I trashed this article in its original form. I worked on it for a while but couldn’t put my finger on a clear idea. I considered publishing rambling thoughts on my Bonnaroo experience, but I ultimately killed it in deference to cogent argumentation. Then someone sent me a bulletin from a Church of Christ in Manchester, TN, where Bonnaroo takes place. It brought the clarity I needed. I’m not really in conversation with the bulletin article, but it exemplifies the disposition that prompted me to write on being a Christian at Bonnaroo in the first place.
There is confusion about what is at stake in this conversation, because two separate issues often become jumbled. One is whether traditional conceptions of morality are defensible. This is a conversation about both culture and biblical interpretation. Drinking alcohol obviously means something different now than it did after the temperance movements of the nineteenth century. Women’s bare legs mean something different now than they once did. And so on. Consequently, the biblical understandings of such practices vary with their cultural meanings. The other issue is how Christians who understand themselves missionally should relate to people whose morality is not Christian. This is a conversation about both culture and mission. “The culture” can be mistaken for a description of non-Christian lifestyles, which surrenders the positive dimensions of culture and ultimately leaves the church with no ecclesiology but a self-ghettoizing, sectarian one that cannot serve God’s mission. It is foolish in the first place to reject a good thing on the grounds that people with different values make use of it, or even abuse it. But it is untenable theologically because the ground of the church’s meaningful relationship with others is shared culture—what we refer to missiologically as identification.
In other words, it’s one thing to say that much of what goes on at Bonnaroo isn’t the big moral deal that traditional churches think it is. It’s another thing to say that Christians should share as much of the culture of Bonnaroo as possible for the sake of the kingdom. The two get muddled because the church typically makes drinking, cussing, and promiscuity such a big hairy deal that the thought of being where those things happen is simply untenable. There is no way to share that cultural space; retreat and condemnation is the only option. Missionally oriented people sense, therefore, that in order to argue that we should engage (enjoy, critique, and transform) that cultural space as God’s people, it is necessary to diminish the intensity of the reaction against its perceived immorality.
I love music, and I’m a Mumford and Sons fanboy. So I was all in for Bonnaroo this year. I did not attend in order to convert people. I went for music and friendship. Yet my faith is in the God who has called the church into his mission, which is not a vocation that can be put on hold. If I am capable of saying I didn’t go to Bonnaroo in order to convert people, I have to add that I went conscious of the implications of my presence for a larger endeavor to understand what Christian mission means in the midst of American culture. Yes, I admit, I’m incapable of being at a music and arts festival without experiencing the music and arts in relation to God’s redemptive purposes. Yet, in light of my foregoing distinction, I have to state that this is not an argument for the validity of choosing to be in the middle of a whole lot of immorality. It is merely a statement about the impossibility of my being at Bonnaroo without missional implications in my own mind, even when—no, especially when—my primary purpose is not to preach or proselytize but to share the experience of art with people who are actively making choices I would not make.
The decision to place myself in the middle of a whole lot of immorality was a different matter, but, as I hope my initial paragraphs explain, not an unrelated one given my religious context in a town adjacent to the Bonnaroo staging grounds. Regarding this decision, I will explain five assertions: (1) drinking, cussing, and nudity are not even a very big deal, much less moral leprosy; (2) immoral behavior is still a serious concern; (3) hypocrisy has nothing to do with it; (4) behavior cannot be the church’s primary concern; and (5) missional churches must renegotiate their cultural engagement accordingly.
1. Many churches need to stop acting like alcohol, salty language, and naked bodies are contagious diseases.
Being scandalized by such things and avoiding them like the plague may be a healthy personal reaction for some people at certain points in their lives, for their own good. But when rejection becomes our reaction to people who do no know Christ, or when we act like everyone ought to know better and therefore attempt to shame and shun them, it is clear that such a disposition is not properly the church’s. Furthermore, shaming and shunning definitely haven’t proved useful in keeping people from insobriety, hateful speech, and sexual self-destruction, even our own people.
But beyond the inappropriateness and ineffectiveness of these reactions, I doubt their triggers are even a major concern. There are lots of risqué behaviors at Bonnaroo. Course language, scantily clad bodies, and the legality of pot are the kinds of surface issues that admittedly set off my puritanically programed moral alarm. But they don’t really make a whole lot of moral difference at the end of the day. Many bands at Bonnaroo were incapable of making it through a sentence between songs without dropping an F-bomb for emphasis. That is apparently the word’s function in typical discourse at this point. In fact, as I worked at the general store in Bonnaroo, I noticed that many people didn’t check out without a few obscenities spicing up their language, never once hatefully (as a curse) or even angrily (as an expletive). In fact, it’s hardly right to call them obscenities in such usage. There is no shock value intended or perceived in such discourse. As I said, the F-bomb still manages to create emphasis, but there was no sense of attack (as in “F you”) or sexual connotation (I’ll forgo the example sentence). Much like a teenager texting “WTF,” most people use the word in a virtually harmless way.
For comic relief, I’ll share my favorite story from working in the general store. Ms. Anne was working the cash register for us, and she was a no nonsense kind of lady—just who you want manning your till. It happened that we were price gouging on cigarettes. A customer asked how much a pack cost and Ms. Anne said, “Twenty-one dollars plus tax.” The response of shock, which we witnessed every time a poor nicotine addict darkened our doorway, was in this particular case, “Are you F—ing with me?!” Ms. Anne simply, sincerely replied, “I wouldn’t do that to you.” And I died laughing. It was the perfect response. Not offense or scandal but a friendly rejoinder that subtly suggested the question was ill conceived. The problem with language these days is often not vulgarity or malediction but thoughtlessness. Our reaction need not be to turn red and hide the children.
Perhaps this makes a little more sense to me because I’m from Texas church people that never set aside certain useful words.Where I grew up, one got off one’s ass to do work, and hopefully did a hell of a job. Then again, I’ve found that people in Tennessee also speak with salt when they’re comfortable no one minds. As someone near to me recently said, “Cow shit is cow shit. Other words just don’t quite capture it.” Perhaps a great many of us are just pretending like we find such words offensive when in fact, most of us already know those words do no harm in common use. And harm is, theologically, what is at stake in our speech. Can the words I’ve mentioned be harmful? Obviously. Are there other words that are almost exclusively harmful. Sure. But I didn’t hear any such usage at Bonnaroo. So let’s not act like a great moral question is at stake in listening to bands with astonishingly limited vocabularies.
As for alcohol, my experience has also been that, in the privacy of the home, many Christians carefully probe to see whether Meg and I drink and then happily bring out the vino or beer when they discover we’re not teetotalers. Again, it seems we are all acting like we abstain when in fact most of us choose to exercise moderation. Of course, I know people who get panicked or judgmental around alcohol. Whatever the cause of this, it is not a biblical disposition, and neither drinking nor being around people drinking is of moral consequence per se. Considering Bonnaroo, perhaps the question is whether to go where people are out to get drunk, or whether drinking with such people somehow contributes to their behavior. Maybe it could, in as much as eating with gluttons contributes to their gluttony—and I’ve been to a lot of church potlucks. No, it is probably more reasonable to consider the effects of modeling moderation in comparison with the effects of social exclusion. The former is not a possibility if we treat social drinking like a big moral deal. It’s not. Let’s get over it.
Finally, the most difficult of the three moral triggers I’ve listed: nudity. Maybe we could warm up to the subject by pointing out that most women at Bonnaroo wear bikinis, so the question is: what is the moral significance of going to the beach? If you are a sexually lustful person, then the moral significance is considerable. But that does clarify the fact that the moral consideration is primarily desire, not attire. In most other circumstances, we wouldn’t rightly blame a woman for a man’s lust (though I realize this does happen in some ridiculous Christian discussions).
Yet, I suspect that what would put many people over the edge is the women who go topless at Bonnaroo. It becomes harder to argue the beach analogy and easier to suggest these women seek to cause sexual desire. For the sake of argument, then, let’s assume that not only the topless women but also all the bikini-clad women were intending to provoke sexual attraction in others. In that case, the question is something like: what is the moral significance of going to the strip club? I would find that to be a very foolish destination for most Christians. But here we have a good example of the need to turn down the intensity of our reaction.
We aren’t shocked that people spend their lives looking for human connection, that sexuality is one of the essential ways we connect, or that people will market and sell the hope of that connection for a profit. We may find the people who live for that hope to be in great need of Jesus, but we don’t have any reason to react to them as though they are doing anything particularly surprising or disgusting. Our expectations are realistic. As Paul writes to the Corinthians, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons—not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world” (1 Cor 5:9–10). Of course we associate with sexually immoral people, and of course we don’t expect them to live according to Christian morality. There are places we needn’t go for the sake of those associations; fair enough. Even so, we need to evaluate such places and such behavior in a less reactionary way. Admitting that I’ve never been to a strip club, I’ll still claim that my experience of Bonnaroo was not of an environment designed to induce lust. The few women running around topless were not being pimped or using their bodies for money. They were probably very promiscuous elsewhere, and I hear some parts of the campgrounds were a bacchanal, but that was not what the music festival proper involved. If we can manage to be less reactionary about places like strip clubs, how much more so about being at a music festival where partial nudity makes an occasional appearance?
In total, I consider these triggers of moral outrage among traditional Christians to be far less morally significant than our reactions have suggested. I have picked them because they are essentially what one encounters at Bonnaroo, and they are typically the cause of much consternation among Christians. Having been raised in conservative Southern churches, I still found the experience of them to be relatively uncomfortable, so I don’t want to come across as insensitive to Christians who can’t help but feel shock. But in terms of my conscience, I found the price gouging and the questionable bookkeeping practices of the general store to be far more outrageous. Beer, cussing, and promiscuity simply don’t justify the conclusion that “I shouldn’t be associating with these people.” And I must emphasize that association with people is the issue, not abstractly being in a certain place. If I had rented a kiosk in order to pass out evangelistic literature, I doubt many conservative Christians would object to my “being there.” The rub is when I’m there in order to associate with people—simply share art with people—who are openly expressing a non-Christian morality. It is this scenario that prompts me to say, let’s calm down and consider what is really at stake morally rather than jumping to quote Bible verses that don’t actually speak to the question at hand (at least, not as mere recitations).
2. Immoral behavior is still a serious concern.
I’m not saying that big moral deals don’t exist. I’m saying (1) that the behaviors mentioned don’t qualify and that (2) our reaction to serious moral concerns (when we actually recognize them) betrays an even more serious misunderstanding of the church’s relationship to the world. Our calling is not to decry and reject immorality in the world but to live differently among the world, in loving relationship to the world, affirming its created goodness where we find it, and of course, wisely making our case for trusting Jesus’s way. I’m capable of moral outrage, and there are undoubtedly moments when that is the appropriate reaction (I’m thinking of genocide, oppression of the poor, rape). But we seem to have made outrage and rejection our only means of communicating our moral standards. Can’t we feel that indiscriminate hookups and willful insobriety are serious moral issues but communicate God’s concern in more fruitful, Christlike ways than condemning and rejecting the people who make those choices? It seems obviously possible, and I find the decision to segregate myself from moral others to be ultimately useless, having no bearing whatsoever on my estimation of the gravity of their decisions, and having an adverse effect on the communication of an alternative. Serious does not mean stand at a distance and disapprove. And choosing to be in the presence of bad decisions does not mean they aren’t serious.
This final point may be the key, because many Christians seem to think that being at Bonnaroo (to stick with our example) communicates approval of or “condones” every behavior that goes on there. This strikes me as a seriously dumb idea (and serious dumbness should probably be a moral concern), but it has been so prevalent in my Christian contexts that it deserves attention. Why would associating with people communicate approval of their morality? That’s certainly not the story we live by: Jesus’s association with notorious sinners didn’t communicate his approval. Is there really any risk of people concluding that Christians suddenly approve of premarital affairs, or that we think it’s not a serious moral issue? Or for that matter, is there really any risk that people would think companionship amounts to a moral position?
Perhaps so: perhaps we think that a person won’t be friends with someone who does what they consider to be wrong. I suspect, however, that this thought is a product of our ostracizing habit rather than its rationale. Church people definitely act as though they can’t be around those with whom they disagree. The way we let it be known we disagree with an interpretive conclusion in the church is to leave. The analogy with personal relationships is fairly straightforward: the way we let non-Christians know we disapprove of their actions is to treat those actions as a moral position and separate ourselves from them. Yet, we’re relatively aware that division is an unhealthy and unbiblical way of dealing with church conflict, and I don’t believe many Christians are under the impression that working through conflict instead of splitting is about reaching unanimity. We reject and abandon people, inside and outside the church, because we are relationally broken and bad at reconciliation. The claim that association with those of a different understanding, whether doctrinal or moral, somehow condones their position is a hollow justification of a relational failure.
The fact is, I am friends with many people whose morality is different than my own, and I have never once experienced confusion about the meaning of that friendship. How much less, then, does simply being present at an event communicate approval of everything that happens there? I deem the idea absurd.
Bonnaroo is host to some serious moral failings according to my understanding of God’s will. Neither shunning people nor avoiding places are correlates of the seriousness of those moral failings.
3. Hypocrisy has nothing to do with it.
I almost deleted this point, since it doesn’t add much to the overall argument. But I loath the misuse of hypocrite, which is so commonplace as to have virtually redefined the word in Christian usage. So I’ll take the opportunity for a short digression. Hypocrites are people who pretend. It is not pretense to fall short of one’s own moral standard—only to pretend that one does not. And it is not pretense to believe going to Bonnaroo is okay while worshiping God with people who don’t. That’s called a difference of opinion. Can we, at the very least, learn the meaning of the words we use?
4. Behavior cannot be the church’s primary concern.
There is a lot of darkness present at Bonnaroo. Because I’m sensitive to the way Christianity has typically addressed those who do not share its values, and my intention is not to be harsh, Mumford’s words come to mind: “Darkness is a harsh term don’t you think? And yet it dominates the things I see.” Much as I might wish to focus on the good things that we can appreciate together at Bonnaroo, I can’t pretend that I didn’t see what I saw, which was misplaced hope and destructiveness. While immoral behaviors matter, their sum is not equal to the darkness I observed. One thing that Christians generally need to realize is that the presence of such behaviors is only as meaningful as their absence; if we admit that abstinence from a sinful behavior can be unreflective of the state of a person’s heart, then it is fair to entertain the notion that indulgence in such behavior is equally as superficial a consideration.
I hasten to add a few clarifications. One, I’m not saying, “What matters is that your heart’s in the right place.” That is one of the most deceptive slogans in modern Christianity. If we’re sticking with the spatial metaphor, what matters is where you choose to place your heart through your actions. Or, in Jesus’s words, “Your heart will be where you put your treasure.” The opposite is not true; you can’t put your treasure wherever you want and then make a claim about your heart being “in the right place.” Two, I’m not saying that behavior is superficial because there is a more important (or more real) “spiritual” reality. There is no spirit-body disconnect that justifies disregard for bodily actions. Three, I’m not saying that traditional moral mores don’t “matter to God”—only that there may be more important matters when we evaluate what is happening in situations like Bonnaroo. Darkness needs light, but we tend to act as though behaviors need prohibition, or worse, that condemning behaviors is light.
The church’s primary concern is not “the unfruitful works of darkness” (Eph 5:11). By all means, let’s take no part in them. Let’s “be careful how we live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” Let’s “not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph 5:15–17). Yes. But let’s realize that deeds are the fruit of light or darkness; light and darkness are the root issue. Instead of getting hung up on the fruit that grows naturally from darkness, we need to realize that darkness is only transformed by light, not condemnation or prohibition. If there’s anything we need to take more seriously, it is the darkness in which Christ, the light of the world, shines only through us. If we take Paul to mean, “Avoid people who act badly. Don’t get their shame on you. Watch out for the slippery slope!” then we are left with no way to address darkness except from a distance. In that case, all we can do is reject the fruit of darkness; transforming the darkness itself by shining light in the midst of it—making Christ known—is a foregone possibility. If that is not what Paul means, then we have in Eph 5 and elsewhere an exhortation to be transformed people, which must stand alongside our commission to be agents of light in the midst of a dark world.
Once we realize that the process of shining light into darkness doesn’t happen from a distance, the question of our presence at places like Bonnaroo is implicitly answered, at least in principle (particular discretion notwithstanding). There is no initial assumption that we will separate ourselves socially from others, only that we will be rooted in “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor 4:4). If we are clear about the dynamics of darkness and light at work all around us—and we need this clarity in every situation, not just at music festivals—the specific behaviors we encounter are of far less interest. They are symptomatic at most.
5. Missional churches must renegotiate their cultural engagement accordingly.
All this said, we come to the question of culture at Bonnaroo. I went primarily for the music (though the craft beer tent was a bonus). Freed from the need to react with rejection and condemnation, Christians have the option of exploring the creativity and goodness that also exists in the places we have so often avoided. What happens when more and more Christians occupy that space, simply to say, “Yes, we recognize this creativity, and it is a gift of God!”? What happens when more of us stand in that space with moderation, extending friendship and mutual appreciation for those who marvel at beauty and long for meaning? Some might say I am naive, that most people just want to party. I thought the same thing at first glance. But after standing in those concerts, I recognized what so many around me were doing: stretching for an experience that the music almost provides, that the drugs almost simulate, worshiping the created as we so often do, in the hope that it will give back something that it cannot for all its beauty. There is indeed beauty and hope amid the darkness. The church must learn how to be present once again, so that light can allow us to see the culture for what it is and engage it accordingly. Christ is already there ahead of us. Will we go and meet him, or will we fear the dark?