David W. Stowe: A Conversation about the Jesus Movement with Malcolm Magee

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No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism by David W. StoweToday’s guest post comes from David W. Stowe, author of No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism, which is now available in a new paperback edition. In the book, Stowe demonstrates how mainstream rock of the 1960s and 1970s has influenced conservative evangelical Christianity through the development of Christian pop music. He shows how evangelicals’ increasing acceptance of Christian pop music ultimately has reinforced a variety of conservative cultural, economic, theological, and political messages. In the following guest post, Stowe provides an interview he conducted with Malcolm Magee covering the Jesus Movement and the role of music.

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As I wrote in the acknowledgements to No Sympathy for the Devil, I’m someone who finds the solitary nature of scholarly research and writing sometimes hard to take. Which makes me appreciate all the more a colleague like Malcolm Magee, who has been consistently enthusiastic and a great source of insight about evangelical Christianity and its forms of music from the time I started in on the book. Unlike me, Magee actually was present on the scene and knew many of the figures I write about. I always intended to interview him and his wife, Judy, for No Sympathy but the timing didn’t allow it. Magee is founder and director of the Institute for the Study of Christianity of Culture, an independent research institute based in Lansing, Michigan, and author of What the World Should Be: Woodrow Wilson and the Crafting of a Faith-Based Foreign Policy. He teaches history and religious studies at Michigan State University. I finally interviewed him this winter.

DS:  At 55 you’re a little young to have been a Jesus freak. Tell me when and how you got drawn into the Jesus Movement?

MM: Actually I was more of an observer. The Jesus Movement was simply in the air we breathed and the water we drank on the West Coast. The Willamette Valley in Oregon, south of Portland, had a lot of hippies and in the 70s, hippies tended to produce Jesus freaks. Growing up as part of the Quaker church added to my opportunities to observe the movement as well. Quakers historically have been fairly open to new movements such as this. Many Jesus people came through the various Quaker congregations in the valley. Though these hippies often found the churches too quiet to stay in, a few did stay and now compose the older parts of some of those congregations. There was a commune house in the mountains where I grew up and our school bus stopped to pick up a couple of school age kids living there.

After I moved to Washington State I later got involved in a congregation that had been produced by the Jesus Movement. I met Lonnie Frisbee there. I was only seventeen at the time. In addition, I had a cousin who was one of the original members of Chuck Smith’s Calvary Chapel. So while I was never a full participant in the movement, I was certainly an observer.

DS:  As a teenaged observer, what were your initial impressions? Did you like what you saw? Did Frisbee give off all sorts of charismatic vibes?

Malcolm Magee in contemporary photograph

Malcolm Magee in his library today

MM:  Lonnie Frisbee was a riveting speaker. I first heard him when I went to a meeting with a small group—50 to 100 hippie-looking Jesus people in an old downtown building in town in central Washington. There was a painted hippie VW van parked out front and inside were all these people in tie-dyed shirts and long hair. This guy who looked like a shorter version of Jesus was up front talking and people were riveted. When he gave an appeal people were throwing packs of cigarettes and all sorts of stuff on the platform—”giving it all up for Jesus.” He was an enthralling speaker and I found him riveting. I later learned that he was Lonnie Frisbee. From that point on, I followed his career as it evolved over the years. At some point I lost contact with him and people who knew him until a few years ago when the Di Sabatino film Frisbee came out. A few years ago I reconnected with his former fiancé. Pictures of them on her Facebook page brought back memories of the time.

DS:  How much of an impression did the music of the Jesus Movement make on you? Was that a big part of its appeal?

MM:  The Jesus music had a visceral effect on my peers and me. Music was all around us and a constant emotional and intellectual force in the 1970s. It was very much the vehicle for communicating this faith. Music identified us. It captured the emotion that was largely absent in the churches that emerged from the 1950s. The music communicated both an identity and a mission. We all felt like we were going to somehow change the world.

Music, however could be exploited. It could act as cover for a group’s real mission or motives. A naïve person could identify because of the music when the group might have a hidden agenda. In some ways, this use of music and style helped particularly savvy political movements identify and manipulate many of the young activist members of the Jesus movement.

DS:  Which musicians or groups had a particular impact on you at the time? I remember you had some interaction with Barry McGuire—tell me about him.

Malcolm Magee photograph from the Jesus Movement

Malcolm Magee during the Jesus Movement

MM:  Barry McGuire was very interesting. Like many of the people in the Jesus movement he represented a cross over from one world (secular rock music) to another (Jesus music). But more important to his appeal than that was that he was both personally approachable and deeply entertaining. He came to my high school in Zillah, Washington in 1973. Everyone loved hearing him.

There were too many other groups to name all, of them from this time period: Daniel Amos, Love Song, Second Chapter of Acts, Andre Crouch, everyone had a stack of 8 track tapes for the car. But at the same time we were listening to Billy Joel, Elton John, Blue Oyster Cult, Paul Simon, and hearing spiritual “code” in that music too. Music all just blended together. There was even a radio station in Southern California that used a format that blended both secular and Jesus music into one seamless format. It became particularly easy when Bob Dylan was in his Jesus period.

DS:  Do you remember anything about McGuire’s show, why he made the impact he did? And say a little more about the “spiritual code” you were hearing in the ostensibly non-religious music of the day?

MM:  McGuire was so animated and relaxed. It didn’t matter what the audience was. He seemed to lack pretension and would be as at-home in a small-town desert Washington high school as he was in front of a large crowd in a city. He also felt very approachable—more so than most performers. He seemed to have a great degree of warmth about him.

Regarding “spiritual code,” the 60s emphasis on love and peace in all the music transferred easily to spirituality and ideas from the Bible. Sexual and romantic love also follow similar patterns to the language and feeling of worship. Thus, the biblical book Song of Solomon is simultaneously a book of ancient erotic poetry and a pattern for worship of the Divine. This pattern was adaptable to modern music. So, for Jesus people, Elton John could sing “Someone save my life tonight” and it seemed to hold a dual meaning. The examples are endless.

DS:  So whatever became of the Jesus Movement? Did the mass media just lose interest after 1972, or did the Jesus People actually drift away from their faith? Or perhaps blend into traditional churches?

MM:  In a similar way to which the 60s in general were assimilated into the main stream, the Jesus Movement assimilated itself into churches. This included some mainstream churches, but mostly ex-Jesus freaks joined Charismatic churches. These churches took on the worship ethos of rock concerts with long periods of song before and after the preaching. Hippies got married and had kids and the hippie/Jesus freak look got cleaned up and more accepted. They got jobs, bought houses and assimilated themselves into the new general cultural norms.

But it went both ways, culture also embraced the ideals of both the counterculture and the Jesus movement. Clothing stores began selling styles that they wore. Television shows portrayed hippie culture as mainstream. What was once revolutionary was now everyday style. Ideas that were once outside the norm were now a subset of the norm.

At the same time new movements in the always adaptable American evangelical church sprang up and invited ex-hippies in. Among these new movements were the Discipleship movement, the Houses of Prayer, The Vineyard, Calvary Chapel, just to name a few. I can assume that Rick Warren of Saddleback likely has a large contingent of ex-Jesus People. Many Jesus people were deliberately courted by the “religious right” as Preston Shires in his interesting book, Hippies of the Religious Right, has argued.

Did the Jesus People actually drift away from their faith? Some drifted away from their faith, but I assume most of them are either still in non denominational evangelical churches—many with a Charismatic bent—or they have returned to the traditional churches of their childhood. There has been a movement among some ex-hippies toward Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy or conservative Presbyterianism.

DS:  You mention Jesus People being courted by the Christian Right, and as you know my book tries to make the case for this influence from the music. The influence seems to very indirect, though. Can you cite an example of Christian pop artists being consciously or unconsciously co-opted by political conservatives in the 70s?

MM:  Again, some of these connections are kind of “in the air” and hard to prove. The attempt by the Republican Party to create and utilize a “religious right” is not hard to prove. Randall Balmer and others have shown how the right clearly made the Christian social agenda part of their program. Partly because it coincided with their politics and partly in order to garner support for their tax cutting small government economic agenda.

Remember, the 1960s were characterized by a distrust of the government. It was not seen as too big a jump to go from an anti-Vietnam version of anti-government to a Ronald Reagan version of anti-government. Many of the rallies and concerts in which musicians were present and performed were focused on moral issues. For these ex-hippies tired of drugs and free love, now with families of their own this was important.

The Democrats were a bit slower to understand this, or were not aware of just how deeply the personal had become political. They continued to focus on the larger economic social issues. The Republicans aligned themselves with personal moral issues that they felt coincided with their political program. Personal morality and responsibility was juxtaposed against government sponsored social irresponsibility in their rhetoric. Concern over abortion, drugs and other issues that the Jesus people were concerned with were also by Republicans and in exchange they got support for the larger Republican economic program.

In the 70s and 80s you could still find moderate and left-leaning Democrats who focused on these issues. Harold Hughes from Iowa could be used as an example. But more and more it became a battle between what was perceived as a “Christian” right and a “secular” left. The Jesus people and the musicians were not politically savvy enough nor historically aware enough to recognize that they were being co-opted. The idea that there was a place for a religious left with both personal moral concerns as well as a progressive economic policies was lost in the simplistic sound bites of the elections of the late 70s and 80s. They were focused on trying to raise young families and live personally godly lives. Pseudo-histories like Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live were widely circulated in churches and at house meetings. Little by little the intellectual transformation took place until it seemed like irrefutable common sense.

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David W. Stowe is professor of English and religious studies at Michigan State University and author of No Sympathy for the Devil: Christian Pop Music and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism. Malcolm Magee is a visiting professor of history and religious studies at Michigan State University.

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