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Jesus Revolution is a well-meaning revival film that tries to be both authentic and inspirational

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    (REVIEW) “Jesus Revolution” is well intentioned, but its storytelling is too weak and its message too dishonest to inspire a true vision on how to start or maintain a Christian revival in the modern world.

    Jon Erwin of “I Can Only Imagine” and “I Still Believe” is back in the director’s chair — this time with co-director Brent McCorkle and co-writer Jon Gunn — to tell the story of the “Jesus movement” that attracted hippies to Christianity in the 1960s and fed into contemporary Christianity. A big part of this was contemporary Christian music, which Erwin and collaborator Greg Laurie profiled in the documentary “The Jesus Music.” Laurie was also a co-writer and producer of “Jesus Revolution.”

    The story is fictionalized but biographical, following Laurie (Joel Courtney) as he’s caught between childhood trauma and his attraction to this new movement. Chuck Smith (Kelsey Grammer), the stuffy preacher of a dying church, starts the movement with hippie Lonnie Frisbee (Jonathan Roumie, of “The Chosen” fame).

    This movie comes at a time when the desire for revival is deeply felt by Christian communities. Pew Research shows that, if current trends hold, Christianity will all but disappear in the West within a few generations

    But Pentecostal preachers have claimed that God is bringing revival soon. Famous pastor and author Dr. Tim Keller recently wrote in an article titled “American Christianity is Due for a Revival” that “renewal is possible.” And on Feb. 8, Asbury University began a sweeping student-led revival that has drawn thousands from around the world. The nonstop service will end on Feb. 22, out of respect for students and campus security.

    Even non-Christian Americans feel like the country needs reviving. Record numbers of Americans suffer from depression and feel like the country is getting worse.

    “It was a similar time in American history today,” McCorkle explained about the setting of “Jesus Revolution” in an exclusive interview with ReligionUnplugged.com. “You had all the strife, all the divisions, all the hate, all the judgment. You had people definitely picking ideological sides and a culture war.” 

    Erwin saw the Time magazine’ psychedelic Jesus movement cover from 1971 and was immediately hooked on the idea of seeing how another time like ours had a dramatic Christian revival. His hope is that Christians see a vision for doing the same thing now. He brought McCorkle on board to help him execute his vision.

    “The idea was, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be cool just to drop a camera back into 1969 and see a time in the Christian faith where these two disparate groups actually came together and found a way to love each other?’” McCorkle said. 

    “People were praying back then, and we need to pray now,” Laurie said in an interview with thinke.org. “We’re praying that ‘Jesus Revolution’ is more than just an entertaining film, and it is that for sure, but we’re praying that it’s a spark that shows what it was like back then with the hope that it can happen again.”

    Despite good intentions, “Jesus Revolution” does not provide a helpful vision for Christians to restore their faith or heal a divided country. It really fails to be inspired in any deeply meaningful way.

    There are definitely things the movie does well. It looks beautiful. The cinematography is always a highlight of any Erwin Brothers movie, and this might be their best-looking movie yet. It’s shot with a tender transcendence, particularly in scenes where God is supposedly moving. It allows the movie to say — with visuals rather than words — that the God of the universe is near and loving. 

    The characters are also a highlight. The movie really leans into the delight of seeing wildly opposite personalities clash, and Grammer and Roumie are both deeply empathetic and entertaining whenever they’re on screen. “Jesus Revolution” also contains by far the funniest dialogue of an Erwin and Gunn screenwriting collaboration. 

    The filmmakers also deserve credit for leaning, at least a little, into the messy complexity of Christian community far more than most faith-based films dare to. My favorite (very brief) scene in the film is an intense and honest one: Smith and Frisbee have a very intense falling out, one that leads them to part ways for good. For a genre that always wants to wrap things up with a bow, leaving a conflict unresolved is a pretty brave thing — even if there is reassurance at the end that they reconciled.

    Conflict is also where the story starts to fall apart. So many characters’ internal conflicts are never resolved, but the story resolves conflicts that were not set up in the first place. 

    Laurie and the other hippies are disillusioned by modern society and authority, partly because they’ve been abandoned by their parents and partly because they object to the Vietnam War. 

    Yet, when Frisbee introduces the gospel to them, he does so by telling them they’re sinners — but God loves them anyway and will take away their sins. But it’s not clear that guilt over sins is at all an important issue for these people — and it certainly wasn’t something the story focused on before that point. The other, more pressing questions they have are barely addressed — if at all. 

    This is especially confusing at the third-act payoff, when Laurie gets a revelation about his father that serves as a catalyst for him to return to faith. But it isn’t at all clear how this particular revelation answered his fear and resolved his faith. 

    The obvious problem with this is a huge lack of emotional payoff for the audience. The other problem is that it sets a bad example for Christian evangelism. 

    It suggests that the same gospel presentation works for everyone, when in reality each individual has a different understanding and different questions — and Jesus’ message applies to people in different ways.

    When the movie does set up and pay off the same conflict, the conflict itself is way too short, and the happy resolution to the conflict is way too long. Conflict is more interesting than resolution, so a lot of the movie is unnecessarily boring. Smith has biases against hippies, and his church resents the congregation and changing music, but these conflicts are waved away with immediate celebration of progress. 

    It also sets up a problematic expectation for Christians that when God gets involved, struggles automatically become easy. (They usually don’t.) And it doesn’t provide a model for Christians to overcome struggles in collaboration with God.

    Christian films at large have a toxic tendency to portray overcoming obstacles in the Christian life as the result of a single moment — whether that’s accepting Christ, praying for a miracle, having a revelation or submitting to God’s will. “Jesus Revolution” is no different. Laurie only has one real moment of clarity, and he's completely turned around at the end. In reality, most change in a Christian’s life happens through hard obedience over a long period of time. 

    But Christian audiences don’t like those stories. When change is hard, they blame God, give up, think they’re doing something wrong or just keep praying that God will change them and accept it as his will when he never does.

    The dishonesty of the easy message is especially clear in “Jesus Revolution.” After all, in real life, Frisbee remained gay after the events of the story — and while the movie says Frisbee died young, it fails to mention he died of AIDS. There could be a really great message here about how becoming a Christian doesn’t automatically mean sin no longer exists. But that would force harder conversations about what impact becoming a Christian has — or doesn’t have — on a person’s life.

    McCorkle bluntly admitted that was a decision based on what they thought Christian audiences could handle. 

    “We wanted as many people as possible to find this movie, and we didn't want people to trip over it,” he said. “So where we landed was, OK, we’re looking at these two years of his life, and during these two years of his life, he’s newly married, but he’s already fallen into a really turbulent relationship with his wife.”

    This leads to the biggest reason that the movie won’t inspire the revival it’s looking for: Its message isn’t true. 

    Frankly, the first Jesus movement didn’t start a revival or heal a divided country. The number of people who identified as Christian started dropping in the U.S. in the 1960s. That continued through the 1970s, when the Jesus movement took place, and has continued dropping ever since. The country was divided in the ’60s, and it’s only become more divided since. The issues are different — it’s Republican vs. Democrat instead of segregation and the Vietnam War — but the divisiveness has remained the same. So when the creators suggest that the Jesus movement healed a broken world and a second revival could do it again, there’s no real evidence to support that. 

    Even if the Jesus movement of the ’70s created a temporary revival, it’s not obvious that its lessons could be applied today. “Jesus Revolution” basically says that the Jesus movement brought alienated youth back to Christ by playing rock music and letting young people come into church barefoot. But plenty of churches play rock music, and some of the only churches that aren’t losing members are conservative evangelical ones. The mainline and progressive denominations that are doing the most to embrace the values of Generation Z, particularly around sex, gender and social justice, are the ones that are dying.

    Revivals in general have a problematic inability to fulfill the promises they make. As evidenced by the first and second American Great Awakenings and the majority of the 19th and 20th centuries, “revival” movements in Western Christianity seemingly always coincide with the steady decline of church membership and only temporarily give the numbers a slight boost. In the end, church membership is even lower than before. 

    Even without the concern of revival across Christianity, the movie fails to provide a model for what loving despite difference looks like. It never shows the characters discussing politics or other contentious topics and disagreeing with each other without hating each other.

    McCorkle agreed that the influence of the Jesus movement wasn’t long lasting. 

    “You experienced this pressure wave, and it rises up, and then it ebbs back out,” he said. “It’s a wave. What is a way to create a wave of sustainability as opposed to just a little blip on the timeline? I don’t know.”

    Ultimately, “Jesus Revolution” doesn’t have the answers it claims to — either to turn around the decline of Christianity or heal a divided culture. In order to do that, a movie would have to show what it actually looks like to walk the Christian walk, in all its difficulty and beauty. And this movie is not that movie.

    McCorkle is nevertheless optimistic of the good this movie can do to give people a vision of unity. 

    “I will say, I do think unity is possible,” he said. “I’m not skeptical enough to say that this movie couldn't bring about another deep look at unity. I guess the bigger question to be asking is, is there a beautiful culture that could be constructed around the things that Jesus stood for in his life? And I think the answer is yes.”

    I think so too. I look forward to seeing a movie one day that shows what that looks like.

    Joseph Holmes is an award-nominated filmmaker and culture critic living in New York City. He is co-host of the podcast “The Overthinkers” and its companion website theoverthinkersjournal.com, where he discusses art, culture and faith with his fellow overthinkers.


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