I've never been to Greenbelt, the famed nearly-forty-year-old British festival of faith, justice and creativity. I've heard countless friends tell me how awesome it is, strongly suggesting I go, but I've never gone. So it's existed to date only in my imagination. But last week, after ten years of talking and planning and organizing, Greenbelt came to the United States in the form of the Wild Goose Festival. I went to that. Here are my reflections on the experience.
It was awesome.
I attended Wild Goose Festival in an official capacity, as a representative of my employer, InterVarsity Press. Several of our authors (many of whom I worked with as their editor) were presenting or otherwise attending; some of them were even part of the planning committee. We had a book release party for my friend Mark Scandrette to celebrate the release of Practicing the Way of Jesus, and we hosted a dinner attended by Mark and his son Isaiah, and about twenty-four other authors, author-spouses and otherwise friends of the Press. Beyond those two events, I was schmoozing, attempting to acquire book projects, indulging would-be writers as they talked about their book ideas, and generally enjoying myself.
I did enjoy myself, quite a bit, despite the oppressive heat and humidity. For starters, the authors whom I've worked with and who attended the festival are some of my favorite people in the world--in the world. They're geniuses, intellectually and morally, and they live lives worth emulating. I've recently been encouraged to not write about God and only write about music, but I find it difficult to do so when I meet people like these folks who love God and are so worth writing about. My apologies if that offends you.
Anyway, having as many businessy conversations as I did, I only hit a handful of planned presentations, all of which were awesome. The aforementioned Mark Scandrette was part of the opening and closing ceremonies, and he spoke a few times about his book, and he participated in a revival of a roadshow he did with friends Tony Jones and Doug Pagitt a few years ago, in which they each expressed their unique, emergent theological perspectives in the form of a 1911 big tent revival, complete with singalong music led by the Tom Waitesy Vince Anderson. That was all kinds of brilliant--a fun and semi-ironic entree into an ultimately profound and heartfelt celebration of the gospel. I didn't know they were going to do that, but I'm so glad they did.
My friend Sean Gladding and his wife, Rebecca, presented a chapter from their immersive Bible study The Story of God, the Story of Us, in which Rebecca played the narrator, Sean played a Hebrew priest in Babylonian exile, and Troy Bronsink played an angry psalmist. Troy's rendition of Psalm 137 ("By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept") was stunning, and the whole moment was a breathtaking experience of Scripture retold. If you have Sean's book, grab some friends and try reading it out loud to each other; it's the way Sean and Rebecca intended it, and it really, really works.
I also got to see living legends Tony Campolo and Richard Rohr. Rohr was particularly meaningful to me, given that he's talking about the lifespan and arc of spiritual formation, and since according to his model I'm roughly at the apex of the arc. Time for me to put away childish things and let myself go in grace, or something like that. It was the sort of thing you feel rather than recite. I got to listen to Rohr with Tamara Park, author of the delightful Sacred Conversations from Rome to Jerusalem, and Tabitha Pluedemann and Anthony Smith, all three of whom have been friends for a while now, all three of whom are particularly good listening partners when someone like Rohr is doing the talking.
Beyond the talks there was, of course, the music. I haven't listened to or even thought of Michelle Shocked for about twenty years, but there she was, teaching us songs like "Memories of East Texas" and the mantralike "Let It Go," reminding me how important her talkin' blues "Graffiti Limbo" was to my nascent sense of justice back in the day. She doesn't like being videotaped, for the record. Also on hand was David Wilcox, who wrote the beautiful "Missing You" made popular in the 1980s by John Waite. He has this crystal-clear voice and a smooth storyteller's style; if you like Jack Johnson you should probably thank David Wilcox. And then there was Jennifer Knapp, who went off the radar for a while and whom everyone at the festival was missing, and who came back in style. I heard her from a distance, since we were hosting a book release party during her set. I also heard Beth Nielson Chapman and the Psalters from a distance, both of which sounded haunting and powerful from far off for entirely different reasons. But the musical highlight for me was Over the Rhine, whom I might consider traveling to North Carolina to see all by themselves. So groovy, so artful, so jammin'. They're great songwriters and brilliant musicians, so every song just takes its time, just like the banter and storytelling between songs.
My favorite moments of natural comedy:
* Andy Marin, author of Love Is an Orientation, calling me desperately late at night to ask about hotel options, then rolling with jokes at his expense (e.g., "The Marin Witch Project") throughout the rest of the week.
* My friend and coworker Nick Liao observing that he saw about five "markers of white progressive culture" from the parking lot, among them a drum circle and a "COEXIST" bumper sticker.
* A five-foot snake that slithered up just as Sean and Rebecca were talking about God creating the man and the woman in the image of God. Sean's ad lib: "He also created snakes."
* The inordinate, nigh-on countless number of u-turns we made in our daily commute from Chapel Hill to the festival.
* The litany of menu items at the breakfast deli we visited daily that were out of stock, alternately because not enough or too many people ordered them.
* The "Waterfowl Impoundment Center" within spitting distance of the Wild Goose Festival. I still don't even know what such an impoundment center does.
I'm leaving lots unsaid. In short, it was great, and I'm eager for Wild Goose Festival 2012. You should come too; it'll be good for your soul.
Every time I saw event organizer Gareth Higgins at Wild Goose, I begged him to book Billy Bragg for WGF12. (He's at this year's Greenbelt, along with the legendary Mavis Staples.) I'm willing to be so brazen with him on your behalf as well, so here's your chance. What speakers and singers and other artists should be on the bill for next year's Wild Goose?