The Historiography of the Jesus People

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Over at Religion & Politics, University of Tennessee religion professor Mark Hulsether examines several books on the Jesus People and the evangelical left.  He uses Shawn David Young’s Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock  as a way of framing his discussion.

Here is a taste:

Evangelical hippies in the 1970s were known for flashing their “one-way” sign—an index finger pointing upward that signaled an alternative to the counter-cultural peace sign and black power fist. Their gesture was quite often interpreted as approximate support for the moral agendas of Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” and the emerging Christian right. Shawn David Young’s book on the trajectories of Protestant youth culture, Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock, evokes such memories—but it also seeks to undermine the stereotype that these 1970s evangelicals were on a path toward buttoned-down conservatism. Young suggests that evangelicalism has been less like a one-way street leading to the right, and more like a street with two-way traffic, carrying many people leftward. Gray Sabbath features a full-scale commune, along with hard-core hippies who cleaned up their lives and became righteous social activists through Jesus People discipline—plus the world’s most influential rock festival (at least by evangelical standards). Most of this made its members gradually less, not more, conservative. We might ask, though, whether Young’s study is more than a groovy flashback to the 1970s. Can it really serve, as Young says, as a “counternarrative” that can “point to a new kind of evangelical”?

Talk of a counternarrative naturally provokes a question: counter to what? The common wisdom presumes that evangelicals have been groomed to fight on the right flank of emerging culture wars. It assumes there is a spectrum from the Christian right at the conservative end, through progressive evangelicals and mainline Protestants in the center, shading toward the recent growth of “nones,” or people who do not claim a religious affiliation. Common wisdom also takes for granted strong boundaries between mainstream liberal Protestantism (typically assumed to be in decline during these years) and evangelicals, including those drifting leftward. The story of Jesus People USA (JPUSA) is both fascinating on its own terms and illuminating because it unsettles these assumptions.

JPUSA emerged when two veterans of the West Coast Jesus People scene formed a Milwaukee commune with a touring music ministry. (JPUSA’s Rez Band became the Led Zeppelin of early CCM—its hard rock innovator.) Their group grew large enough to split in 1972, and eventually a splinter led by John and Dawn Herrin put down roots on the north side of Chicago, where it began an active social ministry. Eventually they acquired an old hotel, which they used for living space and low-income housing for the elderly. JPUSA generated income from several businesses, notably a roofing company, and ran a homeless shelter and soup kitchen. In 1989 they became a congregation and de facto mission project of the Evangelical Covenant Church.

Young follows JPUSA to the present, thriving long after kindred communes folded. He contends that its outward-looking service orientation and a strong but not-overly-rigid organizational structure were keys to its success. The group came to occupy a political and theological position that may seem anomalous. On most socio-political issues the group skewed left-of-center, with a partial exception for abortion, but it maintained relatively conservative evangelical teachings. As everyone knows, the most famous evangelicals since Nixon’s time have favored a conservative populist stance harnessed to voting Republican. Many scholars have argued that conservative Christian groups like the Calvary Chapel movement or Bill Bright’s Campus Crusade for Christ recruited youth into ranks of the Christian right. However, Young presents JPUSA as an exception to this rule. For him, JPUSA blurs the lines between evangelical conservatism and other kinds of Protestantism. Young writes of the Jesus People finding “their way to a political middle ground—the gray space between black and white”—hence the title of the book. 

Read the entire piece here.