“…That’s my earliest memory. Meeting the devil.”Michael Hicks, Doctor of Musical Arts, Professor (retired) at Brigham Young University
Michael Hicks’s memoir Wineskin: Freakin’ Jesus in the ‘60s and ‘70s is out now from Signature Books. The above quote, which comes early in the first chapter, is quite a good teaser. Was Dr. Hicks literally and physically threatened by Lucifer while lying in his childhood bed? He has his ideas about that in a memoir which is… let’s say a cavalcade of jaw-dropping salient details.
Hicks started out very far from BYU, culturally and religiously. Or perhaps he didn’t, something the book and this post will address.
“If Mom was Jesus’ heartbeat, Dad was Jesus’ whip.”
Hicks, at least in early childhood, grew up in a staunch Baptist home. After his artsy mom divorced his hot-tempered dad, mother and son began attending a more casual and trendy Christian church. This worship experience overlapped with the hippie movement prevalent in 1960s California. Over the course of his adolescence, Hicks found himself immersed in everything from altar calls and speaking in tongues, to marijuana-clouded rock concerts featuring performers like The Doors and Chuck Berry. To put it in safe Mormon terms, it was a heck of a childhood.
Becoming Mormon in the Age of Aquarius
By halfway through Wineskin, I asked myself how on Earth this young man—self-professed thief, drinker, and avid Evangelical—could ever end up a professor at BYU? Even when Hicks was sober and not breaking the law, he spent much of his youth fellowshipping with Jesus Freaks whose literature included anti-Mormon pamphlets. Incidentally, Wineskin is the name of a Christian coffeeshop where Hicks worked in his teens. Later they expanded their offerings to include a homeless shelter.
“I can rarely say of a biography, ‘I could not put it down.’ I could not put this one down. Michael Hicks’s life story is marvelously compelling.”Steven L. Peck, BYU Associate Professor of Biology
In addition to answering the central dramatic question of how Hicks ends up Mormon, Wineskin also provides a lively tour through the culture of an era. Unlike Dr. Peck, I was able to put this book down. Often. Far from being bored, I kept hopping over to YouTube to experience the many songs and film clips Hicks references. Here are some salient ones:
- “Spirit in the Sky:” a rock hit which reminds us we “gotta have a friend in Jesus”
- Cosmic Zoom: a trippy 1968 animation of our universe’s scale, from the subatomic to the galactic
- The Twilight Zone, the classic TV show which gave Hicks a taste for climactic revelations
- Gunsmoke and other western shows, which his father watched religiously
- 2001: A Space Odyssey, the sci-fi film classic, especially its ethereal underscoring
- Man’s Search for Happiness, the proselyting film Mormon missionaries showed to Hicks
From early in the book, we see how secular sources did as much to stoke Hicks’s religiosity as memorizing passages from the Bible. Also, it’s not like Hicks unconditionally loved everything which came his way. He is, for instance, lukewarm on the much-beloved writings of C.S. Lewis. He also found himself less than taken with the humanizing musical Jesus Christ Superstar (and I hereby publicly condemn him for that ;-). Wineskin, in addition to its profound personal narrative, offers a celebration of the music, movies, and literature which captured the zeitgeist of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Hicks’s nimble and likable prose adds to the experience.
Mormonism and Evangelicalism:
A & B Sides of the Same LP
Page after page, I kept asking myself: how does a kid high on marijuana, who should be in jail for multiple acts of theft, but who moonlights at an evangelical coffeeshop, well… how does this kid ever end up being a professor at BYU? A prominent and successful one at that!
For me, the answer lies in a couple parts. The first being moments where Hicks references things like his “Holy Trinity of singer-songwriters” (Cat Stevens, James Taylor, and Elton John). Hicks’s life story demonstrates how one need never enter a church to be baptized in religiosity. If you want a true religious experience, you can go to a rock concert. You can watch a TV show, or see a movie, or listen to a record. Maybe it’s something friends and family claim you just have to try. As you partake, your bosom becomes energized, and you find yourself wondering if this thing, this any-given-trendy thing, is what you’ve been looking for all along.
Here’s the second part: the trappings of Mormonism and Evangelical Christianity may appear different, but the underlying fundamentals are quite similar. Biblical literalism; shame over natural sexual urges; the purported exceptionalism of a self-describing chosen people—all the nonsense older generations employ while trying to control younger generations. Tale as old as time, really.
Meeting James Taylor on the Road to Emmaus
When Hicks jumps from his cohort of Jesus Freaks to a world of Sunday-best Mormon firesides, it simply is not that big of a leap. The music may sound different, but the childlike cravings it expresses for a loving Savior are the same. Also similar is the dark and predatory underbelly of organized religion. From the bedroom of the most egregious cultist to the desk of a Mormon apostle requires no leap. Ideologically, it is only a step or two. Whether the experience is healthy or destructive amounts to a lottery.
It’s important to say here that some of what Hicks experiences is outright abuse. Shocking to be sure. Yet, his story is far from all darkness and tragedy. Stick with Hicks’s memoir and he’ll take you somewhere worth going, and he’ll play you some tunes well worth the listen.
I even felt the spirit while working my way through Wineskin. After Hicks referenced James Taylor’s classic song “Fire and Rain,” I took a break from reading to listen to the song. I did so while sitting in one of my favorite coffeeshops, staring out the window at a damp winter’s day. When Taylor sang the following lyrics, I ached and joyed at the same time. I started feeling a conviction that if I could just tap continually into the source of this sensation, I might prove equal to whatever the rest of life throws at me:
Won’t you look down upon me, Jesus?
You’ve got to help me make a stand
You’ve just got to see me through another day
My body’s aching and my time is at hand
And I won’t make it any other way
This is a key to understanding Hicks’s remarkable success finding bliss in everything from dabbling in high church Catholicism to personally witnessing Jim Morrison collapse onstage. It’s all pure religion. If something contains truth, Mormonism pledges to embrace and circumscribe it. After all, even when it comes from “gentiles,” such culture is heartfelt expression by brothers and sisters who won a war before they were ever born.
The Mormonism We Ought to Study
Any readers looking for an exposé roundly condemning The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints may find Wineskin disappointing. Hicks never forsakes his affection for the Church. After all, he does eventually become a BYU professor, and I can only assume one of its finest.
Mind you, Hicks’s eyes are wide open well before he gets baptized. Since his religious journey started as a child in evangelicalism, he knew plenty of unsavory things about Mormon history before his conversion. Hicks is a Mormon I’ve never been able to understand (or maybe the word I’m hesitant to use is accept). He seems always able to say in effect: Yes, I know all the shady aspects of the institutional church, but I still love it.
If you want to truly understand present-day Mormonism, at some point you have to put down the Joseph Smith Papers and begin examining 20th Century Mormonism—which is far less prophetic and far more bureaucratic. Nevertheless, all of us Mormons—especially Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z—ought to study out the Mormonism into which our parents and grandparents came of age. For me, that means exploring the Mormonism of the 1970s in all its color, charm, and trouble. With Wineskin: Freakin’ Jesus in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Hicks has given us a pearl of great price. I highly recommend it.
Questions for Discussion
Have you read Wineskin: Freakin’ Jesus in the ‘60s and ‘70s or any of Dr. Hicks’s other books? If so, what were your reactions?
What is your sense of Mormonism in the ’60s and ’70s? What leaders, events, or practices stick out to you?
What secular works of film, TV, and music have played a significant role in your religious development? Why?
Mormonism if the 60s and the 70s was the golden age of the sense of church community. Road shows that promoted wholesome entertainment, Ward activities that promoted education, and camp outs that promoted good old fashioned work ethic. These things promoted the feeling of togetherness that community is based on.
Sadly, these things have been replaced by essentially adopting secular enlightenment practices that keep members isolated. Constant YouTube videos and zoom meetings keep members at home, instead of meeting together at the ward house. These things invite distractions such as Dua Lipa and funny cat videos, rather than the concentration required during an in-person event.
The old fashioned activities are what brought Dr Hicks and those like him into the Church, and kept them there. With the loss of the Mormon Culture, there is great danger that the next Dr Hicks will not stay.
I have not read the book.
On the other hand, too much of my life has consisted of Fast Sunday testimonies, BYU professors. Sunday school teachers and ward leaders giving lively blow-by-blow accounts of their wild youthful exploits. Each time, the ending was “do not so what I did”;and yet, each person seemed to relish and get great personal satisfaction out of sharing in great detail all of their wild deeds of the past.
There is one story that stands alone for me.
She has been my Relief Society President. She lived with us for a short time after her husband was transferred and she still needed to finish grad school locally. She stayed with us for 6 weeks.
She mentioned that she did not like returning to her home town. Eventually, she shared the story that at the age of 18, she took a local job and she shared a house with two men — and yes to everything that immediately comes to mind about that arrangement. Everyone in her home ward knew about that her roommates.
After 6 months, she moved out of that house, changed up her life and became very devoutly LDS.
That entire situation happened 20 years before her stay with us. She found that when she returned to visit her parents, everyone in her home ward and that small LDS town continued to treat her as a woman unclean. A full 20 years of devoutly LDS life was not enough for that ward or community.
It was a story that she rarely discussed. That fact that she shared it with me was a sign of trust.
I think about that story whenever I hear someone start talking about their crazy past life.
The reality is that sex, drugs and rock & rock stories still sell. They sell especially well in LDS culture when the final answer to everything is Mormonism.
When the protagonist is male, the stories are universally appealing. When the protagonist is female, the personal stories only sell if they are blonde, thin, chesty and sexually appealing. Even then, there are social repercussions for women that men do not experience.
This guy? A male professor at BYU? Yes, it checks all the boxes. Such a book will make him some money, increase student interest in his life and there will be no long-term repercussions.
Me? I am simply annoyed.
Sounds like a fun read. I grew up at the tail end of that time period. I was in one road show and remember ward campouts. Thanks for the review!
I took classes from Dr Hicks during my undergrad. He was an effective and entertaining teacher and I enjoyed his classes. But the real treat came when I followed him on Facebook afterwards. He’s a blisteringly intelligent man who understands his religion for what it is and has never let it sand down that eclectic spirituality described in the OP. Some of my earliest glimpses of nuance pre-faith crisis came from getting his witty and carefully parsed take on Mormon current events. I’m excited to read his memoir.
I have read his “Do Clouds Rest?” which chronicles his relationship with his mom as she struggled with dementia up until her passing. It’s a beautiful read.
Damascene, without dismissing the gist, I feel your comment delivers an intensity of criticism which Michael Hicks does not deserve. Though, as someone who is also annoyed by the braggadocio aspect of autobiographical prodigal stories, your comment did give me pause. Why was I not annoyed by Hicks’s memoir?
Perhaps because I don’t see Hicks playing the victim, even though he was certainly victimized by some of the most religious adults in his early life, and some of the secular ones too. Also, I don’t see him excusing his indiscretions, or failing to point out the destructive aspect of behaviors like drinking. Hicks avoids the temptation to be one of those prodigals who returns and then doubles-down on bigotry. All that said, I heartily agree with your main points, especially the egregious double standards heaped upon women. Especially regarding the example you shared about your friend, my sincere thanks for providing some needed balance to my post’s sentiment.
Janey, doing a cultural-hall-packed roadshow is one of my best youth program memories. As a grownup, I find myself in awe sometimes considering how much personal time our leaders must have given up to put together events like that. Gives me pause, even as I zealously guard my days off from work.
Kirkstall, thank you so much for sharing your in-person experiences with Dr. Hicks. I suspect I’d have relished taking classes from him. Last night, I listened to Devery Anderson’s interview with Hicks on the Signature Books’ podcast. His appearance there matches with your description of him here.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts, everyone!
Jake, great post, it was enough to convince to buy the book yesterday.
I am a huge fan of the band Blood Sweat and Tears – check out their “Holy John” song and also their version of “Fire and Rain.”
I’ve known Mike for many years and have had a lot of wonderful discussions with him about the rock music we both grew up with.
I’ve already told my children that when I shuffle off this mortal coil that I will haunt them until they die if they dare have a Mormon funeral for me. Rather, I want a celebration party with much of the music of my youth as the background music. I have only made two specific requests, and they are to play Norman Greenbaum’s classic “Spirit in the Sky” and the Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus Is Just Alright With Me” to start off the party.
In the 70s I can remember our wards and stakes putting on great cultural events – The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, The Mikado and other plays and roadshows, all quite impressive. No one has time for that now.
The biography sounds interesting. I also wonder if anyone with his sort of eclectic background could get hired to teach at BYU now?
DI, I miss those things too. Growing up my ward had a music night, a speech festival for the youth, a ward Spring Sing involving everyone in the ward, and a yearly stake dance festival. It was a marvelous way to get to know other ward members who were older or younger than me and to make our ward truly feel like a family instead of a group of strangers who are only at church because it’s commanded and who don’t really care to get to know anyone else who isn’t already friends with them. When I go home to that ward (a brother now lives in it) I’m still welcomed by old friends. My current ward has completely forgotten about me since I began to have health problems and could no longer attend regularly. Since getting Covid and Long Covid I’ve quit going altogether and nobody in the ward is any the wiser except for some dear neighbors who also quit going during the lockdown and never went back. To answer your last question: no, Mike nor anyone else who is a “free thinker” (ie. doesn’t always tout the party line) would not be allowed to even apply for a faculty position at BYU anymore.
“Since his religious journey started as a child in evangelicalism, he knew plenty of unsavory things about Mormon history before his conversion . . . He seems always able to say in effect: Yes, I know all the shady aspects of the institutional church, but I still love it.”
I’m not sure that being raised evangelical gave him any real grounding in [an accurate representation of] “the shady aspects of the institutional church.” Dr Hicks is a bit older than me, but the criticism I recall from Evangelicals in the ’70s and ’80s was mostly theological and consisted of taking the most ridiculous possible interpretation of LDS views and delivering them in loaded terms. Like “The Mormons believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers!” or the misrepresentations of “The God-Makers.” I find it hard to believe that the evangelicals of ten years earlier were delivering reasoned discourse on the Second Manifesto and other obscure history, and their race record wasn’t any better than ours.
Not much in an evangelical upbringing in those days would have given you anything lasting and solid to warn you off Mormonism, unless you were still bought into evangelicalism.
New Iconoclast, I’ll try to mostly-only push back against your seeming attempt to lump all Evangelicals of the time into a single attitude and anti-Mormon style. One of my general takeaways from Wineskin, backed up by life experience, is that when you can meet people up close as individuals, they prove far more interesting and intellectually diverse than any outspoken activist would have us believe. Yes, many Evangelicals were and are guilty of using loaded and hostile interpretations of Mormonism. I saw plenty of that on my mission. I also encountered staunch opponents of the Church who worked hard to remain sensitive to my feelings while fostering respectful and reasoned discussion over our theological differences. That said…
You use an example: “The Mormons believe that Jesus and Satan are brothers!” Other than the exclamation point, what’s loaded or ridiculous about that interpretation? Seems a concise and accurate statement of the theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Certainly sums up what I was taught to believe in the ’70s & ’80s in Sunday School.
Since you brought up The God Makers: FWIW, the only person who ever, to my face, tried to convince me that Elohim had actual sex with Mary to produce the baby Jesus was a 1990s temple-recommend-holding Elders Quorum president giving me and my mission companion a lift to an appointment. He was totally TBM and pretty well read as I remember it. But here and now I choose not to make the mistake of assuming all devout members of the Church think like that guy. I just mean to say, by way of goodwill, that I believe the general membership of any religious group tends to be far more diverse in its actual beliefs than either its leaders or detractors would have us believe.
Thanks again to everyone commenting! I’m really enjoying all the perspective offered and the mentioning of specific songs and shows. By the way, in addition to the Signature Books podcast I mentioned above, Michael Hicks has also appeared on another great podcast: Latter-day Faith with Dan Wotherspoon. I’m off to listen to that.