Charismatic conservative evangelical Tony Cummings reviews the 39th GREENBELT arts festival

Bruce Cockburn (Andy Stonehouse / Greenbelt Festival)
Bruce Cockburn (Andy Stonehouse / Greenbelt Festival)

FRIDAY, 24th August
Opening time is still hours away but thankfully my Greenbelt experience begins not with the gruelling tent erecting of Joe Punter nor the B&B/hotel comforts of many of my colleagues in the Greenbelt Press Office. Instead, I'm enjoying one of the key Greenbelt pleasures - talking with old friends. Ruth Saint is the administrator of Greenbelt's worship team. Her husband Paul, also a GB volunteer, has erected a tent for me. In the cool night air Ruth and I sit and talk about many things, one of them being how Switchfoot (one of Ruth's favourites) aren't making a Greenbelt appearance this year. I point out neither, for that matter, are Third Day, Toby Mac, Newsboys and Casting Crowns, four of the biggest selling Christian acts in the world. To this charismatic conservative evangelical observer it seems Greenbelt has abandoned such ministry/CCM acts and if such acts are going to make it to the UK it appears it will be a Soul Survivor or The Big Church Day Out who will fly them in. Anyway, I'm looking forward to another Greenbelt. Despite its mistakes and its increasingly unorthodox theological slant it is THE means by which Cross Rhythms can get to see and hear Christian music acts working in the mainstream. But there may not be so many this year. By my calculation there are to be 85 bands and soloists performing at Greenbelt's three main music venues, Mainstage, the Performance Café and the new outdoor venue, The Canopy. Of these 85, 23 are known to be Christian. Way too few in my opinion, particularly when I can easily name 30 excellent UK Christian bands and soloists who've never been offered a Greenbelt slot.

"Didn't you use to be Tony Cummings?" quips Martin Wroe, a renowned journalist and Greenbelt vice chairman, as he stops me on my way to the GB reception. Clearly the ZZ Top/Archbishop of Canterbury-style beard hasn't allowed me to travel completely incognito.

I tell the young lady at the burger stall that hers was the best burger I've ever eaten at a fest - and that's a good few!

I sit talking to a gentle Catholic man and his special needs teenage daughter. She's being allowed to participate in the children's programme which, like everything else, opens at 5.00pm.

I sit reading my programme and munching an apple. With this report to write and interviews to do attending anything but music performances is a no-no. But I can at least see what Greenbelt attractions I'm missing this year. Lots of talks about Palestine; Muslim urban artist Mohammed Ali; the Nanny McPhee movie; the nearest thing Greenbelt have to a theologian - Mr Post Evangelical himself, Dave Tomlinson; an Egyptian Belly Dancing workshop, A Frank (Skinner) Conversation; Peter Tatchell talking on Time For Gay Civil Marriage And Strait Civil Partnerships; and Kate Coleman talking on Leading Transformatively: The Woman At The Well. Kate is the former president of the Baptist Union and currently the chair of the Evangelical Alliance. I remember when Kate was a newly-converted member of the small Baptist church I attended in the '80s. It was there she preached her first message. I even prophesied over her afterwards. But no time for reminiscences or talks, or even belly dancing workshops. I'm off to catch a bit of The Leisure Society on Mainstage.

Leisure Society are sounding good. One part folk rock, one part Snow Patrol and with an exceptional female flute player their sound blows around the grass arena. Only when a shower breaks out does the crowd thin a bit.

Welcome To Paradise (Andy Stonehouse / Greenbelt Festival)
Welcome To Paradise (Andy Stonehouse / Greenbelt Festival)

I enjoyed Donald Miller's book but nothing quite prepared me for this movie, directed by one time Greenbelt Mainstage favourite Steve Taylor. For me a good film has to draw the watcher in so that he or she gets emotionally involved in the story line and at the end leaves thinking on the message every good movie leaves you with. As it turns out, Blue Like Jazz makes me laugh out loud. And its ending makes me cry. It utterly avoids the trite clichés of so many Christian films but neither does it lurch into post evangelical propaganda. Instead it portrays one man's journey from religious enculturalism to Christian spirituality with wit and considerable skill. There is some pointed saterization of evangelical subculture as the story line traces the misadventures of the main character, Don (nicely played by Marshall Alman) as he struggles for survival in a hyper-liberal college in Portland. Blue Like Jazz the movie shows how an American brand of evangelicalism has sometimes mutated into something vaguely preposterous and then goes on to show where the anti-faith rants of professors and rampant hedonism of the students offer no solutions either. Blue Like Jazz is not without its flaws. Its Kickstarter low budget origins occasionally show through and in one scene I could have done without a couple of the swear words. But Blue Like Jazz never ceases to involve the audience. The Greenbelt audience who pack into the Film venue clearly love it too. I have to dash off at the end to catch Bruce Cockburn on Mainstage.

Bruce Cockburn is his usual magnificent self. Having interviewed the dear man only five hours previously I know that his and my theology are miles apart. But as a consummate musician able to mesmerise Mainstage all by himself, a guitar and an FX unit he still demonstrates his jaw-dropping ability to sound like three guitarists all by himself while his songs, pinpointing the cruelties and injustices of our world, hit home with the power of the prophet. Long may he "sound off" (to use his own phrase).

I stand at the door of the Big Top gazing at an extraordinary sight. In front of me a throng of dancers are showing off their best dancefloor moves. But I can hear no music. This is Silent Disco with two DJs going head-to-head and the dancers selecting their headset channel from either a lady deejay playing pop dance (I am later reliably informed) or a world music/funk set from an old mate, journalist and occasional Cross Rhythms contributor George Luke.

SATURDAY, 25th August
I sit in my tent, with my wind-up penguin-shaped torch (bought for a fiver from Greenbelt's General Store), reading my NIV and thinking about Bruce Cockburn and his blithe assertion that he had no problem with his song "Call It Democracy" and its line about not giving a flying f**k. For Bruce the instruction to avoid coarse and unclean language you'll find in the Bible is one of those passages relevant in the culture of Paul of Tarsus but not applicable in our modern world. I know he's wrong but in the final minutes of his press conference I never had the chance to tell him that. And because this genius singer/songwriter doesn't go to church, he's unlikely to hear a denouncement of his error from anyone except for one of those hate-filled right wing Biblebelters who, to this music journalist at least, seem to be as wrong as Bruce with his theological liberalism. The Bible. Once years ago I wrote a song about the Bible. It was called "The Book That's Reading Me". The Scriptures have been a light unto my feet wherever I've clumsily put them. Put simply, the Bible, all the Bible, is God-breathed. Over the years I've had informal chats, often at Greenbelt, with people who've called my attitude to the Bible "legalistic" or in more recent times "literalist". They've been hard conversations to conduct in an atmosphere of love. It's not easy to be gentle and loving when someone's calling you names and it's harder still when you've come to prayerfully believe that pejorative words like literalist or fundamentalist truly don't bear any resemblance to what I believe or how I live my life. It seems to me all this theological name-calling, whether it emanates from Bruce Cockburn, Pat Robertson, Martyn Joseph, Dave Tomlinson or thousands more who call Christians deluded charismaniacs, liberal backsliders or post evangelical heretics, are continuing to slander the Church. The love the Bible tells us the Church should have one for another is still elusively far off. I'm tired now so I'm turning off my penguin torch to catch some sleep. I want to be up early enough at the Greenbelt washing troughs before the queues get too long.

I'm in search of breakfast but I stop at the structure confronting me. It is a metal arch covered in netting on which are attached numerous brightly coloured objects. Clearly one of the ubiquitous Greenbelt artworks which dot the site. I don't go too close, my appreciation of modern art is notoriously low and a sign on the front of the arch reads Welcome To Paradise, which seems particularly inappropriate considering it is constructed yards from two large chemical toilet blocks from which the tell tale smell is already escaping.

In the Press Office in an unexpected press conference I find myself talking to the Rev Richard Coles who in the mid '80s was once a member of The Communards. The Philadelphia soul music buff in me wants to tell Richard that The Communards ruined a classic with their mangling of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes' "Don't Leave Me This Way". But with time running out I let the charismatic conservative evangelical in me do the talking. I tell practicing gay Richard that I believe the Bible when it declares that homosexual activity is a sin. I hope I have communicated my position with respect. Certainly, this extremely likeable man certainly communicates no antagonism back to me.

(Jonathon Watkins / Greenbelt Festival)
(Jonathon Watkins / Greenbelt Festival)

After the Richard Coles press conference a journalist friends comments, "Well, he's very different from Peter Tatchell. That guy always seems so ANGRY."

Steve Taylor is an old friend. He's dropped back to the Press Office and we chat about the wonderful film he's directed, Blue Like Jazz. We also talk about our wives and kids (and in my case, grandchildren), Marmite, Philadelphia Soul, Buzz magazine's An Atheist's Greenbelt article, David Bowie, the changes in African international adoption legislation, Howlin' Wolf and the Cross Rhythms website.