Let all moral flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand. Ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in His hand, Christ our God to earth descended, our full homage to demand
King of kings yet born of Mary, as of old on earth He stood. Lord of lords, in human vesture, in the body and the blood. He will give to all the faithful, His own self for heav’nly food.
At his feet the six-winged Seraph, Cherubim, with sleepless eye, veil their faces to the presence, as with ceaseless voice they cry, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia, Lord most high!
Ancient hymn, with a beautiful recording available here.
Therefore they enquired of the LORD further, if the man should yet come thither.
And the LORD answered,
Behold, he hath hid himself among the stuff.
The King James Translation of I Samuel 10:22.
This is SoulFest.
For several years now a group of youth from our church have gone up to Gilford, New Hampshire to be a part of it. Last year (SoulFest 2008) was my first time at the event, my introduction to this giant, whirling evangelical extravaganza. As a group, we go all the way with SoulFest, arriving when they open the gates for campers and leaving the morning after the final concert. This means we get the full SoulFest experience, which for starters, involves camping on a field for five days with a pack of teenagers. It means baking in the sun, simmering in the August heat and humidity. It means huddling under tents, taking shelter from the perennial thunderous downpours. It means begin surrounded by crowds, made up people of all ages (though largely of the younger demographic) that are stylishly dressed and surprisingly polite; crowds that are everywhere present, in lines for sandy showers and sweaty bathroom stalls, filling the sides of the roads and the fields across the mountain with tents and campers, and crowding in close to the stage and spilling up the mountainside for the various concerts. Because, oh yeah, SoulFest means taking in lots of music and bombast and social justice appeals from the stages and glowing white tents that line the paths winding up the side of the mountain.
I was surprised to find just how overwhelming an event and how ambitious an endeavor SoulFest is, attempting to be a whole lot more than just a series of concerts or a Christian music festival. Oh no, SoulFest is (as they now bill it) “New England’s Premier Music and Social Justice Event.” And beyond the music and the worthy causes, there are lectures and workshops, an art gallery, a climbing wall, skate-boarding demonstrations, worship services, prayer tents, bonfires, and lots of opportunities for consumption. In addition to the expected cds and t-shirts of the featured artists, at SoulFest you can buy a huge dog-feed-bowl of greasy carnival cheese fries, a “Virginity Rocks” t-shirt, a hand-carved wooden ring with a Jesus fish engraved on the top, or a Scofield reference bible, leather-bound.
In short, SoulFest is overwhelming. And as one who grew up in evangelicalism, who graduated from an evangelical seminary, and who pastors in an evangelical church (with youth, many of whom are brand new in the faith, attending the event), I am bound to experience this evangelical carnival emotionally. It makes me angry. It makes me hopeful. It makes me sad. And in the end, it refocuses me on what is most important.
Because this is my bottom line when it comes to SoulFest. SoulFest is as accommodated and as radical, as uncertain and as contradictory, as the greater American evangelicalism out of which it grows. Thankfully, it is not the whore of Babylon that some part of me feared when I first went up. There are surprising signs of life, and indeed that this massive event could even happen – in New England – demonstrates the continued surprising vitality (if not spiritual health) of the evangelical movement. But there is also, as anyone knows who looks critically at the evanglical branch of the Church in America, much that is vacuous and much that is foreboading for both the present and future life of the movement. SoulFest is a picture of the movement that spawned it, and it will live and die based on the vitality of the Christians that support it. Looking forward, if it is to remain and remain in any way distinctively Christian, it will do so only to the extent that the church produces genuine disiciples, rooted in the Gospel and the Word. And looking around at SoulFest as a current picture of how well the Church is doing at producing these kinds of disciples…well, it’s hard to say.
As always, there is the extreme disconnect between a band onstage, rocking out with pyrotechnics, flashing lights, and hydrolic lifts that raise them above the crowd while they thrash their guitars and – the cross.
Patrick Deneen (a professor of government at Georgetown University and the author of an very thought-provoking blog) has an old post I recently discovered regarding his experiences in southern Germany, Switzerland and Austria. There he found modern, 1st-world places, that nonetheless still embody an ancient, lasting way of life that is neither 1st-world American consumerism nor the stereotype of Europe as a softly communist, liberal hedonist’s paradise.
Deneen is fascinating as an advocate of a new kind of conservatism – or more correctly, a very old kind of conservatism. This is a conservatism that cares to conserve the best, the richest, the most human aspects of life and culture. A conservatism that revolts as much against American consumerism and rampant individualism, as it opposes the blind belief of much “progressive” thought that whatever is newest is therefore best, and whatever is possible is therefore necessary.
Perhaps this is a growing movement; I don’t know, I’ve only just recently become aware of it. But it appeals to me as one who often feels disconected from and distressed by, our disposable American culture. It appeals to me as one who mourns in the midst of all this abundance the lack of meaning, beauty, and connection to other humans and to creation that I somehow sense is possible and was perhaps more fully realized at times in the past. I am not suggesting that there was some golden era in the past that we must return to, a time when everything was perfect. The brokenness and corruption of this world run too deep. But aren’t there better, more human ways to live than what we’ve been sold?
Deneen is not just wishing for the past. He regularly writes about policy considerations and even in this post suggests some of the practical things that local governments have done to encourage a different way of life. Many of these would be criticized by conservatives as forms of increased taxation and government control. And yet the argument of Deneen and others (if I understand part of it correctly) is that these government controls actually foster increased local participation and democracy. That is a much larger argument, and in any case, what becomes clear in reading his writing is that the differences are much deeper than policy; these are fundamental issues of our country’s historical trajectory and elemental philosophy (particularly our definition of what constitutes the good life). Personally, I cannot imagine the necessary changes happening in America on a large enough scale to change our reckless, to-hell-with-the-future, headlong pursuit of leisure, consumption, and endless entertainment.
But isn’t there something appealing about what Deneen records here? Doesn’t it at least open up the possibility of a different, more human way of living? And if we immediately say “that’s not realistic”, isn’t the obvious question, “Well why not?”
Just a small excerpt from Deneen’s post:
In these parts of central Europe (all German speaking), I have been mightily impressed – as ever – by the strength of communal bonds, the presence of local cultures and distinctions, the persistence of tradition and memory, a culture that saves (in every sense), and a strong ethic of work aimed at preserving a high degree of independence…
Here, at the moment in Swabia, outside every town are breathtaking vistas of rolling landscape with miles and miles of forests and farmland, all oriented toward local food production, hunting and forestry. Nearly every household seems involved with the land in some way or another, whether through a small garden and wood stand or a larger farm. In the backyard of many homes one still finds chickens that roam free, fruit trees that are now bearing apples, pears and cherries that will be made into jam, water barrels that catch rainfall with which families water their plants. Nearly every yard has an enormous pile of wood, stacked carefully and in perfect symmetry, already today in use as the temperatures dip into the 50s here. Also, in every backyard one sees a compost heap: one pays for each piece of garbage one throws into the waste can, so every incentive is to avoid refuse weight. Moreover, companies must pay for the production of packaging (which must also be separated from the garbage and separately collected for recycling) and must charge a deposit for all plastic bottles. At most public events you will not even be served with plastic: you must pay a “pfand” (deposit) for dishes or glasses, and return it for return of your deposit afterwards. You must pay for plastic bags at supermarkets, an expense most people avoid by bringing their own canvas bags. The German economy, thus, does not measure its growth by the creation of waste products, and the German countryside is not defiled with endless vistas of discarded plastic.
For the most part, families live above the businesses they run.It is a way of life, an art of living, that I think will be here recognizable still many hundreds of years yet, long after our reckless American “lifestyle” has passed from existence.