Fans of Leonard Nimoy have Star Trek Conventions. Baseball historians have trading card conventions. White people who don’t like paying taxes have tea parties. And hipsters from Generations X-through-Y have South By Southwest.
As I prepare to leave my thirties, as I continue towards a horizon that is increasingly influenced by the artist-formerly-known-as Joseph Ratzinger and less so by Quentin Tarantino… and as I find myself wondering just how much the Venn Diagrams intersect the worlds of secular society and faith overlap, I decided to try an experiment: I would wear my clerics at South By Southwest film and music festival.
Before arriving in Austin to spend my pastoral year, I had to come up with a list of goals for my time here. Among those on the list: the Austin City Limits music festival (check!), Mexican food (check!), and a University of Texas football tailgate party (check! check! check!). But the other goal that I held for myself—a goal that was a little more consistent with my religious formation—was to more strongly develop my priestly identity. So I figured that there would be few better places to explore what that would mean for me than at one of the largest gatherings of hipster humanity this year.
So I get on the bus to head over to the downtown festivities. Just as I moved over to my seat, I noticed two younger guys talking next to me; out of the corner of my eye I see one of them nod to his buddy in my direction with a look that seemed to ask, “what’s his kind doing around here?” And while my knee-jerk reaction was annoyance—it’s not as if I were handing out pamphlets that asked if you’ve found Jesus—in the very next moment, his friend replied by just shrugging his shoulders and continued the previous conversation. In fact, that initial small nod of the head was the only negative reaction I would receive during the week long festival.
As it turned out, most of the week was greeted with the same spirit of nonchalance that the second person on the bus demonstrated. For example, when I arrived at the movie theater for the Edward Norton premiere, I arrived early so I decided to get something to eat. I asked if they were still serving food and the attendant said they were serving pork in the back, I said that I couldn’t do that because it was Friday. To that, the attendant simply shrugged her shoulders as if she didn’t know what I was talking about and went about her life… which is fine of course, but as someone who grew up in an area where Burger King found it necessary to introduce Fish Sandwiches growing up just to be able to stay in business during Fridays in Lent, I was surprised. But at the Alamo Draft House on South Lamar, nonchalance was the theme of the day.
In fact, if part of this personal experiment was to see how many places the circles of pop-culture and faith overlap, I have to say that there were not many. While walking down the avenue one day amidst the gathering of street guitarists hoping to be noticed, I did hear the occasional “Hey Father!” But for the most part, the vibe at the festival was live and let live. No one was bursting through the crowd to receive a blessing… and yet no one was really throwing eggs at me for the abused children of the world either.
Which made me wonder if we as a society have reached a kind of cultural détente on the question of faith in the public square… which makes sense. Our American culture has many different people with many different perspectives and faith traditions, so we’ve always lived with the tension of people being able to share their faith traditions without imposing their faith traditions. And my sense from this crowd is that the people in the recent past who have fallen on the wrong side of the “imposing” have made others feel that the conversation should not even be allowed to take place, that freedom OF religion should be translated as freedom FROM religion. It’s why I got excited when I read about the movie Taqwacore, the film about the movement of punk Islam… I don’t know if I agree with all of the perspectives promoted in the film, but I really appreciated the willingness to have the conversation.
In the full interest of disclosure, I do have to admit that I did not wear my collar the whole week. When I managed to work my way into the Spin Magazine Party at Stubb’s in order to catch a set by Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings (a phenomenal performance, I recommend their new album “I Learned the Hard Way” immensely), I did in fact wear my “civvies.” While a lot of the week was meant to test boundaries, I didn’t want to take the risk of scandalizing anyone who would ask why a member of the cloth was spending a Friday during Lent at the world’s largest BBQ venue with a stage… let alone attending a show headlined by Hole! (And while I completely stand by my belief that people should not have faith imposed upon them, I do have to say that if anyone needs Jesus it’s Courtney Love.)
That being said, there was one experience that stuck out during my week of alternative dress. While walking along the street to yet another film premiere in full clerical blacks and checking the e-mail on my iPhone, someone with a video camera came up to me.
“I have been taking videos of people this week and you are by far the third most interesting person I have seen at South By Southwest!”
Wow. The THIRD most interesting person at South By?? Inquired who the first two most interesting people he had seen at South By were.
“Well, I saw Quentin Tarantino yesterday… and then earlier today I saw the guy who directed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind!”
Seriously, I am the most interesting person in Austin next to two Academy Award winning screenwriters?? For doing nothing more than checking my iPhone while wearing clerics on a public street?? Well… I have to say that was a tad unexpected… I felt so good that I almost marched into a McDonald’s at that very moment and demanded a Royale with Cheese! If only the first guy I encountered on the bus KNEW that I was the third most interesting person at South By Southwest, maybe then he would not have been so dismissive.
And maybe then, we would have been able to have a conversation about our perspectives on faith.
This post concludes BustedHalo’s coverage of the 2010 South By Southwest festival.