The Jesus Revolution
by Matt Weiner
In 1966, TIME Magazine captured the tumultuous era with a bleak cover question: “Is God Dead?”
One answer to that question was in the form of a countercultural movement that arose in the following years. The “Jesus Revolution” is less incongruous than it first sounds, placed among the backdrop of Vietnam, sex, drugs and rock & roll and a general spiritual ennui. The long-haired, sandal-wearing “love the stranger” Jesus spoke not just to some of the more soul-searching hippies but a wider generation trying to find its own voice.
At least that’s the message that Jesus Revolution wants to focus on. The film, written and directed by Christian film powerhouse Jon Erwin, falls more on the mainstream spectrum like Heaven Is for Real than the pricklier polemics like God’s Not Dead.
But for all its gloss, Jesus Revolution is a confounding movie. The production itself is a savvy, just saccharine enough dramatization of Pastor Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer) and the countercultural rise of the “Jesus freaks” in the late 60s and early 70s.
It’s a feel-good story, and the shiny treatment it gets here seems like a perfect match. But it’s also a story and a movement that deserves a more critical look than it gets here from the true believers.
Smith is a pivotal figure whose Calvary Chapel movement has influenced evangelical Christianity and the modern megachurch. Jesus Revolution wisely centers on an avuncular, befuddled version, with Grammer perfectly cast to deliver profundities like “It’s not something to be explained, it’s something to be experienced” in his soothing baritone.
It’s not until Smith meets the radical Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie) that he comes to see that the Jesus of the Bible has a lot more in common with the growing hippie movement, and his unlikely partnership with Frisbee is part of a momentous time in evangelical history.
What the film omits from this “all are welcome” version of Smith, however, are any edges that might clash with a wider audience. Most notably, the pastor’s strident views against homosexuality. And while the script hints at Lonnie Frisbee’s split with Calvary and Smith, this is chalked up to doctrinal differences with no mention of Frisbee’s semi-open homosexuality.
At what point does the reality of a biography subject veer so far from the adaptation’s message that it becomes disingenuous? This friction-free adaptation goes well beyond that line. Which is curious, given that director Jon Erwin also wrote and directed the exceptional documentary The Jesus Music in 2021.
It’s a low bar to clear, but that sweeping look at contemporary Christian music from the era of Smith and Frisbee to artists today takes a more frank look at internecine debates and controversies, both within the movement and alongside secular culture at large. As someone whose personal history with religion starts and stops with the Old Testament, I feel confident recommending The Jesus Music as the better choice—both as film and agitprop—for those not already in the movement.
Where does that leave Jesus Revolution? To say it’s a Hallmark movie with better production values undersells how watchable the movie is. But if the film succeeds in standing on its own, with a goal of preaching beyond the choir, it also deserves to be judged that way. And that means bringing in the messy earthly politics that the script assiduously avoids. The likely reality is that church viewings will get an extremely competent adaptation of a historical era that continues to shape the country.
Secular audiences get a decent airplane movie that’s worth it for Kelsey Grammer completists. It’s win-win—unless you’re gay, in which case you might be incurring divine wrath, if you ask Pastor Smith. Better not to dwell on that part of Smith’s theology for a mainstream movie, though, and instead rely on the Old Testament and split the baby.