As if Veeka and I hadn’t endured enough camping in the rough at the Papa festival, last weekend we headed south to North Carolina to cover yet another Christian music festival (although the term ‘Christian’ applies quite loosely here); the Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills about 30 miles from Chapel Hill, NC.
I had talked the Economist into letting me cover this gathering of 1,500 people because it was a copy of the UK’s longstanding and successful Greenbelt Festival in Cheltenham, which premiered in 1974. Some 20,000 attendees show up at Greenbelt and the American organizers seeking to copy Greenbelt hope the numbers will get that large here too.
I dunno. It was America’s first-ever such gathering for theological liberals from June 23-26, on 72 wooded acres in Bible Belt eastern North Carolina. To get more to attend, the conference was open to all manner of post-Christians, non-Christians, disaffected evangelicals, the usual musician-and-artist cohort, gays and lesbians and a liberal evangelical subset known as the “emergent” church. I had thought the emergent folk faded out about five years ago but no, they were in full flower here. A lot of older liberals: Jim Wallis, Richard Rohr and Phyllis Tickle, the high priestess of the emergent movement, were quite present at this conference and most were pushing their books. I did find Tickle’s assertion – that the present emergent movement is up there with the Reformation and the Great Schism of 1054 in terms of importance to Christianity – to be quite a reach. Then again, she calls John Wimber emergent so her boundaries include basically anything that’s occurred in the world of religion in the past 30 years.
Others, such as gay San Francisco Episcopal rector Paul Fromberg, were on several panels and I’ll say this up front; I was quite unprepared as to how homosexual rights ended up as such an obsession at Wild Goose. Panels on sexuality and justice compared America’s fight against racism to the current struggle for gay marriage et al to be legal. Interestingly, there weren’t any panels on racism that I knew about. Ditto for abortion. For all the talk on justice, etc., the crowd was overwhelmingly white which goes to show that liberal religion doesn’t necessarily play well in the minds of black Christians.
My favorite speaker was Nadia Bolz-Weber, an ELCA cleric out of Denver who pastors House for All Sinners and Saints there. See the tatooed person in the photo of people celebrating Holy Communion? Yep, that is a Lutheran minister. She had some fresh insights and she didn’t speak in cliches as did folks like Frank Schaeffer (who makes a living dumping on his dead and famous father) and Jay Bakker. Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Faye, appeared as a fashion plate with a black vest over a white T-shirt (the temps were in the 90s), a chain draped over one hip, a scarf artfully arranged out of a front pocket and another coming out of a back pocket topped by a beret – it was a bit much. His rambling speech was so disorganized and self-centered, I snuck out after a half-hour.
Big regret is I didn’t get to hear the musicians more but Wild Goose erred in putting the Psalters up on Thursday night, before many of us had gotten there. And then there was the Ethiopian-born singer who was leading folks in singing “Hallelujah Hare Krishna.” Double take when I heard that one. Was wondering if I was going to even see a Bible at this conference; finally saw someone sporting one but things like Bible studies and praise/worship music did not happen there. There was a beer garden, however.
I was told conference organizers had wanted to invite Chuck Colson in to talk about prison reform so I’m not saying they aimed to have an unbalanced conference but most of the panels were clearly stacked towards a liberal point of view. The kids ministry portion was very well done and Veeka was very happy to be making all manner of knitted stuff out of yarn. Note the purple cat painted on one of her cheeks in our photo here. And the little blue thing on her head that she knit. Also notice how hot we both look. I pinned up my hair the entire weekend.
The last night of the festival, people were so noisy, I was up til well past 2:30 a.m. I walked outside the tent and saw the loveliest sky with a sliver of bright moon hanging amongst the stars. The night was warm and the crickets were chirping loudly. The volunteers who kept the conference running were a most gracious group of people and I didn’t meet one grouchy one, which is amazing considering how steamy and buggy it was. The site had been used for bluegrass festivals so it wasn’t totally virgin land like we had at Papa. Thus ends Veeka’s and my camping experiments for this summer. We are done with tents, bumpy grass, critters that crawl about the tent and poison ivy.
Here is the link to my piece in the Economist.