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Greenbelt 2012 review
Mark Woods enjoys the music and seminars and copes with the weather. Grrenbelt is arguably the world’s largest Christian based festival that encompasses many areas of the Arts. It invites people wth a wide awareness of Christian things, as well as those from other standpoints and exprdssions.
THIS year at Greenbelt my faith was tested as never before. No, it wasn't the dodgy theology or (sometimes) equally dodgy music: it was the rain. Genesis 9:11 is quite clear in its "never again" after the Flood, but last weekend was a wobble. The lush green of Cheltenham racecourse was transformed into a sort of runny chocolate mousse, only not as tasty. Not all of it, of course - there was plenty of hard standing and civilised indoor stuff - but there was enough to make it the defining image of the weekend.
Never mind. The sun came out as well, and the Deluge was postponed.
The Christian arts festival has now been running for nearly 40 years and has established itself as a place for serious thinking, inspirational worship and exciting performance. The Methodist Church has long had a presence there, but this year marked the end of a more intense three-year engagement; it has sponsored one of the venues - called Galilee, though this year Atlantis would have been more appropriate - and brought significant issues before the wider Christian community.
This year, for instance, included theologian Mary Grey on the Old Testament stories of the conquest of Canaan. "Would a God of peace, creator of all people, really demand the slaughter of the indigenous people?" she asked. No: but these narratives have been used to justify policies of exclusion and discrimination today. "If the text is not good news for the Palestinian people, it is not good news."
Historian Sir Diarmaid MacCulloch spoke on the way politics has shaped Christianity over the centuries. Why Rome and not Baghdad? It could so easily have been different. I had heard him before on this with great pleasure - much more than any good Catholic was likely to feel.
In all, the Methodist Church's Galilee saw some terrific contributions. I enjoyed Roman Krznaric's "Life lessons from the wonderbox", as well. He is a philosopher of the practical variety and spoke on the nature of love, for which the Greeks had six words (of which C S Lewis expounded four).
Some audience participation: which of them would we like more of in our lives? Half of us admitted to wanting more "ludus", the playful, game-playing love expressed as banter between friends. How many would admit to wanting more "eros"? Only three, out of a couple of hundred, which does not seem very convincing.
Methodist Youth president Sam Taylor spoke on hope, drawing lessons from the prophet Jeremiah. It was a valiant performance in challenging circumstances: a small band of hearers clustered on a patch of higher ground at one end of the tent, the rest churned to a slurry.
"It's been very encouraging," said Communications director Toby Scott. "There's always been a strong overlap between Greenbelt and the things that concern Methodists; we have a lot in common, on issues like climate change, social justice and so forth. It's been really good to have a higher than usual profile to talk about these things."
We shall be back next year, if not on the same scale. Galilee, of course, was only one venue. I did not count the number of seminars, performances and other events, but it must run into the hundreds. The bad thing about this is that there is far too much to take in. Anyone with any intellectual or spiritual curiosity runs the risk of being paralysed by indecision. The good thing is that you can slope off early if something doesn't come up to scratch. I did not enjoy Peter Owen Jones on matters ecological, for instance: charming in person and an expert TV performer, he was not great in front of a large audience; glued to his notes, and rather hectoring. I was glad to see Frank Skinner there. I knew that the comedian had a Christian faith - no easy thing to maintain, one would imagine, in an industry where cheap laughs at religion's expense are every comic's stock in trade. He is also wise and thoughtful, though. "People are embarrassed about being religious, so they try and make themselves look a bit less religious. They apologise a bit for the fact that we believe in strange stuff." This one struck a chord, too: "Christianity is pretty antiseptic and dull in most of its manifestations. But it's a really weird, spectacular, theatrical faith." He was good, and honest, about doubt: "I read 'The God Delusion' by Richard Dawkins and I remember holding it in my hand and thinking, 'I might not believe in God after I've read this.' But I'm suspicious of people who don't doubt. If there's no doubt, I think your faith has become something else." Skinner on prayer: "I struggle with a personal intervening God - can I really say, 'I'm really worried about this show I have to do tonight...?' I've tried to stop asking for things like that. "If you're going to pray for something, pray to be able to pray better." That got a round of applause. There was applause too for Giles Fraser, formerly of St Paul's Cathedral but still one of the Church of England's heavy hitters. He spoke on "the military ethical complex" in a brilliant address that challenged many stereotypes about the military mindset. How exactly do soldiers make the complex moral decisions they are faced with in combat, when the consequences are so much more serious than any faced, ever, by the sort of armchair critics who write letters to the Guardian about the evils of militarism (not his actual words, but I think I reflect his sentiments) - and do so in a quarter of a second? Fraser grew up on military bases, dislikes military culture and feels guilty about not being a pacifist, so is not exactly a gung-ho jingoist. Nevertheless, he has learned huge respect for our fighting soldiers, while still being a severe critic of the wars they have been asked to fight. They are issued with vast and complicated books setting out their rules of engagement. In the end, though, it is "virtue ethics" that will determine their conduct, rather than rules; the character formed in them by training, discipline and practice. A lesson for Christians too. There was plenty more. I enjoyed Padraig O'Tuama on "Naked men in the Bible" and Dave Tomlinson on "How to be a bad Christian - and a better human being". I went to the Goth Eucharist with high hopes of an excursion into the spiritually bizarre. Goths belong to a strange sub-culture, wear black a lot, are a bit unhealthily obsessed by blood and death, and their favourite bands are outfits like The Damned and This Mortal Coil. A Goth Eucharist - how splendid! Black candles, skulls on the altar, spine-tinglingly weird music? Not really. There was a rather good singing ensemble dressed appropriately in black, but the rest was all terribly Anglican; 1662-based evensong, only at midnight. Perhaps that is the Goths' dark secret: they are really Sunday school teachers who are stalwarts of the flower and coffee rotas. Not so much Fresh Expressions as a really fresh cup of tea, then. The element of sublime strangeness was provided for me by Aradhna, a Christian group steeped in Indian traditions. An unforgettable combination of images and music: God is bigger than we think. It is hard to do justice to such a rich experience, characterised above all by a sense of joy. "I would walk 500 miles..." sang The Proclaimers to us on Sunday. I'd go a long way to get to Greenbelt next year. Save for the introduction this feature id REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION FROM THE METHODIST RECORDER, LONDON, and carried in its issue of August 3