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“Jesus Freaks in the Streets”

By April 12, 2014 5 Comments

Christianity Today’s Book of the Year award for 2013 went to a volume whose first chapter is entitled, “Jesus Knocked Me off My Metaphysical Ass.” The book in question is God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America (Oxford University Press, 2013) by Wheaton College history professor Larry Eskridge. The book, as befits the conjunction of A-word and an Evangelical first prize, calls to mind Bob Dylan’s lyric from 1965, “something’s happening here/but you don’t know what it is/do you, Mr. Jones.” 

It’s apt to quote Dylan, troubadour supreme of the 1960s, because God’s Forever Family raises once again, but from a wonderfully revealing angle, the question of the meaning of “the Sixties” for American history. The Sixties of myth and legend was not identical with the chronological decade whose name it bears, of course; it began sometime around the aforementioned 1965 and ended with Watergate in 1974. The component parts of the era are familiar enough. The civil rights movement cresting and giving birth to Black Power. The antiwar movement growing broader, deeper, and more radical. The rebirth of feminism and first birth of ecological consciousness. A widespread dissatisfaction among young people with the blandishments of American materialism as defined by suburban living and corporate striving. Above, or below, all of these, the explosion of a youth culture driven by rock music in quest a new “lifestyle” (the word was coined just then) that was more hedonist than constrained, expressive rather than conformist, yearning for authentic relationships and personal meaning rather than the regnant tokens of middle-class success. The whole amounted to a cultural revolution that, with the rising acceptance of same-sex marriage, is now coming to completion in the USA—and that defined the culture wars in the decades in between.

God’s Forever Family looks at the astounding marriage of this movement with old-fashioned “born-again” religion. Nothing, Eskridge rightly observes, would seem less likely than this coupling, yet few things have more changed the face of American religion—and with it, American politics and culture. The resurgence of evangelical Protestantism in the 1970s, the rise of the Christian Right in politics with the Reagan presidency in the ‘80s, above all the revolution in church music marked by the ubiquity of the praise and worship style—all these were rooted in the chemistry of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in the famous 1967 “Summer of Love.” The chemistry experiment Eskridge has in mind was not the mass tripping on LSD for which that time and place are legendary, however. Rather, it was its sequel—the repair and recovery phase that ensued when the Summer of Love turned into an autumn of squalor and exploitation of homeless teens adrift in a Hobbesian world of predation and fear. Everything and everyone in the Haight was against “the System,” but systems offer predictability and protection, and when these are lacking, a new source will be supplied. The Jesus People offered just that.

The theology they tendered was a repackaged blend of classic Pentecostal themes: radical supernaturalism, biblical literalism, intense conversion, anticipation of Jesus’ imminent return, contempt for “the world” and its corrupt morals, all experienced and expressed exuberantly with “tongues” and miracles and tears and laughter. A perfect Sixties formula—provided that the repackaging in question came via rock music and psychedelic imagery for which Pentecostals to date had expressed nothing but loathing. Here the vital cultural conversion took place. A few neo-Pentecostal pioneers, Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel fame first among them, got over their hang-ups and adopted “the devil’s music” for the cause of the Lord. They have gone from success to success ever since.

The Jesus People as a movement didn’t really take off until its hippie San Francisco seeds were transplanted in Southern California and then transported across the nation as a whole, particularly into the Midwest. There it amounted not so much to rehabbing as preempting hippie trips, for the masses of youth brought into the movement were conventional high school types, dissatisfied with their staid church upbringings, gazing over the fields of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, but brought to safer pastures by savvy troubadours of Jesus rock’n’roll. Saving them for Christ turned out in the long run to save them for America as well. The Jesus People’s progeny have entered and stayed in the ranks of the Republican Party, “social values” edition. We can surmise that they are exurban, materially ok, pro-Israel, pro-military, pro-family, anti-government (“the System,” don’t you know), and all the rest. In short, Sixties packaging, Fifties policies, Eighties politics.

Which raises the broader question of how the Sixties agenda has really worked out. God’s Forever Family underscores the verdict drawn by observers of some of the era’s other phases: the movement’s expressive individualism triumphed over its political agenda, rendering once-radical initiatives perfectly safe for a higher, hipper consumerist capitalism that now colonized the interior as it had previously the exterior life. Eskridge’s key value-added for Christians is to let us probe the same dynamic in the church, and to ask hard questions about the long-term costs and benefits of sensational success.

The word I pick up on the youth-ministry street is that praise and worship styles seem to the rising generation so thorough an accommodation to Boomer mores that they are fated to follow that over-studied, little-lamented generation into retirement. But this is the perennial fate of their venerable religious pedigree. Evangelicalism is, if nothing else, a relentless marketing program, driven to update and recombine its constituent elements into new patterns calibrated to catch changing tastes. Wesley, Finney, Moody, Sister Aimee, Billy Graham, Chuck Smith—from Aldersgate to Vineyard, from hearts strangely warmed to minds righteously blown, the beat goes on. Those repelled by—or dropping out of—the syndrome can take comfort that anti-revivalism is as old as the tar-baby they smite against, with a trajectory all its own—whether to Canterbury, Rome, or Constantinople, with Mercersburg on the side for those who want to stay Reformed. There are smells and bells and exotic couture here too, and chants ancient and modern enough to ravish the most jaded soul. Something’s perennially happening here, and it’s up to us, Mr and Ms Jones, to try to fathom its tides. May it be with as much charity from Nazareth as we can muster.  



James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • David Crump says:

    Thanks, Jim. I was ruminating over these very issues a few years ago as I marched through the streets of Chicago with thousands of others protesting the actions of NATO around the world. In my teenage years similar marches always involved an active, vocal contingent of "Jesus Freaks," as they were called in those days, handing out literature, verbally sharing the gospel and generally bringing a Christian perspective to bear on the issues we were protesting. (Yes, it is not only Reformed folks who do such things, as well all know). In 2012 I could not help but notice the almost complete absence of a similar presence at the Chicago protests. Perhaps I need to indict myself as complicit in this absence; I don't know. I kept asking myself, what happened to that spirit of Christian witness in today's church and its young people? Where were the Calvin students outraged at America's use of NATO as a tool in our destructive military adventures around the world?

    Back to Prof. Eskridge, I confess I've not read the book yet, but it has been on my "to read" list for some time. I trust that he does not neglect the more socially/politically progressive elements of the hippie movement that have left some recognizable long-term legacies. (Folks will also want to read David Swartz' recent study, _Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism_[2012]). For instance, Jim Wallis and the Sojourners' ministry are direct outgrowths of the Jesus movement and its spiritual reclamation of hippie attempts at creating a new counter-culture movement. Despite Wallis' seeming co-option by Democratic Party politics at times, the early counter-culture impetus remains essential to all his work.

    Whether he recognizes it or not, Shane Clairborne, is also a direct descendant of the many hippies, both Jesus followers and others, who formed intentional living "communes" elevating the values of simplicity, ecological sustainability, service to the poor and a rejection of materialism and consumerism. (I remember these communes well because I briefly spent time with two of them as a young fledgling hippie myself).

    Also I don't think we should underestimate the infusion of energy that these groups gave to the modern environmental movement. One could argue that the Environmental Protection Agency (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Clean Water Act (1972) are all in part the products of the consciousness raising efforts created by1960s environmentalists.

    Finally, I hope the good Prof. rejoices over the authentic spiritual awakening that occurred in so many American young people at that time. I believe that it was a time of real spiritual revival. I have a good many brothers and sisters in Christ that I know first believed in Jesus through the local outreach of the Jesus people movement in their neighborhood.

    Finally, Jim, surely it's only a brief lapse in memory that causes you to forget that the REAL birth of the '60s (at least in our country) HAS to be dated from the Beatle's first triumphant tour of the USA in 1964?!? Yes…?

  • Bill Harris says:

    The Jesus People… well, that does bring back some memories. As will be clear below, I was there. Interestingly, a young Ed Ericson wrote one of the first serious books about the movement in 1972.

    There are some themes that appear to be missing: the Jesus People movement was not only centered in the Bay area, but in the turn to communal life of the alternative "hippie" culture. The back-to-nature turn was plainly part of it. The takeover of our wildlands and coasts by the nouveau riche, the swamping of our landscapes by suburbs — all hide the sort of sheer romanticism that is so American, the Emerson/Muir view of Nature as home to revelation. It was a turn to country as the alternative to the suburban corporate culture. Well, the Jesus movement certainly had that. (I remember a Virginia Stem Owens autobiographical snippet recounting her time out in New Mexico; heck, I recall wanting to create a commune on the old family homestead in N Michigan — it was the time).

    A second theme gone missing is the role of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement. At least in the Midwest, the sheer energy pushing out from Notre Dame and then Ann Arbor drew in a number of alternate culture Christians. Unlike much of the Jesus Movement, this was far more stable, holding lives and shaping them. My encounter was on the porch of a house on E University, meeting kids from high school, from my Methodist church, and learning a number of new songs.

    Lastly, were the Jesus People simply disaffected evangelical youth? Hard to say; certainly the back to nature theme emerges later in home schooling movement. As noted before on the American Romanticism, the Jesus People strike me as the end of an era. Politically they were often New Left in orientation, part of the general evangelical new left culture, a culture that has almost completely disappeared. The JP die out at the same time as the first Oil Shock and the end of American economic hegemony. They die out, because the alternative culture itself yuppifies, the alt culture possessing distinct class markers (so D Brooks, "BoBos" aka bohemian bourgeois; the end of alt culture being Brooklyn). The vibes of the 60s collapsed into hard drugs, the burnt out Bronx, downtown Rent, disco, and a sexually atomizing culture. This was the culture flood that swept them away.

    So what's left? Two, maybe three enterprises remain: one clearly is Sojourners, arising from the alt-culture in Chicago and the publication of Post-American newspaper; another is the Vineyard; and one might concede that CCM and the broad range of Christian music also is a result.

  • John Haas says:

    This is simply a brilliant review. Thanks.

  • Len Vander Zee says:

    One small caveat to your excellent review, or perhaps I misunderstood. You label Evangelicalism as "if nothing else, a relentless marketing program," and then go on to argue that the "anti-revivalists" with their "smells and bells and exotic couture here too, and chants ancient and modern enough to ravish the most jaded soul" are only doing the same thing in their own way. Are you saying there really isn't any difference?
    It seems to me that it is precisely the lack of "relentless marketing" that sets the folks from Rome, Constantinople, Canterbury (and Mercersburg, thank you) apart from their Evangelical brothers and sisters. Theologically rich, sacramentally grounded, and creationally-normed worship hardly qualifies as "marketing" in today's culture. They attract this post-Evangelical "jaded soul" because of their deep authenticity and their commitment to the faith handed down from the apostles and the early church. Maybe I've just spent a lifetime "fathoming the tides" and have clearly decided this is the only one that will carry me home.
    At any rate, I always savor your pungent musings and hope to read more soon.

  • John Haas says:

    Another caveat, if I may:

    You say, "The whole amounted to a cultural revolution that, with the rising acceptance of same-sex marriage, is now coming to completion in the USA . . ."

    SSM is — or appears to be, from our vantage — a cultural revolution, but I'm not sure how much the counter-cultural revolutionaries of the '60s are responsible. Certainly, they are on board with the development. But did they effect it?

    If SSM has a watershed, it's the Supreme Court's 2003 decision, Lawrence v Texas, that served as the nation's declaration that it was removing the onus of illegality — and thus, of immorality — from homosexual acts.

    That certainly accords with the mood of the 1960s: "It's your thing, do what you wanna do," "If it feels good, do it," "Make love, not war," etc.

    But the reality is a little more complicated: Lawrence was a 6 to 3 decision, in which two-thirds of the deciding votes were cast by conservative Republican justices. Those justices include Kennedy, born in 1936; O'Connor, born in 1930; Souter, born in 1939; and Stevens, born in 1920.

    The age and political affiliation of these judges belies any simple equation of SSM with a supposed "sixties-effect."

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