What we don’t say says a lot

What we don’t say says a lot

Greenbelt’s Creative Director Paul Northup muses about the space for change and transformation that is opened up when things are left unsaid.

You can tell people what you believe. You can make it an obvious matter. Done and dusted. Out there. Settled. Once and for all. No conversation or negotiation required. Or you can do stuff because of what you believe. Dropping clues, inviting question, conversation, challenge, misunderstanding, but – above all else – welcoming encounter.

The former is a propositional approach. The other, I would argue, is more poetic.

In our highly graphic age, I often hear the rhetorical question: “it doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination, does it?” And I am reminded that things are, in fact, all-the-more powerful and evocative when they leave as much to the imagination as possible.

Language can make things clear and connect people. But it can also do the opposite. And, when we want speak and connect to as a wide a range of people as possible, we need to choose – or leave – our words carefully.

St Francis is widely attributed as saying: “Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” What he actually said is even more helpful:

“It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching.”

“…As for me, I desire this privilege from the Lord, that never may I have any privilege from man [SIC], except to do reverence to all, and to convert the world by obedience to the Holy Rule rather by example than by word.”

One of our slogans for the Greenbelt Festival this year has been “Me. You. Us.” And, given the year we’re living though, it’s turned out to be an incredibly prescient graphic. When words have failed us so often, we’ve turned to it time and again. We are not about defining and dividing, but about finding common ground. For The Common Good.

Does this mean we should give up our distinctive identity? Absolutely not. Any common ground which requires the watering down of all individuality until everyone looks, acts and believes the same, lowest-common-denominator set of stuff would be my idea of hell itself.

It comes down to the age-old tension between identity and relevance.

Some say that Greenbelt waters down its Christian identity (by, for instance, not choosing to trumpet the word “Christian” on its publicity material). But a festival that stops everything onsite for half a day to celebrate communion (to re-member Christ) together is hardly hiding its light under a bushel. And a festival that is building a brand new worship and reflection zone this year is hardly denying its faith.

Some think that we avoid naming the festival for what it is in order to be somehow more relevant, or acceptable. The truth is that Greenbelt “carries its cross” (subject to mild ridicule, misunderstanding and even outright suspicion) on a daily basis! The path we’ve chosen to tread is a narrow one. It’s way more tricky to navigate than the one marked ‘straightforward and obvious’, that’s for sure. It’s not in pursuit of relevance or acceptability that we do what we do. It’s out of a sense of faithfulness.

And anyway, beyond issues of identity and relevance, what does the word Christian mean? It means different things to different Christians in different times and different places – let alone to those who don’t share the Christian faith at all. It’s a fraught label, often setting up barriers instead of building bridges.

At Greenbelt, we’re pleased to use words like artistry and activism because we have a theologically informed sense of their importance for us, shaped by a Christian worldview, and because they are less loaded and more open. We believe in the arts and in justice because we are Christian. We believe that the God we seek after is justice, faith and imagination personified; the source and shape of these gifts to, and in, the world.

Eve Poole’s recent piece in the Church Times on VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) is resonant here.

A popular past festival speaker, Eve contends that VUCA is (or should be) a core Christian competence. She reminds us that: “In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig makes the powerful point that our need to carve things up into cat­egories is about ego, because certainty, evidence, and measure­ment is really arrogance.” In an empirical world of data, she goes on to argue that: “The lesson of faith is to trust your instincts and travel hopefully, because it is often on the journey that you find the informa­tion you need.”

This is how Greenbelt works. It trusts its instincts, it travels hopefully, it is invested in the journey every bit as much as the destination. It believes that our lives are stories, not statements. Believing in its transformative power, Greenbelt wants to leave as much to the imagination as possible. The question for us, in encountering examples of art, activism and faithfulness is not what do they mean, but what questions do they spark, how do they make us feel and think, what do they require of us, how do they change things for us, and change us?

As we hurtle towards the 44th Greenbelt Festival, I am as excited as ever about the space we are going to open up again. A space for encounter, transformation, for imagination, for provocation, for activism, for participation. I am changed every year I go to Greenbelt – because there is space there for change. In the space, between the lines, in the things left unsaid, in the encounter and imagination, “God’s Spirit is with us” – as Christians pray before communion.