Jesus Revolution and the tragedy of Lonnie Frisbee
The story of the dynamic evangelist still deserves to be told
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When Calvary Chapel pastor Chuck Smith said he wanted God to bring a hippie to his door, because he didn’t understand hippies, he meant it as a joke. But when Lonnie Frisbee showed up, he wasn’t joking. And right there in Smith’s kitchen, a movement was born.
The new film Jesus Revolution tells that movement’s origin story, which doubles as the origin story for Harvest Ministry founder Greg Laurie. In 1969, Laurie was a lost teen from a broken home when he encountered Smith and Frisbee’s joint ministry. He quickly joined the thousands of young people whose mass conversions and Pacific Ocean baptisms would turn heads around the world. A mere two years later, he was planting his own church.
The film has over-performed at the box office, raking in an impressive $15 million for opening weekend. Christian movies usually aren’t my thing, but I’m a certified 60s/70s nerd with an interest in the history around “the Jesus people,” so I was curious. As I read up on Lonnie, Chuck Smith’s mysterious hippie guest, I especially wondered how the film would handle his story. The dynamic evangelist was directly responsible for a wave of conversions, but he was also a deeply troubled soul whose moral failings cost him his ministry platform and ultimately his life. March 12 will mark 30 years since he died of AIDS at just 43.
Surprisingly, the filmmakers chose to avoid any allusion to Frisbee’s sexual struggles. While the movie somewhat foreshadows the breakup of his marriage, there’s no hint of homosexuality in his biography, and even the cause of his death is omitted in a closing title card. Perhaps this is understandable, since he’s an obscure enough figure that not many would know or care, and he isn’t the main character anyway. And historically, it wasn’t until after 1970 that he would be excommunicated and deplatformed. Still, the choice to play it safe is already irritating people in the know on both the right and the left. For conservatives, it’s too generous to Frisbee. For liberals, it’s too generous to Frisbee’s “homophobic” ministry colleagues.
The truth, as usual, is messy. At the time, Frisbee was only college-aged himself (though he’s played by the much older Jonathan Roumie, who eerily evokes middle-aged Frisbee). As a teenage survivor of unspeakable child abuse, he had plunged into the Laguna Beach gay underground scene. The film obliquely refers to this phase in Frisbee’s tragic line, “We did everything and everyone.” After a particularly intense LSD trip, he became obsessed with Jesus and the Bible. Charismatic preachers took him under their wing and taught him the tricks of their trade. He began compulsively sharing the gospel with his unsaved family and whoever else would listen, including Connie Bremer, the girl he would marry. He told her he wasn’t gay, he’d come out of a homosexual lifestyle.
The marriage was a mismatch from the beginning, tragically destined to shatter on the rocks of Connie’s adultery and Frisbee’s punishing ministry schedule. He quickly became an “apostle” in his own eyes, testing his “gifts” as an Aimee Semple McPherson-style faith healer, with results some witnesses will maintain to this day were truly miraculous. Then, late nights, he would come home and tell Connie he’d been hanging out in gay bars. She tried to assume the best. He would go literally anywhere to tell literally anyone about Jesus, after all.
Frisbee did in fact have a genuine burden for men in the gay lifestyle, as he did for all manner of damaged sinners wherever he encountered them, from the streets of California to the slums of Nigeria. Like many men carrying father wounds and homosexual trauma, he had a child-like vulnerability, which could manifest in an overwhelming, urgent tenderness for the lost.
Sadly, he was also childish in his immature resentment of authority. Blinded by ego, he assumed it fell to him to minister while others joined him or stayed out of his way. When instead they dealt out the severe mercy of church discipline, he destroyed himself with bitterness and addiction. In this very dark period, he reported that his childhood trauma was further compounded by repeated violent rape.
After finally admitting his HIV+ status, he sought forgiveness but still couldn’t admit the full extent of his sin in the autobiography he compiled with help from friends. Though he confessed a period of “backsliding” after Vineyard leader John Wimber cut him off, he insisted that he was fired based on “rumors” and “gossip.” But Wimber could attest that privately, Frisbee had admitted otherwise, including a months-long affair with a younger Christian man. This unreliable narration mingles strangely with Frisbee’s emphatic condemnations of the “stronghold” of homosexual sin, even predicting its encroaching “dark” influence over society through art and culture. That was Lonnie Frisbee: even on his deathbed, a walking contradiction.
Today, some progressive voices, including Chuck Smith’s own son, Chuck Jr., see Frisbee’s story as a tragedy with the moral that the church should embrace and affirm “gay Christians.” Some conservatives, much more justifiably, see his story as a cautionary tale about the dangers of the “charismania” that drove his ministry. Frisbee, of course, would have ignored them all.
What would a movie telling the whole true story of Lonnie Frisbee look like? It wouldn’t look pretty. It wouldn’t have a happy ending. It definitely wouldn’t be rated PG-13. And it definitely wouldn’t pull in $15 million on opening weekend.
But Jesus Revolution didn’t need to be that movie, because Lonnie Frisbee’s story was just one part of a much bigger Story. His story still deserves to be told. But in that greater Story, he had to decrease, and Jesus had to increase. As he himself once said, when he was told he looked like Jesus, “I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather look like.”
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.