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The Festival Where ‘Christianity’ Is Just Earth Worship


Every year, Hot Springs, North Carolina hosts the Wild Goose Festival, a four-day musical and spiritual festival marketed towards Progressive Christians. This year, I made the trip to catalogue the more outrageous presentations, speeches, and goings-on. There was the usual contingent of liberal heroes such as Sojourner’s Jim Wallis, “Moral Mondays” leader Dr. William Barber, and Frank Schaeffer, a self-described “Christian atheist.” There were all the overwrought panels on topics such as “Post Traumatic Church Syndrome” and “First Decolonize Your Mind.” But easily, the most bizarre highlight of the trip was the Carnival de Resistance.

According to a promotional email, the Carnival de Resistance is an “art intervention” experiment determined to “[throw] off the yoke of social niceties, restless sanitation, and religious piety to provide a raucous expression of grief and longing and hope for Creation.” Besides their performances, the Carnival also promised to transform “shape-shifting-trickster-style” into a village touting “energy alternatives and attempt various sustainable practices in regard to food, waste, and transportation.”

I first encountered the Carnival de Resistance in its village form. Its opposition to “restless sanitation” became immediately apparent when I spotted the “compost toilet,” essentially a tent with a wooden box. “Sometimes we get so used to centralized systems, you’d think we can’t even poo without a city planner around,” a sign outside the toilet read. “We are experimenting with ways to responsibly manage our own waste!” Apparently, the Carnival sends its human waste to a place called the “Dumpy Dump farm.”

The village exhibits were pretty much what you’d expect from people opposed to indoor plumbing. Most were riffs on traditional carnival games, such as:

  • ‘Knock Down the Corporate Giants’: A ball game where players have to knock down logos of Bank of America, Monsanto, BP, Shell, Exxon-Mobil, Pfizer, and Nestlé (?).
  • ‘GMO Freak Show’: Kids can put their faces into a photo board depicting monsters such as “cobra corn” or “two-headed soy scorpion.”
  • ‘Toss Out Fossil Fuels’: A game where black beanbags representing coal are thrown through holes in a depiction of a forest.
  • ‘Tear Down the Walls of Oppression’: Essentially a can toss game, where the cans are labeled “institutional racism,” “anti-immigrant,” etc.

There were some Christianity-themed games, such as “Eye of the Needle” (“Rich people suck!”) and “Chase Out the Moneylenders” (“Banks suck!”).

Earth Wind & Fire, Reborn

After that brief taste, I was certainly interested in seeing one of the three main shows put on by the carnival troupe. Every night, Carnival de Resistance held a show honoring one of the classic Greek elements. Thursday was the Air Show, Friday was the Water Show, and Saturday the Fire Show (there was no Earth Show). My first chance to watch was for the Water Show.

Awkwardly enough, the Water Show was scheduled at the same time “Songs of Water” was being held on Wild Goose’s main stage. No doubt, the aquaphiles among us were torn. But nonetheless, there was a very large audience in attendance when I arrived. The performance began somewhat late because they were having trouble with their lights. (That might have been because lights were literally powered by two men on bicycles.)

The village exhibits were pretty much what you’d expect from people opposed to indoor plumbing.

The first performance was a song set to bongos called “The River is Flowing,” which I assumed at the time was a Native-American song, but it turned out to be a Neo-Pagan chant: “The river is flowing, flowing and growing/ The river is flowing, down the to the sea/ Mother carry me, child I will always be/ Mother carry me, down to the sea.” During the song, women dressed in traditional Native American and African clothing simulated the flowing of a river with a blue sheet and blue streamers.One of the women stepped forward to give an introduction. “We are seeking a space where we can be embodied and understand that water is within us, water is in the air we breathe, water is all over the land.” She then asked the audience to cycle their arms in a pinwheel motion. “Let us all take a moment to reflect on the eternal cycle of water…” This was followed with another generic New Age song about how we are all water, and other equally vapid observations.

At this point, one could be forgiven for thinking he had accidentally wandered off the Christian festival and stepped into some sort of Wiccan stone ceremony. But then another woman stepped forward to reiterate that, yes, this was a Christian performance.  “One of my favorite expressions for God is ‘God as umbrella,’” she said, “where we all fit and are covered by a sacred thin line, giving us the protection that we need, allowing us to move through time and space in a new way.”

Pagan, Pentecostal—It’s All The Same

“Now, water is an element that takes two oxygen and one hydrogen,” she continued, causing every science major in the audience to involuntarily twitch. But at that point, a train passed nearby. One of the performers suddenly stopped and began howling like a wolf. All the other performers began howling and making noises as well, and soon everyone in the tent joined in. The man I sat next to had told me before the show that he had attended St. James Episcopal Church when he lived in Washington, an Anglo-Catholic congregation. He was howling loudest of all.

After about a minute of nonstop howling was a performance of the surf rock song “Wipe Out” set to bongos, during which performers danced with plastic sea animals. At the end of that, a grown man wearing a squid on his head and holding a pool noodle came out and introduced himself as Bishop Squidness, saying he had come from the ocean. “There sure is a lot of plastic in the ocean,” he lamented. He also told attendees to be good disciples “of and in” their local watersheds. “El aqua es la vida,” he said. (fourth-grade Spanish is a requirement at Squid Seminary.)

The Water Show wasn’t praise to God for the gift of water; it was praise to Water for the gifts of Water.

But of course, the performance could not continue until another presenter came out and apologized for white privilege. She noted that they would be drawing from the voices of Africans, enslaved African-Americans, and Native Americans. “When we do that, we want to do it with an understanding and a respect for the role and the naming of the role of white privilege and white supremacy.” In that vein, the performers presented a Christian song (finally!) written by a man from the Mohawk tribe entitled “The River of Life.” That transitioned into a Sufi story about a man who dreamed he was a stream trying to reach the ocean, followed by an Afro-Brazilian song and dance routine.

No liberal artistic performance would be complete without an anti-capitalism bash-fest. Carnival de Resistance’s took the form of a series of speeches by the performers condemning the cruise industry, the bottled water industry, Wal-Mart, Pepsi, and beef farmers for their misuse of water. At the end of the speeches, a clown dressed as a greedy Gilded Era businessman was doused with water to the exuberant cheers of the audience.

When it came time for the “water blessing ceremony,” audience members were instructed to remove their shoes, because we were standing on “holy ground.” That’s when I decided to leave. I’ll do a lot for the sake of journalism, but sacrilege isn’t one of them. I suppose from there the Carnival could have transitioned into a celebration of traditional Christian beliefs where someone even mentioned Jesus. But every indication was that the participants’ theological beliefs extended no further than the tenets of radical environmentalism.

Environmentalism As Theology

From what I saw of the Carnival de Resistance, it perfectly encapsulated much of what is wrong with modern progressive Christianity, or at least the granola-crunching, organic latte-sipping brand one finds every year at Wild Goose. Theological truths and doctrines were ignored or downplayed in favor of overt political posturing. Christianity was acknowledged as merely one of many faiths, deserving of only token mentions. Creation was celebrated and acknowledged, but in a manner that teetered on the edge of nature worship. The Water Show wasn’t praise to God for the gift of water; it was praise to Water for the gifts of Water.

I struggled to come up with a reason why any Christian could possibly want to subvert piety.

Perhaps the most damning criticism of the Carnival de Resistance is an appeal to practicality. How many individuals, after being told that this was a self-described Christian troupe and performance, would have come out of the Water Show, a) having learned anything about Christian beliefs, b) more willing to become people of faith, or c) more willing to join the Christian faith in particular? My guess: zero, zero, and zero.

Keep in mind, this wasn’t just some quirky sideshow I happened to stumble upon at Wild Goose, such as the dream interpretation tent or the drag show. Carnival de Resistance was one of the major selling points of this year’s festival. Festival organizers sent an email trumpeting their “partnership” with the Carnival, and it was the only attraction on the Wild Goose Festival website to receive its own tab. Whatever silliness, meaninglessness, and borderline blasphemy came out of Carnival de Resistance happened with the explicit approval of festival organizers, and the implicit approval of the liberal Christian icons who showed up to sell their books.

When I first read that promotional email about Carnival de Resistance, I was struck by the fact that they had pledged to throw off the yoke of “religious piety.” “Piety,” in the Christian tradition, is a word that means nothing more than devotion to God and living one’s life according to that devotion. I struggled to come up with a reason why any Christian could possibly want to subvert piety. Needless to say, I am utterly convinced that if undermining devotion to God was the goal of Carnival de Resistance, it succeeded beyond its organizer’s wildest dreams.

Alexander Griswold is Research Assistant to the President of The Institute on Religion and Democracy. Follow him on Twitter.