"One Way!": The Jesus People and Countercultural Engagement

Trevor Burrows

If you haven’t yet checked out Larry Eskridge’s God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America, you should move it to the top of your “to read” list right away. Beyond being beautifully written, the history (or histories) of the Jesus People it narrates should provoke some interesting questions for anyone interested in religion, culture, and politics in the twentieth century. For one of the main takeaways from Eskridge’s book is that the movement was built upon any number of tensions: was it a ministry to hippies, junkies, and counterculture refugees, or was it a grassroots movement comprised of those figures? Did it take on the trappings of the late ‘60s in order to save souls only, or did it use countercultural aesthetics and practices as “authentic” symbols of a different conception of Christian practice? And what was the relationship between the movement’s scattered leadership, its establishment backers, and the participants it attracted? These questions hover around the larger issue concerning the movement’s relationship to evangelical culture on the one hand, and to non-evangelical (counter)cultures on the other.

Rather than review Eskridge’s book here - it has been well-reviewed elsewhere - I want to use it to consider the significance of the movement in the history of modern evangelicalism, and to perhaps suggest a slightly more critical angle on the movement’s relationship to American culture and politics. For what has followed me since finishing the book is the Jesus People’s largely apolitical character. Of all the groups that Eskridge profiles, only one - the Christian World Liberation Front (CWLF), an answer to Berkeley’s Third World Liberation Front - seemed to engage the growing number of social and political issues that were debated at the time. Indeed, when Billy Graham tried to enlist the movement in support of Nixon in ‘72, the turnout was minimal. “For the overwhelming majority of Jesus People,” Eskridge writes, “[...] turning out for some sort of political cause was simply unappealing because it skirted the “real” issue: how would this effort glorify the Lord or lead the people to Jesus?” There is a parallel worth mentioning here in the recruitment and evangelization strategies of some of the movement’s leaders. When Tim Wise, a co-founder of one of the early outposts of the movement in the Haight-Ashbury area, is asked by a muckraking evangelist whether they encouraged hippies to clean up their act by purging their lives of drugs, promiscuous sex, and inappropriate fashion choices, Wise responds coolly: we talk about Jesus, and what happens from there is between the individual and God.

These two examples might point to some general political and cultural boundaries of Jesus People activity, or at least to some unwritten rules of engagement with non-evangelical culture. For although the movement’s leadership was populated, in part, by folks who came out of the counterculture, those same leaders came to understand their embracing of Christ as a repudiation of the counterculture’s deficiencies and flaws. This meant, in turn, that many of the communes, coffee shops, and meeting spaces that were taken up by the movement were inspired by the culture they engaged even as they intended to provide a haven and reprieve from that same culture. Over time, perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of the movement’s key groups would explicitly regulate group behavior in matters of drugs and sexuality, some quite rigidly, but engagement with the culture nevertheless provided a bridge to the primary goals of the movement: fostering an intense life- and society-changing relationship with Jesus.

Furthermore, Eskridge clearly suggests that, for some, the taking on of counterculture accoutrements was an intentional act, the price of admission to an otherwise inaccessible mass of lost people. Jack Sparks of CWLF is a symbol of this sort of conscious appropriation of fashion, speech, and style into his evangelical approach. This was not the case with everyone. But there was nevertheless a fuzzy relationship with the counterculture where Jesus People often interpreted the counterculture’s aesthetic and performative elements as points of transition into the message of the Jesus People Movement. This is why, at least in terms of initial contact with non-evangelical culture, the movement was to be non-prescriptive in matters of relationships and vices. In her description of the Jesus People in A Nation of Outsiders, Grace Elizabeth Hale describes this process as akin to the work of missionaries abroad who “adopted native symbols and styles … to try to fit their foreign faith into the everyday lives of their intended converts,” a reading that is supported by some of the more explicit acts of appropriation chronicled by Eskridge.

Political activism was also dismissed as superfluous to the larger goal of evangelization and transformation, even if the language and aesthetics of countercultural politics were incorporated into the Jesus People movement’s own style and ideology. Black power, Vietnam, environmentalism, feminism, imperialism, or any of the other issues of the period - none of them earned much attention from the movement. Again, the exception here is CWLF, and in his Moral Minority, David Swartz suggests that the group’s engagement with leftist politics continued to deepen as it attracted greater numbers of Berkeley’s activists. The Jesus People as a whole, however, shied away from such issues. Their ministry was to be a transformational reprieve from such tumult and controversy, a first step toward the only real answer to be found: Jesus.

The questions I am hinting at here might be articulated as follows: How different, really, were the Jesus People’s attitudes toward politics and culture within the period’s broader (conservative) evangelical culture? And from a critical perspective, what were the implications of their use of countercultural cues as methods of evangelization? After all, American countercultures of the period - in both their eventual “hippie” or New Left/political forms - did offer a number of moral visions of the world. So what does evangelization do, as a literal act and a cultural attitude, if it dismisses the potential value in the moral visions of those it seeks to convert? Might we read such an act as an effort, conscious or unconscious, to redraw the lines of religious authority, an effort to stabilize a tradition’s authority by effectively undermining the other’s claim to unique or useful knowledge?

These are sticky, even risky questions. For Jesus People surely tapped into certain countercultural practices and ideas - cooperative living, small groups, a quest for authenticity, a valuing of non-conformity - that resonated with their own interest in renewing their spiritual lives and the church itself, especially at the grassroots level. The movement offered a critique of modern life that intersected in many ways with the critiques of the countercultures. In this sense, as Hale suggests, we might read the movement as part of larger narrative of Americans adopting “outsider” identities in order to resolve historical tensions that came to a head in the mid-twentieth century, tensions between “the desire for self-determination and autonomy and the desire for a grounded, morally and emotionally meaningful life.” Furthermore, attempting to distinguish “authentic” engagement and dialogue with other cultures from “inauthentic” engagement is fraught with theoretical problems, if only because it attempts to distinguish where the “real” meaning of cultural performance lies (belief? ritual? the body itself?).

Yet these are important questions to ask, not only of the Jesus People but of other groups of the period who struggled to find their place within their own religious traditions, and within (or against) the various political and cultural options offered to them from the world outside of those traditions. The model adopted by the Jesus People was but one mode of Christian engagement with American culture during this period; as Swartz’s Moral Minority demonstrates, the evangelical left encompassed many others. Eskridge persuasively argues that despite the Jesus People movement’s relatively short lifespan, it significantly changed evangelical culture in the long run. But God’s Forever Family also gives us a much deeper look at the movement itself than previously available, and thus offers us an opportunity to consider it within the broader religious and cultural transformations of the period. Part of that work necessitates careful, thoughtful analysis of the limits that shaped the movement’s form and content. This means not only observing overlap and exchange between the Jesus People and the countercultures, but also asking why certain aspects of those cultures were taken up by the movement’s participants while others were disregarded.


Mark T. Edwards said…
Great overview and questions, Trevor! A good book to read alongside Eskridge's book is Axel Schaeffer's Countercultural Conservatives (Wisconsin, 2011).
Trevor Burrows said…
Thanks, Mark, and thanks for the recommendation, too. Not sure how that escaped my attention, but that looks perfect for some research I'm working on!

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