On Jesus Revolutions, and Special Interests
A meta-essay? Or just a collection of random thoughts 🙂
TLDR; Greg Laurie makes a vanity film about himself, Lonnie Frisbee as a new autistic special interest of mine, and a meta-analysis of what to do with all of the mad that I feel.
Welcome to God is My Special Interest, my newsletter about the intersection of late-diagnosed autism and growing up in a high-control religion. If you like this post, please share it with like-minded friends. And consider signing up for our little community here! I’m able to invest the time in this space (and invest in other writers/thinkers) because of people like YOU. I’m so, so grateful.
God is My Special Interest is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
For the past few weeks I have been entering a bit of an autistic deep dive. I was researching the origins of the Jesus Movement--sparked in part by the podcast season I am doing on Jesus Freak by DC Talk--and also because of the new movie out this week called Jesus Revolution.
In recent weeks/months read multiple books about the Jesus Movement and charismatic Christianity--some by Calvary Chapel folks, others by anthropologists seeking to understand the personalist/interventionist god that evangelicals love. I’ve watched documentaries and scoured websites and immersed myself in thick books about apocalyptic prophecies and terror management theory and coercive control. All of it is now swirling together in my brain, mapping out patterns and outcomes and realizations.
This week alone I wrote over 4,000 words on a man named Lonnie Frisbee.
Lonnie was the real heart (and the aesthetic look) of the Jesus Movement, the guy with long hair and a beard who dressed like Jesus on purpose. Lonnie was a runaway kid who loved getting high on LSD and then reading his Bible in the late 1960s. He eventually was taken under the wing of Christians who convinced him to stop tripping, and he fancied himself a preacher who would lead thousands to Christ. He met Chuck Smith, who was then pastoring a modest church in Orange county, California. Chuck and his wife were not just fearful of hippies--they despised them. And yet, Chuck saw how conservative white preachers like himself were losing touch with an entire generation--so he asked his daughter to introduce him to a hippie. Chuck met Lonnie, was impressed by his knowledge of the Bible, and started having Lonnie preach at his services. People started flocking in droves, eventually leading to thousands being baptized. Smith’s church took off, and is now the Calvary Chapel denomination (with 1,800 various congregations). Chuck Smith grew increasingly uncomfortable with Lonnie’s charismatic ways and eventually forced Lonnie to leave.
Lonnie then went and did similar work with John Wimber and the newly formed Vineyard church movement. Lonnie was a revivalist at heart, and he once again kicked off the floods of people joining these charismatic and conservative churches. Until he was once again kicked out of ministry, this time because the leadership found out he was gay. He died at age 43 from AIDs, having been shunned for a decade by the pastors he helped (a few, like Greg Laurie, did show up at his deathbed so they could claim Lonnie was repentant of his sinful lifestyle).
Not only did these pastors who used Lonnie for years unceremoniously dump him, they also started erasing his narrative almost completely from what they were branding “The Jesus Movement.” John Wimber in his memoirs simply calls Lonnie “the young man.” Chuck Smith talks about Lonnie a little bit, but mostly takes every opportunity to say that Lonnie wasted his life/potential by turning against God (presumably for being gay, but also being TOO charismatic?).
Greg Laurie--who wrote the book Jesus Revolution that the movie is based on--goes the same route. He says Lonnie had a pivotal yet small role in the Jesus Movement, and that he turned away from God and sinned but came back to Christ at the very end of his life, thereby making everything OK. Greg actually needs Lonnie in his book/movie, because Lonnie is the hippie face of the movement and he plays a pivotal role: he got the young folks into the churches, and he prophesied over Greg Laurie that he would preach to thousands. Greg needs Lonnie because Greg needs a prophet to prop him up in this story, but he only wants one tiny part of him. In The Jesus Revolution the movie never mentions Lonnie’s sexuality and doesn’t mention how he was shunned or how he died or how young he really was.
Such blatant revisionist history, especially at the hands of megalomaniacal white Christian pastors, shouldn’t surprise me at this point. But oh my goodness, it does. It does! The casual cruelty and blind narcissism actually does take my breath away. Maybe this is an autistic thing, or maybe it isn’t. But no matter how hard I try, I can’t seem to become callous to the ways people exploit those with less power, especially when it is all in the name of god.
The story of Lonnie Frisbee in particular has fascinated me. I have found myself researching him, slowly doing the work I did when it came to Dorothy Day: compiling the writings, looking at how various folks have used his life, comparing/contrasting that with what he said himself . . . I wanted to figure him out.
I think the autistic part of my brain loves to see patterns and notices when there are gaps in information. Lonnie Frisbee was an integral part of the Jesus Movement. He is literally the revivalist that kicked it all off, for multiple large Christian churches and organizations: Calvary Chapel (1,800 churches) the Vineyard (2,400 churches) and Greg Laurie’s Harvest Crusades (15,000 members of the church and 9.8 million people have attended these Crusades). But he was erased, or highly edited out of all the narratives white evangelicals like to tell themselves about their religious and political movement. And people deserve to know the full truth--but it’s folks like Greg Laurie who write the books and make the movies and center themselves.
It’s not fair, and I want to make it RIGHT. The core need of so many autistic people, and the cause of so much of my pain.
I don’t like this special interest, if I am being honest. I told my therapist recently that I am looking forward to the day when I have special interests that aren’t so intense--see: Dorothy Day or white evangelical corruption or autism or Lonnie Frisbee. My therapist told me that yeah, most autistic people use special interests to help regulate their nervous systems--it is calming to them. But my special interests seem to function to trigger my fight response, which is interesting.
I spent most of my childhood in the freeze/fawn response. I was known as shy and incredibly quiet and docile (which, if you have met me . . . you know that this is not how I really am!) Later, when I left home, I seemed to “wake up.” I got actively engaged in justice work. I liked the rush it gave me to “fight” what I knew to be unjust and oppressive systems. Later, I used that rush to power me through situations where I was highly overwhelmed and anxious--think speaking at conservative evangelical colleges about needing to care for our neighbors better. Speaking truth to power as an autistic person can feel good, especially when we have been unable to speak or gaslit for much of our lives.
Knowing all of this helps me take a step back and say--hey, I wonder why I feel a need to write 4,000 words on Lonnie Frisbee this week? Why do I feel the need to shine a light on the revisionist history of white evangelicals? Why do I need to understand the charismatic movement and how it preys on vulnerable people? Why do I need to highlight that white conservative Christian men have been terrible and self-obsessed and incredibly narcissistic for political and personal gain yet again? Could it be that I am trying to make sense of my childhood/life in evangelical Christianity by urging myself to fight? To fight for the me of the past few decades who has always felt like there was something terribly rotten in Denmark, but was surrounded by people who insisted it was perfect?
Maybe. I truly don’t know. But what I am trying to do is observe my patterns and think about how they are impacting me, on a physical level. So instead of the beginning of a book on Lonnie Frisbee, you get this meta analysis of me starting to notice my triggers and special interests and my history and background and autistic longing for the world to make sense. Not fixing them. Just observing, with curiosity and compassion instead of shame.
Because I think that’s what this all is about. I just want my entire life that I dedicated to Jesus--the Jesus of the Jesus Movement, an ahistorical figure who simply wants to convert more people to his totalist religion--to make sense. If I can somehow make sense of it--point out it is flawed at the root, and show the trauma it can cause--maybe I can save someone from the pain that I experienced. Maybe all of this is just me, trying to save a kid who just wanted to believe it really was good news. Even as their body and brain told them over and over again that it wasn’t.
Now I’m slowly moving out of survival mode. My special interest/fight response has helped, a bit, in these past few years/decades, to wake me up and to learn to fight for others and now myself. But I sense another change is coming. A future for me where I get to heal from my years of trauma--religious, spiritual, emotional, physical--and where I don’t have to be either frozen or enraged (although that might happen as a part of my autistic life!). I can just be a human, noticing how the world impacts me--including what I am drawn to deep-diving. I know I will change, and that somewhere in the future I will have a variety of special interests, some (hopefully most?) that are calming to my nervous system. Like, old typewriters maybe? Or theme park logistics? 1970s design aesthetics? The history of Corgis? The Bauhaus method of design? Peonies? How ancient cities were formed? Who knows, the sky is literally the limit (speaking of which, I would like to learn more about Black Holes).
For now, god continues to be my main special interest. Well, I guess it’s more like how white evangelicals use the concept of a vengeful god who saves a select few in order to exploit other people and shore up their own sense of status. But slowly, slowly I see another one springing up. I think healing is turning into a special interest of mine. And while I know I can’t make everything right in the world, I am learning that I can show up for myself, today. I can be thankful for my brain and how it is trying to make sense of my life, noticing the patterns of bad men who claim god speaks to and through them alone, and they alone know the path to salvation.
I’m not taking my chances on if those men are right or not anymore. The way Greg Laurie/Chuck Smith/John Wimber used and discarded Lonnie Frisbee should be enough for any evangelical to dismiss the fruits of the movement as rotten--but we know that this won’t happen. So for today, I am honoring myself by writing this all down. I honor the way my autistic self has taken an interest in the life of Lonnie Frisbee, in all of its humanity and complexity. I honor my desire for justice, for things to be made right. And I honor the toll this takes on me, in a world where Greg Laurie makes vanity movies about himself while claiming it is all about Jesus. I honor the grief and pain and moral injury it cost me to stay so long, to try so hard and believe my caregivers and the community I was born into.
and I honor the path of healing I am now taking one day at a time. Because that’s all any of us can do--we learn to not live in the mythologized past, but learn to be in our bodies and brains today.
If you like this post, please share it!
Comments on this post are for paid subscribers only. Thank you for your support!
I am reminded of my absolute favorite Christian minister, Mr. Rogers, and this incredible song: https://misterrogers.org/videos/what-to-you-do-with-the-mad-that-you-feel/
I highly, highly recommend reading the book When God Talks Back by Tanya Luhrmann
Chuck Smith and church were terrified of the counter-culture movement. You know, the one that was protesting racism, sexism, and militarism.
Yes. Greg Laurie wrote a book about the Jesus movement that was all about him. And yes, that book was made into a movie. Yes, a megachurch pastor wrote a movie that is by, about, and FOR GREG LAURIE. Talk about a vanity project!
Peel away all the Christianese that these men spoke/wrote constantly, and they are just narcissistic men obsessed with their own legacy.
The best/worst thing about these churches/men is that they brag so openly on their websites so it’s not hard to find these statistics. Missing from all of their websites, of course, is the acknowledgement that Lonnie Frisbee was the actual preacher who started these movements (or in the case of Greg Laurie, brought him to Christ!)
Maybe someday I will write a longer/more researched piece all about Lonnie Frisbee. For today, I just can’t engage with it as deeply as I would want to without it impacting me negatively. For people who are interested, Matt Nightingale wrote a good little intro to Lonnie a few years ago, and a documentary about Lonnie is available on Amazon to rent for $1.99. I really liked the documentary, but it definitely needs a trigger warning if you are LGBTQIA+ (because of Christians being . . . you know, homophobic Christians). I actually made a Tik Tok about the Jesus Revolution movie, to see if that format was better for me than writing a scorched earth essay on it all and . . . you know what? It kinda worked! It was much less stressful for me, yet I was able to have an output of some of my knowledge on the subject.
Greg Laurie’s net worth is between 16-20 million, just in case you were interested in that sort of stuff
This might be such a therapist-y thing to say (...sorry), but the tone of your essay today, I feel, really exudes the healing you've been working on for yourself - and I am really happy for you. Not letting the power-hungry narcissistic men [of footnote 5: " Peel away all the Christianese that these men spoke/wrote constantly, and they are just narcissistic men obsessed with their own legacy" !!!! YES] steal all our energy and joy. Just noticing your impulses to fix and protest, and what ways it's been helpful, and what ways not so much. It just felt really nice reading this essay.
Also, I'm going to sit with the idea of the Jesus of the totalist religion. *boooom* Whoa. Because yes, that's also true. And also, not the healthiest. Post-evangelicalism, I am highly skeptical of totalist ANYTHING, and framing the Jesus movement (small m) but also the ahistorical Jesus that way is sort of blowing my mind right now.
When I was a youth pastor I was more or less forced to take the kids to a Greg Laurie ‘crusade’ (what an awful word) and it was such a terrible experience I felt sick for exposing kids to it.
On a different topic, I’ve been thinking a lot about the obsession I had with Keith Green, who was another big Jesus Movement figure who looked a lot like Lonnie Frisbee but died young and got to be immortalized instead of erased. But really his obsessive radical views made me feel so responsible and guilty if I wasn’t giving up everything I loved/felt/knew about myself to go be a missionary. He has this song ‘Jesus Commands Us to Go....it should be the exception if we stay’. Ughh. I get sad for my young self thinking about it now.