A story for dark times
Jesus Revolution is a powerful, true story from the late 1960s, but it's aimed squarely at today's church.
Jim Killam
March 14, 2023

“Our country is a dark and divided place. But in that tent, there’s hope and unity and miracles that I can’t even explain.”

Journalist Josiah Jackson in the movie, Jesus Revolution
Jonathan Roumie as Lonny Frisbee. Photo: Lionsgate / Kingdom Story Company

Jesus Revolution tells the story of “one of the greatest spiritual awakenings in American history.” In the late 1960s, the Vietnam War raged, the country was badly fractured and, partially in response, the free-love and drug culture found its epicenter in California. In the movie, Chuck Smith, pastor of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, is introduced to a hippie evangelist named Lonny Frisbee. In one of their early conversations, Lonny tells Chuck:

“There is an entire generation searching for God. … I know we must seem pretty strange. But if you look a little deeper, if you look with love, you’ll see a bunch of kids that are searching for all the right things—just in all the wrong places.”

At Chuck’s invitation, the hippies and surfers start flooding the tiny church. They find they’re not welcome. People worry about their influence on kids … about the way they dress … about the carpet getting dirty. Then Lonny delivers a line that lands like thunder:

“They’re sheep without a shepherd – chasing hard after lies. And the trouble is, your people reject them. So I ask you, pastor: How can they believe in the One of whom they have not heard? We can only walk through doors open to us. And your church? Well, that’s a door that’s shut.”

A film for today

This movie is about the 1960s, but it aims squarely at today’s American church. We’re deeply divided over politics, but it’s more than that. Some are frightened. Angry. Forever lamenting that the country is going to hell. Hiding out in our Christian bubble, just hoping Jesus will return.

Just like a half-century ago, our kids and grandkids are listening closely. Want a reason why teenage anxiety and depression are off the charts? How about that their elders don’t appear to see any hope for the culture they are inheriting? Want a reason young adults are leaving churches in droves? Chuck Smith’s daughter, Janette, voices it to him in the film:

“I was almost done with this whole Christianity thing. Where is Jesus in any of this?”

But she goes on. “Then you did what nobody else would dare to do. You let the hippies in. Come to find out, Jesus came in with them.”

Which is what always seems to happen when people choose to love the other—“those people” who don’t look or act like us but whom God loves infinitely.

Photo: Lionsgate / Kingdom Story Company

Surprised by hope

Hope rose, and it looked nothing like anyone expected. That’s a theme throughout Scripture and in so many great stories through human history. It forms the story line of Jesus Revolution.

I’m always a little gun-shy about Christian movies because so many have been so terrible. But this one is not a sermon disguised as a movie. The production values and acting are first-rate. The soundtrack is surprisingly great. Yet Jesus still feels present in almost every moment. Jonathan Roumie—significantly, the guy who plays Jesus in The Chosen—plays Lonny Frisbee. And Pastor Chuck Smith is played beautifully and emotionally by—wait, what?!— Kelsey Grammer? (Side note: Grammer was a late replacement for comedian Jim Gaffigan, who originally signed on to play Smith. Let’s just say God might have had something to do with that change.)

The film reaches a crescendo moment where most Christian films would end–but then it continues into some of the mess that comes with fame and spectacle. In an argument with Smith, Frisbee even proclaims: “Without me there is no movement!” That may or may not have been exactly what the real Lonny said, but the larger point stuck: God used profoundly gifted, profoundly flawed people to start something amazing. Just like he can use any of us.

As with all true stories made into two-hour movies, Jesus Revolution cuts some factual corners for time’s sake. It wasn’t Smith’s daughter who brought home the hippie hitchhiker Lonny—it was his daughter’s boyfriend, a former addict himself. And along with pride, many more factors contributed to Frisbee’s increasingly strained relationship with the church.

Other points ring true. Greg Laurie, the lost teen whom Lonny Frisbee led to Christ, really did wind up starting Harvest Christian Fellowship despite having no formal theological training. And Christians really did leave Calvary Chapel because they were uncomfortable with hippies being there. Ouch.

The power of story

The movie gets something else very right. Good journalism played a significant role in all of this—including the film being made. “The Jesus Revolution” was TIME magazine’s cover story June 21, 1971. Writer-director Jon Erwin found the issue on eBay about eight years ago and knew he had something. “It was like unearthing this gem,” he said. “I wanted to meet people that lived this.”

There are so many God stories still waiting to be told well. The enterprise that made Jesus Revolution, Kingdom Story Company, has set its sights on lots more. No doubt, some will be good movies, some won’t. But it is encouraging that, in a culture that desperately needs hope, a few writers and filmmakers are finding shining, true examples.

God moves in dark times, in surprising ways, through unlikely people. When we identify those stories and tell them well, we glorify their Author. Things begin to snowball.

And suddenly, the world looks a whole lot brighter.

Jesus Revolution is playing at Showplace theaters in Rockford and Machesney Park.

Jim Killam
Jim Killam is a journalist, author, teacher and terminal Cubs fan. He and his wife, Lauren, live in Rockford and work internationally with Wycliffe Bible Translators.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get the latest stories from First Free Rockford in your inbox.

Sorry, No posts.
Send this to a friend