I plopped down on a grassy knoll in the West of England among thousands sitting quietly, rain threatening, as the Communion service got underway – a prophetic drama calling for a jubilee from the chains that bind us to the structural injustices of our societies. The Archbishop of Canterbury was leading a prayer.
Later, I fought back tears while absorbing a poignant exhibit entitled "The F Word" – a gallery of moving photographs and short stories from former adversaries in the Middle East conflict who, through the miracle of grace, had been reconciled and were offering the world images of forgiveness born out of scenes of violence.
I presented a seminar called "Is Christian Publishing Still Christian?" and answered questions, then perused the 80-page festival guide to locate where Ched Meyers would be speaking on "Gospel Discernment in the Apocalypse of War."
I hung out with some English friends at Pru's Cafe next to the vast book tent and afterward meandered down the narrow lanes of the crowded festival site to take in a sunset concert of classical music, a departure from the amped-up Christian rock pouring forth from noon to nearly dawn on several stages.
These few sights and sounds can't begin to describe the Greenbelt Arts Festival, a four-day creative experience that hits you with such verve, imagination, and potential that no one can possibly take it all in.
This is quite a change for me – bragging up art done by Christians. As someone who works in a branch of the arts called writing, I ought to be a little more charitable (after all, even some of my own published work now embarrasses me), but I'll confess that I have lingering weariness toward much Christian art today.
I'm upset when I see art that breaks the Creator's laws for aesthetic expression, art that preaches or seeks to teach and inform rather than to suggest, to invite, even to offer sabbaths. Or when art serves Mammon, a sin hotly rebuked by Amos, who rejects outright the art of a culture that does not care about the poor and about injustice (Amos 5:23-6:7).
And I feel dejected when I want to tell a Christian friend about an awakening I've had through a work of art – perhaps a deepened understanding of my sin or a revealing insight about life – but I don't say anything because I know that person will find the art too controversial, taboo, or "pagan." So I don't mention the stunning performance of Henry Miller's THE CRUCIBLE that left me speechless. I don't let on that NYPD BLUE was my favorite TV drama, especially during its first years when God, moral dilemmas, addiction recovery, and even Christian ministers were treated with more intelligence than anything I'd ever seen on TV. I can't explain that Rodin's little-known masterwork, "The Myth of Danaide," broke my heart as an experience of the never-ending despair of the soul without Christ.
Greenbelt solves all this for me. From its humble beginnings on a pig farm in Suffolk, England, in 1974 – the dream of bricklayers, used car dealers, farmers, actors, musicians, and theologians – Greenbelt has grown into a living, breathing organism of passionate Christian conviction and creativity. Within a decade, 20,000 people were camping out in the scenic rolling hills at its new home in the Midlands for the four-day event. Today, the festival has become part music/art celebration, part youth festival, part social campaign and political jubilee, part development activism, part worshiping weekend, and all theater. Its substance and charisma includes an impressive range of seminars, speakers from around the globe, and a huge, rich, and imaginative children's program that is a culture in itself.
But Greenbelt's road less traveled has at times been misunderstood and resisted by traditional Christianity. "That's been the edge against which we've struggled philosophically and creatively to sharpen our ideas and get where we are," said Steve Shaw, a festival co-founder. "People have even questioned if Greenbelt was Christian – like when we began inviting guest speakers who weren't really 'kosher' – but we did that to give Christians a chance to be up against their critics, and so that both sides could sort out what they really believed. But the struggles have created a real sense of freedom. People feel comfortable being themselves around others who won't judge them, and they're drawn by the challenge of the speakers and the festival's integration of the gospel into ALL of life."
For me, Greenbelt has become a safe environment for stimulating conversation, thoughtful meditation, and playful enjoyment. It draws from many compass points to stay freshly redemptive, continually reshaping itself to follow what Christ is already doing in our world. The next festival is August 26-29, 2005. Check it out at www.greenbelt.org.uk.
Charles Strohmer is the author of seven books – and a fan of British Christianity. This article appeared as the Art & Soul column in the May/June 2005 issue of PRISM Magazine.