Cross Rhythms journo and Edinburgh resident Tom Lennie went to a wide range of events at this year's EDINBURGH FESTIVAL FRINGE

Exile (photo by Colin Peckham)
Exile (photo by Colin Peckham)

It's the biggest Arts Festival on the planet. And with 2,050 different shows, performed in 250 venues over just three weeks, the 61st Edinburgh Festival Fringe became the largest to date. The event has in fact doubled in size in the past five years and there is now concern that it has become just TOO big, that a city as small as Edinburgh just can't cope with the vast influx of visitors (and 18,600 performers) from all around the globe, and that, with so many shows on at the same time, it's just not possible for even all the award-winning events to be sellouts. Still, it is estimated that well over 1.5 million tickets were sold over the course of these weeks, so that, all things included, tens of millions of pounds were generated for the Edinburgh and Scottish economy.

I'm told that 10 or 15 years ago any Festival event centring on anything religious was pretty much a rarity. World events seem to have changed all that. Like last year's Festival, but not, perhaps as noticeably so, a prominent theme in this year's Fringe was religion. You could attend a one-hour Buddhist tutorial at the Edinburgh Buddhist Centre. Or partake of the beauty of the Yiddish musical tradition from the Yiddish Song Project at 'The Lot'. There was even a mini Islam Festival all of its own, consisting of talks, performances and an Arabic calligraphy workshop in Edinburgh's Central Mosque.

Most religious-themed events, however, honed in on Christianity, be they devoted to enjoying its rich and unsurpassable musical heritage, honestly questioning its teachings and authority, poking fun at it, or in some cases, heaping showers of mocking contempt at it. Some such events were pretty unique and hard to categorise. One of the most original was 'Soulgait', an organised walk through the Old Toun with actor/pastor Ian Gemmell and a troupe of strolling players and musicians, as they interacted with the Psalms in a combination of drama, comedy, Scottish history and music. And though I failed to turn up for 'Confessions' before an experienced Catholic priest (this was a scheduled Festival event!), I did make it to the 'Rest For Your Soul' hour in the same St Patrick's venue, an hour of peaceful contemplation and sung chants. This really was refreshing to body, mind and spirit amidst the hustle-bustle of the Festival, and, despite the utter quiet both inside and outside the church, the building was located less than a minute's walk from the noisy High Street, centre of Festival activity. On the Festival's children's menu were a number of Bible-based plays ('Fish 'n' Ships' from the Red Balloon Theatre Co; 'Terrific Tales From The Miracle Book' from Rhema Theatre Company), as well as a creative two-day family celebration in the small and little-known George V Park.

In the field of classical and choral music one had the option of attending numerous Christian-based repertoires, ranging from organ recitals (free entry!) to full orchestral productions. I went to see the Luduis Baroque Chamber Orchestra & Choir present a 10th anniversary concert of Bach's famous 'B Minor Mass' in the beautiful old Canongate Kirk situated near the foot of the Royal Mile. A Lutheran, Bach was of course a deeply spiritual man and this work, arguably his most ambitious and comprehensive, resounds with spiritual feeling as it relates the message and passion of Christ. The five soloists were in particularly sharp form, and apart from Libby Crabtree's "Laudamaus Te" which dances with vivacity, the best section for me had to be the final Part, with its magical "Agnes Dei" sung by Michael Chance, and the resplendent "Osanna In Excelsis" chorus (well I do love a good praise song and this one is about as authentically worshipful and God-exalting as you can get in classical music).

Almost immediately following this two-hour concert I nipped down Carrubbers Close to Old Saint Paul's, a magnificent 300-year old Episcopal Church, to hear a one-night only performance of 'Choral Classics by Candlelight' performed by St Andrew Camerata, a 20-piece mixed Edinburgh-based choir. The 15 pieces chosen comprised a wonderfully diverse selection of popular tunes (eg, from Elgar and Mozart), as well as several interesting lesser-knowns. I was personally impressed with a religious piece from Anton Bruckner, an Austrian composer and devout Catholic. Once again the concert finished on a note of high praise - with a serving of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus".

A number of years ago Room Three Records organised a little Christian Music Festival within the parameters of the mammoth Fringe, attracting the likes of Jennifer Knapp and Ian White to its platform. Perhaps it all got lost amidst the sheer volume of shows on offer, for this mini music feast hasn't endured over the years. Much the pity. Hence, unfortunately, there was no big name Christian pop/rock/singer/songwriter performing at this year's Festival. The 'Shine At The Lot' sessions, featuring a bunch of international acoustic artists, did appear to have been at least partly faith-based, but I didn't know any of the names - Darren Thornberry, Aria Souder, Christel Meijer, Chris Brown and Denver Jacobs - and was unable to get to see them.

Soweto Gospel Choir (photo by Jay Town)
Soweto Gospel Choir (photo by Jay Town)

What we did get, however, was another blast from the Grammy Award winning Soweto Gospel Choir, returning to the Fringe with the world premiere of their exhilarating new show, 'African Spirit'. We were also treated to the 'Gospel According To Hollywood', a batch of popular gospel songs taken from major Hollywood films. A mini-version of a show first aired in Edinburgh's Usher Hall in 2004, this event included a full rock gospel choir draped in sky-blue silk robes, and a six-piece rock band - all part of the 'Exile' team, a highly-trained choir, band and orchestra, headed by Colin Peckham, who perform Christian music throughout Britain and abroad. The sound was loud, joyous and necessarily OTT - and included songs from The Blues Brothers, O Brother Where Art Thou and The Preacher's Wife. The energy that exuded from the team was quite infectious and the three soloists were masterful in delivery, as too was the band - Luke Wilson's agility on drums being particularly impressive. Got to say, though, the songs picked weren't the most appealing of gospel numbers, and my favourite of all came right at the end - in form of the heart-stirring "Amazing Grace", offered as an encore and the only song to get the audience vocally enthused.

A couple of churches in prominent city centre positions took advantage of the throngs passing their doors by opening them up for a drop-in coffee house experience. Over six nights, the Point Cafe in Charlotte Baptist Chapel served tea, coffee, snacks and live music from Livid, which consists of siblings David and Linda Harrison. They played a selection of acoustic music, ranging from Metallica to CCM, some of their own stuff being part of the mix. I found them a talented duo with a relaxing sound and a relevant message. A similar "experience" could be had in the larger Carrubbers Church, right on the High Street itself. For a long time Carrubbers has attracted believers with strong musical gifting, and many of these took to stage over two full weeks to sing gospel, soul and contemporary worship to anyone who fancied a breather between main shows. My fave among this crop of musicians was Bob David Bell, a local folky singer/songwriter with a fine, unique voice and a couple of discs to his credit. The cafes are of course operated predominantly as a form of outreach, and, added to these, here and there throughout the city centre, you would come across small church groups doing some form of musical or theatrical outreach, with the hope of arresting the attention of passers by. The motive is obvious - who needs to travel to the nations to preach the Gospel, when, for three weeks each August, the nations seem to converge en masse on Scotland's capital. Still, was it any wonder that next to no-one stopped to hear the plain and predictable, artless preaching that I saw being presented by the Tron, when, just 10 yards either side along the 'Mile someone was doing outrageous acrobatics from a tightrope and someone else was engaged in a most graceful Flamenco dance.

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2007

As well as music, a number of theatre productions took biblical characters and stories, or the Christian faith in general, as a theme. Lance Pierson brought Jesus' message close to his audience in his powerful one-man show, 'Mark's Gospel'. Elsewhere, Linda Marlowe's 'Believe' drew on the stories of four women in the Old Testament, while 'Options Of Life' aired five parables from the same Scriptures, thoughtfully interpreted by a Polish Professor/philosopher, using exquisite sculptures as props and a backdrop of live piano. On top of all this, there were two productions of the musical 'Godspell' as well as a recurring lunchtime staging of 'Jesus Christ Superstar'.

Three Wise Men And A Baby
Three Wise Men And A Baby

Saltmine Creative Arts aired two productions at the Festival - the comedy play 'Three Wise Men And A Baby' and 'The Cross And The Switchblade'. The first of these, most unseasonable for mid-August(!), was a humorous fusion of drama, dance and music, and, I've got toy, was well performed and a good clean laugh. What took me by surprise was that, amidst the fun and frolics, there were some quite poignant and moving moments. The free mince pies (honest!) weren't to be turned down either. The stage show of David Wilkerson's classic was a different ballgame altogether. Though the stark stage favoured the 1950's New York setting of the play, complete with a vandalised car and scaffolding, an evangelical church was hardly the most convincing place (nor an evangelical audience and cast the most likely people) to portray a violent gang headed by "one of the most feared figures in the city's underworld" in or to. Still, the two hour+ performance was appreciated and applauded by many.

Unfortunately, and to my annoyance, I overlooked a one-woman presentation by Dominican nun Nancy Murray on the life of Catherine of Siena. Indeed I only found out about it after it had stopped showing (with over 2,000 separate shows, you're bound to miss some!). Thankfully I didn't overlook 'Miracle In Rwanda', a play based on the genocide in 1994's Rwandan civil war, and the faith of one woman, Immaculee Ilibagiza, who hid from her Hutu aggressors along with seven other women for 91 days in a pokey little toilet. A friend of Immaculee's played all 10 diverse characters in the play, which was performed, for added effect, in an equally pokey side room in the Gilded Balloon, which was so hot and stuffy that the audience was issued with folding oriental fans as they entered. The striking point of the story was that though Immaculee lost her family in the war, she eventually found herself able, through her strong faith in God, to forgive her family's killers.

Meanwhile, at least four shows tackled the thorny subject of faith and homosexuality. While the play 'Corpus Christi' had as its controversial and dubious central character a gay Jesus, the below-mentioned 'Cash In Christ' made an assault on ex-gay ministries, suggesting their programmes were unnecessary and that many who embarked on them ended up feeling more defeated and screwed-up than when they started. More-open mindedly, 'Leave A Message' theatrically examined the role of Christianity amongst today's youth. The series of sketches had as their topics a minister's son who can't face telling his dad he's gay, a soldier in Iraq who's "fighting for God" and a girl who gets converted and loses her boyfriend as a result. The sketches didn't contain a morale per se but they did ask some pertinent questions. Then there's the not-to-be-forgotten Festival Of Spirituality And Peace in the unashamedly ecumenical St John's Church, which featured a talk on being 'Godly and Gay' by the British Rabbi, Lionel Blue. The programme in this venue was, indeed, absorbing and wide-ranging, and, though strictly non-evangelical, tackled numerous issues that should interest all believers. Included on the bill was a study of modern slavery in the UK, essays on the lives of William Wilberforce and C S Lewis, testimonies from survivors of torture and a workshop in learning the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic!

Some shows did a tongue-in-cheek take on biblical texts, eg, 'For God's Sake' picks on the creation story for some melarky, while 'Original Sin' finds God bored with run-of-the-mill sins and sends his angels a-searching the earth for more novel misdeeds. 'God's Pottery Saves The World' is different only in that the two performers are themselves Christians, humorously taking on the roles of Jeremiah and Gideon in a pertinent satire.

There were a few shows, however, that, though taking advantage of the appeal of humour, went way beyond gentle satire and mickey-taking. 'Cash In Christ' is a spoof-take of the wackier side of TV evangelism shows, and featured Bob and Fanny Comfort (Johny Berliner and Van Badham) as pastors of the Sunrise Fellowship. Initially I was a tad uptight, concerned that both my own beliefs and the name of Christ might be offended. But for the first half of the show I saw nothing that I hadn't already seen on some of the God channels, as the duo tore right through the hypocrisy, sham and blatant manipulation that so often saturates the more flamboyant and extreme charismatic churches/TV programmes. The way they mis-quoted Scripture to show that Jesus was rich and wants us to be rich too, their constant appeals for BIG donations and their simplistic "words of knowledge" - "there's someone watching who's got a headache" - I found all too sickeningly familiar. In fact I almost felt I was sitting in the audience of a real live Christian Telethon event. But as the show progressed I became more uneasy, as Berliner and Badham took a swipe at just about everything evangelical - Youth ministries, Christian rock music, the ex-gay ministry, etc. It all became utterly farcical at the end when they sang of Christians seeking to "kill the Buddhists and the Jews". The "service" ended with an onscreen fact sheet warning viewers of the "alarming" growth of evangelical churches worldwide, while a hardcopy fact sheet was handed out to everyone, quoting the sources for some of the show's content. I managed to secure a half-hour chat with Badham. She said she was a Catholic from Australia who had become increasingly alarmed at the inroads evangelicalism was making among Catholics in that nation. Much of the material for the show was taken directly from Hillsong Church services (Sydney and London) and Ron Luce's Teen Mania ministry. Nevertheless, although it had involved several months of serious research, there was far too much factual errency and personal bias for me to commend it.

Rick Miller (photo by Neil Hanna)
Rick Miller (photo by Neil Hanna)

A more professional performance came from Rick Miller in his show 'Bigger Than Jesus'. Billed as being just as controversial as 'Cash In Christ', I was actually refused a Press ticket when I phoned up c/o Cross Rhythms (I already had a Press Pass). After inquiring as to what Cross Rhythms stood for (they checked the website), and no doubt aware that I would not take a positive view of the show, I was informed that 'Bigger Than Jesus' was unlikely to be of interest to CR readers and I was offered a ticket to see an Eagles tribute band instead! Having been a fan of the Eagles back in the '70s, and determined I would make it to 'Bigger Than Jesus' another night, I took up their offer. . .and so enjoyed a thoroughly entertaining hour+ watching the six-piece Dutch Eagles magnificently render most of the American giants' greatest hits.

Sure enough, I secured entry to the Rick Miller show a few nights later. Visually, it made for stunning viewing. I was spellbound as Miller, co-writer and sole actor in the show, intertwined drama (he's previously played Jesus in Godspell and JC Superstar), art, suspended camera effects and subtle wit into a flowing narrative. Thematically, Miller explored how "a small-town Jewish rabbi, who died ignobly and largely in obscurity 2,000 years ago, has become such a phenomenon - with millions worshipping him as God and wars carried out in his name". Evangelicals have walked out of the show in offence. Atheists have been equally annoyed that it wasn't offensive enough. But as Miller has stated in numerous interviews, and as he also shared with me at the close of his 25th and final Festival performance, he doesn't see his show as anti-Christian at all (although he does have a gripe against aspects of evangelical fundamentalism and Catholicism, the tradition he himself was brought up in). Indeed, as other reviewers have already observed, one cannot help but sense an uncanny feeling of reverence and spiritual depth as the show artfully progresses. Personally I found it made a challenging yet inspiring impact. I in turn challenged Miller on some of its more controversial or inaccurate points (eg, that Christians hate Jews, the non-existence of sin, only the fourth Gospel sees Jesus as Son of God), and also asked him if he would dare to attack Islam in the same way he did Christianity. "No", replied Miller candidly, "I don't want my head to get blown off!" CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.