Woodstock Was a Secular Worship Service

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Fifty years ago this month, the Woodstock Music Festival took place over three days in Bethel, New York. Held on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm, August 15 to 18, the event drew more than 400,000 young people to an “Aquarian Exposition” that celebrated peace and music. The event has become synonymous with hippie iconography and was the pinnacle of the 1960s counterculture. 

Woodstock is one of those generation-defining events that can never be replicated again (though attempts have been made). Half a century later, its legacy remains profound. A new documentary on the festival, Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation, will air August 6 on PBS. It’s a compelling film that—especially when paired with Michael Wadleigh’s definitive 1970 documentary—immerses us in the event and helps us grasp its meaning.

As I watched the new PBS film and revisited the 1970 documentary, it struck me that Woodstock was a fundamentally religious event: a worship service for a secular age; a liturgy of liberation where the object of devotion was not God, but freedom. The event signaled the dawn of a new spiritual ethos that would extend far beyond the world of hippies: a rejection of authority in almost every sense except for the authority of the expressive self. 

Before Woodstock

Among the ways Woodstock marks a key moment in Western cultural history is that it helped solidify the move of transcendence and religious awe from the church and institutional religion, into the realm of popular culture. After Woodstock, the outdoor music festival became a key liturgy of secular religion: sacred spaces of communion with nature and fellow man, where music and drugs and alcohol contribute to feelings of physical elevation, emotional escape, and spiritual transformation.

Woodstock might be seen as a sort of a secular descendant of the old religious revivals, “holy fairs,” and camp meetings that had roots in Scottish Presbyterianism and played a key role in the Second Great Awakening. More immediate precedents included the 1950s debuts of the Newport Jazz Festival and the Newport Folk Festival, and especially the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival—which launched the “Summer of Love.” But it was Woodstock that enshrined the festal concert gathering as a spiritual fixture in the liturgies of our secular age.

Woodstock’s Liturgy

Consider the many ways Woodstock borrowed from and re-envisioned religious forms. The pilgrimage aspect was an important part of the Woodstock experience. People caravanned from across the country for the festival, to a place called Bethel (a Hebrew word that means “House of God”). Once the program kicked off, attendees took part in what was basically a three-day church service devoted not to vertical worship but to inward transcendence and horizontal solidarity. There was even a Eucharist of sorts, but with weed and acid instead of bread and wine.

The festival included an opening invocation from guru Swami Satchidananda, who “prayed” that through the “sacred art of music” we would “find peace that will pervade all over the globe”a peace that we “find within ourselves first.”

Richie Havens kicked off the musical performances. His “Freedom—an improvised, made-up-on-the-spot anthem that riffed on the spiritual “Motherless Child”—was Woodstock’s call to worship. The song became an anthem not only for the festival but also for the era. It declared independence from all authorities, conventions, rigid structures, and stifling traditions. It celebrated the primary religious value of the post-Christian era: freedom. Freedom to be whomever; to sleep with whomever; to do whatever feels real and authentic.

Richie Havens’s ‘Freedom’ was Woodstock’s call to worship. It declared independence from all authorities, conventions, rigid structures, and stifling traditions. It celebrated the primary religious value of the post-Christian era: freedom.

The “worship service” continued on that first night with folk hero Arlo Guthrie, whose drug-addled set included “Mary Don’t You Weep,” “The Story of Moses,” and “Amazing Grace.” Guthrie was followed by Joan Baez, who concluded the night after 1 a.m. with a legendary performance. Bathed in the blue spotlight and standing before a massive crowd whose campfires and lighters looked like a sparkling galaxy, Baez—six months pregnant at the time—was a serene, motherly, almost Marian presence. She opened her set with Gospel crossover song “Oh Happy Day!” and ended it with an a capella performance of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Her captivating performance of “Joe Hill” (an “organizing song”) underscores how justice and political action naturally become primary sources of transcendence in the secular religion.

Perhaps nothing epitomized this shift more than Jimi Hendrix’s iconic rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that concluded Woodstock and offered a sort of benediction to the festival. A dissonant, subversive, raging explosion of protest, Hendrix’s display was a forerunner of Colin Kaepernick and a visceral example of how passions that used to be channeled in vertical worship are now redeployed as horizontal activism. Without transcendence, immanence becomes ultimate. Politics, or the politicizing of personal autonomy, becomes the new religion.

‘We Must Be in Heaven, Man!’

One of the great paradoxes of Woodstock—and indeed, of the age we inhabit—is that even as it celebrates expressive individualism and unrestrained autonomy, it is fundamentally a communal experience. The 400,000 people who endured mud, rain, unsanitary conditions, and lack of food for three days were happy to do it because they were together. Outcasts or “freaks” in other contexts, Woodstock attendees were among their own at the festival. They were family.

Woodstock attendee Laureen Starobin put it this way in the PBS documentary: “It was indescribable. The feeling that came over me of warmth and Oh my God, there are this many people in the world that think like I think? It was like meeting your brothers and sisters.”

Indeed, the communal spirit of the festival—perhaps best captured in Joe Cocker’s iconic performance of The Beatles’s “With a Little Help From My Friends”—speaks to the importance of solidarity and horizontal transcendence in a world stripped of vertical worship. Having rejected all hierarchies and authorities, what remains is an egalitarian vision of kinship and fraternity—or at least a utopian hope of it. 

Having rejected all hierarchies and authorities, what remains is an egalitarian vision of kinship and fraternity—or at least a utopian hope of it.

And it is a utopia. As much as Woodstock may have captured the hippie vision in its purest form, it was also a rather fleeting thing, arguably more meaningful as a novelty than as a legitimate, sustainable idea. Just four months later an attempt to replicate Woodstock on the West Coast in the Altamont Festival failed miserably, ending in violence and death. If Woodstock was the high-water mark of the 1960s counterculture, Altamont marked the beginning of its end. It seems the combination of “no authority but yourself!” hyper-individualism and utopian communitarianism doesn’t really work.

Still, for those brief moments, and in the memory of some looking back on it, Woodstock presented an almost eschatological picture of “what could be.” It was heaven on earth for many who attended, complete with “miracles” of human solidarity. When lack of food presented a potentially epic crisis as the festival went on, Bethel residents and a commune called the Hog Farm stepped up to provide free food to hordes of hungry hippies. “It was like the loaves and the fishes,” one attendee remembers. “We must be in heaven, man!” Hog Farm leader Wavy Gravy shouted from the stage.

“It was a functioning city out in the middle of nowhere,” one attendee recalls. “This was ours. This was the new city. This was the alternative city.”

Lessons and Legacy

Woodstock lives on, both in its legacy for the world of music festivals but also as a microcosm of the 1960s cultural revolution that still shapes our world today.

The reverberating echo of Richie Havens’s “Freedom!” is still our culture’s rallying cry. The impulse to “look within” for transcendence remains pervasiveif not in acid trips and gurus, then in mindfulness apps and “wash your face!” self-help

Meanwhile, progressivism is still trying to figure out how to reconcile the dual values of unrestrained personal autonomy and “help each other” communal responsibility, as well as how to speak with moral authority on pet causes (LGBT rights, global warming, abortion rights) despite having built itself on the (inherently unstable) foundation of anti-authoritarianism. 

And just as the masses at Woodstock longed for an “alternative city” where they could be known and understood, singing praises (of sorts) with one voice, so do the masses today. The lost souls who flocked to Woodstock were looking for meaning, just as their 21st-century counterparts are when they crowd into stadiums, theaters, concert halls, national parks, or wherever they go to “worship.” 

These pilgrims are looking for something more. Revival. Purpose. Transcendence. Something of substance. What can Christians do to present the local church as a place where spiritual wanderers might find these things? Because even as the Western world became more secular, the religious impulse never went away. The human need to worship never fades, as Woodstock’s “worship service” so vividly shows. 

But worship satisfies only when its object is utterly and eternally worthy. That’s why, when all the secular liturgies of this age fail to satisfy, the church of Jesus Christ will still be there—singing to the same God she always has, with words and rituals that have outlasted countless cultural trends and countercultural zeitgeists. Will we be ready to welcome these pilgrims?  

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