Harvey Cox, Woodstock and the Feast of Fools pt. 1

NOTE: over the next week I will be sharing an overview of what I believe are the insights in The Feast of Fools by Harvey Cox for this generation. Like Woodstock, it, too, is 40 years old. And besides some innocence (better than cynicism in my book) the major ideas in it continue to be important - probably more important than Woodstock itself.

The Woodstock experience of 1969 that is currently making the rounds in popular culture is clearly one part nostalgia mixed with two parts marketing-hype: such is the reality of a world primarily defined by the metaphors of the marketplace. At the same time, however, the Woodstock revival also offers us a unique invitation to playfully reconnect with some great music – and it is this playfulness that warrants our careful attention.

Forty years ago, Harvard theologian, Harvey Cox, published The Feast of Fools as a follow-up to his block-buster, The Secular City. This thin volume Рwhich eventually became the inspiration for the musical Godspell Рhas generally been overlooked and forgotten. In some ways, the hopeful naivet̩ of the text is dated. Woodstock was not the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Rather, within a few months, both the horror of the Manson clan and the ugly chaos of Altamont were unleashed on America and the hopeful promises that Cox pointed toward were discarded and forgotten.

And yet, after working as a pastor in a variety of American churches for the past 30 years, I sense that the heart of The Feast of Fools continues to be relevant even if some of the rhetoric has outlived its usefulness. What Cox describes – and what his spirituality of festivity and fantasy suggest – is a healthy and healing alternative to the cynical status quo. Further, I believe that the new/old spiritual disciplines of holy humor, mystical improvisation, playful prayer and radical acts of hospitality offer us a way to ground the creative impulses of the Woodstock experience so that they are less likely to burn out or implode.

Forty years ago, Cox put it like this:

Though we have no annual Feast of Fools, the life affirmation and playful irreverence once incarnated in that day are bubbling up again in our times… our period may be rediscovering the value of two components of culture both of which were once seen in the Feast of Fools. The first is the feast or festival… the other important cultural component is fantasy and social criticism. In a success and money oriented society, we need a rebirth of patently unproductive festivity and expressive celebration. In an age that has quarantined parody and separated politics from imagination we need more social fantasy… we need a renaissance of the spirit and there are signs that it is coming. (FOF, pp. 4-5)

Forty years later, the need for imagination in politics – to say nothing of the invitation to feast our souls at the banquet of creativity and social equality – is even more pronounced. Two post-modern writers, Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat, speak of our era as one “without metanarratives, a world where people have to make their way without fixed referents and traditional anchor points… a world of rapid change, bewildering instability where knowledge is constantly changing and ‘meaning’ floats.” (Colossians Remixes, pp. 23-23)

As an antidote to this fear and a gentle corrective to our social confusion, Cox reclaims the importance of festivity – especially the biblical significance of the feast. Table fellowship has historically been the Christian alternative to both moral relativism and busyness: more than scripture, liturgy and theological instruction, the radically open table of Jesus provides pilgrims searching for answers with an experience of deep acceptance with the hint of community.

The feast holds all of life’s contradiction in balance by celebrating grace as the heart of God while simultaneously pointing people towards a path of redemptive suffering. It is a clear alternative to the consumerism of this age that embodies the serenity and trust that so often haunts the postmodern soul. As Jesus puts it in Eugene Peterson’s reworking of Matthew 11: "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me… learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”
(The Message, Matthew 11: 28-30)

Here's a song done with my band that takes the call to festivity and the biblical feast seriously: My City of Ruins by Bruce Springsteen. As you know, I find great solace and spiritual wisdom in music and this is one great prayer.


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