This year marks the 50th anniversary of the “Summer of Love.” Popular culture remembers the tens of thousands of joyous young hippies that descended upon San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district to celebrate personal expression, drug experimentation and easy sexuality.
What’s less known and what I discovered in my own research is that Haight-Ashbury also proved to be fertile ground for a startling new combination of the hippie style with conservative evangelical Christianity – the “Jesus People.”
How it started
The reasons behind the rise of the hippie movement were complex: A rejection of conformity and materialism in American culture and the emergence of a drug culture both played a part.
The 1960s counterculture also contained a decidedly spiritual dimension that attracted a great deal of hippie interest. The movement incorporated meditation, the occult, Native American spirituality and Eastern forms of religion such as Zen Buddhism and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (“the Hare Krishnas”).
However, as writer and observer Charles Perry pointed out in his book “The Haight-Ashbury: A History,” the Summer of Love brought with it a number of problems including overcrowding, crime, sexually transmitted diseases and bad drug trips. Every night thousands of penniless young people would “crash” in whatever space they could find or simply sleep on the streets.
The problems became so bad that the leading hippie paper, “The Oracle,” advised anyone interested in coming to San Francisco to forget (in the words of a hit record from that year) the “flowers in their hair” in favor of bringing along a sleeping bag, warm clothes and money.
As many became disillusioned with life in Haight-Ashbury, a new set of hippie “Jesus freak” evangelists appeared in the Bay Area, urging people to follow Jesus Christ and forsake drugs and promiscuous sex. Key to this new presence on the streets was Ted Wise, a drug-using sailmaker, who in late 1965 was “saved” after one of his numerous LSD trips.
Along with his wife Elizabeth and several other hip couples, Wise began attending a local Baptist church.
The unconventional ways of these new believers antagonized many in the church. Wise and his group kept long hair, followed eccentric fashion and showed dissatisfaction with middle-class Christianity. One time Wise made a presentation on the music of Bob Dylan during a Wednesday night prayer meeting. But, as I found in my research, somehow, the hippies and the church people from the “establishment” managed to ride out their differences.
The ‘Street Christians’
Drawn by nationwide publicity, somewhere between 75,000 and 100,000 youth came to Haight-Ashbury during the spring and early summer of 1967. Many became homeless, hungry and sick, and Wise urged Pastor John MacDonald to do something to help.
As MacDonald relates in his 1970 book “House of Acts,” he decided to tour San Francisco with Wise. He saw the packed streets and found that Wise “by dress and appearance” belonged and had “remarkable rapport” with the young people who had come to San Francisco that he “clearly did not.” MacDonald agreed that the need was great and that something had to be done.
With the assistance of several fellow pastors in the Bay Area, MacDonald helped Wise and his friends establish a coffeehouse called “The Living Room,” a block north of the intersection of Haight and Ashbury.
Over the next year and a half, thousands of runaway youth and hippie characters (including a man named Charles Manson later convicted for mass murders) came into the mission to talk with what MacDonald referred to as the “Street Christians.” Many others came simply to sip soup and coffee and eat donated doughnuts.
Spread of the movement
Meanwhile, others in the Bay Area such as Kent Philpott, a Baptist seminary student, and his hippie friend David Hoyt also began to preach on the streets.
By late 1968 they had opened a shelter called “The Soul Inn” in the basement of a small Baptist church in the city’s adjacent Richmond district.
Wise and his friends established a Christian commune in Novato, while Philpott and Hoyt (with the help of the pastors who had assisted The Living Room) put together a string of communes in San Rafael, Walnut Creek and other Bay Area communities.
By early 1969 this new-style interaction between hippie Christians and evangelical religion (particularly its Pentecostal branch) was happening elsewhere in the country in cities like Seattle, Detroit and Ft. Lauderdale. Hippies interacted with clergy and laypeople from the churches and committed themselves to following Jesus.
One particularly successful commune outside Eugene, Oregon, “Shiloh,” quickly grew to well over a hundred members. It acquired farms, and sent evangelistic teams across the United States in the 1970s to open new Shiloh communal houses.
But undoubtedly the hotbed of the movement was farther to the south near Los Angeles. There the Jesus People began to attract not only hardcore hippies from the drug culture and the streets but swarms of teenagers from youth groups belonging to the region’s churches.
Hundreds of independent communal homes, coffeehouses and Christian “fellowships” sprang up from San Diego in the south to Santa Barbara in the north between 1969 and the early 1970s.
Eventually, the presence of the Jesus People attracted national publicity. Coffeehouses with names like “The Belly of the Whale” and “The Upper Room” appeared from coast to coast. Underground “Jesus papers,” like Los Angeles’ “Hollywood Free Paper” and Chicago’s “Cornerstone,” helped carry the message onto the streets.
Photos of ocean baptisms involving hundreds of enthusiastic teenagers being plunged beneath the waves as a sign of their dedication to “follow the Lord” became a familiar sight.
By 1971, the movement had become the religious story of the year, capturing the cover of Time magazine.
A hip Christianity
One of the things that attracted youth to the Jesus People was their enthusiastic use of folk, pop and rock music. While many conservative churches had traditionally frowned on “worldly entertainments,” the Jesus freaks embraced their generation’s musical tastes.
Whether singing simple choruses in their gatherings, listening to guitar-strumming artists in coffeehouses or sponsoring full-blown Christian rock concerts, music was a central feature of Jesus People life. Jesus music festivals sprang up across the country in the 1970s.
A lasting impact
By the late 1970s, however, the Jesus People had run out of steam. The hippie style grew less popular among teens. New styles of music and fashion came into vogue, and the Jesus People themselves grew older and moved on with their lives. But their impact lived on in a number of ways.
The success of the Jesus People and their sometimes grudging acceptance by older church members marked a major change in evangelical Christians’ attitudes toward popular culture.
The rock-fueled enthusiasm of the Jesus People for upbeat music created a “Contemporary Christian Music” industry and triggered controversial change in many churches’ worship styles and music. As the years passed, hymns, choirs and organs were increasingly replaced in many churches with “praise choruses,” “worship bands” and electric guitars.
The two largest Christian groups to emerge in late 20th-century America, the Calvary Chapel “fellowship of churches” and the Vineyard denomination, trace their roots to the Jesus People movement. Characterized by upbeat music, Pentecostal demonstrations of spiritual gifts and an informal “come-as-you-are” vibe, these two groups are today the largest institutional evidence to come out of the movement.
Fifty years after the Summer of Love, the Jesus People remain one of its lingering ironies. It was because of the Jesus People movement that numerous baby boomers remained anchored to conservative evangelical churches well into the 21st century.
Is this our relationship to tech companies now?
Internet-enabled devices are so common, and so vulnerable, that hackers recently broke into a casino through its fish tank. The tank had internet-connected sensors measuring its temperature and cleanliness. The hackers got into the fish tank’s sensors and then to the computer used to control them, and from there to other parts of the casino’s network. The intruders were able to copy 10 gigabytes of data to somewhere in Finland.
By gazing into this fish tank, we can see the problem with “internet of things” devices: We don’t really control them. And it’s not always clear who does – though often software designers and advertisers are involved.
In my recent book, “Owned: Property, Privacy and the New Digital Serfdom,” I discuss what it means that our environment is seeded with more sensors than ever before. Our fish tanks, smart televisions, internet-enabled home thermostats, Fitbits and smartphones constantly gather information about us and our environment. That information is valuable not just for us but for people who want to sell us things. They ensure that internet-enabled devices are programmed to be quite eager to share information.
Take, for example, Roomba, the adorable robotic vacuum cleaner. Since 2015, the high-end models have created maps of its users’ homes, to more efficiently navigate through them while cleaning. But as Reuters and Gizmodo reported recently, Roomba’s manufacturer, iRobot, may plan to share those maps of the layouts of people’s private homes with its commercial partners.
Security and privacy breaches are built in
Like the Roomba, other smart devices can be programmed to share our private information with advertisers over back-channels of which we are not aware. In a case even more intimate than the Roomba business plan, a smartphone-controllable erotic massage device, called WeVibe, gathered information about how often, with what settings and at what times of day it was used. The WeVibe app sent that data back to its manufacturer – which agreed to pay a multi-million-dollar legal settlement when customers found out and objected to the invasion of privacy.
Those back-channels are also a serious security weakness. The computer manufacturer Lenovo, for instance, used to sell its computers with a program called “Superfish” preinstalled. The program was intended to allow Lenovo – or companies that paid it – to secretly insert targeted advertisements into the results of users’ web searches. The way it did so was downright dangerous: It hijacked web browsers’ traffic without the user’s knowledge – including web communications users thought were securely encrypted, like connections to banks and online stores for financial transactions.
The underlying problem is ownership
One key reason we don’t control our devices is that the companies that make them seem to think – and definitely act like – they still own them, even after we’ve bought them. A person may purchase a nice-looking box full of electronics that can function as a smartphone, the corporate argument goes, but they buy a license only to use the software inside. The companies say they still own the software, and because they own it, they can control it. It’s as if a car dealer sold a car, but claimed ownership of the motor.
This sort of arrangement is destroying the concept of basic property ownership. John Deere has already told farmers that they don’t really own their tractors but just license the software – so they can’t fix their own farm equipment or even take it to an independent repair shop. The farmers are objecting, but maybe some people are willing to let things slide when it comes to smartphones, which are often bought on a payment installment plan and traded in as soon as possible.
How long will it be before we realize they’re trying to apply the same rules to our smart homes, smart televisions in our living rooms and bedrooms, smart toilets and internet-enabled cars?
A return to feudalism?
The issue of who gets to control property has a long history. In the feudal system of medieval Europe, the king owned almost everything, and everyone else’s property rights depended on their relationship with the king. Peasants lived on land granted by the king to a local lord, and workers didn’t always even own the tools they used for farming or other trades like carpentry and blacksmithing.
Over the centuries, Western economies and legal systems evolved into our modern commercial arrangement: People and private companies often buy and sell items themselves and own land, tools and other objects outright. Apart from a few basic government rules like environmental protection and public health, ownership comes with no trailing strings attached.
This system means that a car company can’t stop me from painting my car a shocking shade of pink or from getting the oil changed at whatever repair shop I choose. I can even try to modify or fix my car myself. The same is true for my television, my farm equipment and my refrigerator.
Yet the expansion of the internet of things seems to be bringing us back to something like that old feudal model, where people didn’t own the items they used every day. In this 21st-century version, companies are using intellectual property law – intended to protect ideas – to control physical objects consumers think they own.
Intellectual property control
My phone is a Samsung Galaxy. Google controls the operating system and the Google Apps that make an Android smartphone work well. Google licenses them to Samsung, which makes its own modification to the Android interface, and sublicenses the right to use my own phone to me – or at least that is the argument that Google and Samsung make. Samsung cuts deals with lots of software providers which want to take my data for their own use.
But this model is flawed, in my view. We need the right to fix our own property. We need the right to kick invasive advertisers out of our devices. We need the ability to shut down the information back-channels to advertisers, not merely because we don’t love being spied on, but because those back doors are security risks, as the stories of Superfish and the hacked fish tank show. If we don’t have the right to control our own property, we don’t really own it. We are just digital peasants, using the things that we have bought and paid for at the whim of our digital lord.
Even though things look grim right now, there is hope. These problems quickly become public relations nightmares for the companies involved. And there is serious bipartisan support for right-to-repair bills that restore some powers of ownership to consumers.
Recent years have seen progress in reclaiming ownership from would-be digital barons. What is important is that we recognize and reject what these companies are trying to do, buy accordingly, vigorously exercise our rights to use, repair and modify our smart property, and support efforts to strengthen those rights. The idea of property is still powerful in our cultural imagination, and it won’t die easily. That gives us a window of opportunity. I hope we will take it.
Robot caregivers for the elderly could be just 10 years away (businessinsider.com)
Robot vacuum cleaner plans to sell maps of people’s homes (telegraph.co.uk)
Was Thomas Merton really a great mystic, as indicated above?
When I think of great Catholic mystics people like St. Faustina Kowalska come to mind. She was so busy suffering for others and having daily visions of Christ that she barely had time to write out her Diary.
Can bookish scholars/writers like Merton be mystics?
But I don’t think they can be great mystics. They might have an inkling of what the great mystics talk about.
Also, how do we know what a great mystic is? Need they be church approved and funded? Could there be other mystics who go unnoticed? Could the knowledge of these “wildflower” mystics, as I call them, surpass what the Church recognizes as a mystic or a saint?
I don’t know.
But my gut tells me that Merton, who was keen on study, talk and world travel, was not a great mystic. He might have been a great Catholic public figure. But that’s a totally different story.
I know everyone is different and it’s not a competition when it comes to serving God. But it seems there’s a sort of childish Catholic ‘cult’ mentality out there that I sometimes question.
Do some people need to believe in semi-mythical accounts for inspiration? Do they artificially elevate certain figures who really don’t deserve it? Are some religious people borderline fanatics?
Myself, I much prefer trying to get at the truth of things rather than following an overzealous, unthinking crowd.
Five suspects arrested for allegedly shooting Reverend Father (sundiatapost.com)
Tensions as robber escapes from Police custody in A-Ibom (vanguardngr.com)
Bishop Zubik Wants Dreamers To Have A Chance: ‘God Is Always There For The Underdog’ (pittsburgh.cbslocal.com)
Man Arraigned For Role In Divine Child Church Fireworks Attack (detroit.cbslocal.com)