Our Kind of People — Wild Goose Festival

Here’s a fascinating report from CSD member Nicole Naffaa who attended the recent Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina. Nicole offers some provocative and tantalizing reflections on what Wild Goose might mean for where we see PSR going in the future.

“Our Kind of People”

When I first saw the announcement for the Wild Goose Festival – a festival about justice, spirituality, music and art – I remember thinking to myself,

“We (PSR) should be there. These are our kind of people.” I read through the description of the festival, looked through the speakers list, and started to get excited about participating in this unique event. Others at PSR shared this enthusiasm and we decided to become a sponsor for the event, which included two passes to the festival and an exhibitor booth.

When I arrived to set up our booth, I was struck by how nice everyone was (I’m told that is Southern hospitality) and by the positive communal energy that permeated the air. The festival was held at a camp site and the various events and speakers were all spread out over several acres. There was a feeling of knowing these strangers who walked about the grounds, even amidst a recognition that we all came from different backgrounds. There seemed to be an understanding that we all had something important in common. Indeed, this was a group of people who all believe that spirituality, justice and creativity are important and somehow connected. I would say that the majority of participants would identify as politically progressive and justice oriented. I suspect this group had similar views about immigration, health care, sustainability, and economic issues. It was a group of people who believed in the possibility of a better world, and understood that they have a role to play in making this world a reality. Our kind of people.

It was a diverse crowd in many ways. There was a wide range of ages represented. While I chatted with a Roman Catholic man in his 80’s before one of the talks, I could see a few chairs away an infant sound asleep in his father’s arms.

While I noticed the wide range of ages represented at the festival – there were young children, young adults, gen-xers, baby boomers, and seniors – what struck me the most was the theological diversity of the participants. It was my own narrowness that led me to assume that this group would be made up of predominately mainline, progressive Christians, and the “spiritual but not religious” folks. You know, our kind of people. Mainline Protestants were there, but so were the evangelicals, and the Catholics, and the…

This festival challenged me to recognize that theological differences do not necessarily equal political differences. I credit this mostly to Lisa Sharon Harper whose talk was entitled “Embracing Your Political ‘Other.’” She is an evangelical democrat who co-wrote a book with an evangelical republican called “Left, Right and Christ.” They wrote about 6 political issues from their religious perspectives. They are both evangelical, but are each other’s “political other.” Not each other’s kind of people at all.

Harper said that the fundamental difference between her and her co-author was how they read scripture. Both claim they hold scripture as a primary influence and that their political views stem from their understanding of scripture. But their political views are vastly opposed to one another. According to Harper, this is the important work that our seminaries are called to. Seminaries, teachers, and church leaders need to teach people how to read the bible critically.

  • How does PSR teach people to read the bible critically?

  • How does PSR teach people how to engage their political other, especially through scripture?

  • Is this the kind of content that might be made more accessible to a wider audience through online learning?

Harper also made me think more critically about how we use the term progressive and how we (I) can tend to conflate political and religious categories. She argued that we should drop the term “progressive” in reference to a religious or theological perspective. She said “progressive” is a political ideology and reminded us that, as people of faith, we are not called to be progressive, we are called to be prophetic, to speak what needs to be spoken.

  • Is “progressive Christianity” a dated term? Is it wise to use a political ideology to describe one’s theological perspective? What do we mean when we say “progressive Christianity?” Is there a better way for PSR to define itself?

Jim Wallis also makes the distinction between theology and politics. He said that “left and right” are not religious categories; they are political one. When we try to squeeze religion into these categories, it gets misshapen.

I heard a student at a conservative bible college talk about his “Re-vangelical” podcast and his work on rethinking, renewing, and reforming the church. He mentioned that it is difficult to have these conversations at his evangelical school. He wants to go to seminary but is having difficulty. The evangelical seminaries tend to be too traditional and would not prepare him to be a transformational religious leader. But he would not feel theologically welcome in the more mainline seminaries. Where does his kind of people go to school?

  • Can PSR be a place for politically progressive, justice-oriented evangelicals?

It was a treat to hear Phyllis Tickle’s talk, “From Constantine to the Birth Control Pill to Us.” She spoke about Emergence Christianity and how scholars such as Harvey Cox are claiming that this change is one of the most significant shifts in history. Tickle also warned of the loss of a domestically transmitted faith and that we need to find a way to get this back. The neo-monastic movement is addressing this issue.

  • What role will PSR play in the Great Emergence? Are we at the forefront or are we catching up?

  • As we envision a future PSR, do we see a fast paced, moving, adaptable hub of activity? Or will we be about the kind of simple, sustainable, communal, “slow” theology that the neo-monastic movement invites us to consider? Can we be a blend of both? Should we be?

Another presentation I went to was for the Interfaith Virtual University. It is what it says it is. It is still in its gestational period, but it will be a virtual (online, web-based) institution that offers “classes, lectures, special events, interactive learning … open to anyone, anywhere, free of charge.” Yes, free of charge. While they would not offering accredited academic credit, they will offer a certification that they believe will encourage participants to continue.

  • How can PSR provide important content and information that is accessible and affordable while maintaining institutional sustainability?

John Dear, a Jesuit priest, spoke on “The Beatitudes of Peace.” He called the Sermon on the Mount the best writing on non-violence and referred to our culture’s teachings regarding war as the “anti-Sermon on the Mount.” He went through each of the Beatitudes, but it was his understanding of the seventh that struck me most. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” Dear pointed out that it is not enough to like peace, or be in favor of peace. You have to make peace. “… for they shall be called the children of God.” This is our identity are God’s children. We are created to be peace makers. This ought to be at the core of who we are as Christians. I also found it very interesting that, according to Dear, the Aramaic translation for “blessed are” in this passage can be translated into five words or phrases: “get up,” arise,” stand up,” walk on” and “walk forth.”

  • Is peace-making at the core of PSR’s future identity? Should it be? What would this look like? How will we train peace makers?

  • How do we as an institution respond to Jesus’ call to get up, arise, stand up, walk on, and walk forth? How do we prepare our students to do this?

Tom Sine spoke of about communities of sustainability and empowerment. He looked back in history at the shift from community to individualism. He looked ahead to the signs of economic collapse and climate change and spoke of the need to re-imagine our churches, institutions, and communities in ways that are sustainable.

In his talk on environmental justice, “Greening the Golden Rule,” Peter Illyn affirmed our “right to take fruit from creation. We do not, however, have a right to take away the fruitfulness of creation.”

  • How will the PSR of the future be a sustainable institution? How will we prepare our students to address issues of sustainability? What kind of global footprint will PSR have? Will PSR be a green Seminary? What would this look like?

Tema Okun’s talk on racial justice focused on white privilege. She defined racism as race prejudice plus social and institutional power – a system of advantaged based on race. She reminded us that racism is about feeling not about the intellect. If it were solely an intellectual construct, there would be no racism. So, in dealing with racism, we must be willing to deal with feelings.
The racist conditioning of the white privileged will never go away. But we can learn to see it more quickly. (A quick note here that there was not much racial ethnic diversity at Wild Goose. It was a pretty white crowd.)

  • How do we maintain our commitment to dismantling racism at PSR? How do we address white privilege?

  • How does our curriculum (implicit and explicit) reflect our commitment to dismantling racism?

  •   As we work on dismantling racism at PSR, is this an area we can provide some expertise in: courses (on line and on campus), lectures, events, etc.?

I went to a talk about using art and worship with Phil Snider. He said one of the problems of the more conservative churches is the cognitive, dogmatic, dualist approach. The problem with main line churches is that while they see Jesus as a teacher of ethics, they have lost a sense of mystery and awe. Art allows us to reclaim this sense of wonder and mystery. Engagement with the aesthetic creates a space, an opening, for God’s grace to break through.

My last moments at the festival were spent listening to the Homebrewed Christianity show described as “Art Led Theology.” Homebrewed Christianity is a pod-cast that people can listen to and ‘”brew their own Christianity.” Founder Tripp Fuller started the pod casts in 2008 and describes himself as a “hyper-theist,” meaning he believes in a God beyond the God he was taught about. He is influenced by process theology and sees creativity as a central part of theology, as central to the way God is revealing God’s self in the world.

  • One of the academic areas of excellence being developed by the faculty is art and religion. What role will art and religion play in PSR’s future? How we PSR train creative leaders?

All in all, it was a great festival. I’m glad I was there and I’m glad PSR had a presence there. I learned a lot and discovered many things I wanted to learn more about. I was challenged to see beyond religious and political categories and moved to discover the common ground that I share with my evangelical brothers and sisters. I was inspired by this large and diverse group of people who all want to make a difference in this world. Indeed, these are our kind of people. I just didn’t know there were so many.

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