I spent the last weekend at the Greenbelt festival. It probably wouldn’t be my first choice of Christian festival to go to – I was there for work. I had heard how wacky and liberal a place it was, and as a good evangelical, I thought it had couldn’t be for me. Plus, I rarely respond well to contemporary dance-theatre.
But I was surprised at Greenbelt. Not in any great existential way – it is wacky, and in places, very liberal. There were talks on what paganism and Christianity have in common and the first night’s headliner was a 90-minute musical response to the black-and-white photography of the pioneering American art photographer, Alfred Stieglitz – which was actually more fun than it sounds.
But I was surprised, nonetheless, and learnt a useful lesson from an unlikely source. It was during a talk by Giles Fraser, the priest and broadcaster, on helplessness. Giles is a familiar face and name at both Greenbelt and in the wider Christian world. I’ve never met him, but he has always come across as a nice chap.
However, I also have really deep-seated differences of opinion on things I think are really important. For instance he’s previously declared the idea that Jesus died on the cross as a sacrifice to pay off mankind’s sin is “a disgusting idea and morally degenerate,” whereas I think it is the heart of the gospel. I have no doubt we also disagree on heaps of other theological questions. He is also an enthusiastic supporter of Jeremy Corbyn in his race to become leader of the Labour Party, whereas I believe a Corbyn victory would be a disaster of almost unprecedented dimensions for both the party and country.
Put bluntly, Giles is a person I had filed away mentally as ‘not for me’. Someone who I disagreed with on such fundamental things that it wasn’t really worth listening to. But I was wrong.
His talk was excellent. Wide-ranging, and mostly without any notes, it spanned Freudian psychology to Augustinian theology. Giles unpacked the idea that as human beings we are essentially broken and in desperate need of something, or someone, outside of ourselves to fix us. He ruminated on our inability to save ourselves. He spoke powerfully about how opposed he was to assisted suicide because of his Christian conviction that we are not self-fulfilling individuals but part of a community who are made to rely on each other for love, comfort and security.
It slotted into a number of things I have been mulling over for years about the necessity of our dependence on God as children depend on their parents. But more importantly it also rebuked my rush to dismiss Giles as someone so totally wrong about important things that he could have nothing to teach me.
It’s a very good lesson, that. So often, especially in our evangelical bubble, we are obsessed with demarcating those who are ‘sound’ and those who are dangerously ‘liberal’. Sure, I’ll continue to argue that Giles is badly mistaken about the cross, and Jeremy Corbyn. Yes, I think in general his brand of liberal Christianity, let alone hard-left politics, is never going to be my cup of tea. But that shouldn’t mean I can ignore him, or others who aren’t doctrinally pure evangelicals.
I have always enjoyed one Twitter biography I stumbled across years ago, which was something along the lines of: “Define myself in 140 characters? Bog off. I am large and contain multitudes”. People are complicated beings, and it is almost always a mistake to try and fit them into a simple box. Giles is not just a clueless liberal – he’s a guy full of different thoughts on different things and some of those I not only agree with but need to hear, need to be challenged and sustained by. Ultimately, I would hate for someone who didn’t subscribe to my particular brand of evangelicalism to dismiss me as someone with nothing interesting or useful to say on any other topic.
So thank you Greenbelt, for reminding this narrow-minded evangelical that the number of people I can safely dismiss as irredeemably wrong is always smaller than I think. It might even be zero.