Timing. In the days leading up to me seeing Jesus Revolution, this one word kept floating to the surface of my mind. Timing. Weeks before, when I first saw the film’s preview, I thought that I would try to get my pastor to go see it with me. The last time we saw a movie together, it was Noah (2014). I would like to see a different one with him. I kept telling him I would send an email to him to remind him about it, yet I continued to forget. I only remembered to do so when last Thursday, thinking I would be resigned to seeing Cocaine Bear, I looked up show times and saw that Jesus Revolution was debuting. Timing. As I left the theater, I noticed a homeless person sitting alone in a different part of the shopping center in which is located the cinema I most regularly attend. I stopped to give him water, and he already had some. I asked if I could pray for him, and he refused. The Bible tells us to be alert for opportunities: hanging out with someone you have known for a long time, getting to view something you have anticipated over something you dread, or helping a person in need. At the same time, you cannot know how these things will work out in the end because, well, timing. The old friend could be busy, what you were thinking you were going to see is replaced by something better, or that person you wanted to help is not receptive. All you can do is keep loving God.
I have been contemplating whether to use my usual approach with Jesus Revolution because it is an extremely dense and rich story. Critics do not like it, and I suspect it is not completely because it is a Christian film. To be sure, that is part of it, but it is also one with three main characters. That can be messy, and it is problematic structurally speaking. These three are high school senior Greg Laurie (Joel Courtney), Protestant Minister Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer), and former Haight-Ashbury hippie Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie). For my fellow Christians, if this last one seems familiar to you, that is because that actor plays Jesus in the ongoing series The Chosen (2017-present). He looks pretty much like he does in that show as in Jesus Revolution, but even more like a hippie. It is Pastor Chuck’s daughter, Janette Smith (Ally Ioannides), that brings Lonnie home one day when she sees him walking down the road one day wearing a cloak that says Jesus on the back. Remember what I said about timing? Pastor Chuck and his wife, Charlene (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), had been watching the previous night a newscast about the rise of hippies in the country. Janette scoffs at their indignation over what Pastor Chuck terms as a group in need of a bath. He adds that the only way his mind could be changed about them is if God were to send him a God-fearing hippie. Imagine Pastor Chuck’s surprise when Lonnie shows up in the Smith’s living room. Timing. Sitting down at the dining room table, Lonnie describes what he had been doing in San Francisco, and, more importantly, that young people have been turning to drugs because they are searching for something. Lonnie’s words move Pastor Chuck to action, inviting the so-called long-haired freaks into his congregation to the horror of the more conservative attendees. Speaking of young people turning to drugs, that is the path Greg is headed down. It does not start out that way. Because his father (who later he is told was not his biological dad) had left him and his mother, his mother moved them to California to live in a trailer by the beach as she drowned her sorrows in the bottle. The wounds of his past have Greg looking for truth. This pursuit leads him to Cathe (Anna Grace Barlow). She is a student at a different school, but she has a similar interest in truth and she seeks it in the counter-culture. She introduces Greg to the drugs along the way, which they claim is how they can expand their minds. What changes it for her is seeing her sister nearly die from drug use, and everyone, including Greg and even her sister, brushes this experience off too casually. Cathe, then, is the first from their group to begin seeking truth elsewhere. She ends up in the growing church run by Pastor Chuck, but increasingly influenced by Lonnie. It grows because it attracts former hippies who are finding that drugs are not the solution to their problems. Because of the affection she has for Greg, she invites him to come. He is hesitant, at first. Again, remember what I said about timing? The day before Cathe asks this of Greg, he had been running scared in the rain, strung out on drugs, only to be stopped and comforted by Lonnie. After the invitation, they hear Lonnie speak to the kids at their school. Greg accepts, and soon he is being baptized. Miracles are happening, but soon problems begin to crop up. The first is a rift between Lonnie and Pastor Chuck. Increasingly, Lonnie is seeing himself in a more prominent role, even calling himself a prophet at one point, whereas Pastor Chuck begins preaching a little more restraint. Eventually, Lonnie decides to move on, and this is a devastating moment for Greg, who had come to look at Lonnie in a fatherly sort of way. Personally, it proves for Greg that everyone leaves. He decides that the same thing will happen with Cathe, and thus they break up. It did not help that her father initially rejects Greg’s request to marry his daughter. His mind is changed by Josiah (DeVon Franklin), a reporter for Time, as it turns out, who says that despite not being a believer, he convinced that something real is going on as Greg sits outside the meeting tent sulking. Greg is further revived when Pastor Chuck tells the young man that he has bought a new church and he wants Greg to lead it. With things looking up once more, Greg tries again, this time successfully, to ask Cathe to marry him. And the rest is history.
I mean “history” pretty much literally because just before the credits roll at the end of Jesus Revolution, you see pictures and text about the people on which the film is based. One of the things explained at this point, which may make all of this a little more familiar to you, is that it is from these people that we get the term “Jesus Freaks.” “Freaks” is a word that was often attributed to hippies in general, so when this set gave up the portion of that lifestyle that involved using drugs, it was easy enough to apply the word “Jesus.” They did not look much different, anyway, as the film shows. You can look up the real-life Lonnie Frisbee and judge for yourself. In any case, I cannot get over the timing of this movement and film release. One of the factoids given at the end is that some historians credit this as the largest spiritual revival in American History. This is saying something given how many of the first colonies were founded for Christian purposes, not to mention the Great Awakenings. I digress. God was at work in Pastor Chuck and Lonnie, and I am thankful this is shown in the film. One of the themes it draws out is that young people, without acknowledging it, were searching for God through the use of illegal substances. What struck me about this, though this point is not explicitly made in the movie, is how self-centered is the use of those substances. This is a lesson that Greg has to learn, and you see him still coming to grips with it after he has accepted Jesus into his life and been baptized. Drugs will never give you the answers you seek, though Greg worries that he is replacing a chemical high with a spiritual one. It is a fair point to bring up, but ultimately he learns that being a Jesus Freak means giving yourself to something larger than all the wounds that close you off from the rest of the world. It means giving yourself to love.
While watching Jesus Revolution, there is a character in it named Father Malone (Brian Shoop). I am not sure if he is meant to be Catholic, though he is wearing the usual clerical clothing you would expect from a priest. He is also not too enthusiastic about Greg, who has been invited to speak to the youth at Father Malone’s church. I do not think this is meant to be intentionally anti-Catholic. Instead, it is shown to represent how the main characters were trying to revolutionize established worship. I have made the point in other reviews, and my doctoral dissertation, that Catholicism is often used in film to signal Christianity as a whole. If you see a priest, you know that person is Christian, whereas anyone else dressed like you and me you have to do extra things to explain that person’s faith. The fact that this character and scene are in the film is one of two criticisms I have of it, the other being that there are three main characters. The scene is not needed because it is redundant. There are other moments that show Greg growing in his position in the church, and him interacting with those youth is never pictured after it. In this way, you could also do away with the apathetic Father Malone, which would seem a stain on Catholicism. Besides, anyone who thinks that us Catholics do not have an equivalent to what you see in the movie has never been to a Charismatic prayer meeting. Interestingly, the Charismatic Renewal began around the same time as the Jesus Revolution, and has been integrating itself into the Church ever since. And there we go again with the theme of timing.
I can live with those two aspects of Jesus Revolution that I did not like. It having three main characters is probably more problematic for more traditional film critics than one like me who prefers to have my soul moved than to be titillated. This is why I was thankful for the timing of the movie’s release. As I came out of the theater, some people walking in front of me laughed when they noticed Cocaine Bear playing across the hall. This is made even more ironic when you consider that it is a movie that is supposed to be entertaining because it features a bruin high on cocaine and killing several people in the process. It is also based on a true story, as frightening as that may seem. Jesus Revolution is a better true story because it preaches, as far as I can tell having not seen the other, the opposite message. Despite all this, the last image I will leave you with is the one that, perhaps just for me, is worth the price of admission. Some of Pastor Chuck’s more hidebound church goers complain that the hippies and their dirty feet are ruining the carpet in the worship space. The next evening you see Pastor Chuck at the entrance washing the hippies’ feet as they enter. What a beautiful, Biblical, and practical solution, and Christianity at its finest. See this movie.
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