Mike Pence and I have something in common. We both attended the now-defunct Christian rock festival Ichthus (“the Christian Woodstock” or some nonsense like that) in Kentucky and had significant experiences in our religious development there.
For Pence, Ichthus was formative in becoming an evangelical Protestant. Pence was raised Catholic, his siblings remain Catholic to this day. Pence, after Ichthus, not so much.
For me, Ichthus was the point where the doubts about Jesus and Christianity I already had solidified and became impossible to ignore.
This is not a story I have ever told. My dad was a chaperone on this trip. We have never discussed the trip in the thirty-plus years since. This Easter weekend, I will share with you the tale.
Confirmation in the UMC was really hard for me, because I wasn’t sure I believed any of it, I hoped Confirmation would give me the key I had been missing (and it didn’t), and when it came time to say in front of the church that I accepted Jesus I did so because I knew everyone expected it of me. Then there was the Easter Sunday youth Sunday School class the following year where I asked a question that struck me as blindly obvious — “If we see today that Jesus fulfills the Old Testament prophecies and we’re almost two thousand years after those events, then why could the Pharisees not see that Jesus fulfilled them when they were much closer in time to the prophecies?” — but the youth pastor (who led the trip to Ichthus a few months later) just couldn’t handle in any satisfying way. (His answer, roughly, was, “Because they weren’t supposed to see Jesus as the Messiah.” This was the point where I started to really consider the nonsense that is the Easter story.) Before that, I’d irritated a church camp counselor a few years earlier when I asked him why people needed to believe in Jesus to get to Heaven; did we really need to convert other peoples to Christianity, when, for example, people in India are happy believing in the Hindu gods and following them and doing what they’re supposed to by the religion of their culture? The point is, by my teen years I was grappling with problems I had with Christian belief and had no idea where to go with them or what they meant.
I have literally no memory of the music. I’ve been to many other, non-Christian music festivals over the years, and I have vivid memories of each of them, the people I met, the bands I saw, the things I did. I don’t remember a damn thing about the music or the people of Ichthus. Maybe it was like the praise music of the church service I attended last weekend in North Carolina. I don’t know. Ichthus isn’t even a vague blur in my mind to the point where I’ve sometimes wondered if this were a thing that truly happened. There simply isn’t anything there.
What I do remember of Ichthus, though, was a prayer session one morning. Prayer was never something I did. I realized at the age of eight or so that prayer is pointless; there’s no thought I could have that an omnipotent, omniscient god wouldn’t already know. But we had to go to these prayer sessions, so I went. The leader of this session closed out his prayer with some stuff about hearing Jesus and knowing him in your heart, and he wanted everyone who didn’t hear Jesus or feel him in the heart to raise their hands. I admit, I raised my hand, because I had never “heard” Jesus nor ever felt him in my heart and had no idea what that would even mean. After the prayer, he invited those who had raised their hands to come forward…
…and I didn’t.
Twenty or thirty kids around my age and older did, and they stood around the prayer leader. I looked at them, asked myself what I was afraid of that I didn’t go up front to join them, then walked back to my church’s campsite where my dad was, probably drinking coffee he’d brewed over the fire. I had spent a long time thinking there was something wrong with me that I didn’t “feel” about Jesus what others felt. Ichthus was the point were I began to realize there wasn’t something wrong with me. Walking through the festival, back to the campsite, it dawned on me that maybe the reason I didn’t “hear” Jesus was that there was nothing to hear, that it wasn’t fear that kept me from going forward to join others who hadn’t “heard” Jesus but an unwillingness to publicly lie about my doubts.
It took me a few more years to know who I was, but Ichthus was a significant development in my life, as significant as it was to Mike Pence, if in completely different directions and, in my case, more honest ones.