What triggers a revival? What sustains it? What are the seeds and soil out of which transformative mass religious fervor springs?
Large groups of excited people gathered to hear charismatic preachers can certainly spark change. But events end and leaders’ perceived shortcomings inevitably emerge. Ne believers are dragged back down from the heights of passion.
Structures are needed to help the change really take root.
Last Tuesday I helped lead a short interactive discussion for the Presbytery of San Francisco, on the subject of the most recent major American religious revival: the Jesus Movement – a.k.a. the Jesus People or Jesus Freaks. While the counterculture of that day (religious and otherwise) has mainly passed, some institutions created out of it have continued to the present.
We watched a portion of the video biography “Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher, which has since been removed from the free Internet. It was about one of the key figures in the Jesus Movement, Lonnie Frisbee, whose ministry began with wilderness acid trips featuring Bible study and baptisms. The video made passing reference to a key legacy of the Jesus Movement as well as the broader counterculture of the day: Communes.
Early in his ministry, Frisbee connected with the Big House, a Christian group living communally near San Francisco. He went on to co-found the House of Miracles, which grew to 19 communal houses, and Shiloh Youth Revival Centers, which included around 175 houses in the U.S. and Canada.
Christian hippies grew out of the same fertile soil as the rest of the hippies, who planted many of the older food co-ops and worker collectives that continue in the U.S. today, along with a whole range of live-in communities.
Now, “commune” is a loaded word. Even those who have never experienced life on a commune (and I’ve visited many, but never joined) have a strong image of what it means, particularly when connected with the counterculture out of which the Jesus Movement erupted. A visitor to a Christian commune might have initially thought that they were on a typical spiritually-eclectic hippie commune until they finally noticed all the crosses.
There has always been a wide variety of communal life, ranging from squalid to almost chic. Some communes might still seem like a throwback to 1972, when the Jesus Movement peaked. Others carry echoes of Medieval or even biblical times. Some feel very much like normal apartment life at first glance – for example the 400-member JPUSA community in Chicago, whose members operate numerous collective workplaces.
The impulse to share is strong, but it is also up against some formidable obstacles. True counterculture goes deeper than beads and tie-dye and, yes, drugs. Communal living is the seed of a new world. And like many seeds, this new world sprouts into a hostile environment.
One of the more spectacular Christian revivals was the original one, which resulted in widespread radical redistribution of wealth. Many people were swept up in this spiritual and economic transformation, which began within the Jewish community but quickly spread to the gentiles.
Life was different amidst this revival: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold.” (Acts 4:34) Even if this bold statement was exaggeration, something powerful was happening among members of this movement. This new home insulated them from the surrounding economy of debt, taxation and slavery.
As it was in the heyday of the Jesus Freaks, members of the first Christian community returned from whatever religious experiences they were having to find a supportive community. Their new brothers and sisters in the Way of Jesus took care of them as they worked through the jarring transition from the harsh Roman economy of scarcity into the exuberant fertile fields of the Lord.
Jesus often taught about seeds, which would have been a familiar illustration for his mostly-agrarian audiences. He described the Kingdom of Heaven as a mustard seed – and also as yeast, which is a similar biological concept: An organism breaks out from a miniscule protective shell, and begins to convert its surroundings into itself and its offspring.
One of Jesus’ better-known parables is that of the sower; the same kind of seed lands in different places with different results.
In all three synoptic gospels this story is followed by an explanation. It appears first in the Gospel of Matthew:
Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown…”(13:3-8)
“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” (13:18-23)
The same parable and explanation also occurs in the Gospels of Mark (4:3-20) and Luke. (8:5-15) And between each parable and its explanation is sandwiched an emphatic comment such as, “Don’t you understand this parable? How then will you understand any parable?” (Mark 4:13)
It seems that Jesus is making a really important point. We need to understand seeds.
To make sense of a parable we must correctly identify the characters portrayed. Christians in capitalist cultures often assume that this parable is referring primarily to the individual: Is our particular heart good soil or not? (Hint: The answer is measured by our obedience to religious leaders.)
Unfortunately, the wording in various translations of the three gospel accounts is inconsistent. In some versions and translations the seed could be understood as the message of Christ, which the individual (soil) must receive – that is, unless one’s heart is hard, rocky or thorny.
But what if the dominant interpretation is backwards? What if the individual is the seed? At least in the text translated above (New International Version), Jesus’ meaning is clear: The soil is not the heart of the recipient, as so often believed.
Why would Jesus convey individual receptivity through an element as collective and enveloping as soil, anyway? Soil has no boundaries – only variation of qualities from one cubic inch to the next. Soil doesn’t work to signify an individual who is or is not saved.
Soil does, however, present a pretty good metaphor for society and economy – especially to a bunch of peasant farmers.
Jesus was apparently trying to convey that an individual’s receptiveness to transformation through the Gospel is dependent upon whether that individual’s life and surroundings were conducive to his radical message‘s germination and growth.
How is the soil in which we (seeds) find ourselves?
Obviously surroundings have something to do with individual religious receptiveness. Why else would revivals happen as shared experiences of many individuals? But of all the hearts touched during revivals, how many are really changed in their behavior over the long run? How many really embrace the transformation demanded by the “good news to the poor” that Jesus brought?
A casual survey of history finds a distinct correlation between individuals feeling religiously moved and their making decisions to share resources with others who feel similarly moved. This was certainly the case with the birth of the Church, in which there was reportedly no poverty.
The communal impulse was also prominent in the early days of the United States, when dozens of communes sprang up on the growing edge of the European expansion. One area where communal life was particularly prominent was the “burned-over district” of western and central New York during the early 19th Century.
A great many people were caught up in the religious fervor of this so-called Second Great Awakening, and then life went on more or less as before. But beyond the revival tents, in the moist shady spots of the early frontier, something took root. Many communes emerged, including the Oneida Society (which made silverware and in 1935 converted into the successful if not-exactly-biblical firm now owned by private equity).
It was in this same context that Joseph Smith launched what became the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He was hardly the only preacher with a new revelation from God, but his theology – alone among his peers – has grown into one of the world’s great religions.
The communal energy tapped by the Mormons was much like that found among those first followers of Jesus. And this structure, like a flower pot, helped the first Latter Day Saints hold together in the face of their neighbors’ hostility. Communal life became the prototype for an economic order that took root first in the Midwest before bearing tremendous fruit out in the harsh deserts of Utah.
We may not be comfortable with dirty hippies or frontier polygamists as our spiritual prototypes, but the fact remains that both groups were caught up in significant revivals that permanently reshaped individual identities. So as we consider what might revival look like today, we should ask ourselves where we might find a nice spot for a seed to germinate, so that the sprout has more of a chance to grow.
What cooperative structures should we create now to protect ourselves from the trampling feet and birds, the hot sun and thorns?