Monday, August 12, 2013

The "Jesus movement" of the 1960s and 1970s

I've posted before about the "Jesus movement" of young evangelical Christians in the late 1960s and 1970s, e.g., Hippies to the right of me, hippies to the left, here I'm stuck in the middle with Evan Bayh 02/23/2010.

Randall Stephens at Religion in American Life has an interview with Larry Eskridge, who has done a new book about that phenomenon, A History of the Jesus People: An Interview with Larry Eskridge (n.d., accessed 08/12/2013), Eskridge's book is God's Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America (2013). In the interview, Eskridge says:

In terms of the particular historical moment, the Jesus movement's biggest bottom line was in generational terms: it played a major role in keeping evangelicalism together by providing a much easier path for a lot of people — particularly evangelical kids raised in the church—to navigate the massive changes that buffeted American society and culture during that period. The Jesus People had a degree of "with-it-ness" and a cultural cache that the larger movement certainly didn’t possess going into the late '60s. I think it’s fair to say that if the Jesus People hadn’t come along when they did the evangelical church would have been nowhere near as formidable a force throughout American culture come the 1980s and beyond.
He also mentions the innovative impulses in religious music of that time:

Music was such an important element in what held youth culture together by the 1960s that it would have been truly surprising if any sort of popular movement could have had any grass roots traction without a musical component. The Jesus movement was certainly obsessed by music just like the larger youth culture — "Jesus Music" seemed to naturally pour forth in the form of halting, homemade folk songs and bluesy, rock tunes from the earliest manifestations of the movement all across the country. A whole network of musical groups and venues grew up within the space of a few short years along with the infrastructure to distribute the music to Jesus Music fans. Of course this was all surprising in that the music of the Jesus People was an obvious departure from the norms of the larger evangelical subculture. Certainly there was no shortage of resistance among older, more traditional church people to the new forms of music. But the combination of cultural crisis, earnest Jesus People fervor, and the sheer size of the generational cohort eventually served to lessen most older evangelicals' opposition. I think most adults in the churches saw that it would be a better alternative to cultivate their kids’ enthusiasm for Jesus by indulging their new worship choruses on Sundays and letting them listen to Jesus Rock in their spare time.
The hippie subculture had a definite religious element involved, more the vague sort that today is called "spirituality" as semi-distinct from "religion." I still like the broad classification used by John Robert Howard that I posted about in The sixties: those famous hippies 06/14/2008. His two categories "visionaries" and "freaks and heads" included people who had some kind of spiritual perspective on life, though in mostly cases it wasn't necessarily terribly theologically sophisticated; but the same is true of most church-goers. You don't have to be a professor of theology to have a serious religious/spiritual orientation or important insights along those lines. See, e.g., Jesus of Nazareth.

And while many of the "freaks and heads" were using pot and psychedelics for entertainment (or self-medication), certainly the early advocates of LSD had quasi-religious and mystical ideas that they connected with LSD usage. The early issues of Psychedelic Review included articles along those lines, such as Herman Hesse: Poet of the Interior Journey by Tomothy Leary and Ralph Metzner (1:2 Fall 1963):

Few writers have chronicled with such dispassionate lucidity and fearless honesty the progress of the soul through the stages of life. Peter Camenzind (1904), Demian (1919), Siddhartha (1922), Steppenwolf (1927), Narziss und Goldmund (1930), Journey to the East {1932), Magister Ludi (1943) -different versions of spiritual autobiography, different maps of the interior path. Each new step revises the picture of all the previous steps, each experience opens up new worlds of discovery in a constant effort to communicate the vision.
The "Jesus movement" of the 60s and 70s was a diffuse movement that led into many directions, including cult groups like the Children of God.

But the relationship of the "Jesus freaks" to the hippie counterculture was fated to be superficial and imitative. Within the confines of conservative evangelical Christianity, i.e., fundamentalism, there wasn't much room for the kinds of social unconventionalism distinguishing the hippie movement. Quoting my earlier description of Howard's other two categories of hippies from 1967:

Howard's categories of "midnight" and "plastic" hippies provide a way of talking about the cultural diffusion of some hippie styles, practices and attitudes. The business system always seeks ways to make money. And the hippie movement made love beads and leather shirts commodities with decent profit margins. Despite the exaggerated reactions from many of their elders, hippie styles could be adapted by people who had no ambition or desire to "tune in, turn on, drop out", as a popular saying had it. Thus, the "plastic" hippies.

The "midnight" hippies, on the other hand, are those who don't adopt hippie styles but do share some aspects of the more thoughtful hippie criticisms of the broader society.
Within Howard's classification scheme, the Jesus Freaks fit more into the "plastic" category. That is, they adopted some of the clothing and hair styles of the hippies and some of the more tolerant peace-and-love postures of the hippies, which distinguished them from judgmental, fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists. You can see how the styles might be attractive:


But experimenting with drugs and even using alcohol were pretty much as taboo for the "Jesus movement" as for any straitlaced fundamentalist devotee. For them as for their more conventional elders, "exploring" things like "Eastern religions," i.e., Buddhism and Hinduism, was only legitimate in the context of proselytizing people away from those views to conservative Christianity. In general, proselytizing was as much or more of an emphasis for the "Jesus movement" adherents as for their more conventional fundamentalists friends of their own age as well as older ones. Christianity has always had a significant element of syncretism to it, although Christians have often highly selective about it. We could understand the "Jesus movement" of that time as a sort of cultural syncretism. Or, to put it another way, a branch of traditional Protestant proselytizing that also gave its adherents a way to feel "cool" and in touch with their less socially inhibited friends and acquaintances in their age group.

Also, anything that sounded like "free love," which would be pretty much cover most sexual activity outside of marriage was also off-limits to the "Jesus movement." Hippies were more demonstrative at least about their claimed lack of inhibitions ("hang-ups") about sex than most people, except for maybe frat boys. As I wrote in the 2008 post:

The hippies also helped challenge public hypocrisy about heterosexual sex and love practices. And Howard notes how the hippies may have contributed to the gay rights movement. The openly-gay libertarian-anarchist writer Paul Goodman was popular among the alternative-lifestyle hippies. Howard notes that in the Haight-Asbury neighborhood in San Francisco, Ground Zero for the Summer of Love in 1967, even before 1967 the Haight had become home to a community including blacks, white beatniks and "a small homosexual colony".
The "Jesus movement" was not noted from producing any greater openness or even healthy adult attitudes about sex than the larger fundamentalist subculture of which they were a part.

One aspect of their history that is surprising and disappointing is the limited contribution of their "Jesus music." Maybe I'm being too narrow in that evaluation. Some of the songs used in "folk masses" at the Catholic Church are actually good, with memorable melodies and lyrics that show some insight and reflection. And the "Jesus movement" music presumably had some effect on that style of music.

It's hard to say that for the marketing genre known as "Christian contemporary" music. An awful lot of it is just plain dull, with simple melodies, unimaginative instrumentation and superficial, repetitive lyrics. My sister-in-law mildly mocks it as "7-Eleven music": seven words repeated 11 times.

It didn't have to be that way. Kate Campbell's 2001 album Wandering Strange is an example of what Christian contemporary music could have been. But then, most of the songs there are new arrangements of older songs from the Baptist Hymnal. Someone more knowledgeable than I about the early Jesus Rock songs might be able to make a plausible case that there was a "co-optation" of the genre to become at least less annoying to fans of more traditional styles. And maybe the commercial genre of Christian Contemporary is too narrowly defined. If it regularly included songs performed by Johnny Cash or Kate Campbell with Christian religious themes, it would be expanded for the better from my perspective.

I've more than once heard this song used in Catholic confirmation ceremonies in Austria (in English), K.D. Lang sings Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah:



Works for me. Why could Christian Contemporary do this kind of thing? It's even a "hallelujah" song! Okay, the lyrics aren't strictly Christian, it's by a Jewish songwriter and it's sung here by a lesbian performer, but still ...

Pentecostals and fundamentalists are often distinguished from one another. But that's mainly due to differences over rituals like speaking in tongues, Pentecostal "prophecy" and exorcism. The general approach to the Bible and to social attitudes and sexual habits are generally compatible. But I wonder how much of the "Jesus movement's" energy and activists eventually wound up channeled into Pentecostal ("charismatic") movements. Because the Pentecostals in some ways already practiced rituals that were both regarded as weird by other fundamentalists and were most mystical. In those ways, they were better positioned to take advantage of the "Jesus movement" impulse than other established denominational traditions.

It occurs to me that corporate Democrat Cory Booker is a modern example of something like the "Jesus movement" of the Sixties and Seventies, a public figure who manages to come off as open and tolerant but also looks to be closely tied to Christian Dominionists. (Susie Madrak, Anybody But Cory Booker C&L 08/12/2013.

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