June 12, 2008
Jesus Is Just Alright
— Brian Collins
Recently released on DVD, David Di Sabatino's 2005 documentary Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher tells the story of Lonnie Frisbee, a significant figure in the Jesus People Movement, a strain of evangelical Christianity that emerged from the counterculture of the late 1960s. After experiencing a religious awakening following an LSD trip, Frisbee began performing mass baptisms in California. According to Di Sabatino, Frisbee was instrumental in the growth of Pastor Chuck Smith's Calvary Chapel and John Wimber's 1,500-church Vineyard movement, but was ostracized for his continuing commitment to faith healing, speaking in tongues, and other practices associated with Signs and Wonders theology, as well as for the "open secret" of his homosexuality (with which he struggled to come to terms until his AIDS-related death in 1993). According the story Di Sabatino tells, conservative pastors like Smith and Wimber used Lonnie for his ability to attract crowds, generate press, and motivate interest among young people, but later forced him out of their organizations once their congregations were established. As an intermediary between a younger generation with a hunger for unconventional spirituality and an older one looking to attract converts, Lonnie Frisbee is representative of the position of the Jesus People Movement itself.
Part of the movement's appeal to the young lay in its association with hippie-inspired psychedelic rock music in the vein of The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Grateful Dead. Jesus Rock also exerted influence on the secular music from which it drew inspiration. For instance, after he was born again, Bob Dylan refused to play his pre-conversion secular material and recorded three overtly Christian albums, Slow Train Coming (1979), Saved (1980), and A Shot of Love (1981). A pioneer in Jesus Rock and an influence on Dylan during this period was Larry Norman, who released dozens of records over his career including 1969's Upon this Rock, "the Sgt. Pepper's of Jesus Rock." Today original records from many of the original Jesus Rock bands like The Mind Garage (arguably the first band of its kind), Aslan, Selah, The Concrete Rubber Band, and Agape go for hundreds of dollars to collectors on eBay, presumably not all of them Evangelical Christians.
An unusual case is The All Saved Freak Band, tied to the communal Church of the Risen Christ. Their second album For Christians, Elves and Lovers (1976) combined evangelical theology and millennialism with admiration for the fantasy world of Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien. The All Saved Freak Band garnered acclaim with their superior songwriting and instrumentation, due in part to the presence of former James Gang guitarist Glenn Schwartz. They also gained notoriety when three members of the group died on the way to a 1972 concert in a car accident attributed to sleep deprivation, and when founder Larry Hill had visions of a coming apocalypse in which China and the USSR would invade the US. In 1978, the Church of the Risen Christ suffered a blow when authorities charged Hill with child abuse, alleging that he was abusing a preteen girl in his commune.
Along with the photogenic fascination of a bearded, robed Lonnie Frisbee baptizing bikini-clad girls in the Pacific Ocean, music was elemental to the high level of visibility attained by the Jesus People Movement. Although Bob Dylan's Christian records were generally unpopular among fans and critics, Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice's 1970 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (featuring Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillian as the voice of Jesus) and the 1971 Broadway musical Godspell, both of which portrayed Jesus and his disciples in recognizably hippie-inspired garb and haircuts, proved enormously popular. Meanwhile, Larry Norman and the Jesus Rock bands whose records are now sought-after collector's items gave birth to the genre of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM), which today is based in Nashville and boasts its own radio stations, awards shows, music festivals and crossover artists like Amy Grant and Jars of Clay.
David Di Sabatino, the man behind Frisbee, has also written The Jesus People: An Annotated Bibliography and General Resource published by Greenwood Press (the research for which apparently led him to the figure of Lonnie Frisbee), an excellent starting place for those interested in further exploration.
Brian Collins is a PhD candidate in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
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