The Jesus Movement of the 1960s and 1970s was less a coherent movement than a generalized wave of religious reformation—influenced, as the wider culture was influenced, by aspects of the hippie counterculture. In the late 1960s, its psychedelic brand of Christianity erupted out of spaced-out Southern California. Its early evangelists were ex-drug addicts. Their followers congregated in coffeehouses with names like The Fire Escape. They spoke and wrote in a now self-parodying dialect—Groovy, Let's rap, Don't lay that trip on me—and they listened to music that made their parents break out in hives.
Along the way, they formed communes on the early Christian model suggested in Acts 2:44: “And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and gave to all, as any had need.” They were sola scriptura on acid—and the fact that the acid wasn't actually acid but Jesus sometimes seemed incidental.
Their conversions to Bible-believing Christianity were not the sort to rejoice the hearts of suburban, middle-class parents. The intelligence that one's runaway daughter had given her life to Christ, been baptized in a bathtub, and taken up residence with a bunch of barefoot, long-haired, guitar-strumming, tongues-speaking twenty-year-olds in a place called Maranatha House was only marginally less disturbing to the average Methodist mother than the news that the same daughter had moved in with a professional tabla drummer and changed her name to Windflower.
Or so, at least, argues Preston Shires in his recent book Hippies of the Religious Right. Hippies, he maintains, did not leave off being hippies simply because they had traded their drug high for Jesus. As a first-century Gentile converting to Christianity did not have to undergo circumcision, so the typical late-1960s truth-seeking, grass-smoking beach dweller was not required, on conversion, to cut his hair, don a white short-sleeved shirt with a black necktie, and sing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” The churches, instead, would have to change their dowdy old playlist; they had to understand that the convert was bringing them the gift of his authentic young self and his hippie code of virtues: Love thy neighbor and be an individual.
Moreover, the churches had to understand that the unconverted hippie was not so much an unbeliever as a pre-believer. He was already living the essence of Christianity, man: It's all about, like, compassion and justice and stuff. All he needs is Jesus. As Shires puts it, hippie converts sought a “primitive Christianity . . . as lived out in the pages of Scripture . . . bare-boned, authentic, sharing.” The meaning of these words is, of course, highly subjective. While some counterculture converts interpreted “authentic” and “primitive” Christian community to mean house churches, a majority integrated themselves into established local churches. Either way, the impulse was toward imitation of what people imagined might have been first-century Christian practice.
Not surprisingly, this imagined practice was light on bishops and heavy on extemporaneous prayer, direct interventions of the Holy Spirit, and beanbag chairs. Given a certain orientation toward an emotive, experiential, eschatological, not to say hallucinogenic flavor of Christianity, heavy on baptisms in the Spirit, speaking in tongues, and anticipating the imminent Rapture, the majority of those who did integrate into churches gravitated toward churches with a greater degree of innate ecclesial fluidity: Pentecostal, charismatic, and evangelical. But wherever they went in those heady days, they remade the Church in their image.
Of course, the churches themselves often suffered from the perception that they had driven young people away by insisting on being boring and irrelevant, a crisis of self-esteem that persists to this day. The mantra of the evangelical parachurch ministry Young Life—It's a sin to bore a kid—encapsulates what amounts to a path of least resistance: All right, kids, have it your way.
There's no denying that, in many places, have it your way was an effective formula. Witness the nondenominational Calvary Chapel phenomenon. In 1968, Pastor Chuck Smith, encouraged by other conservative evangelical California pastors, recruited a youth pastor, the groovily named Lonnie Frisbee, from the Christian-coffeehouse counterculture as a “hippie liaison” to draw in the unchurched.
The results were electrifying. Traditional hymn-sandwich services gave way to an effusively emotive worship atmosphere more like the quasi-religious atmosphere of a Grateful Dead concert. Photographs of praise sessions at Calvary Chapel in those days depict a sea of raised hands. Hundreds of shaggy young people clutching Bibles in zippered leather cases turned up for Wednesday-night Bible study with Frisbees. The church outgrew its space, outgrew it again, and ultimately multiplied into a network of churches, its own freestanding denomination.
It's difficult to argue with success. At the same time, something about this story makes me uneasy. In Hippies of the Religious Right, Shires attempts to rehabilitate the reactionary image of Christian conservatism by establishing for it a 1960s-vintage countercultural pedigree. Contemporary religious conservatives, Shires argues, owe their political identity and energy to the influence of the Jesus Movement, an eruption of nonconformist Christianity from drugged-out Southern California that amounted to a grassroots-level hippie-flavored American reformation. Shires' project is to track the morphing of yesterday's youth counterculture into today's Christian right. Ultimately, his concern is with the eventual subsumption of conservatism into an amorphous, globalized, inclusivist postmodern ethic. It's hippies versus the religious right in the end, and, in Shires' envisioned outcome, the hippies win.
Shires represents the process by which hippie culture infiltrated the Church as an unqualified good, which seems rather a simplification of things. Consider, for example, his account of what happened when a crusading pastor decided to climb on board the renewal bus:
Robert Girard, pastor of Our Heritage Wesleyan Church in Scottsdale, Arizona, welcomed the revolution into his staid congregation and turned his revitalized parish into a platform for spreading it. In reading his 1972 account of the “revolution,” one recognizes the hippie theme as the church experiments with a Book of Acts form of Christianity. Three years after having exchanged a demure ministry for an enlivened one, Girard wrote, “Whatever we are experiencing is no more than the beginning of renewal. ‘The Acts of the Apostles' isn't yet being relived at Our Heritage Church. However, . . . [w]e are beginning to smell its fragrance.”
Never mind, for the moment, that modifiers like “staid,” “demure,” and “enlivened” appear as givens. On second thought, go ahead and mind. In his preface, Shires declares that his intention is to be “impartial” to matters concerning the religious right—and heaven knows it's not every day that you run across an academic imbued with that scruple—but here is a moment for critical distance.
“At the time we began preaching renewal,” Pastor Girard explains, “clearing superfluous meetings from the schedule, and forming small groups, ninety percent of the members of the church were brand new Christians, ‘untainted' by experience with traditional evangelicalism.” First of all, it is impossible not to wonder what kinds of meetings were considered “superfluous” and summarily “cleared from the schedule.” Surely there were people who objected to the abrupt extinction of church groups they had previously been invested in? And second, 90 percent of a church were teenagers and young adults unsullied by any contact whatsoever with, say, the history of Christianity between A.D. 100 and 1970? What happened to everyone else? That this invasion constituted a positive contribution to the life of the Church might not have been self-evident to whatever older parishioners were left to wonder where Charles Wesley's hymns had gone.
The Jesus Movement had begun in evangelizing the street, but it ended in evangelizing the Church. This was a process of conversion via sit-in, a neo-Puritan stripping of altars. The reformation was, in some places, a deliberate act of forced religious-cultural amnesia, on a level with the smashing of stone saints in English cathedrals under Cromwell. Girard urged his zealots not to give in to their complacent brethren: “We must not fit their mold, or pamper them in their immaturity, or back down in the face of their carnal outbursts. We must not stop seeking to bring renewal and revival to the church just because they don't like it.”
Though Shires' history leaves off with Our Heritage in 1972, by 1979, under Girard's leadership, the church had surrendered its buildings to the Wesleyan Church, severed its ties with the denomination, and become a “church without walls,” a series of loosely affiliated house churches that met in a body once a month, in borrowed space, for a “family reunion.” The congregation had traded its Discipline and its Articles of Faith—their denominational version of the time-tested apparatus that keeps the church on the road of recognizable, historical Christian orthodoxy—for, in the words of its revamped mission statement, a “network of relationships.” The title of the new “discipling ministry” to be launched with the house-church system was “Discipleship: Training for the Kingdom, or Do You Want to Get Over Being a Baby?”
A baby, I suppose, might view this revitalization process with dismay and call it dissolution. But as conservative Episcopalians have recently learned, the revolution's answer is always, “Get over it.”
The political conclusions Shires draws mirror the ecclesial ones. Hippies of the Religious Right purports to establish a direct causal relation between the Jesus Movement's impulse to reinvent culture and the activist energy of the religious right in the service of school-prayer, pro-life, and religious-liberty causes. “If it had not been for the counterculture,” Shires concludes, “there may never have been a Religious Right.”
That dismisses the contribution of the Catholic Church in the pro-life movement, together with all the intellectual elements of contemporary Christian conservatism, represented by organizations such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, founded in 1953 and dedicated to preserving the cultural identity and values of Western civilization. The make-it-new counterculture would be bound to find itself at odds with these other strands of religious conservatism.
That, as it turns out, is the point. The Christian right's hope for a vital future, as Shires envisions it, lies not in its conservatism but in its openness to change and “reorientation”: outward, in a melting of borders between the United States and Latin America, particularly; and leftward, in embracing environmental and “justice” causes, in the name of evangelization. As Shires articulates the new Christian ethic, it begins to look less and less like recognizable Christianity and more and more like a permeable membrane of everybody-loves-everybody utopianism. “In the 9/11 world,” he explains, “society is searching for a new propriety, not a Victorian one to be sure, but a global propriety, wherein citizens of the world will observe a common ethics based upon a common values system. What this value system will be and what the derivative ethics might be are unknown.”
Yesterday, the church without walls; tomorrow the world without walls. It's a vision we've all seen before, and it's compelling because—well, because anyone who doesn't buy it is a meany. Or, I don't know, carnal. Or immature. Or hypocritical. Or afraid. Or just not getting it. On what grounds can you argue with love?
A longtime homeschooling friend has this to say about the influence of hippie Christianity on her own life: “The counterculture aspect of the hippies trained us to be willing to be counter to the current culture in a radical way: homeschooling when it was still pretty unacceptable, having more children than the people in our babysitting co-op thought ecologically tolerable, giving up my fantastically fulfilling career (whatever that may have been) to stay home with the kids even before we homeschooled.”
This positive legacy of the countercultural impulse is undeniable and, as a homeschooling mother myself, I have every reason to be grateful for the ways in which the activist spirit has played out. At the same time, I can't help wondering how longtime parishioners in our former Episcopal church felt, several years back, when the first gay wedding ceremony was performed there. This was a justice issue, of course. It was radical hospitality. It was the church's prophetic voice speaking love and reconciliation. It was fill in the blank with your favorite activist phrase. There are plenty of such phrases to go around, and there's no debating them without sounding like a hater.
Actually, I can imagine pretty clearly what a lot of people did. They exchanged resigned glances and shrugged their shoulders. They kept on doggedly going to church, as they had done all their lives, figuring that, as long as the ice floe hadn't completely melted out from under them, they were going to keep on kneeling on what was left of it. And, while certainly the ocean is greater than the ice floe—more dynamic, more powerful, more beautiful, more full of all good things—that knowledge is scant comfort to the drowning.
Sally Thomas is a poet and homeschooling mother in Tennessee.