Documentary of a Hippie Preacher
Miracles and visions, signs and wonders, scandal and sin. If any of the stories about Lonnie Frisbee are true, he must have been one of the more dynamic and controversial figures to stride upon the evangelical scene in modern times.
Frisbee was still just a teen when he met Chuck Smith, an evangelical preacher who was looking for a way to reach young people in the late '60s. Together they turned Calvary Chapel into a thriving epicentre of the Jesus Movement—that tumultuous moment when counter-cultural youth and Bible-believing baby-boomers came together in a heady mix of dispensationalist theology, social experimentation and evangelistic rock 'n' roll.
Some years later, Frisbee met John Wimber and played a key role in the origins of the Vineyard movement. But his name has largely been written out of the history books. Why? Because he struggled with sin. Specifically, sexual sin. And even more specifically, he struggled with homosexuality, and he died of AIDS in 1993.
David Di Sabatino was researching a book on the Jesus Movement when he came across Frisbee's story and decided to restore him to his rightful place in evangelical history by producing a warts-and-all documentary on the subject. Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher—rough cuts of which have already been shown at several evangelical churches and schools—premieres at the Newport Beach Film Festival on April 24.
Di Sabatino, who quit his job as editor of Worship Leader magazine to focus on filmmaking, spoke to Christianity Today Movies about his film.
Let's start at the very beginning. The opening credits call this "A Bible story by David Di Sabatino." How would you justify calling this a "Bible story"?
David Di Sabatino: Lonnie's life is very much like the characters that you would read about in the Bible; it's not a Bible story per se in that it comes straight from the Bible, but in another sense, a sideways sense, it does. You look at Lonnie's life and you parse it, and you see the foolish things confounding the wise, you see the eccentricities and the whacked-out character of Ezekiel, you see the frailties of Samson in his life, you see the prophetic, miraculous kind of stories that swirl around him like they did around Elijah and Elisha—so in a lot of ways, I stand behind that. Here's a guy who was flawed, and yet God used him.
How did you come across the Lonnie Frisbee story?
Di Sabatino: I came out of the Pentecostal movement, so I grew up with all these larger-than-life figures thrown about in front of my eyes, and when I started doing research on revivals and the Jesus Movement, I heard about Lonnie and just was fascinated by him. And I was drawn in initially by the stories, the larger-than-life stories, but as I went to flesh him out, I found a real human being with a lot of problems, and in order to contextualize it, I had to deal with all of it—which was extremely difficult, because some of the things he was dealing with, I really had no understanding of. So I had to rely on going to other people and ask, you know, "What does it mean to be raped as an eight-year-old child? What does that do to you?" So it stretched me in that sense. I don't know much about psychology, but I feel that I have some grasp now, of at least what he went through.
Were you surprised by these flaws that you saw in Lonnie?
Di Sabatino: At first, of course. We grew up with the holiness impulse in conservative evangelicalism that says once you are saved, you're striving for perfection. So yeah, I didn't know what to do with that, because my matrix was so black-and-white, and as I've gone along, my life experiences have filled in, and I realize there is a lot more gray than there ever was black and white. So again, I go back to Lonnie being raped as an eight-year-old.What does that do to somebody? It fragments your identity, and now I can't say that I'm surprised at all.