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Q & R: Brian and the Jesus Movement

Here's the Q:

I would like to hear more about Brian's encounter with Christ during the Jesus movement. Thank you.

Here's the R:


This is a huge question - and one I'm glad for you to ask, as I think the Jesus Movement is more interesting and important than many people realize.

I was first "inducted" into the movement through TAG - Take And Give - which began in a wonderful Southern Baptist lady's home and then grew into various larger venues. I had grown up a very conventional conservative Evangelical and so I experienced the Jesus Movement as a hybrid reality - one part counter-cultural contextualization (Jesus Music, Jesus Festivals, faith dressed in jeans, long hair, and sandals instead of faith dressed in suits, white shirts, and ties) ... one part charismatic renewal (our "sector" of the Jesus Movement was eventually colonized by a stream of "the Discipleship Movement" and become quite sectarian if not cultic in many ways) ... and one part "return to sources," which meant questioning conventional church thought and practice based on Scripture, especially the New Testament, and especially the Gospels.

I wrote about one of my initial spiritual experiences - a profound "encounter with Christ" - in the movement in Naked Spirituality. All three of these streams, it seems to me, were quickly co-opted by what became the Religious Right. One memory stands out ...

What I loved most about the Jesus Movement was the focus on Jesus. We were serious about following him, living his way of love, peace, and joy, sharing the good news that God loved everyone regardless of cultural trappings (a somewhat radical thought back in the late 60's and easy 70's). To us Jesus was a radical ... a peace activist ... a justice man ... a love man ... whose life and good news was exactly what our turbulent world needed.

Looking back, some of this may simply have been slick marketing. It may simply have been clever evangelists dressing up the same old conventional (not radical) version of Jesus, the same old institutional (not missional) ecclesiology, the same old pro-war (not peace-making) ethic, the same old profit-over people (not preferential-option-for-the-poor) economics, the same old escapist (not incarnational) missiology, and the same old flat (not holistic) gospel and cosmetically enhancing them to make them more appealing to leftist countercultural types. But I think much of what we experienced, especially earlier in the Jesus Movement, was real and authentic and fresh - and (I would say) biblically rich and insightful.

It was also joyful.

Which brings to mind another great memory - singing "Jesus songs" and a bunch of my friends standing up and erupting into spontaneous dancing ... not for the sake of hype or to conform to some supposed biblical requirement for dancing, etc., etc. ... but just because of a surplus of genuine "joy in the Lord."

Another great memory - reading something about "Jesus the Radical" in one of the Jesus Papers of the time ... and getting a sense that we were onto the trail of a truer understanding of Jesus: that the search for love, joy, justice, and peace of the counterculture was actually a yearning for Jesus and his way.

But just as the counterculture movement of the 60' and early 70's had two wings (one oriented around justice, peace, reconciliation, environmental responsibility, etc., and one oriented around drugs, sexual irresponsibility, and hedonism), the Jesus Movement had two wings - one radical and substantial, and one more conventional and commercial. Just as the countercultural pendulum swung from the protest marches of the 60's to the disco balls of the 80's, the religious pendulum swung, giving us what we've had for the last 30 years, namely, the religious right and a generally banal, hyped, and regressive Christian ethos (in America, at least).

Speaking of "Jesus Papers" - there were several in those days (like the Hollywood Free Paper) - widely distributed newspapers that were used to build, link, and spread the movement. I enjoyed them early on ... but I clearly remember my shock when one of these papers reported quite enthusiastically that members of the Jesus Movement in California were supporting Ronald Reagan in his run for office. (This might have been 1976, when Reagan ran for and lost the Republican nomination, or it may have been in 1979, when he ran for President and won. I think it was 1976.)

This seemed to me like a betrayal of everything the Jesus Movement had stood for. (If anyone finds that article, by the way, I'd love to see it.) It was tragic, I thought, to see the movement fragment (the story of Lonny Frisbee gives insight into this) and be taken over by various strands of regressive Pentecostalism, the Religious Right, cultic authoritarianism and patriarchy, nativism, and a kind of conservative, consumerist Christian subculture ... that have merged today to become what I sometimes call "Radio-Orthodoxy."

Sometime, it would be fun to get some of us together who were part of the Jesus Movement in those days, and who never fit when it took its conservative, consumerist turn - folks like Chuck Smith Jr, Frank Schaeffer, Greg Leffel, and others. I feel winds of that resurging radical spirit at the Wild Goose Festival, in the emergent conversation, in the New Monasticism, and elsewhere.

My hunch, and hope, is that the Jesus Movement was one wave in a rising tide that has yet to reach its crest. (BTW - Phyllis Tickle writes about this in her upcoming book - Emergence Christianity, which I highly recommend.) In that sense, it isn't over yet, just as the social gospel movement, the charismatic movement, the base community movement, the missional movement, and other related phenomena aren't over yet. They're successive waves that surge and recede, but participate in and contribute to something larger that is yet to be seen.