(This is the first of a four-part article)
“My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great savior.”
-John Newton (1725-1807), former slave ship captain, author of the hymn Amazing Grace, and friend and supporter of William Wilberforce
In the late 60s and early 70s the US in particular and the West in general experienced the Cultural Revolution. The sex, love and rock and roll movement was in many ways a revolt against everything: all forms of authority, parents, police, religion, government, moral standards, “the establishment,” and so on.
The counter-culture caused a lot of damage, with many lives lost to drugs, sexual diseases, loose living and rebellion. Many died as a result. And I was heavily involved in the hippy scene. Like so many kids, I rebelled against a more or less Christian upbringing and tossed out all I had been brought up on.
But as we are told in Isaiah 59:19, “When the Enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of God will raise a standard against him!” So roughly at the same time (or just thereafter) God raised up the Jesus Revolution. Tens of thousands of burned-out hippies, freaks and radicals were converted then – maybe even millions.
And I was one of them, and this is my story of God’s relentless and amazing grace. It is about just my actual conversion to Christianity, and the nearly year-long process which that entailed. Steadily and patiently God brought me to himself.
My early days can be told in a few sentences. Born in a small Wisconsin town (Sheboygan) in early 1953, I long had a very low self-image, and tended not to get involved with the crowd and the in-groups. For some reason I have hardly any memories of my childhood. One of the few things I recall is telling my dad when I was quite young: “The only thing I am good at is not being good at anything”.
So I was often a bit of a loner who did not fit in well. Nothing too severe mind you, but enough to keep me in a more or less state of unhappiness and emptiness. While raised in a very nominal religious background, with regular church attendance, it of course meant nothing to me, and I soon rejected it all.
At this point I should mention that my twin sister and older brother went on quite different journeys than I did. My sis certainly stayed on the straight and narrow, while my brother went through a different sort of rebellion, not taking him into the wild hippy scene.
One way to cope with not exactly being Mr Popular or Mr Good-looking was to submerge myself in books and reading. And that I certainly did. From early on I was reading all sorts of stuff – but often not the kind of stuff most 14-year-olds would be reading. Given that the New Left and the hippy movement was breaking out in the mid-to late 60s, I soon moved in that direction.
I also got heavily into the New Age Movement as part of my searching before it was called the New Age. Thus I read everything I could find on eastern religions, reincarnation, astral projection, cosmic consciousness, and all the rest. It was all part of a quest I was on – a journey to find truth and ultimate reality.
What distinguished me from most folks of course is that the overwhelming majority of people who moved in this direction were college kids; I was still just a high school kid. My move to radical thinking and reading occurred roughly from between 14 and 18 years of age. So I was a bit young for such radical searching, rebellion and revolution.
To get a feel for where my journey was heading during this period, it might be best to simply list a very small sampling of the sorts of things I was reading during this period:
George Orwell, 1984
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Doors of Perception
Karl Marx, Das Kapital
The Communist Manifesto, and various works by Lenin, Trotsky and others (often boring and dry, but it was what any good young lefty had to read).
Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man
Abbie Hoffman, Steal This Book, Revolution for the Hell of It
Jerry Rubin, Do It!
Eldridge Cleaver, the noted Black Panther, Soul on Ice
Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
R. D. Laing, The Politics of Experience
Timothy Leary, The Politics of Ecstasy
Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
The Tibetan Book of the Dead
The Egyptian Book of the Dead
The Bhagavad Gita
Lao-Tzu, Tao Te Ching
D. T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism
Alan Watts, The Way of Zen, The Joyous Cosmology
Edgar Cayce, Mysteries of Atlantis, and other of his books on clairvoyancey, reincarnation, etc.
T. Lobsang Rampa, The Third Eye, and his other volumes
Richard Maurice Bucke, Cosmic Consciousness
Many other authors and writers could be mentioned. But during this period I was on a hardcore search for meaning, purpose, truth and spirituality. Eastern religions, left-wing politics, and all things counter-cultural were my main reads back then.
Of course all this reading and all this rebellion meant I quickly drifted into what was called the New Left. While much of the rebellion was on the East and West coasts of America (eg, Berkeley or Haight-Ashbury in California, and Columbia University in New York), Madison Wisconsin, the state capital and college town, was also a leading hotbed of radicalism, student revolt, the New Left, and the counter-culture.
It was even infamous for some lives being lost at the hands of radical student bombers. Given that it was only about 2 ½ hours away from where I lived, I often hitch-hiked there to be a part of the action. And of course I sought to import this radicalism and revolution to my local high school.
Thus I was fully into everything: fomenting rebellion and dissent in any way that I could. I helped to edit a local underground newspaper; I led demonstrations in my high school; I got kicked out of high school at least once; I sold drugs to my fellow high schoolers; I was arrested on several occasions; busted for drugs on occasion; and so on.
I got into or supported all the radical New Left groups, causes and activities: the Free Speech Movement, SDS, the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, the Chicago Seven, the Diggers, the SNCC, the Yippies, the ACLU, the socialists, the Trotskyites, the Marxists, and the various radical feminist, homosexual and other liberation groups.
Of course I tried to read all the radical magazines like Ramparts, The Realist, Village Voice, The Daily Worker, Mother Jones, and the various underground press publications, like The Los Angeles Free Press, The Berkeley Barb, the Chicago Seed, and so on. There I devoured the articles by Allen Ginsberg, Tom Hayden, William Kunstler, Eldridge Cleaver, Paul Krassner, Mark Rudd, Dave Dellinger, Angela Davis, Huey Newton, David Horowitz, Bobby Seale, etc.
I was a full-on radical – not bad for a 16- or 17-year-old kid from Sheboygan. Needless to say, I was a bit limited in all this. I surely would have gone on to much bigger and better things in the Movement had I not been just a high school kid in a small Midwestern town, but a college-age young person in a place like San Francisco or New York.
It is a good thing I was so limited. I probably would be dead, in prison, or in exile otherwise. And also needless to say I caused my conservative straight parents no end of grief and agony. Once they found some drugs I had stashed, and they dragged me off the next day to cut off my long hair, and lay down the law.
As was often the case, I then just ran away from home – usually to Madison, to hang out with like-minded leftist peers. That usually caused my parents to relent – for a while at least. All those times of running away and all the mischief I was up to certainly caused my mom and dad plenty of heartache, worry and misery.
Of course the drug culture was a huge part of the counter-culture. While some of my friends were doing drugs, I did not at first. But when I read that you could find God while on LSD – as Timothy Leary insisted – then I started getting into them big time.
My drugs of choice were mostly the psychedelics: LSD, mescaline, peyote (the cactus button), psilocybin (the magic mushroom), THC, etc. And of course mega-amounts of marijuana, hash and speed. Because some friends had already died from shooting up speed and heroin, I stayed away from needles and instead just swallowed anything I could get my hands on.
Of course drugs and rock and roll went together, so I attended as many rock concerts as I could get to in the Midwest, almost always stoned out of my mind. So my memories – as with this entire period – are a bit hazy. But I got to see many of the big groups of the time: Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin, Santana, Mountain, Johnny Winter, Crosby, Still and Nash, Neil Young, Cat Stevens, etc.
And being an avid fan of the blues, it was great to be so close to Chicago, one of the real capitals of the blues in America. I got to see plenty of my favourites: Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Canned Heat, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, etc.
Needless to say, concerts, albums and drugs cost money, so I got a full time job in a plastics factory where a few other freak friends who had already graduated were working. This forty-hour work week took place while I was still going to high school full time. So it was a full load.
My poor mother – I would come home at midnight coated in yucky, sticky plastic, shower, and leave my blackened clothes for her to try to wash clean. I would then usually head off to a friend’s house to get stoned and listen to music. But the very unglamorous job at least got me some cash, which got me more drugs.
Now for all the talk about socialism, free love, free drugs, and the like, there were plenty of capitalist drug dealers out there quite happy to make a profit. Some were even willing to rip off fellow hippies! I sold drugs a lot myself, but never to make a profit. I was happy just to break even and help others get high.
Of course the more drugs I took, the more I lost my original vision of finding God and truth – the aim was just to get high: end of story. And sometimes we got pretty desperate. When our drug supplies ran low we looked for other available substitutes. I remember one Christmas we took Christmas tree pine needles and rolled them into joints – sadly to no avail however. No high, just a lot of coughing.
And we were pretty good at keeping ourselves stoned. I recall at one point we kept a record of how many days in a row we were high on something. I think the winner was a 50-day non-stop run of drug mania and mayhem. How we ever managed to travel around the Midwest to various rock concerts – let alone simply survive – I will never know. Of course looking back now I do know – it was all God’s grace.
A few friends tried to get to Woodstock, but never got very far – not surprisingly. Drugs, music, concerts – that was about it for my life by this point – plus the tail-end of high school and the lousy factory. Reading was becoming less a part of my daily routine. Just being high and listening to psychedelic, acid and hard rock or the blues was becoming a main preoccupation for me.
Given all this madness it is quite incredible that I actually managed to graduate from high school. I think they just wanted to get rid of me, so they let me get through, even though I was a wreck by then. Indeed, I was such a handful that they let me skip my last year of gym class.
I was never a jock and they must have worried about me: this weird hippy kid who would rather make flower necklaces out on the field than compete in sports. I was a handful for the high school, and they were more than likely happy to get me out of there as soon as possible.
So I graduated from high school in June of 1971. I recall walking to the graduation ceremony and meeting a fellow student (who may have been or just become a Christian) who told me (because of my long hair and long beard), “You are looking more and more like Jesus Christ every day”. A prophetic word I would say, with hindsight.
Part 2 is here: billmuehlenberg.com/2012/06/27/coming-home-my-testimony-part-2/