A muddy camp ground, sporadic thunderstorms, and sweltering heat didn’t stop a gathering of progressive Christians from signing songs to “Mother Earth” and practicing meditative dance as prayer in Appalachia. That’s right, it’s that time of year again. Liberal Mainliners and disaffected former Evangelicals flocked to Wild Goose, an annual progressive Christian festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina. This year, conference organizes gave special attention to story-time with grumpy progressives and yours truly traveled down to listen. So how did you spend your weekend?
This year’s “story” theme offered a slightly more subdued Wild Goose than Rev. Yolanda’s drag show and Bishop Squidness’ neo-pagan water show in previous years, as IRD staff reported. But one constant commonality over the past six years is the make-up of Wild Goosers themselves.
While one speaker acknowledged more attendees this year, the festival-goers were once again mostly white, older hippies with some younger couples (mostly white) and their small children sprinkled in the mix. Interestingly, the younger people present during the evening music concerts went mysteriously missing during mid-day workshops such as “Creating a Trans-Friendly Church” and Doug Pagitt’s “Progressive Evangelical Call.” One woman remarked that her husband spent the afternoon on a five-mile hike. So perhaps younger participants were drawn to the Appalachian Trail’s outdoor fun rather than the honkings of old disgruntled progressive Christians.
As expected, bizarre doctrine and outrageous presentations were not amiss, if only tucked behind softer feel-good Christianese. Other wacky goings-on were not so subtle.
Cosmic Mass Under the Episcopal Tent
Let’s begin with an Evangelical’s encounter with interstellar liturgy. It was noontime on Friday and my stomach began to growl. Morning sessions just ended and it seemed an appropriate time to peruse the food trucks throughout the campground. So I set out down “Liberation Way,” the name Wild Goose gave the camp’s main footpath, and past the “kindred spirit” post office looking for food. I never made it to lunch because I couldn’t help notice the Episcopal tent whose chalkboard heralded “Cosmic Mass.”
“What is this Cosmic Mass?” asked the naïve Evangelical girl to herself. My curiosity overpowered my hunger and I entered the tent. Inside, festival volunteers shuffled chairs and attendees into an open area behind the tent. Such a large crowd had gathered that there was no way the tiny tent could accommodate the dance circle about to take shape.
“Let’s offer this mass to Mother Earth and all of her creatures,” said Matthew Fox, an Episcopal priest and theologian who officiated the intergalactic mass. As the large circle of participants held hands they chanted “heya, heya.” While I’m not a liturgical, I am pretty sure “heya, heya” is traditionally used in Native American rituals, not Eucharist.
A moment of silence was offered to invite the “spirits of our ancestors and the spirits of four-legged ones” to come (Not the Holy Spirit. Because why would Christians do that?). Next, the circle began to move in rhythmic dancing and singing, “The Earth is our mother. We will take care of her.” On it went. I stayed out of the circle. Neo-pagan worship isn’t in my job requirements.
Original Sin or Self-Inflicted Shame?
Last year, GracePointe Church in Nasville, Tennessee made headlines and suffered schism after its senior pastor Stan Mitchell abandoned Christian sexual ethics. I’m guessing that’s why Mitchell was highlighted as a keynote speaker at this year’s Wild Goose festival.
Now referring to himself as “post-Evangelical,” Mitchell and what’s left of his church are in the process of “reframing and revisioning God.” This includes rethinking the concept of Original Sin, apparently.
From the festival’s main stage, Mitchell said, “In the last few years, we as a community have been even rereading the foundational text of Creation and the Fall. A story that most of us were taught – especially from our background – as justifying and vindicating the idea that every human being is born separate from God.”
Mitchell said there are elements of the Creation, the Fall story and even sin that he and his church still uphold. But he asserted that orthodox Christians have misunderstood the foundation of our innate sinfulness. “As I began to read the story deeper, I began to get a sense that this was not a story of sin and separation, sacrifice, and salvation, but this foundational story of ours is actually a story of shame and estrangement.”
“We were told that the reason we were born separate from God is because we are all sinners. We have sin natures even before we commit those transgressions,” said Mitchell. “[B]ecause of something two people did thousands of years ago in a primordial world, every one of us, every baby born since then is born spiritually genetically flawed and separated from God.” For Mitchell, this is the wrong lens to look through.
Salvation, Mitchell claimed, is really not a coverage for sin, but rather a healing for shame. Mitchell puts it this way, “God does not separate from us. But estrangement is my sense that God cannot be with me in my brokenness.”
“The story of salvation perhaps is the story that we’ve always been safe. The story of the Gospel is not of separation,…the story is of a God whose holiness is measured by that God’s incapacity to be away from God’s children,” said Mitchell.
Once again, progressive Christians have reduced the Divinity of the Gospel to their own feelings and perspectives. Except this time, they say it’s not sin that separates humans from God, but people’s own sense of shame and self-inflicted estrangement.
Rather awkwardly, Sojourner’s chief Jim Wallis had the opposite to say about sin and separation from God. Wallis spoke immediately after Mitchell. His topic: America’s Original Sin. Contradicting a major assertion spoken just minutes prior, Wallis declared, “[Racism] is an idolatry. And what does idolatry do? It separates us from God.” Oh, is that so?
Transgender the Church
Wild Goose may have gathered in the “Tar Heel State,” but North Carolina’s recent transgender bathroom law controversy was not lost on festival organizers. Several workshops trumpeted transgender speakers including Rev. Dr. Paula Stone Williams, who was given three different platforms to share her story of transitioning from male to female in the Evangelical community.
During a Wild Goose session entitled “How to Create a Trans-Friendly Church,” panelists Gwen Fry, an Episcopal priest, Paula Stone Williams and Gabrielle Claiborne, co-founders of Transformation Journeys, instructed a sparse audience on to how to create a safe and welcoming environment for transpeople in their church.
Gender inclusive restrooms were a helpful step, the panelists suggested. This was not to be confused with adding gender neutral restrooms which can still insinuate discrimination if transindividuals feel discouraged from using the church’s gender specific restrooms.
In addition to practical ways to transgenderfy a local church, Williams predicted the Body of Christ will become more supportive of transgendered people over the next decade. “Sixty-two percent of Catholics are supportive of transpeople. Shame it’s not a democracy in the Catholic Church. Sixty-five percent of Mainline Protestants are supportive of transpeople. Twenty-seven percent of evangelicals,” Williams said as disapproving “boos” interrupted her sentence.
“Now, if you’re talking about Millennial Evangelicals, it’s 51 percent, so folks this is changing. It’s changing and it’s going to change in the next ten years. The Evangelical church never gets that far behind the culture at large,” Williams continued. “I have no doubt that we are going to be there ten years from now. We are in the storm before the calm.”
On this point, I tend to agree with Williams. Many Millennial Evangelicals seem far more preoccupied with winning culture’s acceptance than winning souls for Jesus Christ.
Aside from the obvious problems at Wild Goose, I met several kind people who I’m sure love Jesus. I just pray they also learn to love his Truth too.Google+