There is a growing trend going on around the world, called "Transformational Festivals." Fulcrum7's Gerry Wagoner interviewed author Carl Teichrib, one of the leading Christian authorities on these events, to help our readers better understand this movement.
Hi Carl, Thanks so much for taking time for this interview.
What is a transformational festival?
Transformation festivals are celebratory events meant to stimulate a life-enhancing and life-changing experience. A range of festivals exist and no two are exactly alike, yet each fits within the broader concept of “evolutionary culture” – that is, an artistic or cultural gathering meant to transform consciousness, provoke a sense of oneness with all things, and bring about a feeling of connection and community. Transformational festivals are outlets to that end; an immersive atmosphere leaving the participant feeling as if he or she remains a part of the experience, even after the event ends. With this in mind, transformational festivals take on a myriad of forms. Here are a few examples.
- Nevada’s Burning Man, one of the most important transformational gatherings, is an example of experiential modeling, community building, and life-becoming-art. There are regional Burning Man events scattered across North America and around the world. And the Burning Man franchise has inspired a myriad of music-and-art transformational events, like Saskatchewan’s Connect Festival and California’s Lightning-in-a-Bottle.
- Openly pagan festivals like the long-held Pagan Spirit Gathering in Illinois and the Heartland Pagan Festival in Kansas. Conferences like Paganicon in Minneapolis could be included as a subset, along with the many Pagan Pride Day events annually occurring across the United States and Canada.
- Hindu celebrations such as Hanuman in Colorado and Utah’s Holi Fest, which brings out 70,000 people – mostly of Mormon background – to offer chants to Krishna and throw colors.
- Yoga festivals like the Wanderlust series, the Telluride Yoga Festival, Bhakti Fest in California and Wisconsin, and the OM Vibrations Yoga Experience in central Texas can be included, as they seek transformation through Hindu concepts and the embracing of oneness.
- Mythology oriented gatherings. The Beltane festivals in Virginia and Rhode Island, and Oregon’s FaerieWorlds come to mind. Goddess events too could be listed here, although they – like Beltane gatherings – also fit under the category of Pagan celebration. For example, Idaho’s Goddess Fest is about re-connecting to the Goddess spirit in nature—dark green environmentalism.
- Flow art festivals, which seek to integrate the mind, body and spirit in a Zen-like state, and celebrates the rhythm of the cosmos through the use of hoops, fire spinning, and poi. Kinetic Fire in western Ohio is one event.
- Some concert festivals now take a transformational approach: TomorrowLand exemplifies this with its intentional mythology and consistent message of “global oneness.” People attend for the music and dance, yet soak in a steady stream of communicated oneness, world unity, cosmic flow and connection. Another example is England’s Glastonbury festival, which started as a rock concert venue in the 1970s – and remains such – yet now incorporates transformational elements, including shrines and sacred space. Last year the Dali Lama participated, deepening the spiritual aspect of the festival. Burning Man and Glastonbury partake in official exchanges.
- Finally, a growing number of events billing themselves as “transformational festivals” take place around the world. A few in North America include California’s Symbiosis, Unify Fest in New Mexico, the Unifier Festival in Massachusetts, Quebec’s OpenMind Festival, and the Intention Gathering in British Columbia.
The many expressions of evolutionary culture are noted for their kaleidoscope of experiences, often resulting in emotional catharsis, unfolding visions of inner awakening, and a sense of energy and aliveness. There is an appealing aspect: the breaking of boundaries and limitations, artistic exploration, party and celebration, nonjudgmental approaches, openness to new encounters, interaction and community. A common expression used by returning participants is “welcome home.”
In February 2015, while flying to California to give a presentation on evolutionary culture, I sat beside a young lady in the Minneapolis airport while waiting for a connecting flight. She had a hoop and her mannerism struck me, so I started a conversation.
“Are you a flow artist?” I asked as she made herself comfortable. “Yes!” was her reply, and she was immediately excited I recognized her art form.
“Which transformational festivals have you been to?” I asked.
She named several I was aware of, including Pennsylvania’s EvolveFest, noted for its yoga, healing stations, and Ascension Temple. She was traveling west to participate in more events.
Knowing she was deeply committed, and understanding the variety of festivals she had participated in, my final question before we separated was simple; “What links all of this together? What binds the movement?”
Without hesitating she replied, “It’s all spiritual. It’s all very spiritual.”
Transformational festivals are experiments in oneness, places to express an ongoing social and spiritual shift.
So this is a spiritual event—does that make it Christian?
Spirituality does not automatically imply Christianity. Biblical spirituality involves the individual – you and I – in a restored relationship with the God who is Holy, separate and distinct from all that is temporal. Transformational festivals, a reflection of our current society, reject God’s distinct and separate nature. Spirituality therefore is a horizontal connection; Man to the cosmos – the temporary to the temporal. In this way, spirituality must be experiential and feeling-oriented. Whereas the Biblical way is to trust God no matter how I feel or what I experience, for He stands apart from the world, yet loves us and extends mercy to us.
Is this a small slice of American culture, or is it larger?
It’s large in that it reflects what many of your family, friends, co-workers and neighbors believe already, regardless if they attend a transformational festival or not. This movement is a barometer of our existing society, a mirror revealing the spiritual and social condition of our era.
Consider this: For the past two years I’ve been working on a Google Earth map project for Canada and the United States, pinning where these events are held and what each entail. Presently I have about 280 pins on the map and another 50 or so to add, plus another 50 or more to vet. Most of these festivals and gatherings are 1000 people or less – some, indeed, are much smaller – quite a few are in the 10,000 range, and others are much larger. Michigan’s Electric Forest had 35,000 people last year. Burning Man had over 70,000. Bonnaroo, noted for its musical acts and carnival atmosphere, brings in over 80,000 people to its central Tennessee location. Others are even larger. Last year the attendance at Belgium’s TomorrowLand was 180,000, and in 2014 it was 360,000 over two weekends.
Wow. Who do these events appeal to?
It all depends on the festival. Those with an emphasis on electronic dance music typically bring in the Millennial generation. Burning Man sees people from every demographic category, but it has long been a place where Silicon Valley gathers – Google goes to Burning Man (the first Google Doodle, the changing image on the search engine’s front page, was the Burning Man logo), Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg goes, likewise Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, as do movie stars, politicians, and even the FBI (they admitted to using the festival as a place for “intelligence collection”).
The Oregon Country Fair, which sees 45,000 people visiting annually, appeals to anyone who wants to experience the strange, unusual, and absurd side of life.
Although a lot of events have a high ratio of Millennials, it’s a movement that sees participation from all age groups and walks of life – old hippies and new hippies, techies, students, music lovers of all ages, artists, blue-collar workers, and professionals.
Transformational festivals appeal to those seeking new forms of community, different artistic experiences, music and entertainment, new spiritual encounters, self-growth and radical self-expression, and a place to push limitations and personal boundaries.
What do they hope to accomplish?
The movement as a whole isn’t organized in such a way that it achieves a particular or agreed-upon goal. However, it has been described as a way of modeling a new society, or of what society could or should be like – a place to experiment with our future. If there is an overarching narrative, it is to experience and unleash a sense of oneness.
That said, transformational festivals have profoundly impacted culture, and will increase in that capacity. Burning Man and North Carolina’s MoogFest – a unique music, art and technology festival – are examples of transformational events that have already shaped cultural and social discourse.
It must also be noted that certain subset festivals within evolutionary culture have goals particular to their interests. For example, the Starwood Festival near Athens, Ohio is a seven-day gathering designed to unite and energize the diverse pagan community. Between 1500 to 1800 Wiccans, New Agers, Druids and other neo-pagans interact through workshops, rituals and ceremonies, art forms, and social activities. Starwood, and other similar events, have been instrumental in strengthening the pagan platform in North America.
How did you begin studying these events?
I’ve been researching global ideologies and associated movements since the early 1990s, and fulltime since the fall of 1997. My main area of interest has been studying world unity concepts, including global governance and the subsequent role of interfaithism. To that end, I have attended more than thirty events of related importance, including United Nations forums and World Federalist meetings, the United Religions Initiative Global Summit, transhumanist conferences, and New Age events. In October 2015 I attended the Parliament of World Religions in Salt Lake City.
Understanding that world unity concepts encompass political, spiritual, techno-social, security and economic interests, it was logical to expect a cultural expression of this same desire – especially as global citizenship education had prepped a generation to see themselves in this light.
By the year 2000 I was aware of Burning Man, and had inkling that a larger movement was afloat. This stayed in my back pocket until 2008 when I returned to the topic, albeit at a margin level. In 2011 I began more detailed studies in order to grasp the dynamics of the broader culture, and by 2013 had published my first essay on the topic – which reflected my basic understanding of the movement. A handful of Christian authors had already published on Burning Man, but as far as I know, my essay was the first Christian critique of transformational festivals as a global phenomenon. The next spring I gave my first public presentation on this subject while participating at a conference in Fargo, North Dakota.
However, that summer I realized my previous assessment of the movement was inaccurate. I had grossly underestimated its size, scope, and global footprint.
Is there any danger in attending them?
There can be. Physically there are dangers associated with some of the festivals, and Burning Man is the most noted in this regard – accidents happen, sometimes causing fatalities. And there are documented sexual assaults, thefts, and murders linked to Burning Man and other events. In fact, there’s a relatively famous article on the “9 Ways to Die at Burning Man.” At the 2014 Element 11 gathering in Utah, a young man intentionally ran into the burning central art structure-–a three-story tall piece of artwork ceremoniously set aflame-–and immolated in front of hundreds of spectators. While dangers exist, the festival scene works hard to present a safe environment, but things can and do happen.
From the spiritual point of view there are big concerns. The question has to be asked, why are you attending? What is the reason? Do you understand the worldview? There is openness to pagan experiences, and an animosity towards Christianity can be observed. At the same time I know Christians who interact with that culture, stepping into the arena with the gospel of Jesus Christ, exhibiting genuine expressions of love and service.
What does a “theme of oneness” mean? Is this the oneness that Jesus prayed for in John 17?
The “theme of oneness” being presented is not the same as John 17. Rather, the concept of “oneness” can be described this way: All is divine. In other words, Man, Nature, and God are One – there is no distinction or separation, we are all of the same essence. This, by the way, is the primary theme of paganism; Everything is connected, interdependent, and constituting one reality. Nature is divine. Man is divine. We are all God.
Have you attended transformational festivals?
Yes. Last year was my first time doing social surveys on-site, and it’s important that more is done. The event I attended had for its theme: “Together We Are One.”
I’ve also engaged through virtual worlds. For example, Burning Man has a sanctioned event in Second Life – a virtual reality environment where people participate through avatars. Attending “Burn 2,” as the virtual festival is titled, has been helpful in connecting with Burners and others associated with the movement.
This stuff seems to be big on experiences. Why do you think that is?
A couple of reasons:
1) Because when we remove ourselves from a relationship with Jesus Christ, trusting on Him regardless of what happens, our sense of reality can become grounded in what we feel and experience. Hence, we continually search for those emotional and experiential encounters. Keep in mind; this doesn’t discount emotion or experience for the individual Christian. However, the truth of Jesus Christ and our relationship with Him is not dictated by how we feel or what we experience – these feeling may play a role in our temporary situation, bringing encouragement or challenge, but they do not determine ultimate truth.
2) Festival experiences are attractive and appealing. There is a sense of connection, a “good vibe,” or an overwhelming state of emotion. Music is a huge part of the experience. At the group level there is a visceral and energizing flavor that permeates the festival encounter; that’s what makes it “transformational.”
The Bible reveals that immorality was rampant in pagan rituals. Is that a part of these festivals?
Yes and no.
Some are noted for an openness of sexual expression, and may include theme camps with overt sexual intentions – the Orgy Dome at Burning Man is an example. Another is the “pansexual” Alt Spirit festival in southern Indiana, a smaller gathering dubbing itself as a "Fetish, Kink and Alternative Lifestyle and Spirituality Event." It includes a Venus Temple for sex magic. According to the organizers, "In ancient times, we were the temple priests and priestesses who celebrated the mysteries of Sacred Sexuality. In the modern context, we have expanded to include all consensual expressions of sex and spirit..." TomorrowLand has its famous “Church of Love,” a chapel – complete with a mock steeple – resided over by two scantily clad nuns who hold the keys for those wishing to use its bed.
A few years ago a friend was leading a small team of Christians who were doing apologetics work at a transformational festival, and he had to send one of his group home because the individual couldn’t handle the public nudity. The event I attended last year wasn’t listed as “clothing optional,” but by the second day there was a distinct lack of fabric.
Transformational festivals are places meant for experiences beyond the normal. Nudity and the celebration of sexuality, including unusual interactions, can be a part of that experiential environment.
Not all events, however, encourage sexual adventurism or accommodate nudity. Some work hard to be family-friendly, like the Return to Roots festival in New Jersey or Inshala in southern Alberta. Others are tighter in their focus, wanting participants to concentrate on a specific experience without the distraction of sexual overtures – Hindu/yoga events typically fit this description, as do flow art festivals.
I hear the term “sacred space” a lot nowadays. What does that mean?
A “sacred space” can refer to any location designated as a place for “connection,” contemplation, and emotional release.
Transformational festivals often employ the concept of “sacred space.” Some events, like Colorado’s Apogae – a regional Burning Man festival – erect temple structures for the duration of the gathering. Indeed, a number of regional Burning Man events follow in the footsteps of Nevada’s Burning Man, which sets up an exceptional piece of temple architecture each year. For example, the 2016 BM temple will be 100 feet tall with a 50X50 interior space, and will have 8 altars in its courtyard – on the last day, the Temple will be burned to the ground.
Sacred spaces can also refer to shrines, altar sites, ceremony space, and the event itself becomes a portal for divine realization. Costa Rica’s Envision Festival incorporates sacred shrines, as does the Zen Awakening Festival in Florida. California’s Lucidity Festival has the “Goddess Grove,” a special space to discover the goddess within. Other festivals devoted to goddess celebrations, such as the Festival of the Goddess in Texas, incorporates shrines, a small temple, and ritual space. Montana’s Portal Music and Sacred Arts Festival is all about creating “sacred art” as a way to feel oneness. “Sacred fires,” “sacred drumming circles,” “sacred ceremonies”… the idea of sacred encounters is a prominent theme in transformational culture. The festival itself becomes a “sacred container.”
What role does environmentalism play in these festivals?
The majority, if not all of these events, claim some environmental or green connection. It may be subtle, such as the references to the oneness of all things, or it could be an open declaration of nature’s divine spirit – the Sacred Earth Open-Air Festival in Missouri fits this bill. Pagan gatherings such as Tennessee’s Pagan Unity Festival or Ontario’s PaganFest are entirely built around nature spirituality. Fairy gatherings too focus on this aspect of green worship. The Fairy & Human Relations Congress, a small event in the state of Washington, is all about encountering nature spirits – sharing a sacred space between humans and non-human beings.
For some of the larger concert-based festivals like Glastonbury and Bonnaroo, dedicated green spaces and eco-villages are set up for environmental advocacy. Burning Man and the dozens of spin-off festivals created by the BM experience boast about their “leave no trace” policy.
Christians aren’t involved in this stuff, or are they?
Obviously when it comes to the openly pagan festivals, it would be practically impossible to be a Christian while participating at this level. However, there are a few pagan/earth-spirit festivals that claim multi-faith involvement, including Christian participation.
Christians do attend some of the concert-based events, as the draw is the music and carnival atmosphere. And due to the size of some of these festivals, they may not encounter much in the way of transformational messages or themes. However, in the case of TomorrowLand, participants are fed a stream of oneness messages – implied and blatant – including announcements between DJ’s that “we are all one.”
"Christians" also participate at Burning Man and similar transformational events. A few go to be witnesses for Christ, most attend for other reasons.
And then there’s the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina, an “emergent Christian” event partly inspired by Burning Man. Here, emergent church leaders engage in a “Christian” transformational gathering, complete with workshops on same-sex acceptance, green living, social justice, and inclusiveness.
Finally, when I conducted my social survey last year, a large percentage – almost half – indicated that Christianity was their former religion. Buddhism, Wicca, New Age, Atheism, and Transhumanism were the replacements for their Christian past. In doing the survey, participants talked about their former church youth groups and church life, an indicator that they viewed their prior Christianity as more than just a cultural label.
What is your advice on how to help people who get entangled in this movement?
A few years ago I met a husband and wife whose adult daughter was caught up in the culture. In their case it was a matter of mending broken relationships, seeking and offering forgiveness, and providing love without condoning her behavior. It also meant they had to understand the transformational movement insofar as they could grasp the worldview, the appeal of the culture, and how to begin talking about it. They also had to know what they themselves believed as Christians, and what their daughter now held to. And they prayed, and continue to pray.
I’ve also talked to people who have been directly involved and subsequently distanced themselves from the culture. In one case a frightening experience caused the person to back away and return to Christianity. In another it was a slower process. In both situations the people were faced with decisions about what they ultimately believed.
Any final thoughts you would like to share?
First, this movement is growing and is a reflection of our society. That itself is a wake-up call to Christians.
Second, as large as this cultural movement is, there is relatively little knowledge about it within Christian circles. That needs to change.
Presently I’m working on a book titled Game of Gods: The Temple of Man in the Age of Re-enchantment. In my book, which examines Mankind’s desire for Oneness in contradiction to the Biblical view, there will be a chapter dedicated to transformational festivals and evolutionary culture. Game of Gods is to be released later this year.
More on-the-ground research needs to be done on this movement, including social surveys, on-site documentation, and interviews. That said, if you have been part of the transformational festival scene and are willing to discuss the subject, I’d love to hear from you. Likewise, I’m looking to conduct a more involved research project on evolutionary culture in the near future. Your prayers in this regard would be appreciated.
Finally, my research website – www.forcingchange.org - is presently being revamped. Check the address in the next two months, as the site will be re-opening in advance of my book release. Until then, you can contact me through Twitter or Facebook.