Tuesday, August 20, 2013

And There Was Rain: The Expectations and Reality of a Wild Goose Chase

wild goose festival, north carolina, camping, christianity, spirituality, justice, art

by Charity Erickson

Whatever there is to be said about Wild Goose Festival 2013, my strongest impression will remain that I was mildly damp for its entirety.

Before I left for the festival I had many romantic fantasies about what it would be like: camping in a beautiful mountain setting with friendly hippies, passing food and stories and beer around the campfire. But instead, at the end of most nights I found myself trying to dry out my tent, watching episodes of New Girl on what was left of my laptop battery, scarfing chips and hummus while nursing my beer alone.

I’m not complaining (except for the incessant moist-ness of North Carolina; I’m definitely complaining about that)—when I’m at home, I relax into the evening by watching TV on my laptop while I prepare dinner. It’s what I like to do. In retrospect, I was in a state of denial when I decided to camp out in the first place. My imagination had recommended camping to me in a way that had no connection to reality; it hadn’t mentioned the nightly throb of screaming cicadas, port-a-potty stink, dead flashlight batteries and shoe-sucking mud.

I sat quietly in my tent on Thursday night, and as all my campfire visions faded into the ether I realized: I loathe camping.

This was the first of many instances of thwarted expectations I encountered over the course of the festival. When I made it down to Friday morning’s first Main Stage gathering—an “Elder’s Session” with Krista Tippett, Phyllis Tickle, Vincent Harding, and “honorary elder” Speech from Arrested Development—I looked out over the sea of camp chairs and was shocked to see not a horde of young, bearded radicals and hippy-dippy mamas; instead, attendance was dominated by Baby Boomers, and older.

And as I discovered in the next session—a workshop where participants engaged in conversations about race and difference, led by Dana N. Courtney and Alexia Salvatierra—most attendees were not the Shane-Claiborne-inspired, post-evangelical types that I expected to encounter. They were, by and large, mainliners.

Is it horribly ignorant, and rude, that I was stunned (and perhaps slightly disappointed) to realize that I—a charismatic, evangelical, pseudo Christian-Anarchist—had come to the woods looking for a transcendent spiritual experience…and found myself at a mainline conference? I came to the festival thinking I was going to a meeting of like-minds; what I found was that I was feeling increasingly on the outside of the festival culture—and increasingly critical of it.

Lest one think I was glaring through sessions, arms folded and silently judging, I found the actual content of the festival to be incredibly moving and engaging. I wept through Philip Yancey’s (sometimes bordering on politically-incorrect) talk about God’s affection for the imperfect; I sniveled through Nadia Bolz-Weber’s characterization of the faith as one of defiant hope; I boo-hoo-hooed as Frank Schaeffer told a beautiful story about being blessed by an extremely conservative church community; I teared up as Melvin Bray (a favorite new-to-me voice at the festival) spoke about what happens when we miss opportunities to respond to God. Over the course of four days, I was consistently the mess at the back of the crowd. Usually this means that I’m enjoying myself. Also, that I am tired.

Brian McLaren, wild goose festival, elder's session, pentecostal, non-whiteThe source of my criticism has to do with the festival’s culture. There was a lot of discussion about racial reconciliation, which fit with the theme “Re-Membering the Body.” But I didn’t see it addressed in practical ways. Several speakers made reference to the fact that non-Western, non-white Christianity is increasingly Pentecostal—Phyllis Tickle, Alexia Salvatierra, and in a more critical way, Brian McLaren. (Hear his fascinating story here from 25:00-28:45.) But the culture of the festival was not one that was welcoming to charismatic worship styles.

Despite the festival being named for the Celtic understanding of the Holy Spirit, the general attitude of the festival was apathy—and sometimes, antagonism—towards the way that most of the world’s non-white Christians understand the Holy Spirit. Most Christians worldwide believe in miracles, healing prayer, and “spiritual warfare.” All this was, to me, significantly absent; instead, there was liturgy fandom (which I want to understand, but don’t totally get yet.)

I recognize that it isn’t evil to appeal to a population with a distinct culture. As Brian McLaren responded when I asked how the culture of liberal Christianity could find a point of connection with non-Western Pentecostal Christianity (video linked above, 44:50,) holding cultural (and spiritual) distinctives with love and integrity can enrich relationships between those with differences.

And if race hadn’t been such a topic of concerned conversation at the festival, I might not have noticed the weird dissonance between what the festival-goers claimed to want, and what they actually enjoyed. If a gathering of Christians aims to be a force for bridging the cultural/racial divide and yet its worship practice consists of Beer and Hymns, Johnny Cash on the banjo, and contemplative prayer—not to mention the ubiquitous cracking of jokes at the expense of worship choruses—it’s hard not to see its concern as disingenuous, or at least, an expression of deep denial.

If multicultural Christian fellowship were to be a true priority for Wild Goose, it would take more than inviting a diverse selection of speakers. The entire culture of the festival would need to change—the music, the worship, the location. A multicultural Wild Goose would have a totally different identity—one that, perhaps, the people who currently attend would not enjoy as much.

wild goose festival, camp, moist, cross, sacred spaceJust as I discovered when I arrived at my sodden campsite, what is ideal to the imagination takes on a much different form in reality. Wild Goose, as it is, probably shouldn’t expect to lead the charge in the Church’s conversation about race—it’s not a hospitable place for open and honest discussion on that particular topic. And you know what? That’s ok. Wild Goose has become a home and haven for those who have been alienated from Christ’s Body in a number of different ways; just because it is not the best venue for pursuing racial reconciliation in the Church doesn’t mean it isn’t serving a desperately necessary function.

The solution to this problem is honesty. Honesty about who we are, what we like, and how far we are willing to stretch ourselves to achieve a desired goal. For me—a hand-waving, amen-shouting Charismatic—and the majority of Christians worldwide, the festival would be more culturally comfortable if it had a greater emphasis on the Pentecostal understanding of the Holy Spirit (and if it was held closer to a Starbucks.) But if what would be meaningful to me threatened the inclusive, free, and delightfully weird identity of the Wild Goose community, it would be a travesty—a thunderstorm over the campfire. And that wouldn’t be fun for anyone. 

Charity Erickson and her husband Lance live and work together in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @CharityJill. 

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