Images, Reason, and ‘The Jesus Movement’

By Jim Tonkowich Published on May 30, 2023

After watching the film Jesus Revolution, about the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, my wife commented that what we need today is another Jesus Movement, another revival in which alienated, lonely, lost young people find a home in the Christian faith.

For so many young people of that era — Dottie and me included — the Gospel was a welcome refuge from shallow, self-destructive behaviors, lifestyles, and ideologies. We may not all have been hippies, but we all needed to be saved from a toxic culture.

The movie, Jesus Revolution, tells the story of Pastor Chuck Smith (played by Kelsey Grammar) who, pastored a church in Costa Mesa, California. Biblical and well-meaning, the church was also stuffy and not particularly welcoming. Then the hippies showed up.

The rest, as they say, is history. Smith founded Calvary Chapel in 1965. Never compromising the truth, he welcomed everybody. No shoes, no shirt — no problem. Guitars, bongos, rock and roll — no problem. Family problems, drug problems, loneliness and alienation problems — no problem. Come to Jesus! That original Calvary Chapel grew from 25 to 25,000 and today Calvary Chapels can be found across the country.

We Need a Revival — But We Have a Problem

I remember the conversions of that era and we do, in fact, need a revival among church-goers and what Pope St. John Paul II called “the new evangelization” to reach those outside the Church. Without a movement of God’s Spirit, I fear for my grandchildren.

But there’s a problem we need to solve.

Let’s imagine one of Chuck Smith’s converts who we’ll call Starchild. Starchild was 20 when she came to Christ, in 1968 and thus was born in 1948. The 1950s, not some earlier era, was the high-water mark of church attendance in America. So it’s likely that Starchild’s parents took her to church. Church attendance, Bible reading, prayer, hymn singing were normal for Starchild as she grew up.

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In 1953, at age five she started public school. There, the Protestant hegemony holding strong, each day began with a Bible reading and the Lord’s Prayer. That continued until 1962 when she was in ninth grade. Starchild and her peers also learned patriotic hymns such as “America the Beautiful” (“God shed His grace on thee”) and “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” (“Our fathers’ God, to Thee, author of liberty, to Thee we sing”).

All of which is to say that even if Starchild went off to college in 1966, read Herbert Marcuse, smoked a lot of dope, and became a poster child for sexual liberation until she dropped out to become a flower child, her imagination had been formed by Christian images.

“God,” “sin,” “salvation,” “eternal life,” “father,” “love,” “sacrifice,” and other Christian words and phrases registered. She may have rejected them, but those images — if not the actual ideas — were in her imagination. Thus, when she heard Chuck Smith preach the Gospel, his words connected with the images.

Today, Evangelism and Apologetics Must Go Deeper

As scholar Holly Ordway explained on a Mars Hill Audio interview about her book Tales of Truth: A Guide to Sharing the Gospel through Literature:

The imagination is the human faculty that allows us to be creating meaning because when we take in all these facts, data about the world… it’s just data. It’s the imagination that pulls it together into a picture, a meaningful picture. Then it’s the reason that makes the judgments: is this true or is this false? But until the imagination supplies an image for the reason to act upon, nothing’s happening. And I think that’s a lot of what’s going on with people today who are sort of indifferent to questions of ultimate truth. It’s not really that they don’t care, it’s that they have no meaningful grasp of the question. And so their reason has nothing to get hold of to ask is this true or is this false.

That is, the images Starchild and her peers grasped in 1968 are absent from most young people today. And without images to reason about, a repeat of the Jesus movement is not an option. There are no images.

Today, evangelism and apologetics must go deeper than reason, reaching imaginations first. Holly Ordway argues that books such as The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Dante’s Divine Comedy can implant the images needed to reason meaningfully about the Christian faith. I’d add Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories. These infuse the mind with images of goodness, beauty, truth, virtue, and evil without which there can be no faith.

And movies like Jesus Revolution can also help supply what is missing. So can the books we haven’t written yet, the music we haven’t played yet, and the art we have yet to produce. Oh, and there is such a need for kind, patient friendships and conversations.

All is not lost. The Holy Spirit whose presence and power we celebrated on Pentecost (this past Sunday) is with us to build God’s Church today. What is He leading you and me to do next?


James Tonkowich, a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.”

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