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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.