“Jesus Knocked Me Off My Metaphysical Ass”

by Jim Bratt.

Larry EskridgeBook cover of God's Forever Family by Larry Eskridge, from Wheaton College, will be coming up to speak at our History department colloquium this Wednesday on the delicately phrased topic, “Jesus Knocked Me Off My Metaphysical Ass.” So I thought I’d give a brief summary of his recent book, God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America (Oxford University Press, 2013), in which that phrase serves as the title of Chapter One. Larry’s work, I might add, was declared nothing less than Book of the Year by Christianity Today magazine. The A-word and Evangelicalism’s top award joining up: to quote Bob Dylan, “Something’s happening here/but you don’t know what it is/Do you, Mr. Jones.”

It’s apt to quote Dylan, troubadour supreme of the 1960s, because Eskridge’s book raises once again – but from a wonderfully revealing angle – the question of “the Sixties” and their meaning for American history. The Sixties of myth and legend was not identical with the chronological decade whose name it bears; it began sometime around 1965 and ended with Watergate in 1974. The component parts of this era are familiar enough. The civil rights movement cresting and giving birth to Black Power. The antiwar movement growing broader, deeper, and more radical. The rebirth of feminism and first birth of ecological consciousness. A widespread dissatisfaction among young people with the blandishments of American materialism as defined by suburban living and corporate striving. Above, or below, all of these, driving the whole, the explosion of a youth culture marked by rock music and in quest a new “lifestyle” (the word was coined just then): more hedonist than constrained, expressive rather than conformist, yearning for authentic relationships and personal meaning rather than the regnant tokens of middle-class success. The whole amounted to a cultural revolution that, with the rising acceptance of same-sex marriage, is now coming to completion in the USA—and that has defined the culture wars in the decades in between.

God’s Forever Family looks at the astounding marriage of this movement with old-fashioned “born-again” religion. Nothing, Eskridge rightly observes, would seem less likely than this coupling, yet few things have more changed the face of American religion—and with it, American politics and culture. The resurgence of evangelical Protestantism in the 1970s, the rise of the Christian Right in politics with the Reagan presidency in the ‘80s, above all the revolution in church music marked by the ubiquity of the “praise and worship” style—all these were rooted in the chemistry of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in the famous 1967 “Summer of Love.” The chemistry experiment Eskridge has in mind was not the mass tripping on LSD for which that time and place are legendary, however. Rather, it was its sequel—the repair and recovery phase that ensued when the Summer of Love turned into an autumn of squalor and exploitation of homeless teens adrift in a Hobbesian world of predation and fear. Everything and everyone in the Haight was against “the System,” but systems offer predictability and protection, and when these are lacking, a new one will be supplied. The Jesus People offered just that.

The theology they tendered was a repackaged blend of classic Pentecostalism: radical supernaturalism, biblical literalism, intense conversion, anticipation of Jesus’ imminent return, contempt for “the world” and its corrupt morals, all experienced and expressed exuberantly with “tongues” and miracles and tears and laughter. A perfect Sixties formula—provided that the “repackaging” in question came via rock music and psychedelic imagery for which Pentecostals to date had expressed nothing but loathing. Here the vital cultural conversion took place: a few pioneering Pentecostal ministers, Chuck Smith of Calvary Chapel fame first among them, got over their hang-ups and adopted “the devil’s music” for the cause of the Lord. They have gone from success to success ever since.

A Jesus People gathering: a crowd of young people carrying signs that say "one way" and "try Jesus"
A Jesus People gathering in the 1960s

The Jesus People as a movement didn’t really take off until its hippie San Francisco seeds were transplanted in Southern California and then transported across the nation as a whole, particularly into the Midwest. There it amounted not so much to rehabbing as preempting hippie victimization, for the masses of youth brought into the movement were largely wholesome high school types, dissatisfied with their staid church upbringings, gazing at those alluring fields of sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll, but brought to safer pastures by savvy troubadours of Jesus rock’n’roll. Saving them for Christ in the long run proved also to save them for America. The Jesus People’s progeny have entered and stayed in the ranks of the Republican Party, “social values” edition. We can surmise that they are exurban, materially ok, pro-Israel, pro-military, pro-family, anti-government (“the System,” don’t you know) and all the rest. In short, Sixties packaging, Fifties politics.

Which raises the broader question of how the Sixties agenda has really worked out. Larry Eskridge’s book underscores the verdict drawn by observers some of the era’s other phases: the expressive individualism of the movement triumphed over its political agenda, rendering once-radical initiatives perfectly safe for a higher, cooler consumerist capitalism. Eskridge’s key value-added for Christians is to let us probe the same dynamic in the church, and to ask hard questions about the long-term costs and benefits of sensational success.

Larry Eskridge will be the guest speaker for the History Department Colloquium on April 15, 2014. This event is open to the public and all are welcome to attend. For more details, visit our colloquia and events page.

Jim Bratt is professor of history at Calvin College, where he teaches courses in world and American history. The focus of his current research is American religion before the Civil War. He recently published a biography of the Dutch theologian and political leader, Abraham Kuyper, who has had an enormous influence on the history of Calvin College. Jim also blogs regularly for The Twelve: Reformed Done Daily.

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