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Catherine A. Caimano: The goose not wild enough

What was missing at the Wild Goose Festival -- besides Jesus -- was the edgy sense of relationship, risk and danger of a truly religious experience, the sense that anything can happen because God is present and in charge.

Photo by Courtney Perry

July 5, 2011

When I first heard about the Wild Goose Festival, I thought it would be an event tailor-made for me: I am an Episcopal priest, vitally interested in the church and its future, passionate about the gospel and left-leaning in my politics. I have heard or read the work of many of the speakers who would be there -- Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle, Shane Claiborne, Diana Butler Bass and more -- and respect them all.

So I was excited to spend a recent Saturday at a revival of sorts, nearby in rural North Carolina. Billed as an American answer to Greenbelt -- a 37-year-old faith-and-justice gathering of musicians, artists, speakers and storytellers in England -- Wild Goose seemed like it would be a great opportunity to sample the latest thinking about the church’s mission in the 21st century, an exciting place to get at least a glimpse of the church’s future.

But after I got there, I felt like I had gone back in time.

At first, I could not put my finger on it. I listened to McLaren. I wandered over to where Tony Jones led a panel discussion on sexuality and the church. I passed tents and tables where people were deep in discussion about things like forgiveness, environmental sustainability and opposition to the death penalty -- all good as far as I am concerned.

I was heartened to be with people who cared about such issues. But the longer I was there and the more people I talked with, the more I realized what was missing. It was the very reason that all these topics are important to Christians: Jesus.

I know that the resurrected Christ was present and that I was in the company of many faithful Christians. Yet despite all the good work that was in this place, I had a hard time finding and feeling the evangelical spirit of those whose work is discipleship. Whether I was listening to presenters or visiting with people or overhearing conversations around me, Jesus did not come up often.

I spoke with lots of people who were happy to talk about justice or sexuality issues in great detail but not so quick to mention their faith. I shared a picnic lunch with a Mennonite couple from Pennsylvania who were thrilled to be at the festival. But when I asked what was important to them, they talked about anti-war policies. Another young man, a self-described emergent-church pastor, told me that, to him, “emergent” meant that all are welcome, whatever their views.

I don’t doubt the faithfulness of these people or the good of their ministries. But I was surprised that an event billed in part as a revival would have an almost pervasive timidity about mentioning Jesus and his central role in everything that was happening there. It was odd. Maybe our common discipleship was a given. Or maybe I was just at the wrong events or talking to the wrong people. Whatever the reason, I saw and heard little that was overtly Christian at this Christian gathering. I could just as easily have been at an Earth Day celebration or a political rally.

I did, however, hear a lot of talk about Christianity -- at least Christianity of a certain sort, the kind of Christianity that is rigid and closed and insists upon just one way to understand Jesus, with no room to question.

Much of the conversation at Wild Goose was about rejecting this type of Christianity and embracing a more welcoming, radically loving God and a faith in which it is OK to have doubts and fears. Many people mentioned Rob Bell’s book “Love Wins,” along with words like “progressive” and “postmodern.” They talked a lot about not taking hell or Scripture literally, and whether or not people of different races, cultures or sexuality are welcome in all of our churches.

To me, Wild Goose seemed more a place to talk about what Christianity is not than a place to talk about what it is and what it will be. It seemed a throwback to a decade or so ago, a belated response to conservative fundamentalism rather than a step into the future.

So much of what I heard was formed in reaction to something else, framed by a rejection of the other side of the argument. We are not the kind of Christians who judge. We are not the kind of Christians who hate. We are not the kind of Christians who speak loudly about other people’s sins. Certainly, this is something to celebrate: the whole festival had an air of openness, gentleness, kindness and inclusion.

Yet it left me wondering -- What about sin? What about evil? Where do we go when we get to the point where our understanding of how the world works, however progressive, fails us and we are lost? I felt like we were in danger of trying to save everything and everyone ourselves, trying to explain our faith and our God to ourselves in the most palatable way possible.

After the religion and sexuality discussion, for example, I overheard a young woman tell another audience member that she wanted to believe that homosexuality was not a sin but she didn’t want to just talk herself into believing something about God because it made her feel better. The man, who had spoken earlier at the microphone, told her that if she felt that her belief was right, if her belief made her feel better, then she could know that it came from God.

I found his answer frustrating and incomplete. Whatever the issue, however well-intentioned our searches for truth, left to our own devices we risk worshipping our own ideals rather than the unfathomable being in whose image we are made. As a Christian, that young woman has far richer resources than her feelings -- Scripture, sacraments and Christian history -- to show her the many ways in which God’s radical love is made known to everyone.

That is the edge that was missing for me at Wild Goose: the element of relationship, risk and even danger that I always find around truly religious experiences, the feeling that anything could happen because God is present and in charge.

As much as we celebrate knowing certain things, we never have all the answers. I longed for a wild-eyed evangelist to start preaching from one of these revival tents about how, in the end, it doesn’t matter so much if you are on this side or that side of an issue.

In the end, the real issue is, do you believe that Jesus saves? Do you believe that Jesus saves you and Jesus heals you -- both you and all the world -- of the many sins that lead to the predicaments and suffering we find ourselves in?

By the time I left, I knew that the Wild Goose Festival was more “progressive” in the liberal political sense than “progressive” in the sense of movement, in the sense of “progressing” someplace new in our faith and discipleship.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the relatively small number of young people in attendance, certainly far fewer than I had imagined would be there.

I sought out some of them, and they all had lovely things to say about Wild Goose. They talked about community and singing and conversation and new ideas. But when I pressed them about faith and asked if they had been talking about the role of Jesus in their lives, most said “no” with a real sense of longing.

It made me wonder: Is part of the church’s future maybe to go further into our past? Is there such a thing as liberal fundamentalism? Is it possible to be a full-on, Bible-thumping Jesus freak and still think that all are included and we should care for the earth and not kill one another?

I shared these thoughts with one of the young people I had been talking to and told her how I wished we’d had at least one fire-and-brimstone preacher or whatever the liberal equivalent of that is.

“Yeah, I was hoping for at least some charismatics,” she said, wistfully.

Me, too.