution,” Erwin, co-director Brent McCorkle (“Unconditional”), and Downes cast Emmy-winning Kelsey Grammer (“Frasier,” “Cheers”) to portray southern California pastor Chuck Smith. Grammer was deeply affected by playing Smith, who, after praying about his misgivings, would welcome into church new Christians with countercultural leanings and dirty jeans. The tiny Calvary Chapel would eventually grow into a national movement.
Clash of Cultures
Pastor Chuck and Kay Smith’s daughter, Janette, placed between the church of her upbringing and her generation’s cultural uprising, helps introduce her parents to a long-haired, recently converted street preacher named Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie, “The Chosen”). Frisbee bears the marks of his rebellious past and his addiction struggles, which may have continued throughout his life.
Downes says that while collecting stories, he kept hearing that the joint ministry of Smith and Frisbee was “nitro meets glycerine.” The metaphor points to an “explosive” capability of the devoted Bible-teaching church pastor and the hippie evangelist to share the Gospel with hard-searching and formerly tripping dropouts.
This ministry of “Jesus people” begins gathering in Christ’s name as teenager Greg Laurie, played by Joel Courtney (“Super 8”), enrolls in a military academy. At best half-heartedly interested in being an officer, believing the father he never knew might have embraced the occupation, Laurie sees a glimpse of the “summer of love” on TV that spurs him to flee both the academy and the unstable home of his binging mother. Called on by his attraction to counterculture as much as to the “turned on, tuned in” Cathe (Anna Grace Barlow), Greg joins her in dosing on LSD as Janis Joplin and the Grateful Dead play.
But Cathe abruptly comes face to face with the consequences of artificial highs. The conviction of spirit Cathe and Greg each experience in their own way to come to the Jesus movement will lead Greg to begin the now-widespread Harvest Christian Fellowship in the 1970s and Cathe to soon found the women’s ministry Virtue.
The ministries of the Smiths, Frisbees, and Lauries would serve as doorways to nourishment and rest in Christ for droves of the spiritually hungry and burned-out. The music that emerged would bless those who connect with the Lord through praise songs. The film is worth seeing just to rediscover these classic Christian bands.
Real Encounters with God
“Jesus Revolution,” inspired by Laurie’s book by the same name, never suggests evangelicals have arrived at the ultimate expression of Christian faith, and in fact, when speaking to Laurie, Smith humbly allows for generations after his own to “do it better” than his. Nor does the movie cast stones at the movement for its shortcomings.
What is lasting are the testimonies of the delivered, knowing that Jesus met them and transformed their youthful experimentations with sensuality and recreational drug explorations into encounters with the love of God, giving them a new birth of life.
Persuasive temptations toward overindulgence persist in this sin-stained world. Technicolor TV was itself a Bernaysian propagandist’s dream for manipulating behavior in the ’60s, and temptation’s harmful lure is even worse with today’s digital messaging. Yet believers in Jesus live in faith in His healing and redeeming presence, no matter how establishment-bound or rebellious His children’s coming of age may be.