Wild Goose: The Chase is on
Wild Goose: The Chase Is On
On June 23, 2011, a four day event called The Wild Goose Festival got underway at Shakori Hills, North Carolina, sponsored by key figures in the Emergent Church movement. The month before it was held, Executive Director Gareth Higgins announced the upcoming festival as a “gathering at the intersection of justice, spirituality and art with the firm intention of becoming a unique and significant space promoting social change in the US and elsewhere,” patterned after the Greenbelt Festival held annually in the United Kingdom since 1974, which Mr. Higgins described as “a UK center for spiritual activism on climate change, poverty, social inclusion, and prejudice.” He added, “We want Wild Goose to do the same in North America.”
The organizers identify themselves as “followers of Jesus creating a festival of justice, spirituality, music and the arts. The festival is rooted in the Christian tradition and therefore open to all regardless of belief, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, denomination or religious affiliation.” The Festival website makes reference to the wild goose as “a Celtic metaphor for the Holy Spirit” in an apparent contrast to the more pacific image of the dove found in the New Testament. Although it is by no means certain that Celtic Christians did in fact adopt the wild goose as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, it could prove to be an appropriate mascot for the Emergent Church since its wild and noisy behavior holds an appeal for some contemporary professing Christians who seem eager to be taken in unpredictable directions. This would certainly account for the line-up of featured speakers at the Wild Goose Festival which included prominent progressives like Brain McLaren, Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, and Richard Rohr.
“Voices of the Emerging Church: The Wild Goose Festival 2011” is a brief video presentation that sets forth the views and issues addressed by some of its more well known participants, including Pastor Doug Pagitt‘s frank admission that “critics are right about this emerging movement in the sense that it‘s not treating Scripture the way Scripture has been treated.” A major exercise in understatement, to be sure.
A reporter for The Economist who attended the event, along with approximately 1500 other people, has provided this account of what went on there:
Instead of Bible studies, there were labyrinth walks. Instead of praise-and-worship music, there was hymn-singing in a beer garden and a bluegrass liturgy presided over by a tattooed female Lutheran minister. Visitors were greeted with buckets of water in which to baptise themselves, and tubs of mud to remind them that “dust thou art”. (In Britain, the mud is usually underfoot.) Lecture topics ranged from sex trafficking and social justice to authority in the church and interfaith relations. Visitors could learn from Tom Prasada-Rao, a singer, how to chant “Om” and “Hallelujah Hare Krishna”, or hear Paul Fromberg, a pastor from San Francisco, talking about his 2005 wedding to another man. “God is changing the church through the bodies of gay men,” Mr Fromberg told a packed session on human sexuality. Also under discussion was “religious multiple belonging”—in other words, belonging to a clutch of different faiths at once.
Several disillusioned evangelical leaders attended. One was Jay Bakker, son of Jim and Tammy Bakker of the defunct-Praise-the-Lord-TV-network fame, who gave meandering talks on growing up fundamentalist. Frank Schaeffer, who has made a career out of criticising his evangelical parents Francis and Edith Schaeffer, called the Bible “Bronze-Age mythology” and confessed he had a “conflicted ambivalence” about abortion.
We’re a laboratory for justice, spirituality and art in the way of Jesus,” explained Gareth Higgins, the festival director and a peace activist from Belfast who has worked with Greenbelt and now lives in North Carolina. He and other organisers managed, miraculously, to recruit 150 musicians and speakers, none of whom charged for their services. They hope that the emergent cohort will rise from the ashes of an evangelicalism ruined by right-wing politics. As 78-year-old Phyllis Tickle, author of several books on emergent Christianity, put it, “We’re at the start of a 500-year upheaval in culture and the church.
Even those who are not overly familiar with the Emergent Church movement may recognize the name Jay Bakker. Following in the footsteps of his famous parents, although he clearly does not share all of their beliefs, Bakker is now the pastor of his own “Revolution” Church in Brooklyn, New York, and he has achieved additional notoriety in recent years through his open endorsement of gay marriage. This has caused the measure of support he once enjoyed in some Christian circles to taper off and he is now fond of quoting Martin Luther King: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Mr. Bakker can be seen here stating his position on gay marriage to the congregation of Grace Church, an announcement which appears to have had a somewhat disconcerting effect on many of his listeners.
In 2008, Bakker served as part of Soulforce’s “Operation Family Outing” campaign and went along to help with their efforts “to create meaningful conversations about faith, family, and LGBT people” at Evangelical mega-churches around the country. Soulforce is a gay rights organization “committed to freedom for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people from religious and political oppression through relentless nonviolent resistance.” The primary aim of “Operation Family Outing” was an attempt to influence the targeted churches in a more “gay friendly” direction.
On Mother’s Day, Bakker and his band of activists visited Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, pastored by Joel Osteen. Although they were given a polite reception and allowed to attend a worship service as a group, Bakker later expressed his disappointment over the fact that Pastor Osteen and his staff were apparently unwilling to engage in the kind of meeting and dialogue they had in mind. This was in marked contrast to the much more open response Soulforce met with when some of its representatives appeared at Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington, Illinois for the same purpose. In a statement released after their trip to Lakewood, Bakker said:
Joel Osteen and his family were very kind and courteous. They reserved special seats for our group of families, and they spoke compassionately to me on the first Mother’s Day since my mom’s death. But our conversation indicated that they do not share our convictions and that Lakewood Church is not yet ready for an open dialogue with LGBT families.
I believe it’s important for the church to have these conversations, because we are all one body. Open dialogue can dispel the fearful misperceptions that keep us apart. In the end, it’s about communion and loving one another in spite of our differences.
“I have hope for the future that LGBT families will be able to meet with Lakewood Church eventually.”
Mr. Bakker’s own efforts to make the Church more “gay friendly” have continued and he appears in this video, “Speaking Out: Faith and Sexuality - The Wild Goose Festival 2011.”
Another person of interest who was actively involved in the Wild Goose Festival is Lynne Hybels, wife of Bill Hybels, founder and pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. After it was announced that she would be a speaker at the event, on May 13, 2011, Mrs. Hybels posted an entry on her blog entitled, “I’m So Excited About Wild Goose!” in which she stated: “Even if I weren’t speaking at Wild Goose, I’d be attending anyway. I can’t wait!” Mrs. Hybels was there to participate in a panel discussion following a showing of the film, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” along with Brian McLaren, a leader of the Emergent Church movement, and Ian Cron, a liberal Episcopal priest.
The film is a controversial documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict produced by Sami Awad of the Holy Land Trust. It is currently being promoted by Mrs. Hybels and other Evangelical Christians with a “progressive” outlook, but has received conservative criticism for “comparing the Palestinian Intifada with the Civil Rights Movement in America and ignoring Islamic Palestinian terrorism aimed at Israel.”
Mrs. Hybels did express what might be considered a slight concern about the challenges presented to an Evangelical Christian at such a gathering, but nevertheless remained confident that attending it would be a worthwhile thing to do:
I suspect I’ll be one of the older attendees at the Wild Goose Festival, and it’s possible I will not resonate completely with every perspective and opinion presented—but that’s why I’m so excited to go. I want to be challenged to learn and stretch and grow. After three years of traveling extensively in troubled regions of the world, I am fiercely gripped by the importance of personal relationships and friendship, I am increasingly committed to peace-building, and I am more impressed than ever with the way of Jesus. Wild Goose seems like the next right step on my journey of learning and of loving God’s beautiful but broken world.
Her blog does not contain a follow-up posting which discloses to what extent, and in what sense, she was able to “learn, stretch, and grow” by participating in the event, nor has she shared with us what parts, if any, failed to “resonate” with her. Since she would have been “attending anyway” apart from her role as a prominent speaker, presumably she took at least some notice of what was going on both before and after the screening of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” It would certainly be interesting to hear any observations she might wish to make about the rest of it.
In his own appraisal of how things went, Garreth Higgins had this to say:
Whether it’s the Arab Spring, the #Occupy movement, or any one of a thousand local grass roots endeavors, people are rising up to give voice to their desire to see wrongs righted, and a society transformed. Everyone wants change. Everyone wants things to be better.
. . .
Some of us got together this past summer in North Carolina, to collectively give birth to the Wild Goose Festival, a four day gathering at the intersection of justice, spirituality and art. We found ourselves doing something like a Woodstock or Burning Man for Christians (and people who are spiritual but not religious). We took further inspiration from the Greenbelt festival in the UK – from where the One campaign, the Jubilee 2000 movement to end Third World debt, and the Fair Trade movement all became mainstreamed within UK religious culture. Wild Goose seeks to be a significant, culture-shaping national annual gathering that will work to educate and inspire a generation of Christians alienated by the Religious Right, engaged in social justice and peacemaking, recipients of and participants in creative arts, committed to dialogue across faith and political boundaries, ethnically diverse, and both aware of the shadow side of religion and committed to embodying its best visions.
The “Wild Goose” is scheduled to fly again at the next festival set for June 21-24, 2012, during a crucial election year in which these emerging architects of “social justice and peacemaking” will no doubt have a great deal more to share with the rest of us while thinking and acting under its influence. That should be fascinating.
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