The Life And Death Of A Hippie Preacher

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How did you find out about Lonnie Frisbee?

I was doing research on an event called the "Jesus Movement," and his name came up as being a very influential character. The more stories I collected I began to realize that he was a unique individual, someone that stood out during those early days. It was fascinating to try and piece his history together.

Q: What was this "Jesus movement?"

The Jesus movement was a Christian revival that began in the late 1960s that ran concurrent to the counter culture. It was sort of a countercultural movement within religious circles with its own protest music and reform sentiment all directed toward the church. Renewal movements throughout the history of the church have always charged the clergy with having lapsed into ritual and routine. The "Jesus People" challenged the establishment with their zeal to see and experience the same sorts of things that the early Christians did when Jesus walked the earth.

Q: Why is there little mention of the "Jesus movement" in history books on the 1960s?

Histories of the 1960s have usually portrayed the era as one of age of change where youth challenged authority on a number of crucial issues. Kids who decided to embrace Jesus, the most enduring icon of western civilization, don't fit that skew because joining a church usually meant assimilating back into mainstream America.

The oversight is understandable, but nonetheless, I think the Jesus movement is the turning point for a lot of contemporary developments within the evangelical church. If one wishes to really understand the soil from where a lot of present day evangelical leaders were shaped, you'd do well to study that time.

Q: The movie recounts some events that border on the mystical. Do you really believe that Lonnie did the things that people say he did?

I am not sure there ever was a time when people did not exaggerate spiritual phenomenon. If I am not mistaken, the region of Galilee where Jesus' ministry was centered was teeming with these wonderworkers and spiritual snake oil salesman of the day. Our age is no different, and I understand the skepticism. I think it is healthy to ask questions and raise an eyebrow when someone makes such grandiose claims.

But many of the people I interviewed cannot simply be categorized and marginalized as "true believers," those folks that are so desirous to see a miracle that everything is parsed as an extraordinary event. Many of the people in the movie are skeptical of a lot of stuff in the religious world, but they believed that Lonnie was the real deal. I don't think that one should spend too much time trying to prove things pertaining to faith, since, by definition, that doesn't make much sense. But those skeptical interviews were compelling to me. And besides, whether you believe the stories or not, who cares? It is a mesmerizing story regardless.

Q: At the beginning of the movie, you call it "A Bible Story." What is the significance of that? Surely you don't mean that this story is in the Bible.

Well, yes and no. First, all of those who have conversation with God are adding chapters to a dialogue that does not end with the Bible. Those people in the Bible were flesh and blood. They were real. They were just like Lonnie, and just like you and me. When we distance ourselves from the struggles they entered, I think we do people a disservice.

Second, I think Lonnie resembles a number of biblical characters. He is a little bit of Ezekiel, a little bit Samson, a little bit of Elijah and Elisha, a little Jacob and some John the Baptist as well. When I heard the stories told by his wide-eyed friends, it wasn't hard to make connections. Finally, who said the canon of Scripture is closed?

Q: There are people who disagree that Lonnie was written out of either Calvary Chapel or Vineyard history. What is your response to that?

Well, there are four gospel accounts for a reason. Not everyone's perspective jives with everyone else's. We see through a glass darkly, and even then there are lots of things that will hinder us. So, I can live with varying perspectives. I am sure that if someone wrote a book or did a documentary from an institutional perspective, Lonnie would come out completely different. And I would read or watch those projects with great relish.

But there are indeed reasons as to why I believe what I do. First of all, and most importantly, Lonnie believed that he was being written out of the histories of these two movements. There was a tremendous sense of bitterness that he exhibited because he felt his contribution had been largely neglected. That in itself is enough for me to include it in a documentary about Lonnie's life.

Second, I think there is good evidence to back up Lonnie's contention. I make it clear in the documentary that Lonnie is not properly contextualized in these two denominations' histories, not that they can't point to some line where his name is mentioned or someone preached about what Lonnie did once. Giving someone their rightful place in the denomination's history is much more than this.

Finally, some have pointed to the essay included in Bill Jackson's book The Quest for the Radical Middle as evidence that the Vineyard has not neglected Lonnie. That book was born out of Bill's desire to recount history more than anything else. I remember when he published it, and the Vineyard church in the US would not officially endorse it.

Too, I was the one who wrote the appendix in that book on Lonnie, so, that isn't what I am speaking toward. Nowhere in the four major publications that John Wimber wrote (with Kevin Springer) is Lonnie mentioned. Nowhere in the book When the Spirit Comes with Power is Lonnie mentioned. There is good evidence that while John was alive there was a concerted effort to distance himself from Lonnie. That is more what the movie is getting at. Lonnie was tremendously hurt by this, and that is why I deal with it in the documentary.

Q: What do you say to those who think you are claiming too much ground for Lonnie, that perhaps to say that he started these movements is exaggerating?

When you start to follow Lonnie's movements around like I have you begin to see the same sort of pattern. He enters the scene and this flurry of activity happens. So, had this simply been one or even two situations where he was involved and something of a spiritual center of influence was born, I could see that argument. One could then argue that it was coincidence.

But there are many centers of influence over which his influence is obvious, and not just at Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard. To give you just two other examples, when Lonnie took a team over to Sweden and Denmark in the early 1970s, those nations had tremendous spiritual revivals. When he went to South Africa later in that decade, his influence over the churches there was profound.

Those that might have been involved at Calvary Chapel or the Vineyard or some other place where someone gives Lonnie credit will inevitably think that it is exaggeration. And that is understandable, because it isn't discernible until you pull back and take a wider-angled view. You begin to realize that Lonnie's gift was being something of a charismatic sparkplug.

Q: So, then you see Lonnie coming along as the pivotal moment in Calvary Chapel's history? That all of that happened because he just showed up.

On one hand, any sort of discussion of origin of a movement will breed this sort of "who is the real mover and shaker that got things going" conversation. If you mine the discussion about the origins of rock 'n' roll music, some will identify the prime personality as Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis or the black R and B artists. And if you talk with Little Richard, he will tell you it was all him.

When one discusses the origins of Calvary Chapel, most will argue that Chuck Smith was the prime mover while others will argue that the music (especially Love Song) was of utmost importance. Still others will point to Kay Smith's desire to reach the hippies as the motivation to get this thing rolling. And I would agree that all of those things are important to the story.

But Lonnie was the sparkplug that started that whole thing. He was the prima causa, if you will, that started it all rolling, that brought a lot of that momentum to fruition. And thus, when you take him out of that equation, like I believe they have, then you are not telling the story correctly. I am not trying to take credit away from anyone. All of those people played a role and have their place. I am simply stating that had Lonnie not walked into that church it never would have happened on the scale it did.

Q: Your movie includes things that take umbrage against Lonnie's mentors. Do you have a bone to pick with those denominations?

I really hope not to the point where it clouds my point of view. It is a difficult thing to listen to Lonnie's friends pour out their grief and heartache with regard to how they felt he got treated by his mentors and these movements and not have that take some affect. My point of view is Lonnie's, and to be truthful to him, that is how he felt. So, if there is heat toward his mentors and Calvary Chapel or Vineyard, that is because it is honest heat that stemmed from how Lonnie viewed things.

I have run it by a lot of people on both sides of the coin and they have said they feel uncomfortable with some things, but that I took great care in not making this a hatchet job on anyone. I really hope that is true, because I know what my intent was. The truth isn't always pretty, and rarely is it tied up in a bow like a Sunday school story or Hollywood movie.

Q: In the movie you take issue with the way that conservative evangelicals deal with those who fall short of the standards set by the church.

I understand that wherever people are gathered together, there will always be standards and there will always be people who fall short of those standards. That is a given. I wish to point to the problem of fallible people holding other fallible people accountable.

I always find it alarming when church leaders point to a specific sin as being horrific when their own lives are so fraught with dysfunction. It sets up a problem in the mind and heart of the person who is being held accountable, especially if that person senses more judgment than mercy. Ask people who don't go to church what they think of the place. See if the hypocrisy they have witnessed isn't one of the major reasons that people are turned off toward organized religion. This emphasis on "holiness" was never meant to be a vehicle by which you could look down your nose on someone else.

Q: Do you think Lonnie Frisbee was a homosexual?

The only one that knows that is Lonnie Frisbee. I can only tell you what I know. It is imperative to understand that after his conversion at no time did Lonnie ever justify homosexuality. He always maintained it was a sin. And I have many tapes of him talking about this.

The problem being, that his actions suggested that this was an area where he continued to involve himself. What most of his friends believe is that if this kind of thing occurred (and in their mind there is still a definite question as to whether the allegations are true or they are from people intent on slurring Lonnie's memory), it was the occasional lapse. There are those, of course, that argue that his continuing in this behavior suggests something innate.

I would hope that people would listen to his own testimony and not read in to his life without giving great weight to Lonnie's own beliefs. He never believed homosexuality was anything other than a sin in the eyes of God. He is not the poster child for "gay Christianity." That being said, neither is he so easily placed in a Christian framework that tends to view conversion as the moment where these sorts of things are forever renounced. I'm comfortable with this being unanswered territory.

Q: What would you say to people that say it would be better to not talk about these things at all?

One of the things that I think resonates with people who watch this movie is its honesty. I find the Bible much more honest than most people who claim they live their lives by its precepts. There is an authenticity to people who live their lives with a ragged honesty, and I think that one of the great legacies of Lonnie's life was this characteristic. My hope is that authenticity comes through in the documentary.

Q: Do you feel that this discomfort that you are revealing is some sort of evangelical homophobia?

Absolutely not. Those churches reach out to the homosexual community with varying degrees of success. Rather, there is such an emphasis within Christian circles on holiness and perfection - living this sort of sinless existence or striving toward that goal - that any type of what is deemed as deviant behavior is magnified.

There is such an anxiety on perception that many ministers are unwilling to admit their failures for fear that their congregation or governing bodies will judge them unfit for the ministry. It is a horrible Catch-22. These folks can't admit their failures for fear that they will be excluded from the very places that should be most accommodating of human frailty. Having such an influential but frail character in a church movement's DNA is the real problem, I think. Church leaders are too worried about the question what is everybody going to think? Nowhere do I see this anxiety in the Scriptures. Fear is the enemy of faith.

Q: So is your answer to stop holding church leaders accountable for their actions?

No, but I think I want to drive church leaders back to the words of Jesus where he reminds the one who is holding another accountable to remember that everyone has feet of clay. Everyone falls short. The problem begins when leaders start to think that their particular crimes are not as dangerous. I have seen people totally blind to the destruction they cause in their wake, and it is usually these folks that are the ones that are going around calling for accountability.

People that do not understand the nature of judgment and discernment are prone to misquote that biblical phrase (usually with hands on hips), "Judge not lest ye be judged." That is an important biblical truth. Judgment and discernment are critical and necessary. I think what Jesus was getting at with that statement was to be very careful in how you mediate judgment upon someone, that you need be mindful that you too are just as capable of behavior that will disqualify you if people only knew what you do in your dark moments.

I once heard Tony Campolo introduce himself to a church audience by saying, "If you knew everything that I had done in my life you probably wouldn't be sitting there listening. But who are you kidding? If I knew everything in your life I probably wouldn't stand here talking to you." We're all capable of this stuff.

Q: Why did you interview (Metropolitan Church founder) Troy Perry and (gay activist) Mel White?

Who better to understand being marginalized by the evangelical movement? I went to them because I had questions that couldn't be answered by someone who didn't go through a similar sort of journey as Lonnie did. I don't agree with everything they believe, but I sure liked and admire their honesty. But neither did I agree with everything that other people told me. And neither do either group believe everything that I do. That is the blessing and bane of free will.

Q: Are you a Christian?

That word has lost much of its luster for me. I don't identify with much of what I see that passes in the "Christian" community, although I do see a lot of good alongside the not so good. When I hear people cuss out the church, I tend to nod my head in agreement and sigh. I am alarmed at people's perception of what a 'Christian' is as portrayed by what they view in the media's portrait.

I think if you met Lonnie, you'd have probably seen a very attractive part of Christianity, one that allowed a wide berth for humanness. I am desirous to hold on to the good things of faith, but to rail against the things I find a problem.

But beyond that, there are some things I read in the Bible that should make any of us pause when answering that question. One haunting scene reveals a moment where some smug people are told the actions they thought were so divinely inspired were disqualified by their selfish motives. I think the safe answer to that question is I hope so.