Last week witnessed a rain-soaked gathering centered upon “the intersection of music, justice, spirituality and art” in Hot Springs, North Carolina. The muddy campground attracting an estimated 2,200 participants at times resembled Yoda’s swamp world of Dagobah, complete with Evangelical Left luminaries espousing theologies similar to the aged Star Wars character’s new age pronouncements.
The Wild Goose Festival -- named after the Celtic imagery for the Holy Spirit—draws in aging Protestant Mainliners and disenchanted ex-evangelicals. The festival highlights what its apologists call “emergence Christianity,” but Wild Goose certainly does not shy away from liberal politics. This year’s event featured both in spades.
Emergence Christianity, popularly known as the Emergent Church movement, springs primarily from 20th century deconstructionism. In his public interview with Krista Tippett, emergent guru Brian McLaren described the movement as “postmodern…post-colonial…and post-Holocaust.” He contended that modernism is a “colonized…European form of Christianity” which crumbled away under the postmodern uncertainties of globalism and relativism.
McLaren thought the Holocaust frightened believers away from the idea of a “Christian nation,” all the while tyranny became associated with a faith in absolutes. “We’re probably at our worst when we present our faith not as a story but as a system,” he argued. “We need to give up the crazy European idea of monoreligious cultures.” Of course, opponents to such wondrous post-everything progress are none other than conservative evangelicals “with the audacity to say that homosexual people are ruining marriage” and Catholics “more concerned with keeping women out of the priesthood as the world is destroyed by carbon gases.”
Featured speaker Frank Schaeffer (outspoken critic of his father Francis’ legacy) was more direct: “Certainty is the enemy of the truth.” Indeed, many wild goslings boasted they were “seekers who haven’t found the answers,” but were “looking for companions on each of our respective faith journeys.” Wild Goose “elder” Vincent Harding addressed the opening invocation to “Mother-Father God, Benevolent Being,” “the spirits of those who came before,” and “the spirit of the earth.” Observers might not know where this flock is headed, but it’s definitely not north.
This loosey-goosey theology allows for a panoply of beliefs and practices. This year especially, the festival highlighted issues of sexuality. While organizers tout Wild Goose as a “safe space for dangerous conversation,” the festival benefited for the first time from sponsorship by the homosexual advocacy organization the Human Rights Campaign. In one presentation, openly gay Roman Catholic priest James Alison likened church leaders with Italian traffic cops: well-dressed figures who occasionally feel the need to emerge from their booths and direct traffic, causing more problems. Asher Kolieboi, who was born female and now embraces a male identity, demanded a “trans theology” of affirmation in all congregations.
Such ethics require a tolerant God. Thankfully, the “Benevolent Being” is quite nonviolent! After all, the texts of violence, divine punishment, and judgment stand for “the people sharing how they understand themselves and God,” according to Pastor Amy Yoder McGloughlin of the infamous Germantown Mennonite Church. “Whether or not it’s [historically] true doesn’t really matter to me,” she revealed. Of course, making space for a nonviolent God gives room for pacifism and universalism. If the Highest Power in the cosmos never inflicts pain to fulfill the demands of justice, who are human governors to carry out war? Moreover, if God does not punish sin, does He send anyone into Hell? Such unenlightened concepts typical of traditional American Protestantism should be thrown away with coal mining and offshore drilling.
Perhaps the perfect encapsulation of Wild Goose was its chili cornbread Eucharist. Touted as an example of “bioregional discipleship,” the service featured a “good old fashioned altar call tonight at communion,” where supplicants would repent of their “consumer lifestyle” and “petroleum-based investments.”
Wild goslings enjoyed a feel-good narrative of healthy eating and locally-grown ingredients. “I have grown this corn on our land in the [New Mexican] mountains. I ground it by hand…used rainwater from North Carolina to make the batter,” the presenter boasted. He added, “It’s mountain corn. It tastes toothy. This isn’t a white cornbread. It also has great chili and cheese we’ve added to that cornbread tonight, and it tastes meaty. It tastes like a body.” Opportunities for scatological humor aside, this insipid “Stuff White People Like” vibe resembles a Portlandia sketch more than a religious service. Apparently, the most important questions surrounding the sacrament aren’t about Christ’s presence and substance, but instead whether or not the ingredients are certified fair trade organic.
The size and longevity of the emergent movement remain questionable. During a Darkwood Brew live broadcast, one minister begged for advice since the conservatives had been scared out of her church and the congregation was on the brink of collapse. At the Alison lecture, a married lesbian from the Archdiocese of Detroit was struggling with “new, young conservative leadership.” Participants tended to be raised in the church; few if any converted from another religion (or cared to evangelize, since that is a “colonialist” endeavor).
Ever the contrarian, Frank Schaeffer observed in one of his workshops, “The mission of progressive Christianity is odd. It’s a bunch of people who realized their wagon is hitched to something supremely uncool, and so they try to hitch their wagon on something cool instead. The problem is that what is cool today is determined by a s*** culture.” Emergents do hitch their cart to such falling stars as environmentalism, pacifism, the Moral Monday protests, wealth redistribution, and “laughter yoga.” Like liberal Protestants before them, the Evangelical Left may also slip into irrelevance and lost vitality.
Ironically, for all their talk of misty uncertainties and multiculturalism, emergents remain assured that orthodox Christianity and conservative politics are erroneous. It seems that, in reaching out to theological misfits, the Wild Goose Festival has picked up all the heretics.