Wild Goose Festival
There is No Longer Post-Evangelical or Post-Liberal: Talking 'Convergence' Christianity with Eric Elnes
Eric Elnes, author of Phoenix Affirmations: A New Vision for the Future of the Christian Faith and Asphalt Jesus, always has something brewing. I sat down with him over a hearty cup of his own Darkwood Brew coffee at the recent Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina to find out more about Convergence Christianity, a new concept he’s developing, and which is gaining traction across many traditional ideological and theological lines.
Here’s what Eric had to say about the current state of the Christian faith, as well as where he sees it heading.
I just got back a few days ago from a campsite outside of Asheville, N.C., the site of the third annual Wild Goose Festival. For those who are unfamiliar with the event, imagine and old-fashioned days-long outdoor revival, combined with Bonaroo and a traveling circus. For several days, authors, activists, artisans, musicians, and seekers converge to engage in spontaneous community, share ideas and to inspire one another.
It's not every day that you can walk by a makeshift tent and listen to Phyllis Tickle succinctly summarize the history of Christendom in 45 minutes, and then wander over and pick up a vegetarian pita sandwich while on your way to hear the Indigo Girls perform. Impassioned conversations emerge all on your walk about everything from child trafficking to the state of the institutional church in the 21st century. And you're only momentarily distracted by the guy on stilts, wearing a hat covered in goose feathers who wanders by for no apparent reason.
Welcome to Wild Goose.
I woke up this morning in a damp sleeping bag to the sound of a rushing river. I heard the laughter of children and could smell bacon being fried in a tent not far from mine. I opened the tent flap and walked outside. As I looked around, I saw dozens of men and women who had also just rolled out of their sleeping bags and RVs to welcome the new day. I saw rainbow flags flying next to signs that read “Who would Jesus Torture?” and “Pro-Peace, Pro-Life, Be Consistent.”
As I began the short trek from my tent to the shower-house, I was greeted by dozens of people who I had never personally met but felt like I knew intimately. All of us had gathered to encourage and provoke one another to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. Over the course of this weekend, dozens of presenters spoke to crowds who listened intently to their dynamic messages of reformation, renewal, redemption, and action. From the testimony of a tattooed Lutheran pastor to the ground-breaking theological theories on non-violence from a highly regarded gay Catholic priest, from the wisdom of one of the founding fathers of the Civil Rights Movement to a quirky live radio show hosted by one of the founders of the Emergent Church movement, hundreds of people from across the country and indeed around the world had converged for this little slice of heaven on earth known as the Wild Goose Festival.
Amy Ray’s smile opened itself to wrap love around the couple thousand fans who’d weathered a soggy soaker of a spiritual festival to wait for their 10 p.m. Saturday set. “Y’all have advanced way past kum-bah-yah,” she quipped. “That was a deep album cut.”
For 90 minutes, Ray and her musical partner Emily Saliers couldn’t stop praising the Wild Goose Festival crowd. It’s as if they’d trekked to the misty mountains of western North Carolina just to see us render their greatest hits the new hymnal for progressive and inclusive Christianity. The stellar setlist covered all the ground, a collection of tracks both new and old spanning a career that jump-started itself in the same 1980s Georgia music scene that gave us the likes R.E.M. and Widespread Panic.
The Indigo Girls catalog knits itself into our daily lives in such a way to make them the perfect band for a campfire singalong at a radicals’ revival like this. But what else was obvious here could not be pinpointed in the mere practice of song. The best-selling grassroots folk duo found something in our makeshift festival that’s been true of their career — past all the great lyrics and legacy of activism, past the DIY-ethics and indie entrepreneurs' edge, past all the albums and compilations, past all the accolades — exists the chewy center of hope. We see the Holy Spirit at work in such a down-to-earth humbling and fiery fashion. The Indigo Girls headline set at Wild Goose 2013 healed the audience and sealed the festival’s cultural location in a jubilant justice movement for ecumenical and evangelical convergence on the funky fringes of mainstream Christianity.
Troy Bronsink’s meditative live album Songs to Pray By stretches its sonic arms to embrace every listener with expansive words of spirited awe and awesome humility, with ecstatic waves of audio grace and rhythmic gravity.
Bronsink and his band bring to church what we’ve seen out on the festival circuit for years: a shimmery and psychedelic use of sound and language to elevate listeners who choose to inhabit a song as if it were wings, the place where the spirit soars and the heart sings. We don’t often associate noodly guitars and trippy percussion with the worship sound, which is exactly why this album is such a perfect addition to the praise genre.
A solo Bronsink will be presenting his musical work tomorrow at the Wild Goose Festival. We both took a break from packing and planning our journeys to North Carolina for this email interview.
I’m excited to share this mixtape in honor of the Wild Goose Festival, Aug. 8-11 in Hot Springs, N.C.
For the festival proper, this third one will surely be a charm. But for me, it’s the second time around, hence the title of this playlist, also taken from an Indigo Girls song. Getting ready for a music festival for me requires hours upon hours of research: buying and downloading mp3s, studying sounds with the headphones on. These are just a few favorites I’ve found and suggestions for your weekend—mixing up the indie-folk with the psychedelic-liturgical with the pop-folk and power-pop.
The mixtape works like a storybook of sonic massage on the ears, guts, and heart. My prayer is that your listen will provide at least a sliver of the joy that making it offered. Hopefully you can allow this mix to accompany your packing routine or en route roadtrip. See you at the shows! Or if you cannot make it, hopefully these songs will remind you why you wish you could.
At the 2012 Wild Goose, for an afternoon set at a tent tucked away on the backwoods of the festival site, a young North Carolina band blew minds and won fans. More than just a band — more like a multicolored movement of sonic jubilee — David Wimbish and the Collection carry the celebratory consciousness, lyrical significance, and live energy that have made bands like Mumford & Sons or Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros the darlings of the current folk-pop moment.
In August 2013, the Collection will open this year’s festival on the main stage with a Thursday night set sure to thrill us. Then, they will support Phil Madeira’s Friday night set. In the meantime, the Collection are furiously raising funds on Kickstarter for their next album, a surprisingly hopeful take on death called Ares Moriendi. I recently caught up with David Wimbish and convinced him to take a break from writing, recording, fundraising, and preparing for Wild Goose to answer a few questions.
The 2012 Wild Goose Festival East wrapped up just under a week ago and I am still trying to process my experience there. As I tweeted as I drove away from the fest, I left feeling exhausted, hopeful, and blessed – that strange combination that reflected the emotional impact of my time there. And it was a truly blessed time.
I was honored with the opportunity to speak on The Hunger Games and the Gospel as well as do a Q&A on everyday justice issues at the Likewise tent. I also was able to join Brett Webb-Mitchell on a panel discussion about living with disabilities in religious communities.
But beyond those conversations I was able to help initiate, I also found a generous and safe space to connect with friends, wrestle with difficult questions, and dream of a better world. Such spaces are so rare in my life these days, that finding such at Wild Goose was a precious gift.
There are, of course, the expected complaints about the festival. It was brutally hot (and that is coming from a Texan). I never ceased to be sticky, sweaty, and stinky and there were bugs everywhere. Camping in a field where every action (and parenting attempt) is on constant display is stressful and uncomfortable. And, as with many religious gatherings, there could have been greater diversity.
For the first hour I was there as I nearly passed out trying to set up a tent in the sweltering heat, I was in a panic mode wondering why I was stupid enough to subject myself to the discomfort and imperfection of it all again this year. Yet as I entered into the experience of being a part of this crazy wonderful gathering, those issues (although ever-present) faded in significance as I found myself fitting into a place where I felt I belonged.
On the opening night of the second Wild Goose Festival late last month in Shakori Hills, N.C., the dancing hadn't started yet.
The fabulous parades and the frenzied-yet-friendly almost-moshing were yet to commence on the grassy playscape in front of the main stage. Before things got wild for us goslings, we had to unpack our musical expectations and pitch a tent large enough to welcome the broadest of folds.
Kicking things off was Josh Garrels, who brought his smoothly smoky-folky sound with its pleasant rasp that recalls adult-alternative icons like Ray LaMontagne and Amos Lee. Following Garrels, former frontman of the band Caedmon’s Call and current experimental multi-genre provocateur Derek Webb pushed at the already broad boundaries of the Wild Goose aesthetic.
With several funny, yet biting, remarks during his plenary setlist, Webb outright rejected the “Christian music” label and bathed our brains with songs such as “A New Law,” the 2005 sarcastic anthem where bold freedom and blind faith wrestle it out for the soul of contemporary Christendom. Webb threw down a gauntlet with lyrics such as, “don't teach me about loving my enemies/don't teach me how to listen to the Spirit/just give me a new law.”
But on Friday, with fiery folk rock a la R.E.M. or Wilco, Damion Suomi and the Minor Prophets fired back a response. “The Lion, The Ram & The Fish” served up an antidote as we negotiated our weekend-long truce in the culture wars with this refrain: “Love your God with your heart, love your neighbor as your own, and the rest is just a guess as good as mine.”