// “irony, charity and humility”

ss09You’d be hard pressed to deny that Christianity has gotten a pretty bad rep recently – whether that’s from Dawkins, Hitchens et al., who have asserted the harm that religion has done over the years, or from the reviewers who have dealt with the Christian responses to that debate, some of which have been polemical, confusing or just badly thought-out. And let’s face it, although there have been those who have stood out as voices of sanity amongst it all, it’s also been easy to see the Christian response as evidence that Christians are, variously, intolerant, ignorant, or, in some cases, insane. So if there were any place that you’d expect to find all the worst characteristics of Christianity in evidence, then, you’d imagine it would be at a festival where large numbers of them are gathered in one place, right?

There have been a couple of high-profile scandals involving Christians in leadership at such gatherings recently, most notably in the cases of Todd Bentley’s healing ministry in Lakeland, Florida and Mike Gugglielmuchi’s faking of serious illness whilst involved with the Planetshakers movement (check them out on Google, if you can handle the tone of the coverage), both of which look pretty bad to the world outside, and with good reason. With those in mind it’s easy to look at the Christian festivals as places of hype or manipulation, where the combined energy of such large numbers helps create an atmosphere that can make the non-spiritual appear miraculous, ‘healing’ people through little more than a combination of adrenaline and force of belief. Yet, for all of that, I just got back from Momentum, the student and 20-something wing of the Soul Survivor movement, and what actually struck me, in contrast to all that New Atheism, Secularism and Conservative Evangelicalism might throw at it, was the sheer, overwhelming sanity of it all.

Ultimately, that comes down to the people, who are not just ‘not insane’, but also not otherworldly, either. It’s fine to label a week of high-energy church services as unreal – nobody does that on a weekly basis, and of course it stands apart from day-to-day life. But the people who I met there didn’t exude triumphalism, arrogance or church strategies – they were frank and broken, in many cases, facing up to their issues without any real answers to them. In a festival culture that seems to privilege pushing yourself to the extreme – seeing as many bands as possible in three days, drinking as much lager as possible in an hour, lasting 90-plus hours drinking only red bull, the usual story – it’s refreshing, not to mention surprising, to find that the Christian end of the spectrum doesn’t tend towards a similar brand of ‘extreme Christianity’. It’s not about creating a ‘one-size-fits-all’ festival experience, more about providing the space to think, talk, pray and listen, whatever that means to you.

There is a lot that has been done in the name of Christianity, even recently, that deserves the title of ‘insane’, or even just plain wrong. The stories of bogus healing ministries that aim to trick people into belief through magic tricks still horrify me, and sadly, there are plenty more stories along those lines. But, and perhaps surprisingly to some, Soul Survivor is not part of that; it’s a testament to the fact that you can get 12,000 Christians together in a field and they’ll prove that Christianity doesn’t create mad people, but people who are reassuringly real. Against the odds, it shows that Christianity has a place in reasoned debate; that, far from being the sole preserve of lunatics, Christians are reasonable people, worth having around and not simply inhabiting another world but actively seeking to engage with the one in which they find themselves.

It’s hard to work out where to stand on that for some people, who hear Biblical claims that we are supposed to be “aliens and strangers in this world” and assert that we are supposed to alienate, supposed to stand apart, and so should actively expect trouble and persecution. It would also be crazy to assert that this is not true, on some level; Jesus’s life, not to mention his words, repeatedly testify that the Christian way of looking at the world is one that is opposed, at the very ground level, to the world’s way of looking at things. But arguably what I saw at Soul Survivor was that kind of counter-cultural attitude put into practice in a completely different way to what I expected.

There is a type of counter-culture that is really just another facet of culture itself. It’s defined in absences and rejections. Culture goes right; counter-culture goes left. Culture turns cool; counter-culture becomes violently uncool. It’s fine unless you’re trying to stand apart from the whole thing, in which case you need something to stand for. The people I met at Soul Survivor, they model that ideal kind of counter-culture – not angry, not cynical or hiding in their isolated pockets of safety, but standing in the tension, seeking to engage but also stand apart, to help but not control, and to love truly, even if that means giving people the space to get it wrong. It stands apart from culture quietly, but visibly nonetheless, marked out, in the words of Tim Keller, by “irony, charity and humility”.

Now that is an exciting place to start.

Christianity needs rehabilitating, and not just because it has some vocal enemies that are attacking it from outside. It needs rehabilitating for its own sake, too, if only so that its members remember that what they do, they do because it is sane, because it is the best way to live, and that it has use and value to the rest of the world. And it needs rehabilitating so that the friends of its members start seeing them not just as crazy people, but rather as people with a different outlook on life, who occasionally do crazy things.

We’re no less crazy that the people who stood in fields in Reading or Leeds or Glastonbury this summer.

We would do well as Christians, I think, to remember that too.

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