Atlanta Fest 2009 was immensely enjoyable—camping out with five very good friends at Stone Mountain and hearing numerous concerts was a blast. In addition to being able to catch Skillet (one of the best shows in music today) on the main stage, it was great to discover some outstanding lesser-known acts on the second stage (despite the absolutely abysmal sound quality the first two days on that stage—I think I could have done better on the sound than the guy running it; where did they find that guy? on the street?).
After Edmund lived up to their top billing on the second stage, putting together a quality set and showing a lot of versatility; I’m really sold on them as an up-and-coming band, though their somewhat overproduced CD lacks some of the energy they display live. The lesser-known group Unspoken might have been (aside from Skillet’s show) the highlight of the festival for me—I’ve been jamming to their EP for two days now. Their unique island and latin-driven easy-listening rock was (and is) a pleasure both in person and recorded. Reilly (an outstanding husband-wife rock violin tandem with a band behind them), and Hearts of Saints put on good shows as well, though I missed the Reilly performance and have had to rely on listening to their albums to confirm my friends’ reports of how good their live performance was. Family Force 5 was predictably entertaining on the main stage, and Casting Crowns put a nice end to the festival as the final act.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for KJ-52, whose set was (in my opinion) abysmal. An hour of cribbing various beats from the 80s and early 90s and shouting to the audience to wave their hands or perform a particularly dated dance move was not what I had in mind when I attended a main-stage rap/hip-hop performance (though his selection of beats admittedly displayed good taste). If I had wanted to see/hear that, I could have gone to any number of clubs that would play said 80s beats on any given night. The whole performance felt like a completely unoriginal waste of stage time. After seeing an outstanding live rap performance by The Ambassador here in Durham a couple months ago, KJ-52’s act seemed especially hollow and stale.
As mentioned above, the sound engineering on the second stage was inexcusably bad the first two days (that is, until a few of the bands from the third day brought their own sound guys to fix it); several bands were clearly better than what was coming from the stage. Fireflight (and their high-pitched female vocalist, Dawn Richardson) was absolutely killed by the poor sound—the EQ simply made her voice sound more shrill and reduced the range of sound available. Hopefully in future years Atlanta Fest won’t hire a sound guy off the street to manage the second stage.
I was also disappointed (though not surprised) by the constant repetition of a shallow “gospel” message to a largely Christian audience. The message could be summarized as follows: We are all terrible, awful, lowly, and never will be anything living, breathing, walking train wrecks. Fortunately for us, Jesus died on the cross so our sins can be forgiven. No matter what, as long as we believe and confess this, we are forgiven and ultimately go to heaven, and it’s our job to spread that message to everyone we know.
By the third day of hearing this impoverished message, I was pretty rankled at the lack of the victorious message of the New Testament, which spends a relatively small amount of time on God’s forgiveness of sins through Christ’s sacrifice. In fact, one of the primary and unified messages of the New Testament epistles (most notably Hebrews and Romans) is that the Law provided ample forgiveness/atonement for sin through sacrifice. The difference between the New Covenant and the Old was not that one presented forgiveness while the other did not, it was that the New Covenant (through the indwelling Holy Spirit) provides the will and capacity to actually be righteous, to live up to God’s expectations in the present, while the Old Covenant was limited to external reminders of God’s expectations and a purity/sacrificial system that provided a constant reminder of the presence of sin.
The presentation of the gospel as “we will always be flawed and lowly but we can be forgiven” is, according to Paul and Hebrews, in no way superior to what the Old Covenant provided—that is, it is not the “good news” that the early apostles were proclaiming. It was especially disheartening to hear this message repeatedly proclaimed to a group that was nearly entirely composed of people who would self-identify as Christians. Is that really what it means to live as a Christian? To live in recognition of one’s fallenness and need for forgiveness is really the end-point of Christianity?!? Based on what text?
What is especially sad about the consistent proclamation of this message in Evangelical circles is what it reinforces in the minds of Christians constantly exposed to it. Just off the top of my head:
1) It’s okay to remain in sin; in fact, it’s unavoidable. We’ll always continue to sin, but the difference between Christians and the world is that Christians don’t feel good about it and Jesus has forgiven their sins.
2) There is no push to live to a higher ethic, a life of greater service to one’s fellow human beings. After all, the key is to get others to recognize how much they need forgiveness, not to serve them and seek their well being. This effectively produces a group of annoying self-centered evangelizers who are only different from their non-Christian peers in that they’re especially irritating in their proselytizing.
3) Those who actually have the Spirit working in them, producing the first sprouts of new life, will, upon recognizing this new life, be encouraged to feel even more down on themselves—after all, they should always feel like sinners, and if they feel as though they’re free and no longer sinners, they must be falling prey to pride and even more in danger than before. And those who persist in their confidence and authority as transformed and righteous representatives of Christ? They are rejected because they clearly think “more highly of themselves than they ought.”
There is no emphasis upon, no exhortation towards, the transformed life, the life that is no longer a train wreck. Let’s face it: if we’re not preaching a good news of transformation and righteous living and victory over sin, we’re not preaching the same gospel as that preached in the New Testament. If we’re simply offering forgiveness, we would actually be better off returning to the Law, complete with the full sacrificial system and purity codes. Yes, forgiveness is part of the good news, but it’s a secondary by-product of the victory of the Spirit by participation in the cross of Jesus through the Spirit, not the prime message. To preach forgiveness as the primary message to a group of Christians is simply insufficient—as long as it’s the prime message, it can do nothing but stunt growth or even quench the work of the Spirit if the Christian never moves past the recognition of fallenness and reception of forgiveness to the new life promised through the Spirit.
So, Atlanta Fest was a blast—I’d go again in a heartbeat, and hope to attend again. But it was also a reminder of the shallowness of Evangelical theology and of the bondage that so many Christians are told reflects the “normal Christian life.” Here’s hoping for more of a push towards the transformative message reflected in the NT and away from the constant defeat reflected in the popular Evangelical gospel proclamation.