Look at the literature around Wild Goose Festival — an arts-and-ideas gathering held Thursday-Sunday, June 26-29, in Hot Springs — and you’ll see three recurring words: justice, art and spirituality. These themes respond to the conservative motto of faith, family and freedom so prominent in political arenas. But where conservative Christians gather to discuss how to protect their values from liberal agendas, the progressive Christians at the helm of Wild Goose are actively looking for ways to endorse their values.
“A lot of people say they come because they want to be with their tribe,” says festival producer and Episcopal priest Rosa Lee Harden. “You can look around, and there are people who look like you and talk like you. You can say the word ‘Jesus’ without someone misunderstanding who you are.” She’s referring to the prevailing perception in mainstream thought: To be Christian in America is to hold fast to conservative political opinions. But that attitude is being challenged by many in the greater Wild Goose community, and many of the festival’s talks and performances are aimed at quelling that mindset.
In 2004, Harden explains, “People like me woke up to hear … that values voters had elected George W. Bush for a second term. But I went to the polls with my values too.” It was misleading to say these people have values and those who voted for somebody else didn’t have values, she says. The media lead people to assume that “real Christians are tea-party gun carriers. Those of us who don’t think that way feel isolated and misunderstood.”
Although the festival is curated with progressive Christians in mind, its main purpose is to discuss how to make the world a more just and equitable place. There is a welcoming atmosphere for people of all faith traditions, as well as secularists and nonbelievers. Festival promoter Ami Worthen — a self-described agnostic — says, “That’s completely accurate. It is one of the most accepting groups of people I’ve ever experienced.”
J. Clarkson, the festival’s director of strategic partnerships, adds that the kind of faith embraced at Wild Goose is about more than by-the-book theology. “People talk about being spiritual rather than religious,” he says. “I think that’s in part a way of expressing their desire to have some tools that help with living every day. … They might find spiritual tools more easily in a Guy Clark song than in a Martin Luther hymn.”
Speaking of songs, the festival lineup includes musicians ranging from singer-songwriter-producer Phil Madeira (known for his work with Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin, among others) to pop-rock praise band Jars of Clay, local soul and R&B singer Lyric and “gender-bending performance artist” Reverend Yolanda. There’s a circus troupe — the Carnivale de Resistance — performing under a big top and gatherings around things like “Beer and Hymns,” plus an educational, spirited sing-along of classic freedom songs. “We’re not unaware that this is the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer,” says Harden.
Following this year’s theme of Living Liberation (adhering to the tenets of Liberation Theology), speakers include the Rev. William J. Barber II, best-known as the organizer and mouthpiece of Moral Monday and currently the dominant Southern voice at the intersection of equality, justice and faith. Franklyn Schaefer, who made national headlines late last year when the United Methodist Church defrocked him after he conducted a wedding for his gay son, will talk about why he officiated that ceremony and the fallout that followed. Another speaker by the same name — atheist author and artist Frank Schaeffer — will discuss atheism, art and God.
Clarkson will lead a talk titled “Theological Education: WTF?” in the spirit of the philosophical “WTF with Marc Maron” podcast, to discuss why anyone interested in Christian traditions should bother with attending seminary. “There is a lot of wisdom that has been preserved in institutions and passed along through seminaries for thousands of years,” he says. “How do we give people access to that wisdom in a culture that has (for plenty of good reasons) become very suspicious of institutions? As the roles of clergy people evolve, the methods of training them need to evolve as well.”
Beyond church-related discussions, there are presentations on writing and surmounting the cycle of violence, and a few aimed at unpacking the implications of white privilege: What is it, why is it and how to use it for good and not evil? Social movements will be discussed at great length, from Occupy to LGBT rights. Rounding out the long weekend, the roster includes yoga, movies and 12-step meetings — all planned to leave those in attendance inspired, entertained, liberated and, above all else, part of a vibrant, purpose-driven tribe.
WHAT Wild Goose Festival, wildgoosefestival.org
WHERE Hot Springs
WHEN Thursday-Sunday, June 26-29. Full festival passes are $299 adult/$229 student and senior/$199 youth. Day passes are $49 Thursday and Sunday/$89 Friday and Saturday.