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Jesus Revolution (2022) By Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle

Jesus Revolution (2022) By Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle

Jesus Revolution 2023 Directed by: Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle Writers: Jon ErwinJon Gunn and Greg Laurie, Stars: Joel Courtney, Kelsey Grammer, Jonathan Roumie, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Anna Grace Barlow, Nic Bishop, DeVon Franklin, Mina Sundwall, Charlie Morgan Patton, Runtime: 120min, Rated: PG (Canada) PG-13 (MPAA) for strong drug content involving teens and some thematic elements.

Listen here for audio of radio interviews about films from a Christian perspective with Pastors Ted Giese and Todd Wilken on where Christianity meets culture. (This review contains some spoilers) 

Church history 20th Century style

When Janette Smith (Ally Ioannides) the daughter of Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer), pastor of Calvary Chapel, an independent Costa Mesa California congregation, brings home a hippy hitchhiker named Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie) to meet her father, Smith is surprised to discover the young man—who bears a striking resemblance to artistic depictions of Jesus—is a street preacher. By embracing the growing swell of hippies being evangelized in the shadow of 1967’s drug, sex and rock-n-roll “Summer of Love” (whose adherents would be labelled “Jesus Freaks,” the “Jesus People” and part of the emerging “Jesus Movement” ) Smith and Frisbee see Calvary Chapel balloon from a handful of members to a couple thousand regular attendees. 

Directors Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle’s adaptation of Greg Laurie's book Jesus Revolution (2018) tells the story of these beginnings and Laurie’s personal involvement during the early years of what would eventually become a loose affiliation of congregations named after that first Calvary Chapel which would also eventually branch off into “The Vineyard Movement” and other non-denominational congregationalist-style churches. 

Pastor Smith in Jesus Revolution is depicted as an uptight “square” who experiences an epiphany and sees the light of embracing the cultural zeitgeist of the hippy counter-cultural movement to reach the lost. In reality Smith had already begun his movement toward a low-church relaxed approach to congregational life after breaking away from Four Square Pentecostalism due to his personal exasperation with the bureaucracy and competitive tactics of the denomination’s leadership. If Jesus Revolution was produced as a long-form TV series perhaps the intricacies of his departure from Four Square Pentecostalism and the whole story of the sudden and unexpected growth of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa might be explored in more detail and with more nuance. With the limitations of a two-hour run time the narrative and characters are crafted and streamlined to keep the plot moving. As a result some of the original members of the small Calvary Chapel congregation, hard pressed to accept the barefooted, unwashed hippies in the pew next to them, are depicted in a cartoonish one-dimensional manner. Smith and his wife Kay’s (Julia Campbell) adjustment to this “new to them” commune style–Acts 4:32–approach to church life would certainly have been a challenge in real life, but the film may not depict the fullness of their experience. That said, Kelsey Grammer, best known from his popular role as the bloviating Dr. Frasier Crane on the TV sitcoms Cheers (1982-1993) and Frasier (1993-2003), turns in a solid performance that stands apart from his previous work. Here Grammer deftly plays the initially befuddled yet genuinely warm-hearted Pastor Smith who in the end is faced with some hard pastoral decisions regarding both Frisbee and Laurie's continued involvement with the church.             

The parallel story in Jesus Revolution is about military school dropout and book author Greg Laurie's (Joel Courtney) challenging relationship with his alcoholic single mother, Charlene McDaniel (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), and his personal passage into and out of the “turn on, tune in, drop out” Timothy Leary drug culture of the late sixties and his romance with Cathe Martin (Anna Grace Barlow) as they fall in love and become part of the Calvary Chapel congregation. Laurie and Martin’s story, with all the ups and downs of a conventional romantic drama, forms the backbone of Jesus Revolution’s redemption narrative. The couple become emblematic of a generation which the film depicts as a generation spiritually lost yet searching for the truth even while struggling with their own shortcomings, addictions, and personal problems.

Overall, the film transcends the stereotype of the faith-based Christian film: Jesus Revolution doesn’t look cheaply made; it isn’t as corny or platitudinous as might be expected; it has a good musical score and strong cinematography; and for the most part the acting is not bad at all. There is a sense that the people in front of and behind the camera cared about what they were making and rose to the occasion to deliver a winsome high-quality adaptation of Laurie's book. As a docudrama Erwin and McCorkle’s Jesus Revolution has much more in common with films like Rosalind Ross' Father Stu (2022) about the unexpected formation of a Roman Catholic priest, or Jon Gunn’s The Case For Christ (2017) about Chicago Tribune reporter Lee Strobel’s move from agnostic atheism to Christian faith or even with Eric Till’s Luther (2003) about the 16th century reformer Martin Luther than it does with films like Harold Cronk and Sreehari Purimetla's God's Not Dead (2014) or Vic Sarin's Left Behind: The Movie (2000) or the franchise those films produced and which helped foster the modern B-movie market of niche evangelical-oriented Christian film. However, Jesus Revolution doesn’t achieve the quality and dramatic heights of films like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004), or Roland Joffé's The Mission (1986), or Martin Scorsese's Silence (2016). That said Jesus Revolution is still a well-produced and well-made film that may turn out to be attractive to a wider audience and can serve as a reasonably good Coles/Cliff Notes introduction to the “Jesus Movement” and Calvary Chapel Association of churches. But for all its genuine heartfelt intentions and production value, the film may not be as interesting or moving as it thinks it is. For example, in the Globe and Mail article entitled “Kelsey Grammer drama Jesus Revolution fails to spread the good word,” reviewer Amil Niazi who admits “it’s hard not to be curious about the roots of [this] religious movement” still describes the experience of watching Jesus Revolution to be “like watching an infomercial hawking something that already has billions of people buying what they’re selling,” or, “a church production of Hair (1967).”

Lutheran viewers will want to be aware of the film’s repeated emphasis on individuals making a personal decision for Christ. This Arminian decision theology is clearly taught in Jesus Revolution. For example: at the moment of Laurie’s baptism by Frisbee at Pirates Cove Beach in Newport Beach California, as he stands in the water unsure he is asked by Frisbee to make a personal decision for Christ which runs contrary to what the Lutheran Church expressly confesses and teaches in the Small Catechism when it says in the explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” This is why, while there are many baptisms in the film, viewers won’t see any infant baptisms because the film faithfully shows Calvary Chapel’s Arminian view of salvation, a view which teaches that infants can’t make a decision for Christ and therefore should not be baptized. As confessed in the explanation of the Creed, Lutherans believe no one can actually make a decision for Jesus including infants so Lutheran’s confess “that a person by himself, or from his natural powers, cannot do anything or help toward his conversion [regardless of age]. Conversion is not only in part, but totally an act, gift, present, and work of the Holy Spirit alone ... the person does or works nothing, but only undergoes it.” (Article II: Free Will. Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration).[1]  

While Jesus Revolution shows the preaching and teaching of God’s Word impacting the hearer (Romans 10:17) it also shows many of the hallmarks of classic “Anabaptist Enthusiasm” ranging from a Sacramentarian rejection of the real presence in the Lord’s Supper as well as extra Scriptural “words” received directly from the Lord making prophetic pronouncements over a person like Lonnie Frisbee’s prophesy that Greg Laurie would one day preach to thousands of people. While these sorts of encouragements can produce outcomes (Laurie went on to do just that through his Harvest Church ministries) is it possible to verify that the Holy Spirit said this to Lonnie Frisbee to say to Laurie? And can this way of speaking be misused? To its credit the film does delve into the precarious nature of Frisbee’s involvement with the church and proves why the Lutheran Confessions teach that “no one should publicly teach in the church, or administer the Sacraments, without a rightly ordered call” (Article XIV: Order in the Church, Augsburg Confession).[2] In the type of congregational polity adopted by Calvary Chapel the buck stops with the lead pastor. This leadership style was eventually promoted by Calvary Chapel as the “Moses model." Ultimately, it is Pastor Smith then who “issues” this call to men like Lonnie Frisbee and then “rescinds” it. The film shows the wisdom of St. Paul’s advice to Timothy, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer ... he must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:1, 6).   

Jesus Revolution emphasizes the part music plays in the history of the formation of the Calvary Chapel movement. The Maranatha! Music record label and publishing company began as a nonprofit ministry of Calvary Chapel in 1971 with the band Love Song. This is of course a sensitive topic within North American Christianity because the nature of this music, while intended to reach the lost, has caused great division and pain within the church-at-large due to its embrace of popular music styles from that late 1960’s early 1970’s era which promoted an excessive worldly lifestyle antithetical with Scripture’s teachings about sober mindedness (1 Peter 5:8-9) and moderation in all things (Proverbs 25:16; 1 Corinthians 9:25). Pitting Christian freedom against the restraint and personal piety Christians are to exhibit in their life of faith (1 Corinthians 6:12-20) can cause unnecessary conflict within a church which may drive people away long after the conflict has simmered down. Also, the music in both style and substance comes with its own theological presuppositions—as all music does—which simply won’t be compatible with every Christian theological tradition or confession of faith.   

In addition to the straightforward way music is depicted in Jesus Revolution viewers may notice that the prominent cross first seen at the front of the Calvary Chapel church sanctuary in the film, is quickly covered by a stylized dove representing The Holy Spirit, and that the place once reserved for preaching, teaching, and administering the Sacraments within the church fast becomes the stage for the band. Here it’s important to note that by default such changes in style when it comes to the art and liturgical life of a church, as with music are neither neutral nor without substance. They have theological underpinnings. They are part-and-parcel of an iconoclastic movement that often seeks to make a rapid break from established church practice not primarily for Scriptural reasons but rather for what are often considered pragmatic reasons. And while changes were made by Lutherans and other reformers when addressing the state of the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century, the fledgling Lutheran Church reformers were not iconoclasts and were part of a much more conservative reformation regarding art and music retaining as much as was possible from the liturgical history and worship life of the church while actively resisting the enthusiastic iconoclasm of the Anabaptist, Radical Protestant and Calvinist movements within Europe. This may seem to have gotten a little deep in the weeds however it’s good to remember that something can be popular and successful by human standards and still be open to criticism, just as something can be sincere and still worthy of careful evaluation. Not everything embraced by the culture at any given moment is appropriate in Church and that’s alright. Remember what St. James says: “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore, whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4).

These matters can be further complicated by the heightened emotional states produced by such worship styles and musical forms which in turn can be confused with the working of the Holy Spirit. A current parallel can be seen in the widespread adoption of Hillsong music along with the music produced by Bethel, Jesus Culture, and Elevation Ministries which again are rooted primarily in a desire to encounter and invoke God’s presence in worship through song favouring emotionalism over theological accuracy. A film like Jesus Revolution, whether it intends to or not, may also re-enforce and encourage embracing these ideas about worship and music for the viewer, some of whom may attend numerically small congregations and believe this is a way to grow a congregation. As Frisbee says to Smith, “If you want to reach my people you’re going to have to speak to them in a language they understand,” and some firmly believe this sort of music and the other methods employed by Calvary Chapel, and the churches that followed their lead, are the best way to reach the lost.

Many Christians who watch Jesus Revolution can happily rejoice that among the young “Turn on, tune in, drop out” generation of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s there were thousands of people who were “tuned in” to Jesus. At the same time, many Christians can still be deeply concerned for the long-term stability of those who became involved in the “Jesus Movement” and the faith communities that arose from the events this film depicts. Not all Christians will agree with the theology in this film, but not all Christians will agree with the Roman Catholic and Jesuit theology presented in Ross' Father Stu (2022) or Joffé's The Mission (1986) or Scorsese's Silence (2016) or the Lutheran theology presented in Till’s Luther (2003). For those who don’t share the same Confession of faith presented in a film like Jesus Revolution they should see it as a chance to learn something about another tradition within Christianity. It may also prompt a valid desire to dig into the veracity of the story presented in the film and ask ‘is Jesus Revolution as honest about what it portrays concerning the history of this movement as it purports to be?’

For those interested in investigating a similar sort of story of change within the context of a Confessional Lutheran congregation that didn’t involve radical iconoclastic change to the liturgical life of the church or acceptance of contemporary cultural styles or modern ideological beliefs about the Christian faith, look into Pastor Gottfried Martens of Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin whose congregation exploded in size due to the dramatic number of refugee Iranian and Afghani converts to the Christian faith. Their story began with a handful of people seeking to be baptised who were turned away by the German State Church only to be graciously received, taught, baptised and cared for by Pastor Martens and the people of Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin.   

Films like Jesus Revolution work best when they are not looked upon as a step by step evangelism road map to growing a congregation but rather as an account of God’s work in the lives of Christians. As Christ Jesus says “the wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). The strength of Erwin and McCorkle’s Jesus Revolution is its gentle and warm depiction of grace towards those in need of mercy showing the work of the Holy Spirit granting repentance and faith Christ in spite of human pride and selfish ambitions.   

Rev. Ted Giese is lead pastor of Mount Olive Lutheran Church, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada; an award-winning contributor to The Canadian Lutheran, and movie reviewer for the “Issues, Etc.” radio program. Follow Pastor Giese on Twitter @RevTedGieseCheck out our Movie Review Index!

[1] Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Reader Edition of The Book of Concord, Pocket Edition, Concordia Publishing House 2006, Page 753.
[2] Ibid, Page 41.