Jesus Freaks

I’m out, way out of the church. But let’s get one thing clear:
I never left it –it left me. It left me the day it decided it would leave itself.
It left itself the day it left its better nature… The church has lost its song.
They sing drag tail, you know, ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’.
Man, these church soldiers aren’t marching;
They’ve burned their draft cards and spiritually gone to Canada.

– Ed the Flower Child, Jesus Freaks

What’s a Jesus Freak?

a) A really on-fire Christian, b) an over-the-top Christian whose heart is in the right place, or c) an annoying religious fanatic.

According to Jess Moody, it’s none of the above. In his book Jesus Freaks, published on the verge of the Jesus People explosion, he simply describes the Jesus Freak as a hippie –any hippie – who in one way or another fastens himself to the personality of Jesus.

The Jesus Freak identity emerged out of the critical mass of baby boomers who became disillusioned with conventional religion. Being the last generation of Americans raised in a time when most families went to church, Boomers were destined to grapple with serious thoughts about God. And to many of them, the pretentious, materialistic, and confining value system of the 1950’s (as they saw it) bore little resemblance to the Sermon on the Mount.

This feeling of spiritual dissatisfaction is what prompted a throng of youth in the 1960s, you might say, to embark upon a quest to find the real Jesus. Simply put, the Jesus Freak phenomenon was the prequel to the Jesus People Movement. True, most went along for the ride – pursuing the carnal fascinations of a sinful people – but some were on a pilgrimage that others had already discovered along the way.

In spite of all the experimentation in sex, drugs, rock music, Eastern Religion and the occult, a hungry lot never stopped searching for the missing pieces of the transcendent experience they sorely missed in their traditional church upbringings. Ideals like peace, love, brotherhood, and community were re-announced as the gold standard of the true faith. This mindset, coupled together with their stubborn belief they could change the world, placed this generation on a crash course with revival. Even their appearance seemed to betray a deep-seated need to identify with Jesus. Long hair, beards, sandals, frocks, and ponchos were common attire – not exactly first century, but as close as you could get and still keep your pants.

Noted Moody, who visited several communes during this period while gathering material for his book: “Many were driven by a messianic or apostolic complex. All of them were completely obsessed with a fascination for Jesus.” These were not “Christian communes,” mind you, just your average turn-on-tune-in-drop-out hippie collectives. What was it about this generation that set Jesus apart? How was it that even after they dismissed His church, they continued to view Him as the greatest ally of humanity?

Perhaps some of that religious training penetrated after all. In any event, Jesus was still cool even if all those squares called him Lord.
The late 1960s- early 70’s pop culture further corroborates Moody’s observation. The Doobie Brothers’ hit song, Jesus is Just Alright with Me, makes this point in direct terms unimaginable in today’s MTV culture.

The song was originally covered by The Byrds, who also performed the mega-hit Turn! Turn! Turn! – a song lifted nearly verbatim from Ecclesiastes chapter three.

Some of the better-known hits alluding to Jesus as the good guy are: Spirit in the Sky, Fire and Rain, One Toke Over the Line, and Mrs. Robinson, the theme song from the movie The Graduate. Can anyone tell me how Mrs. Robinson seducing a young Dustin Hoffman became a song about Jesus?

My favorite Jesus reference is the dirge at the end of American Pie, sung by Don McLean:

I went down to the sacred store where I'd heard the music years before
But the man there said the music wouldn't play
And, in the streets, the children screamed, the lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken - the church bells all were broken
And the three men I admire most: the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast the day the music died.”

Jesus was “just alright” in other media as well. Cheech and Chong’s first album includes a sketch entitled Welcome to Mexico, about a border guard that enthusiastically welcomes Americans looking for fun, cheap products, prostitutes and illegal workers, but refuses to let Jesus across to help the people of Mexico. Today, it could easily pass as wry commentary written by a church skit team in Nogales, Sonora as opposed to the raw, irreverent comedy team that actually recorded it. And, of course, no list would be complete without mentioning Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Broadway play/film/#1 album, Jesus Christ Superstar.

Sound doctrine notwithstanding, there were few circles where the Prince of Peace did not get a backstage pass. Time Magazine’s landmark cover story, “The Alternative Jesus: Psychedelic Christ,” (6/21/71) commented on the diversity of the Jesus People Movement: “Its appeal is ecumenical, attracting Roman Catholics and Jews, Protestants of every persuasion and many with no religion at all.”

More specifically, they marveled at its impact on the non-WASP segment of American life: “There are a disproportionate number of Roman Catholics among the Jesus People, attracted by the movement's direct approach to Christ. Many Jews have also joined, claiming that they are not quitting but fulfilling their Judaism.”

As we commemorate our 40th anniversary of ministry in Tucson and around the world, I cannot help but wonder what it’s going to take to see another generation of lost but hungry souls swept into the Kingdom of God.

I realize, as Paul put it, “It's not the one who plants or the one who waters who is at the center of this process but God, who makes things grow.” This is all true, but lest we forget, that process also includes faithful workers – God’s co-laborers.

Ed the Flower Child’s admonishment way back in the 1960s still sounds like good advice today: “Church, you have the greatest message in the world. Preach to yourself! Then we poor cats might start stirring in your soup.”