Jesus Revolution Overview: Chuck Smith, Lonnie Frisbee, Greg Laurie & the “Jesus Freak” Counterculture

Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle’s Jesus Revolution (2023) explores the revival that occurred in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s as counterculture hippies were baptized and became “Jesus freaks.” The movie’s starting point is San Francisco’s Calvary Chapel, a conservative church led by Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer, Frasier) that welcomed the first wave of hippie converts and their charismatic leader, Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie, The Chosen). Smith grapples with the changes in his church’s culture as enthusiastic hippie converts congregate and embrace a casual barefoot hospitality and a new style of guitar-driven worship.

The narrative centers on Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney, Super 8), a teenager who’s part of the psychedelic drug scene until he’s drawn to the Jesus movement by Frisbee’s soapbox evangelism. Laurie is baptized at Pirates Cove, where Frisbee and others conduct mass baptisms of young people in the ocean, and begins worshiping with Frisbee and his hippie community at Calvary Chapel. There, he also uses his drawing skills to create cartoon flyers with a message about the “Living Water” offered by Jesus. Smith provides Laurie with opportunities to lead and preach to young people, and eventually gives Laurie an opportunity to start his own church, which would eventually become Harvest Ministries.

There’s a rich theology in Jesus Revolution, and some of it’s easily spotted as we hear Frisbee share and elaborate the Good News. Frisbee laments to Smith that if he were to look with love at “my people,” the hippie generation, Smith would see that they are like a “sheep without a shepherd.” They’re looking for God in all the wrong places and are in danger of being scattered. Elsewhere in the movie, Frisbee tells the story of Jonah to a large tent gathering, encouraging his listeners to stop running from God and instead, return to God so he can cease the “raging” personal storms in their lives.

Jesus Revolution (2023 Movie) Official Trailer - Kelsey Grammer, Joel Courtney

Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle’s film explores the revival that occurred in America in the late 1960s and early 1970s as counterculture hippies were baptized and became “Jesus freaks.”

Jesus Revolution also finds a rich theology in the embodied interaction of its characters, revealing how a rich theological imagination can help satisfy the human hunger for storytelling, and how storytelling can help make sense of everyday experiences. The movie is creative in how it blends ideas as it tells its story. (Cognitive linguists Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner refer to this as “cognitive blending” and consider it to be a special trait that drives humanity’s unique creativity in the world.1)

For example, there are visual references to the book of Jonah to tell Greg Laurie’s story of conversion and regeneration. At one dramatic point, Laurie is inside the “belly” of a large orange van, lurching around in the night as his drug-fueled friends drive recklessly through busy traffic. He escapes the van, and as the door swings open, it’s like he’s being spewed out onto the road. Laurie sees the word “DIE” written on a windscreen and staggers, screaming, to the edge of the road. In the midst of a storm and drenched by sheets of rain, Laurie feels the shadow of death fall upon him, and Frisbee, who is sitting there on the edge, becomes a shepherd figure who provides comfort and gentle guidance through the storm.

Laurie’s later baptism scene, in which he plunges into the ocean depths like Jonah cast from the ship, is a figurative rather than realistic representation of baptism. Laurie has re-entered the depths and spun ‘round inside them like a baby in an oceanic womb to be born again. Laurie’s surname, as his mother points out, is an important symbol, too: it means that life can “bud afresh.” Unlike Jonah, who becomes a grumpy prophet fixated on the regeneration of a plant that provides a comforting shadow for him, Laurie’s whole life buds as he grows wholeheartedly into his ministry. There are less healthy echoes of the Jonah story in the movie, as well, as we see another leader fixate on his prophetic role and forget to love and shepherd his community.

Also woven into the movie is the story of Josiah (DeVon Franklin), an investigative journalist who’s covering the movement for an article on the “Jesus Revolution.” The article, titled “The Alternative Jesus: Psychedelic Christ,” was published in June 1971 by Time Magazine. The cover image is that of a “psychedelic Jesus,” a suitable leader for the many converts emerging from the psychedelic drug culture, and in its opening paragraph, the article proclaims that “Jesus is alive and well and living in the radical spiritual fervor of a growing number of young Americans who have proclaimed an extraordinary religious revolution in his name.” Time’s article goes on to catalog the movement’s influence within many different Christian denominations, with the most obvious being Pentecostalism as well as more charismatic expressions of Catholicism.

The timing of Jesus Revolution is interesting: we’re at a time when some Christians believe they’re seeing the buds of gospel renewal and hope that these indicate the beginnings of a Spirit-led revival. When Smith is nervous to step in front of a crowd that’s more used to Frisbee’s style of preaching, his wife Kay (Julia Campbell, Dexter) chides him for his arrogance and his failure to recognize that God works through flawed individuals who are willing to step aside for the Holy Spirit’s work.

At the same time, we’ve also seen many Christian leaders revealed to be harmful for their communities, and many in the pews have deconstructed their faith to the point that they’ve lost hope for something new to bud afresh from the tired stump of cultural Christianity.

What if we were to offer prayers for revival in our own communities? This could be a moment for Christians to “step aside” in order to witness the Holy Spirit blow through and beyond our communities. I hope that settled waters are ruffled, and that a radical spiritual fervor is ignited. I hope for crowds of people excited to worship wherever the wind blows, in Spirit and in Truth.

1. Fauconnier, Gilles, & Turner, Mark. (2002). The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending And The Mind’s Hidden Complexities. Basic Books.