First of all, Jesus Revolution (2023; for rent on streaming sites and Redbox) looks better than any other “Christian” movie I’ve seen. The cinematographer, Akis Konstantakopoulos, also did the photography for The Chosen, which was also much more sophisticated than other Christian series. The acting is far above average, for the most part, and the story is compelling. Jonathan Roumie, who played Jesus in The Chosen shows up here as Lonnie Frisbee, the charismatic, hippie preacher who helped Chuck Smith (played by Kelsey Grammer) revitalize an ailing Calvary Chapel.
Since Lutherans exist largely outside the mainstream of American Evangelicalism, I am not intimately familiar with the primary characters in the film, but from what I’ve read, the things that are told are shown essentially as they happened. The criticism has come mainly for what is not shown, or from glossing over moments that could have been examined more deeply. That is probably true for nearly any biopic or any movie based on historical events. The filmmakers have to choose what to include and where to put their focus.
One of the things that the filmmakers do not include is anything about Lonnie Frisbee’s homosexual relationships. There are, no doubt, many people who have various reasons for wanting that included, either to complicate the characterization of Frisbee, or to demonstrate that the evangelical church wants to erase gay people from their history, or to show that this was part of who he was, and he should have been welcomed because of it. His ex-wife claims he died of AIDS, though some others dispute that. Frisbee himself apparently never said or suggested that his sexual relationships with men were something that he believed were right, but that they were part of his pre-conversion life, or his later “back-sliding.” I have no idea what the conversations among the writers were like, but I could imagine more than one reason for not opening up that discussion in a story that is focused on Greg Laurie (played by Joel Courtney). Probably Frisbee deserves his own biopic, with all his complications and idiosyncrasies.
As it is, the film does touch on the dissension between Frisbee and Chuck Smith, as well as, more briefly, the marital problems between Frisbee and his wife, Connie (Charlie Morgan Patton). These moments add just enough conflict to keep the movie from being too sentimental or unrealistic. It seems to me that nearly all large, well-known churches have large personalities at their center. If there is more than one large personality, it would be hard to avoid at least some conflict. Those themes probably deserved a little more exploration.
Jesus Revolution is certainly still meant to be an “uplifting,” happy movie. But the larger issue at the heart of the story is about “revival” in general, or spiritual enthusiasm (meaning, here, the idea that what is most important is the inner revelation of the Holy Spirit apart from physical means). So there is a lot of talk about what “God is leading me to do” or whether “I feel the Spirit leading.” This is actually part of the issue in the movie between Smith and Frisbee, when Frisbee “feels called” to do miracles, but Smith says no. Or when Smith tries to get Frisbee to help with a youth service elsewhere, and Frisbee says, “No, I don’t feel God calling me to that.”
How would anyone be able to dispute what someone “feels” internally the Holy Spirit is saying? This is the reason why Lutherans have practiced a set order of certifying, calling, ordaining, and installing pastors: so everyone knows that this man is qualified and has been called by God through the congregation to be its pastor. (Wherever sinful humans are involved, of course, they will mess things up, and this is true of pastors as well, regardless of the intentional safeguards in place.) This is also why we do not allow that just because someone says the Holy Spirit is speaking does not mean He is. Apart from the Scriptural word, and the means Jesus Himself instituted, we refuse to listen to self-identified prophets, no matter how charismatic or popular.
None of this, of course, means that those involved in the Jesus People movement and its concomitants did not actually believe in Jesus. Jesus Revolution identifies one aspect of what became a major, complicated American religious event, which is also essentially the origin of Contemporary Christian Music. Some of my favorite musicians were involved with Calvary Chapel, or associated with some of those events. No doubt, God does what He wants (and more importantly, what He has promised), and if the word of God was preached, read, and heard, the Holy Spirit worked through the means of that word. This is true even if revivalistic methods often leave “burned-over” areas, eventually producing disillusionment and raising doubts once the initial spiritual high wears off—let alone the dangers of “mega-churches,” celebrity pastors and preachers.
Jesus Revolution is well-made and tells the story of one part of the wider American story of the 1960s and 1970s. It is worth watching, and even if it (as with many films produced by Christians) doesn’t quite plumb the darker or more complicated depths of its principal characters, the production value is a good sign of future, better things.
Tim and Jay are currently planning an episode of Saints and Cinema (saintsandcinema.com) on The Jesus Revolution, as well as its cinematography, with a special guest. Coming soon!