Jesus Is Just Alright
California is America’s cultural hothouse. Maybe it’s the state’s anything-goes permissiveness, a legacy of its frontier days. Or its historical role as a launch pad for utopian experiments—the last, best hope for a fresh start in a nation consecrated to new beginnings. The state has long been synonymous with America’s kookiest cults, wackiest fads, freakiest subcultures, and sickest crimes, not to mention a bumper crop of nano-celebrities and Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Media Zombies, from our national plastic-surgery disaster, Michael Jackson, to Hollywood’s unofficial mascot, Angelyne, a mega-bosomed sexpot who resembles a reanimated Jayne Mansfield, brought back to life (or, at least, undeath) through the heroic efforts of a beautician and a taxidermist. As the novelist Paul Bowles once told me, “California brings up strange flowers. It nourishes mutations—human mutations.”
Bowles’s remark was inspired by his friend Christopher Isherwood’s interest in what Bowles called “Eastern philosophies”—an interest Bowles apparently found somewhat curious in an otherwise respectable, upperclass Englishman. After moving to Southern California in 1939, the author of Goodbye to Berlin (the inspiration for the musical Cabaret) worked as a screenwriter, hobnobbed with a glittering expatriate circle, underwent the usual Californian paradigm shift, and emerged a devout follower of the Hindu sage Swami Prabhavananda.
A few of California’s holy men (and, occasionally, women) have been pure of heart, but most have been grabby of wallet: Werner Erhard of EST, Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, Hollywood “spiritual teacher” John Roger, “Crystal Cathedral” televangelist Robert Schuller. Some have been hairy-eyed nutters, such as Jim Jones of the People’s Temple or Marshall Applewhite of the Heaven’s Gate cult; others have been lovably loopy, such as the late Ruth Norman, founder of the El Cajon–based Unarius Academy of Science.
Dearly beloved of TV reporters the world over, Norman spoke in a fruity warble and wore jaw-dropping costumes that suggested the Good Witch Glinda on Moonbase Alpha. Norman’s “Cosmic Generator” getup was typical: a voluminous skirt festooned with comets and brightly colored planets, a blouse dominated by a massive “sun collar” with glittering extensions (solar flares?), a peaked cap bedecked with tiny lights. Somewhere, Liberace is shrieking with envy. In her devotees’ eyes, however, Norman was the Archangel Uriel. To her, and her alone, was vouchsafed the mind-shattering revelation that Space Brothers from the Interplanetary Confederation will touch down in El Cajon in 2001, heralding a Renaissance of Spirit that—hey, wait a minute!
Obviously, it’s easy to mock the failed prophesies of a batty old lady in a mylar gown and tiara, gushing space-cadet flapdoodle to goggle-eyed acolytes. But what about the cosmic log in your own eye, brother? For instance, one of my San Diegan relatives got his ontology steam-cleaned when a higher power communicated to him through an eerily repeated number sequence on his digital clock. Now, he believes in a channeled entity who goes by the suspiciously Star Trek-ian name of Kryon, perceives extrasensory “energy frequencies” invisible to most mortals, and keeps his cancer in remission through sheer psychic willpower.
Easy for me to roll my cynical, godless eyes now, of course. But long, long ago, in a universe far, far away, when the zeitgeist came in harvest gold, burnt orange, and avocado green, I was a teenage fundie. A fundamentalist. One of the Jesus People. A Jesus Freak. A cross-wearing, Bible-believing, born-again Christian.
It was 1973, and I wasn’t the only American teenager with heaven on my mind, as Judas sang, in Jesus Christ Superstar. As the religious scholar Stephen Prothero recounts in American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon, the late sixties witnessed the emergence of a countercultural Christianity. “The Beatles sparked a guru vogue when they went as pilgrims to India in 1968,” Prothero notes, but for every seeker who embraced Zen or the Buddha, scores more “tuned in to the Bible and took Jesus as their guru. . . . These Jesus fans were the praying wing of the Woodstock nation.”
California, where I grew up, was ground zero for the Jesus movement. For most chroniclers of the phenomenon, its genesis begins in 1967, in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. Joined at the hip to hippiedom, the movement was midwifed by Elizabeth and Ted Wise, twentysomething ex-druggies who opened an evangelical coffeehouse called the Living Room and a Marin-based Christian commune, the House of Acts, modeled on the supposedly communal living style of the early Christians. Rejecting the bring-downs of old-time religion (with its Scared Straight threats of hellfire and its Calvinist doctrine of original sin) and the hypocrisy and hollowness of the only-on-Sunday “Churchianity” they had grown up with, the Wises and their brethren took back the messiah, saving the Savior (as they saw it) from the church.
The countercultural Christ of the Jesus movement was “a dropout, an outlaw, and a revolutionary who scoffed at the religious establishment of his day,” in Prothero’s words. A “Wanted” poster popular among Jesus People depicted Christ, looking like a cross between Che Guevara and Mister Zig-Zag, accompanied by the warning that this “typical hippie type—long hair, beard, robe, sandals” was the “notorious leader of an underground liberation movement,” wanted by the authorities for “practicing medicine, winemaking, and food distribution without a license” and “associating with known criminals, radicals, subversives, prostitutes and street people.” The poster warned, “He is still at large!”
This radical-chic Jesus spoke to the disaffected youth of the day, to whom the church of their parents seemed as phony and out of touch as the square suburbanite in The Graduate (1967) pompously offering recent college grad Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) the “friendly advice” that he pursue a career in plastics, the Next Big Thing. The countercultural Jesus was one of us—misunderstood, hassled by The Man for his radical lifestyle and his rage against the machine, whether it was the law-and-order Mayor Daleys and Governor Reagans of the Roman Empire or the spiritually empty religious sects of his day, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. As well, the hippie Jesus was every teenager’s dream of a cooler-than-God big brother, someone who understands the changes you’re going through, dude, but never judges, just folds you and the other Jesus Freaks into one big group hug. Awesome!
In 1973, I was one of those disaffected teens, with the requisite slouch, witchy Charlie Manson stare, and David Cassidy shag gone feral. When I told my parents that I didn’t want to be dragged to our Lutheran church anymore, I was duly informed that churchgoing was mandatory, but that I could attend any Christian church of my choice. Naturally, I picked the fringiest church in our San Diego County suburb, just to set their hair on fire. Since there weren’t any snake handlers in the Chula Vista Yellow Pages, I chose a Baptist church that had a Friday night “coffeehouse” youth service.
Despite its name, nothing but bread and Welch’s grape juice (communion wine for minors) was on the menu. Nonetheless, the service rocked: A long-haired electric band cranked out full-throated versions of hymns such as Sydney Carter’s “Lord of the Dance,” people prayed with palms uplifted like the disciples in medieval tapestries, and somebody spoke in tongues, a cascade of spooky-sounding glossolalia that lifted the hair on the back of my neck. In an instant, my irony turned to ecstasy. Faster than you could say Maranatha! (Aramaic for “Our Lord cometh,” a New Testament catchphrase appropriated by those of us who knew the Second Coming was right around the corner), I had Accepted Jesus as My Personal Lord and Savior.
For the rest of that year and much of the next, I was in a state of grace. I read the get-down version of the Living Bible, The Way. Illustrated with black-and-white Life magazine–type photos—U.S. grunts in Vietnam, a pimply hippie holding a cookie jar marked “opium”—and explicated with rap-session commentary from the editors (“We watch friends trip off into despair, finding no wholeness, no health, no meaning. Is there a way to life?”), it was the kind of Bible Linc on The Mod Squad might have read, if he’d found God (and if his series hadn’t been canceled that year). When I wasn’t rejoicing in God’s Word, I read inspirational books such as David Wilkerson’s The Cross and the Switchblade (1963), about a preacher who beards inner-city gang members in their den, with only his faith as his armor; saw Christian movies such as The Hiding Place (1975), about the Dutch Holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom, whose belief in God sustained her through the horrors of the concentration camps; and wondered what I’d wear to the Rapture, so thrillingly described in The Late Great Planet Earth (1970), pop eschatologist Hal Lindsey’s runaway bestseller.
By ’74, however, I, like many of the Jesus People, was losing my religion. In retrospect, the movement’s glorious ascension into the national media consciousness marked the beginning of the end, as is almost inevitably the case with subcultural phenomena. In 1973, the Living Bible was the bestselling nonfiction book of the year (as it had been the year before), moviegoers were thronging to Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, “Jesus Is Just Alright” by the Doobie Brothers was climbing up the charts, and Chuck Smith, the youth-friendly pastor of Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, was baptizing kids by the hundreds in the nearby Pacific Ocean. But by decade’s end, the late, great awakening of the early seventies was a fading memory, consigned to the dustbin of pop theology along with cultural relics such as the hippie Bible The Message, whose Mister Natural messiah taught his disciples to pray, “Our Father in Heaven, reveal who you are. Set the world right; do what’s best—as above, so below. Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. You’re in charge! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes. Yes. Yes” (Matthew 6:9–13).
Bit by bit, the fire in my mind died out. The trouble was Christianity, not Christ. “More than any other group in American history,” Prothero argues, the Jesus People “boiled Christianity down to Jesus alone,” a radical doctrine known as solus Jesus. Delving into the scriptures expanded my focus, beyond the movement’s tight closeup on Christ. With that wide-angle perspective came the disconcerting realization that social conservatism was hardwired into Christianity, from the Bronze Age homophobia of the Old Testament lawgivers to the toxic misogyny of the appalling Paul. In a divine irony, the Bible was the poisoned apple on my Tree of Knowledge.
Then, too, as my mental universe expanded, the born-again worldview felt more and more like the intellectual pinhole it was, too constricted to admit the dangerous ideas and perverse pleasures of secular culture, from National Lampoon to A Clockwork Orange, Ziggy Stardust to The Omega Man (that movie’s way-heavy use of Charlton Heston as a Christ figure notwithstanding).
One Friday night in 1974, I broke bread at one of my church’s communal households. Touted as a model of Christian living, it impressed me, up close, as a theocratic horror. The commune was headed by church elders whose edicts were treated as holy writ (though not without the occasional grumble from the insufficiently humble of spirit). They micromanaged people’s lives, appropriated and allocated the monies earned by those who worked, even (rumor had it) instructed husbands to spank insubordinate wives.
Everyone ate in phlegmatic silence, unresponsive to my conversational probes about current events. Suddenly, a cadaverous Richard Nixon materialized on a nearby TV, looking nigh unto death as he announced that he would resign the presidency, “effective at noon tomorrow.” The son of staunch McGovernites, I was in ecstasy; the prime-time mocking and scourging of the loathsome Nixon was divine intervention, if ever anything was. Incredibly, my sullen tablemates ate on, unmoved; worldly affairs were of no consequence to those whose minds were fixed on the Kingdom of Heaven. Looking into their gazeless eyes, unclouded by doubt, I realized I was no longer one of them. Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven, I thought, pedaling home on my bike.
Since then, I’ve relived Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus in reverse. When the scales fell from my eyes, I was transformed from true believer to tireless scourge of everything that hates free will or fears the skeptical question, especially those viruses of the mind known as religious beliefs that (with apologies to Tom Paine) shock our reason or injure our humanity. As a writer, I’ve fancied myself a cross between the devil’s hitman, Ambrose Bierce, and the Darwinian evolutionist T. H. Huxley riding into battle against Bishop Wilberforce, champion of biblical literalism.
Still, tireless scourging is thirsty work; after a few decades, the whip hand tires. Of course, I can’t undo my unbelief, rewind the movie of my intellectual life so I fall from grace in reverse, back into faith. Sometimes, though, I remember what the mysterium tremendum (or at least the seventies Southern Californian version thereof) felt like. Meditating on the portrait of Christ I’d taped to my bedroom wall, a detail from a Renaissance painting, I’d pray until tears ran down my face, pained by a toothache sweetness that can only be called love, something between eros and agape. Even now, my Kevlar cynicism isn’t proof against the nostalgia that tugs at me when I hear Yvonne Elliman singing “Everything’s Alright” from Jesus Christ Superstar—nostalgia for a lost time when people walked into the ocean and came out reborn, convinced they could build a revolution not on ideology, but on love. “California,” said Christopher Isherwood, “is a tragic land—like Palestine, like every promised land.”
Excerpted from the new Killing the Buddha collection, Believer, Beware: First-Person Dispatches from the Margins of Faith.
Mark Dery is a cultural critic and the author of Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century and The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink. Raised in San Diego, near the Mexican-American border, he is writing Don Henley Must Die, a meditation on the culture psyche of Southern California. He teaches media criticism and creative nonfiction in the Department of Journalism at New York University.