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Sacred Space in Saugerties

It is, if you stop and think of it, quite remarkable that a rock concert should capture as such attention as the recent Woodstock event. But that is because the original Woodstock had assumed proportions far larger than those of a mere rock concert. And not only in the fond memories of the aging Baby Boomers. I'd say about twenty minutes into the original concert it had become apparent that Woodstock was but the focus for larger issues, larger sentiments, larger realities.

Woodstock, I think, would not have cast anything like the same mythic shadow over a generation had the concert been held in, say, the Astrodome or Madison Square Garden. Of course, the reason it wasn't is that no such space could hold all the people. But then

again they didn't expect but a fraction of the people who showed up, did they? What made the difference was the fact of retreating into the wilderness. I guess it would qualify as a wilderness, given the lack of amenities on Yasgur's Farm. Back home, Rock music and its counterculture could serve as little more than a Walter Mitty fantasy. It was escapism, a daydream. You might get aboard the Crystal Ship for a Journey to the Center of the Mind. But you still had to face your parents, your teachers, your boss. Pretty much the kind of inert scene you can see in the movie Dazed and Confused.

But suddenly there was a place you could actually get up and go to, a place called Woodstock Nation. It was like a giant Hippie commune. What it lacked in time, lasting only a weekend, it made up in magnitude. And what happened there was what always happens in spiritual retreats and exoduses into the wilderness: the ideals one gave lip-service to in daily life, the ideals one wished one had the opportunity to live out, suddenly became possible because there was suddenly a world in which they fit, a game for which they provided the rules. All the Hippie slogans about freedom, peace, love, sharing, and nature assumed a tangible presence, conjured by a group of pilgrims in the wilderness, creating a temporary bubble of a world.

But the disappointing thing about such mountaintop experiences, whether church retreats, T-groups, or Iron John weekends, is that they come to an end. One must descend the peak and go back to the valley below. And the ideals don't work any more. It takes two to do your Tango, and you can't find a partner. The challenge is to find some way to translate those ideals, seen in full shining force on the mountaintop (or at Yasgur's Farm), into some meaningful form down in the grey dimness of the mundane world. Debates rage about the legacy of Woodstock and the generation it epitomized. Do we owe Woodstock AIDS and Crack? Social and moral irresponsibility? Or do we owe to it a keener scrutiny of government and big business, a greater emphasis on peace and sharing, a tendency to humanize social policy, a wider tolerance and pluralism? Probably some of all of the above. And don't get me wrong. On that weekend in 1969 I was home drawing a comic book, reading H.P. Lovecraft, and going to church (you see I haven't changed a bit!). I'm no nostalgic Flower Child trying to romanticize things, but it's obvious the idealism of Woodstock was not far removed from radical Christianity. As a teenaged evangelist, I used to "witness" to these "hippies" and heard them often say that if Jesus were to come back right there and then, it would be the hippies who would listen to him, not the church-goers. And I have no doubt this is correct. The rest of us are too at home in the world, too rooted, with too many vested interests to listen to someone who tells us to turn the other cheek and give away our possessions.

And they weren't kidding. Remember the Jesus Movement? It was no accident that only a year or so after Woodstock we witnessed the birth of a movement of Hippies for Christ, Jesus communes and Rock bands, long-haired and grooving on the Gospel. I guess they did accept him! Of course, many went on other religious trips too, like one of the Chicago Seven (I forget which) becoming a devotee of Guru Maharaj Ji and the Beatles of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Why did this happen? Some sociologists say it was a matter of the addictive personality: some Jesus freaks used to sing "Jesus made me higher than I've ever been before." They stopped using heroin but merely switched to the opiate of the people. And their original

radicalism got lost somewhere in the process. They stopped being concerned with international peace in favor of "real peace with Jesus." Free love turned into loving Jesus. The Dionysian Hippie revel somehow transubstantiated into an Apollonian regimen that

used the old Woodstock slogans in a secret Orwellian form. And much of this movement has fed right back into mainstream fundamentalism. In seminary in the latter half of the 1970s I knew many who had been converted in the Jesus Movement, but now they were straight and voted, as likely as not, Republican.

How did this happen? Their Dionysian ecstasy transmuted into Pentecostal ecstasy, and their morality tightened up. That's no big deal, just what Freud told us would happen: sublimation of sex into piety. But where did the anti-establishment stance go? The exªhippie Jesus Movement divided. Many saw their political radicalism as just another expression of the same youthful irresponsibility that had manifested itself through drugs and free sex. So they grew up and joined the establishemnt. Biblicism had got them used to accepting authoritarianism anyway, so they were primed for it. They had an assured welcome from fellow fundamentalists in the churches they then joined. These were the seminarians I knew. Others became more radical still, classical sectarian groups, "cults," we like to call them. These would include Moses David (AKA Dave Berg) and the

Children of God/Family of Love and the Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation. If you want to see a grotesque spectacle of aging hippies, take a look at these groups.

But back to Woodstock Nation. What had dawned there in that mountaintop experience, that wilderness retreat, was a religious experience in its own right. It was the establishment of a sacred cosmos. Yasgur's Farm became Sacred Space, the place where an epiphany of the sacred occurred. And this is why we witnessed so much controversy over the recent Woodstock 94. Why was there all the anger and fear that it was "not Woodstock, but an incredible simulation"? That it was being commercialized, bastardized, prostituted? Because the original Woodstockers feared seeing the Temple profaned with moneychangers.

Why was there strife over which was the real Woodstock? You know, there was the big one with mostly new bands in Saugerties, but not on the original site (this one got all the press), and then there was the Woodstock reunion over at the original Yasgur's Farm. A lot of the original Woodstock acts appeared at this one. The whole thing reminds me of the side-by-side co-existence (literally right across the street) of the headquarters of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the tiny Mormon Church, Temple Lot. It is the latter who claim to be perched on the exact sacred spot where Christ will touch down at the second coming, so designated by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Why the fight? It's Sacred Space. Like the Holy Land, over which people fight for exactly the same reason.

And the issue of whether to have a simple reunion of the original Woodstock, as at Yasgur's Farm, versus a new "Woodstock 94" this is akin to the debates over Modernism in the churches. Should we update the liturgy? Use a new Bible? Ordain women? Or stick to the Old Time religion? It was good for Country Joe and the Fish, and it's good enough for me.

But in either case, when Woodstock reconvened, it was a case of the cyclical recurrence of Sacred Time, the sacred time of origins,

which renews the world (or at least the worshipping community) when it reappears, casting its brilliance over the dullness of the Profane, i.e. mundane, world. It is like Easter, Passover, Ramadan. The sacred past has come present again, world without end. Is Christ sacrificed again in the Catholic Mass? Of course not, but it is a real sacrifice, Catholics insist, because it is the representation of the one single, once-for-all sacrifice which paradoxically returns again and again! And so with Woodstock.

Do you think this is a trivializing analogy? I am taking that risk, but it is certainly evident that many Rock fans take their music as a genuine anthem of ultimate concern. Tillich might wonder whether the gypsy-like Deadheads who crisscross the country attending every single Grateful Dead concert have perhaps taken up an idol, an inadequate symbol of faith. But then he might take a closer listen to some Rock lyrics. Carol and I wrote a book on the philosophical implications of the music of the Canadian Rock trio Rush. Sometimes there's quite a lot there, and you'd be surprised at the difference Rock music can make in inspiring the lives of young people. This is why Carol has spoken to the folks at Montclair High School about leading groups for detention kids where they would discuss the lyrics of their favorite Rock groups as a vehicle for examining issues of concern to them in the language they understand best.

Even the miserable and grotesque Elvis imitators are in a tasteless way functioning like a priest at the Mass, becoming sacramental vicars of a power that reaches its devotees through a musical cult of personality. They called Elvis an idol in his lifetime. He is even more of one now, literally. There is even a Church of Elvis. And look at the candle-lit pilgrimages taken to Graceland. It's only the T-shirts that tip you off it's not Lourdes. Tillich was right again: virtually anything can become a symbol of the Holy for a culture (or subculture, or counterculture). And that's why the flap over Woodstock.

Robert M. Price

 

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