“…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?