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In our culture, there are roughly two ways to go about seeing an angel: God can show you a vision or you can drop acid. This is not a coincidence.
Evangelical Christians have always emphasized a personal relationship with God. Unlike mainline Protestants, evangelical Protestants consider God to focused on the individual and attuned to the minutiae of daily living. God is a best friend – an unconditional, omniscient lover who protects and comforts. Charismatic pastors have preached this face of the New Testament God in America since before the revivalist movement of the early 1800s.
However, the 1960s saw the advent of bell-bottom jeans, flower power, and an entirely new type of Christian. Imagine this: San Francisco in 1967, a young white girl has fled home, she’s barefoot with flowers in her hair and a joint in her hand. She’s also “turned on, tuned in and dropped out” just like Timothy Leary told her to. She’s read a great deal of O’Hara, Ginsberg and Keroac and she came to San Fran to escape her suburban oppression and jump on the bandwagon for the “holy pilgrimage.” You may also note that she’s pregnant and very hungry. She is the perfect candidate for becoming born again.
The Churches in the San Francisco area were alarmed, to say the least, about the massive influx of homeless hippie youth migrating into their city. Several pastors and church members came together to rent what they called “The Living Room,” a Christian shelter decked out with a combination of scripture verses and psychedelic imagery. The intention was to provide a safe haven for people desperately in need, both physically and spiritually. They expected some hippies to use their space and leave, and some to be saved. What they didn’t anticipate was syncronicity between the two cultures. They didn’t expect Lonnie.
Lonnie Frisbee became an icon. As the cover to the documentary film about him so succinctly advertises: “Imagine if John the Baptist came of age during the 1960s counter culture, the charisma of Jim Morrison flowing from the mantle of an Old Testament prophet. Meet Lonnie Frisbee, a seeker turned Jesus freak evangelist who compelled thousands towards a profession of Christian faith.”
For Lonnie “Jesus was a complement to acid, not a replacement,” according to T.M. Luhrman, the author of “When God Talks Back.” Lonnie found Jesus while tripping acid during a hike with friends in high school. Jesus’s love was completely in line with the logic of the Summer of Love. Lonnie moved to San Francisco and started to preach compassion as a revolutionary force on the streets to whoever would listen, communing with God while on acid. Thus, the Jesus Freaks were born.
As an OC weekly writer put it in 2005: “Lonnie Frisbee put the freak in Jesus freak. With his long brown hair, long craggily beard, dusty clothing, scent of Mary Jane and glint of his last LSD trip in his eyes, he showed up out of nowhere, at the height of the ’60s.”
The Jesus Freaks (or Jesus People) were hippies who had accepted Jesus’s love, believed in the literal Bible and wanted to share the good news. They were not the megachurch-attending, Sunday-Best-wearing evangelicals of the Midwest or south, but they were evangelizing Christians nonetheless. They believed in a radical, supernatural Jesus and personal God present in their lives.
Lonnie Frisbee brought his hippie Christian music into Cavalry Church and drew huge crowds into hear him in a church that prior to his arrival generally held host to roughly a dozen families on Sunday. Lonnie’s Jesus was accessible. He was the man of the Gospel of Mark – a rebel and, more specifically, a human. With Lonnie’s help, the Cavalry Church swelled with hundreds attending services by 1974. The attendees were no longer just San Francisco hippies, but older churchgoing Christians as well. Lonnie and Cavalry Church had created a synthesis, a fusion of two seemingly disparate tradition into one amalgam.
Have you ever seen Godspell? Or Jesus Christ Superstar? Well, it looked something like that:
Importantly, the Jesus People wrote the first Christian rock and folk music. They were able to transmit and spread the message in a way that more traditional churches had not been able to. Personally, Jesus Christ Superstar was my first encounter with the New Testament. I was fascinated when my friends introduced me to a rock-operatic Jesus and a Judas who one couldn’t help but rooting for up and throughout his betrayal. The mediums of evangelizing that the Jesus People had access to actually worked on a national level.
But what about actually seeing Jesus?
In her book When God Talks Back, Luhrman argues that new paradigm Christian evangelical prayer creates a new “theory of mind.” Prayer, which is conceived of as a communication with God, is a skill set that must be honed. The technical aspect of prayer facilitates the individual’s imaginative capabilities. Luhrman points to several methods employed by evangelical Christian community of Vineyard Church in California that ask participants to imagine themselves at different parts of Jesus’ journey. Initially, these may have minimal effect on prayer, but with practice, the participant is able to blur the boundary between the private/internal thought and public/external communication with God. This blurring “allow[s] what must be imagined (God has no material form) to be experienced as more than mere imagination.”
Molly Worthen, writing in The New York Times somewhat naively, reads Luhrman to be finding “scientific evidence that evangelical churches brainwash believers.” This isn’t quite an accurate portrayal. Luhrman was looking for a way, as a social scientist, to understand the phenomena that many evangelical Christians have reported of hearing God talk to them. Her “theory of mind” detailing the psychological effects of prayer-training on the believer attempting to answer those questions.
She goes on to examine what she would call sensory overrides – moments when someone sees, feels, hears or smells something that shouldn’t be there, like the hand of God, a shimmer of evil, smell of death or Jesus. Whereas a hallucination is a perception without an external stimulus, Luhrman argues that a sensory override is a perception that overrides material stimuli. In other words, because of the technical training required for an experiential prayer, the individual has been able to blur the boundary between internal and external world, thus creating the possibility of the perception of the internal world to momentarily override the external world. Luhrman is quick to remind the reader that social science cannot answer definitively the question of what is True, but merely observe that this is a widespread phenomena and attempt to determine why that might be.
Seeing Jesus while on a “hallucinogen” is much the same phenomena, just via the spiritual “fast track” – that is, the religious experience and sensory override, minus the technical methodological training in prayer. In some of the earliest studies done on LSD, researchers noted that lysergic acid diethylamine had a unitive effect on the user, meaning that the outside world and internal reality become blurred under the influence of the drug. Often people who have had experiences with acid will talk about the positive quality of “experiencing the world as a child.”
As much as the idea may make us uncomfortable, Jesus found through intensive prayer and a Jesus found while tripping on acid are highly related, both psychologically and socio-historically. It should be noted that while I’ve discussed here the specific intersection between hippie culture’s use of psychedelics and evangelical Christian prayer, there are many other cultures in which perceiving a sensory override could also be considered normative. That experience is in no way limited to these two. What is interesting about the intersection of these two in particular is the current relationship that they have with each other.
How does a connection between acid-users and evangelical Christians make us view LSD? And how does it make us view prayer?
<3 Liya Rechtman