‘Jesus Revolution’ Is a Christian Ride Through the ’70s

FILM: A hippie preacher with a unique vision of what ‘church’ should be is inspiring and convicting.

Jonathan Roumie is shown as Lonnie Frisbee in ‘Jesus Revolution.’
Jonathan Roumie is shown as Lonnie Frisbee in ‘Jesus Revolution.’ (photo: Courtesy of Lionsgate)

If you’re old enough to remember the 1960s and ’70s, you’ll find Lionsgate’s upbeat new film Jesus Revolution to be a walk down memory lane. You can probably remember the disco era, bell bottoms, sequined shirts and stories of personal rebellion and new directions.

Even if you weren’t among the crowd that gathered at California’s Newport Beach to worship God on the sand and to confirm your faith through baptism in the warm Pacific waters, you probably knew someone who was an enthusiastic follower of the “Jesus Movement.”

In that movement, you would have encountered Greg Laurie, a young seeker (played by Joel Courtney), and Lonnie Frisbee, a hippie preacher with a unique vision of what “church” should be.

Frisbee is played by Catholic actor Jonathan Roumie, fresh from his role as Jesus in Angel Studios’ popular crowdfunded series The Chosen. And in fact, Roumie’s long hair and beard prepare him for both roles. As the hippie Frisbee, told he looks a lot like Jesus, he responds with a smile: “I can’t think of anyone I’d rather look like!”

When Frisbee shows up in the life of pastor Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer), his exuberant faith inspires Smith to change his approach and to welcome the younger generation into his modest Costa Mesa church.

The film is based on Laurie’s real-life story, as told in his best-selling 2018 book, Jesus Revolution: How God Transformed an Unlikely Generation and How He Can Do It Again Today. The story is true, by all accounts; but the film version stops short of showing the full effect of Frisbee’s influence. Together with Smith, Frisbee advanced the evangelical movement until, eventually, Smith’s ministry welcomed 35,000 worshippers in his own church, Calvary Chapel, and extended to a network of more than 1,800 churches across the United States and Europe.

Jesus Revolution brings the simple search for faith to the big screen. Sometimes that search led the seekers to employ avant-garde, even illegal, means to find their way to God.

For example, in the 1970s, American psychologist Timothy Leary believed that LSD gave the user the capacity to understand more, to “reach higher.” In Jesus Revolution, Leary, a proponent of hallucinogenic drugs, tells the crowd gathered on the beach, “The psychedelic experience is a confrontation with the Divine. It’s a spiritual awakening! You come back, and you define God!” This, of course, will give Christian viewers pause.

And sometimes the quest for God led the hippies to focus not on material wealth or personal accomplishments, but on agape love. They decried U.S. involvement in Vietnam — encouraging not war but peace. In Jesus Revolution, the contagious happiness of the hippie generation finds expression in their warm and welcoming persona.

There is much to enjoy about Jesus Revolution. The energy, the acting, the nostalgic ’60s music that wafts through the film all make it likely that the movie will be a box-office success.

As a mainstream Christian film, it focuses on a feel-good faith message, which is more than welcome amid today’s culture. It reminds viewers of our collective need for Jesus.

In the movie’s opening scene, Frisbee is shown baptizing young people in the ocean. Smith, in an interview with a reporter, reflects on what is happening: “It’s something to be experienced. What you are seeing is a symbol for new life. Every regret, every doubt — all washed away forever.”

It’s that “symbol” thing that underlines the conflict with Catholic theology.

Calvary Chapel also understands the Eucharist as a representation of Christ’s body and blood. Catholics know that, by the miracle of transubstantiation, the Eucharist really is Jesus himself, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.

The film outlines how, as the “Jesus Movement” spread across the nation, one church after another was energized and revitalized. And that is good! But in one scene, a failing church with empty pews and a scowling, cranky pastor was saved from mediocrity by the “Jesus Movement.” I was troubled to imagine that faithful Catholics would even consider giving up their greatest gift — the Eucharist — to join another congregation.

Roumie, as Frisbee, is a little more flamboyant than he is in the role of Jesus — grabbing the more reserved Pastor Smith in an unexpected hug. Frisbee is also very presumptuous, bringing his hippie followers, uninvited guests, into Smith’s home. Frisbee’s missionary zeal both inspired me and convicted me, reminding me that, too often, we Catholics keep our faith quietly private — sometimes missing the opportunity to draw others to Christ and to join in praise of the God we love.

As Jesus Revolution officially opens in theaters on Feb. 24, it will likely draw crowds, with its popular cast and its strong Christian message. The film’s wholesome thesis will appeal to all ages and denominations.

We as Catholics know, though, that while the “Jesus Movement” was a phenomenon in the 1960s and ’70s, sparking growth in evangelical churches and leading to the development of contemporary Christian music, the real Jesus Movement began with the apostles, who followed Christ 2,000 years ago.

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