On Israel, Great Awakenings, and absurdly bad court evangelical “history”

Is Bob Mathias’s 1948 Gold Medal linked in some way to Israeli statehood?

Mike Evans is one of the lesser known court evangelicals. One of America’s leading Christian Zionists, Evans recently founded the Friends of Zion Heritage Center and the Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem to celebrate the “everlasting bond between the Jewish and Christian peoples.” When Donald Trump announced that he was moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, Evans enthusiastically told the Christian Broadcasting Network that when he next saw Trump in the Oval Office he would say to him: “Cyrus, you’re Cyrus. Because you’ve done something historic and prophetic.”

Evans believes that Trump was a modern-day Cyrus who has made possible the restoration of Jerusalem and the further confirmation of Israel’s future role in biblical prophecy. Because of Trump’s actions, Evans affirms, the blessing of God will come upon America. This decision made America great in the eyes of God. It also made Trump great in the eyes of the court evangelicals.

Evans also believes that American support for Israel will result in a spiritual revival in evangelical churches. He knows such a revival is coming because, as he says in a recent article at the Christian Broadcasting Network website, it has apparently happened before. Evans says:

  1. When America supported Israeli independence and statehood in 1948, Billy Graham came on the scene.
  2. When the United States supported Israel in the Six-Day War (1967), the “Jesus People” “revival” broke-out in Southern California, thousands of college students gathered in Dallas in 1972 for an event described as the “Christian Woodstock,” and the Catholic Charismatic Movement began.
  3. Now, with the so-called “Abraham Accord” between Israel and the United Arab Emirates signed, Evans says we can expect another revival.

I don’t know if we will see another spiritual revival, but Evans’s theory seems to suggest that the emergence of Billy Graham, the rise of the Jesus People, the Catholic Charismatic Movement, and Explo ’72 all had something to do with U.S. Middle East policy. But Evans doesn’t go far enough. Doesn’t he know that Bob Mathias’s victory in the decathlon at the 1948 Summer Olympics and the 1968 Memphis sanitation strike were also connected to U.S. support of Israel? 🙂

Moreover, one could argue that none of these aforementioned movements or events (Graham, Jesus People, Charismatics, Explo ’72) were “great awakenings.”

I am continually intrigued by evangelicals’ recent fascination with “great awakenings.”

Read Evans’s piece at CBN here.

Three Sundays in April (Part Two)

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If you had thirty minutes to say something to the most powerful man in the world, what would you say?

This is how I started our short series titled “Three Sundays in April.”

On April 5, 2020, Donald Trump announced that he would be watching the Palm Sunday service at Greg Laurie‘s Harvest Christian Fellowship in Riverside, California. What did he hear?

Laurie is 67-years old, but he still exudes California cool. He is always tan and he usually makes appearances in blue jeans, denim or leather jackets, sun glasses, and sneakers. (Imagine a member of Beach Boys getting “saved” and forming a megachurch!) In my early days as an evangelical Christian, I used to listen to Laurie on the radio. If I remember correctly, my local Christian station scheduled his program between John MacArthur’s “Grace to You” and James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family.” I liked Laurie because he seasoned his sermons with jokes and popular culture references. (He has written inspirational books about Johnny Cash and Steve McQueen). Over the years, Laurie has successfully cultivated his brand. According to one website, he has a net worth of $20 million. Preaching the Gospel has been good to him.

Laurie’s biography and spiritual journey is also a part of his appeal. He was born in Long Beach, California. As he wrote in his memoir, Lost Boy, he came from a very dysfunctional home. He was raised by a single mother who was married seven times. Laurie has described her as a “raging alcoholic” who looked like Marilyn Monroe. In high school, Laurie tried to satisfy his search for meaning with drugs until, at the age of 17, he found God through the controversial ministry of charismatic “hippie” preacher Lonnie Frisbee. This led Laurie into the Jesus People Movement and he quickly came under the influence of Calvary Chapel’s Chuck Smith, the balding middle-aged pastor often considered the leader of the movement in Southern California. Laurie led a Bible study at a local Episcopalian church that eventually grew into Harvest Christian Fellowship. Today the church reaches more than 15,000 people at four different campuses, including one in Maui, Hawaii.

Laurie speaks often of the religious revival he witnessed during the early years of Southern California’s Jesus People Movement. He wrote about it in his 2008 co-authored book Jesus Revolution: How God Transformed an Unlikely Generation and How He Can Do It Again Today. Led by Smith and Frisbee, California hippies were turning away from acid and sex and becoming followers of Jesus Christ. People were getting “saved” and Smith, Frisbee and others were holding massive baptisms in the Pacific Ocean. Influenced deeply by what he saw and experienced, Laurie would pursue a dual, but closely related, calling as a pastor and an evangelist.

With Smith’s guidance, Laurie began leading mass evangelistic events–Billy Graham-style crusades– in Anaheim Stadium. He called them “Harvest Crusades.” In 2016, The Los Angeles Times reported that over 500,000 people had made professions of faith during these events. These crusades also reveal the close connection between evangelical culture, spectacle, and consumerism. Laurie is a master marketer. In their book, Finding Faith: The Spiritual Quest of the Post-Boomer Generation, scholars Richard Flory and Donald Miller visited a Harvest crusade and noted the sale of Harvest-themed clothing, books, CDs, stickers, and pins, including a T-shirt modeled after the movie Napoleon Dynamite that said “Jesus Died for Pedro.” In 2018, the event included a freestyle motocross show.

Like most evangelical megachurches, Harvest Christian Fellowship is holding online services during the coronavirus pandemic. Laurie calls these services “Harvest at Home.”

On Palm Sunday, Laurie and his team appear on a carefully constructed set that includes a fake-brick facade covered with Laurie family photos and the revolutionary-era Pine Tree Flag inscribed with the words “An Appeal to Heaven.” (More on this below). Laurie sits front and center behind a fancy music stand. His worship band sits around him on couches and comfortable chairs. Everyone is social distancing in an appropriate fashion. On the couch to Laurie’s immediate right sits his wife Cathee and his son Jonathan. Those who designed Laurie’s set seem to be going for a look somewhere in-between a comfortable white suburban, middle-class living room and a hip urban coffeehouse. At one point Laurie refers to the set as the “front room.”

This is what Donald Trump saw when he live-streamed Laurie’s Palm Sunday service on April 5, 2020. Before the service began, Laurie welcomed Trump:

I want to welcome a very special guest to our service today and he happens to be the President of the United States. Mr. President, thank you for joining us. And thank you for talking about the importance of the church in your press conferences. I know had mentioned earlier [that] it was your hope that maybe we would be meeting in person on Easter and unfortunately that has not worked out. But the amazing thing is that we are able to reach a lot of people now online. Since we started this online experience we’ve seen our numbers explode and in the last few weeks we’ve had over a million people watch us. And I think that’s because Americans are looking for hope, they’re looking for answers, and their looking for truth. And I am so glad that you know how important that the church is. President Trump I want you to know that we are praying for you and for the Vice President as he heads up this COVID-19 Task Force. We’re praying that this coronavirus comes to an end and we’re able to get out again to our churches, and to our businesses, and into the wonderful life we all enjoy as Americans.

Laurie is right. People are looking for hope, answers, and truth during this pandemic. Indeed, the Gospel can provide hope, answers, and truth. But why did Laurie talk about how God can meet these needs in the context of a welcome message to a president who offers little hope, few answers, and endless lies? Why compromise the Gospel message on Palm Sunday in this way? I wonder how many people immediately checked-out at this point.

The service begins with Christian artist Phil Wickham leading an acoustic performance of the praise song “Hosanna.” This song, of course, points the audience to Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. The Gospel of John describes Jesus riding into the city on a donkey in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9. The “great crowd” that gathered in Jerusalem for the Passover festival waved palms and sang, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

After a prayer and several more songs, Laurie delivers his sermon. He begins by complaining about those who are not properly social distancing and others who are hoarding toilet paper. He encourages his online flock to be “selfless, not selfish.” We are off to a good start.

For Laurie, and for nearly all Christians, the story of Palm Sunday points us to Jesus’s death on the cross on Good Friday. This understanding of Christ’s sacrifice, according to the dominant evangelical view of the atonement, teaches that Jesus’s death satisfied the wrath of God. Someone needed to be punished for the sins of the world and God chose his own son to die in our place. It is now up to individual men and women to repent of their sin and accept God’s gift of salvation accomplished through Jesus’s death. When people accept Christ as Savior, and truly believe it, they will receive eternal life in heaven. It is this gospel message that drives Laurie’s entire ministry–both as a pastor and an evangelist.

It also drives Laurie’s eschatology, or his view of the “end times.” Like his mentor Chuck Smith, and like most of the Jesus Movement that surrounded Calvary Chapel in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Laurie believes that true Christians–those who have accepted Jesus as Savior–will one day be removed from the earth through an event known as the rapture. In this view, Palm Sunday points us to Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Those who believe in the atoning death of Jesus Christ and his bodily resurrection from the dead will one day be raptured and join God in heaven. Those left on earth still have an opportunity to accept Jesus as Savior, but they will need to endure seven years of “tribulation.” This will be a time when Satan will rule the earth through the Antichrist until Jesus comes back again (the so-called “Second Coming) with all those who were raptured earlier. Jesus will defeat the forces of evil and will reign on the earth for 1000 years before all true believers finally go to heaven where they will spend eternity with God. Theologians call this eschatological scheme dispensational premillennialism. According to American historian Larry Eskridge, our best interpreter of the Jesus People Movement,  Laurie’s generation was exposed to this teaching by reading Hal Lindsey’s best-selling book The Late Great Planet Earth.

Laurie’s view of the cross and eschatology explains the rhetorical move he makes six minutes into his Palm Sunday online sermon. He stops and invites those listening at home to accept Jesus as Savior:

Now I’m going to do something I don’t normally do. Usually, if you listen to me you know that at the end of my message I will extend an invitation for people to believe in Jesus. And I am going to do that at the end of the message, but I am gonna do it right now, and I’ll tell you why: cause I’m talking to somebody right now that is scared, somebody that is afraid of the afterlife, somebody who is not sure that their life is right with God. And I’m gonna tell you right now, if you want God to forgive you of your sin, if you want to know that you’ll go to heaven when you die, if you want to be sure Jesus is living inside of you, right now I’m gonna lead you in a prayer, and I’ll do it again at the end of the message because sometimes people tune out early and they tune in late….

Laurie knows Trump is watching. He knows that Trump has a short attention span. He also realizes that Trump’s announcement that he would be “attending” Laurie’s service on this day has put him and his message in front of more viewers than usual. Laurie wants to make sure those viewers, including Trump, are right with God. This, he believes, is the best message he could ever deliver to a President of the United States.

It is at this point in the sermon that Laurie merges his passion for evangelism and spiritual revival (forged during his “Jesus Revolution” days) with his Christian nationalism. He makes a few references to the “Kingdom of God.” For Laurie, the Kingdom of God is spiritual in nature. One day, sometime after the Great Tribulation, God will establish an earthly kingdom, but for now the Kingdom of God rests in the “hearts of men and women” who believe Jesus has died for them on the cross. This view of the Kingdom allows Laurie to move freely into a version of Christian nationalism. If the Kingdom of God is solely spiritual, then it is not the kind of kingdom that earthly powers should worry about. Its citizens, in other words, are tasked with preaching the Gospel and getting people into heaven. Christians, as members of God’s Kingdom, are not tasked with speaking truth to power. In this sense, Laurie’s Kingdom is not really a kingdom at all. It is not a rival or an alternative to the other kingdoms of the world, in this case, the United States of America.

Laurie says, “when God wants to send a spiritual awakening to a nation it starts first with his people.” He quotes 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people which are called by name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sins, and heal their land.” There is nothing inherently wrong with preaching this verse, but for the past couple of decades the Christian Right has been applying it to the United States of America. Mike Pence has been making subtle references to this verse during the White House coronavirus press briefings when he ends his prepared remarks with the phrase “heal our land.” In 2016, Southern Baptist theologian Russell Moore addressed the Christian nationalist’s misuse of this verse. (It is worth noting here that Laurie’s church recently became a member of the Southern Baptist Convention).

Laurie connects his use of 2 Chronicles 7:14 with his desire for another Great Awakening. Evangelicals, of course, should all be praying for spiritual revival in the life of the churches. But when one tries to connect prayers for revival to American exceptionalism, or the idea that one day God will restore or reclaim America’s Christian roots and “heal” the country through such a revival, he is on shaky historical and theological ground. Laurie is already on record, in a talk at The White House, trying to connect the First Great Awakening of the 18th century to American nationalism, a lesson he seems to have learned straight from the Eric Metaxas playbook. (He also does it here). And now, in his Palm Sunday sermon, he links spiritual revival and American nationalism to the “Appeal to Heaven” flag hanging on the wall behind him. He says that George Washington, who commissioned the flag, understood that our only hope to become a nation was by the intervention of God.” Historically, as I have written about before, the relationship between Christianity and the American founding was a very complicated one. For Laurie, “heal our land” connects spiritual revival with a movement to return to some kind of Christian golden age in American history. But I am not sure such an age ever existed. Laurie’s use of “heal our land” is the evangelical version of “Make America Great Again.”

Should Laurie call for a spiritual revival in this time of anxiety? Yes. Should he use American history to do it? No.

Here is a thought: what if a spiritual awakening led Christians to take-up their Kingdom of God duties as related to justice and sacrificial love? What if such a revival called immoral political leaders to task? What if such a revival resulted in mass baptisms in the Pacific Ocean and a call to fight for the least of these (yes, this would include the unborn as well as the poor, the immigrant, and the suffering)? What if such an awakening resulted in persecution?

Laurie continues to move through the story of Holy Week by referencing Jesus overturning the tables of the money-changers in the Jewish temple. During this scene, we learn about God’s “righteous indignation” against the religious leaders who are using the temple for immoral and materialistic purposes. Laurie also takes this opportunity to teach us that Jesus was a “man’s man” who was strong enough to overturn tables. If the Kingdom of God is merely in our hearts, then the lesson we learn from Jesus clearing the temple has something to do with righteous anger and masculinity. But if Jesus was really inaugurating his Kingdom on Palm Sunday, then he must, in a now-but-not-yet sense, already be King. And we, as members of the kingdom by faith through the power of the Holy Spirit–followers of Jesus–should be carrying-out that kingdom through lives defined by love, mercy, and justice. Again, a kingdom is a political community.  Though Jesus’ Kingdom will not reach its fullness until His return, Christians, as citizens of this Kingdom, still have responsibilities to contribute to its advancement by living in accordance with Christian ethics (the Sermon on the Mount comes to mind) and speaking truth to the existing kingdoms of this world.

When Jesus entered the Temple during what today we call Holy Week he was challenging both the religious and political authorities of Israel. When he stood before Pilate in John 18-19 he told this imperial official that the Roman Empire is no longer in control. It has been defeated. Yes, God in his sovereignty will allow this empire to run its course (just like he will allow future empires to run their courses), but all man-made empires will one day be replaced by the Messiah’s Kingdom of justice, peace, and love. (This is the essence of Christian hope). Until then, it is the responsibility of citizens of this Kingdom to remind the leaders of the world that God is in control, not them. When the leaders of the world fail to advance policies that care for sick, help the poor, and alleviate suffering, citizens of the Kingdom must speak.

What if Laurie added this interpretation of Holy Week to his Palm Sunday message? What kind of message would such a sermon send to the most powerful man in the world and the millions listening online?

As a historian, when I listen to Laurie I am reminded of just how much the Jesus People Movement broke with the larger youth counterculture of the 1960s. Yes, the kids who flocked to Chuck Smith dressed like hippies and had long hair, but that seems to be where the comparison ends. None of the social commitments of the secular counterculture–the rejection of materialism, the opposition to war, the concern for justice–seem to have translated to this wing of the Jesus People Movement. Laurie’s “Jesus Revolution” was only revolutionary in a spiritual sense. Yes, the Gospel’s capacity to change and transform lives can be revolutionary, as it was for Laurie himself as a “lost” Southern California kid and as it was for me in the 1980s. Jesus died for our sins and we wait in expectant hope for what Revelation 20 and 21 describes as a “new heaven” and a “new earth.” But when we embrace Jesus’s saving work on the cross we are also signing-up as citizens of His Kingdom–a Kingdom that requires a sense of social and political responsibility that extends well beyond the fight for religious liberty and the overturning of Roe v. Wade. It requires us to speak truth to power in all its forms.

Lurie only got it half right on Palm Sunday. And because he only got it half right, our corrupt president, assuming he watched the entire service, never gained a full understanding of what Jesus was proclaiming during Holy Week and why such a message might cause him to tremble.

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.

The Author’s Corner with Shawn Young

Shawn Young is Assistant Professor of Music at York College of Pennsylvania. This interview is based on his new book, Gray Sabbath: Jesus People USA, the Evangelical Left, and the Evolution of Christian Rock (Columbia University Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Gray Sabbath?

SY: The book was a new version of my doctoral dissertation.  My interest in the topic developed after attending this community’s music festival. My wife actually introduced me to the event. 

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Gray Sabbath?

SY: The collective embrace of liminality is the driving force behind communal structure and success.  This group accepted a certain amount of ambiguity and, in doing so, was able to tamper with a number of cultural assumptions often associated with both evangelical Christianity and contemporary Christian music.

JF: Why do we need to read Gray Sabbath?

SY: Given the continuance of the so-called culture wars (and as we approach a new election cycle that will most certainly be defined by religious ideology), it is important for readers to add to their understanding of the unmistakable connections between cultural production (in this case, music), religious belief, and political identity. 

JF: When and why did you decide to study American music history?

SY: My interest in music developed when I was around the age of eight, first with the music of The Beatles, then with the band Kiss. In high school I was a band geek (trumpet and bass guitar), I marched in Drum and Bugle Corps, and enlisted in the U.S. Army Band, where I performed for about five years.  After my enlistment I volunteered for my uncle, who own a Christian concert production/promotion company.  As a fan of contemporary Christian music (CCM) I welcomed the opportunity to carry equipment and rub elbows with my heroes.  

When I was in college I played in a number of rock and jazz groups, completed an internship in the Nashville CCM scene, then met my wife, who formed a new band with me and introduced me to the Cornerstone Music Festival.  After college (and after working for a local church, a record label, and MARS Music Inc.) I was hired by Greenville College (academic home to the CCM group Jars of Clay), where I taught coursework in CCM.

I suppose my interest in American music history is a synthesis of various stages in my life, not the least of which was my ongoing connection to this industry and its various subcultural expressions. 

JF: What is your next project?

SY: I’m currently working on a cultural history of rock & roll, which will be a student textbook.  The next major work of scholarship will likely involve something about Army music
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JF: Thanks, Shawn!

And thanks to Abby Blakeney for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner


Christianity Today Book Awards Announced

Congratulations to Larry Eskridge of Wheaton College’s Institute for the Study of American Evangelicalism.  His book God’s Forever Family: The Jesus People Movement in America was awarded the Christianity Today Book of the Year for 2014.  Thomas Kidd of Baylor University writes:

“This rich and surprisingly entertaining book is the definitive work on the Jesus People movement, a significant shaper of contemporary evangelicalism. Eskridge masters an incredible range of stories and sources. For anyone with a background in the Jesus People movement, Calvary Chapels, Vineyard churches, the Willow Creek Association, or the charismatic renewal that began in the 1970s, this is like reading an autobiography.”

God’s Forever Family was also chosen as the book of the year in the history/biography category.  James Byrd’s Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution was given an “award of merit” in this category.

Congrats!  I just finished Byrd’s book, but now I need to add Eskridge to my reading list.