Non-Christian student attending a deeply Christian music festival?
May 16, 2014 2:08 PM   Subscribe

My friend, a music-performance major in college, has been offered a full-ride scholarship (with room and board) to a four-week Christian performing arts festival in Winona Lake, Indiana. Are they likely to have a good experience?

The festival bills itself as a "Christian performing arts festival" and prayer and Bible study are baked into the schedule. Bible study is apparently mandatory (90 minutes each day), as is attendance at "faculty devotionals" at (mandatory) lunch. Oh, and the non-denominational Christian service on Sunday is mandatory, too. Other goals of the group mention training participants "to be salt and light in the arts world."

My friend is excited about the performance repertoire and published testimonials about the rigor of the performance program. However, they do not identify as Christian, and in fact also identify as part of a group routinely condemned by fundamentalist Christians.

If my friend attends the festival, are the benefits of the performance experience likely to outweigh other negative factors?
posted by QuantumMeruit to Society & Culture (40 answers total)
If my friend attends the festival, are the benefits of the performance experience likely to outweigh other negative factors?

That's impossible for anyone but your friend to answer, and only after the experience.
posted by headnsouth at 2:20 PM on May 16, 2014

My first thought is whether this is actually going to interest your friend that much, when it comes down to brass tacks.

Maybe I'm just reacting to cultural noise or prejudices or whatever, but in my experience music that is branded specifically as Christian Music isn't that good. I used to go to Christian Rock concerts occasionally because there wasn't much else going on artistically in my small bible belt hometown. And I never really enjoyed the music much on its own merits.

I mean, clearly your music-performance major friend knows what types of music interest her. But, assuming she's not extremely familiar with this stuff already, I'd nudge her to take claims to the quality/rigor/aesthetic level of the music with a gigantic rock of salt.

I grew up Anglican in a predominantly Catholic and Evangelical environment and got dragged to plenty of day camps, retreats, bible study services, etc. either because it was something to do or because there was some other reason to be there (akin to your friend and this music thing). Anglicans aren't outright hated by those two groups, but I was definitely attending as an outsider. I never felt oppressed or insulted by anyone in particular, but I wasn't made to feel welcome, either. I also never really felt like sitting through the religious stuff was worth whatever other thing I was really there for.

TL;DR: I don't think it's going to be a problem, but based on my own experiences I don't think it's going to be worthwhile.
posted by Sara C. at 2:22 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

My first thought would be, no, not really, but not being familiar with the particular festival, it's hard to say. Is there anyone there your friend could speak to? Someone on the faculty or in administration might be able to give insight into whether a student who doesn't identify as Christian would feel comfortable there. If they were willing to give him a scholarship without a profession of faith, maybe they're pretty laid-back.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 2:22 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been to similar events. If an attendee isn't religious, they will likely be bored and/or annoyed.
posted by tacodave at 2:23 PM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I was on the fence until "also identify as part of a group routinely condemned by fundamentalist Christians."

If you mean LGBT, then I'd say "Hell no." There is just too much opportunity for drama.

If you mean Jewish or Muslim, then I'd also say "Hell no," unless you just mean ethnically Jewish or Arab, in which case, maybe, if they can handle being asked every damn day why they're not being sufficiently peppy during the two and a half hours of prayer and yay our particular god! each day.

If you mean something else, then it might be useful for her, but it will not be enjoyable.
posted by Etrigan at 2:24 PM on May 16, 2014 [5 favorites]

Well if the religious services and devotionals are mandatory, then they should expect to participate in some fashion. If they are unwilling to do this, then no, don't go. They will have a bad time. That seems obvious.

If they can figure out a way to participate as a non-believer (a fairly useful skill itself) then sure, it could be a significant growth experience. It might also be a good chance to see first hand how the devoutly religious go about things. Many will fill their preconceived notions, but I'd bet a good many would not.
posted by themanwho at 2:24 PM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I sure wouldn't set myself up for a month as the only disagreeing individual (that you know of) in an explicitly ideological gathering and expect to enjoy it.

But as others have said, only your friend can really say for sure.
posted by Nerd of the North at 2:28 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Four weeks? If it was four days I would say grin and bear it, but four weeks is a long time.

Is your friend of the anthropolgical observer sort? Are they going to feel uncomfortable when they're asked in a go-around-the-circle type format what tenants of Christianity inspire them the most? Are they the type of person who can be respectful of other people's beliefs? Are they the type of person who is going to be able to read the Bible for an hour and a half a day without being bored silly?

Another thing-- is this a particularly evangelical group? This is where the line is for me personally. I can go to religious events with other people and not be phased, but the moment when the talk turns to converting other people I get super uncomfortable.

so, in sum: depends on your friend, depends on the festival. Maybe he/she should call the person who gave out the scholarship and chat with them about it.
posted by geegollygosh at 2:29 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

A festival like this is likely to be very intense for an outsider. Social interactions are probably going to be strained once other attendees realize that your friend doesn't share their strong religious beliefs. Best case scenario, your friend doesn't mind not being particularly social and the music aspect of the 4-week program is fantastic and highly satisfying. Worst case scenario probably involves being endlessly proselytized to, finding the overt religiosity to be unpleasant, and the music portion being not-so-terrific.

Friend should keep in mind that the great testimonials are probably from people who are very excited to be in a highly religious environment and who find the big picture, not just the music program, to be exactly what they're looking for.

Four weeks is a long time.
posted by quince at 2:34 PM on May 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

It's possible this is being held at Grace College and Seminary which is probably a pretty place in a pleasant location. However, this is their statement about the college:
"Grace College and Seminary is an evangelical Christian community of higher education which applies biblical values in strengthening character, sharpening competence, and preparing for service."
I would interpret the information you provided about the event and the likelihood of this venue as making for an uncomfortable experience for anyone who is openly not Christian or to anyone who prefers to remain mute on the subject. The agenda and the location both suggest the evangelical nature of this event and your friend would probably be 'witnessed to' constantly in a concerted attempt to bring about salvation or she would be pressed to 'witness' herself, giving her 'testimony' in song and story pretty much non-stop.
In view of the mandatory attendance requirements, I would not go if they paid me.
posted by Anitanola at 2:36 PM on May 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

However, they do not identify as Christian, and in fact also identify as part of a group routinely condemned by fundamentalist Christians.

Did they contact your friend out of the blue? Because otherwise, your friend would have had to apply and I think their web site makes it very clear that the religious aspect is a primary focus. (And, in fact, has optional bible/religious study in addition to the mandatory requirements you listed.)

Is your friend worried about this, or are you (understandably) worried about them, as a friend? If your friend is worried then I agree this sounds like a very unpleasant experience at best and would turn it down. If you're worried for your friend, I sympathize completely but they may just be willing to make a trade-off if they think the artistic side will be worth it.

On preview, tagging on to Anitanola's comment.
posted by Room 641-A at 2:46 PM on May 16, 2014

Response by poster: The music-performance aspects of the festival are directly on point with my friend's interests. And given the repertoire published on the festival's website, absent the other factors they'd be totally all over the opportunity to perform those works.

Sorry I was not more specific in the question. I interpreted the "salt and light" language as very explicit code that the purpose of the festival was to train people to evangelize and testify to their faith.

And yes, the festival is hosted at Grace College.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 2:46 PM on May 16, 2014

I just googled it and agree with Anitanola that it may be being held at Grace College. This is affiliated with church of the Brethren which is actually fairy progressive and nonfundamentalist in my experience (for instance, there's an LGBT council). I can't speak for Grace College itself or the festival or the other attendees the festival may attract.
posted by geegollygosh at 2:46 PM on May 16, 2014

I know of this city/college/program (beautiful lake.) It's not that people will be unwelcoming/judgmental, it's just that it's a program for Christians and its goal is an immersive, integrated spiritual and artistic life. Your friend will be experiencing a truncated version and that will be difficult. That said, I think it's worth a call to the program to actually talk about this, and to see if they can connect your friend with other students in the same situation, or whether allowances can be made.
posted by michaelh at 2:49 PM on May 16, 2014 [7 favorites]

if it were just the instruction and practicing of christian music, it wouldn't be objectionable. christianity has inspired some of the greatest masterpieces of classical music.

90 minutes a day of bible study, plus lunchtime faculty devotionals and mandatory church attendance? oh fuck no. your friend could make more progress in music on his own time. when the other students find out he's not christian, he will come under relentless pressure.
posted by bruce at 2:51 PM on May 16, 2014

I don't think there's really a way to make this not-uncomfortable, because either they're going to have to pretend to be evangelical the whole time, or they are going to be hearing a lot about how it must have been God's plan to bring them there and repeat ad nauseum, because it's a ministry event first and a music event second.

Having pulled up the place, it looks like your friend's looking at at least one almost-certainly-very-religious roommate for the whole time. More than that, honestly, they don't even pay lip service to the idea of people attending who won't be into it, the closest it seems to get is acknowledging that some people might want to do prayerful quiet time at another part of the day. And that Bible study is not a big group thing, it's small groups where participation will be expected. I'm not even sure I'd recommend that, say, a devout Catholic do this, because "non-denominational" in this context means a kind of specific thing to evangelical protestants.

The salt and light thing isn't even code, it's just how people in churches like that talk. I... think they might be a little surprised to find that someone who wasn't a Christian would want to be there, but again, I would consider this extremely likely to be construed as an expression of interest in conversion. They will probably be absolutely lovely about it, I wouldn't assume it would be hostile or dangerous or anything, just... basically a four week long church service with very nice music? Not a four week long music workshop with a bit of church.
posted by Sequence at 2:53 PM on May 16, 2014 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks, all. I am trying to walk the line between providing enough information for useful answers, but avoiding too much personally identifiable information.

The core of the music program is a fairly hard-core orchestral program. Things like the Mahler 1st Symphony are in the repertoire. The faculty includes artists from major symphony orchestras.

My friend does not identify as Catholic, nor are they ethnically Arabic or Jewish, nor do they identify as a Muslim (nor would they be clocked as a member of any of those groups).
posted by QuantumMeruit at 3:18 PM on May 16, 2014

They will probably be absolutely lovely about it, I wouldn't assume it would be hostile or dangerous or anything, just... basically a four week long church service with very nice music? Not a four week long music workshop with a bit of church.

I think that undersells the musical aspect a bit. The faculty look decent and there's definitely instruction time included. But it's super religious.

I agree that this might even be difficult for a Catholic to particpate in (based on the sponsoring organization's statement of beliefs) and my experience in similar situations. And beyond the specific religious conflicts, it may just be hard to not offend/make people uncomfortable/etc. if you don't "get" the culture from previous experience with it.

If it was this program or no program... and your explicitly talked to them about his/her unreligious/minority nature and they were cool with it, then maybe.

But I wonder if they can find another program to participate in (though maybe now it's pretty late in the application times for these things) anything that's just purely musical would seem to be better, because they won't be dividing their time, even if they have to pay tuition.
posted by Jahaza at 3:20 PM on May 16, 2014

I bring up the Catholic bit, not because that's your friend's identity, but because it's my reference point to how closed these things can be towards even the relatively minor difference of Protestant Christian/Catholic Christian. If the difference is larger it will likely be even harder.
posted by Jahaza at 3:22 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's free? They should totally go. They can always leave if it's awful.
posted by hishtafel at 3:25 PM on May 16, 2014 [4 favorites]

Are the artists from major symphony orchestras very well-known Christians? How about the other faculty members? I would be concerned as a participant that any professional contacts I made would either be under false pretenses (i.e. they thought I was a Christian here to use my music as a Christian tool) OR that they were made with an eye to convert me (i.e. "I'm going to be really nice to this person so that they see how awesome Christians are!). However if it's secular faculty, hosted by a Christian university, I'd grin and bear it to get the training and exposure to great artists and teachers.

If your friend can talk with a past participant of this camp who is also not Christian, this might enlighten him/her more than Strangers On The Internet can.
posted by rogerrogerwhatsyourrvectorvicto at 3:54 PM on May 16, 2014

The website says " Bible study, faculty devotions, quiet time, and Sunday worship services. Prayer is an integral part of all rehearsals, classes, and performances. "
I don't think she's going to have to demonstrate speaking in tongues or testify as how how she came to be born again or accepted Christ, etc.. But the other participants are going to be serious about their faith(s) and Scripture as well as music. She may be asked to say a prayer or be expected to participate in Bible study.
If she's going to be faking it for 4 weeks, I'd say that might get old.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:55 PM on May 16, 2014

I would not be so quick to turn down a full ride at a four week hard-core orchestral program with artists from major symphony orchestras. If your friend can be respectful and deferential about the faith of the majority of the people around him, then I think it would be small-minded to turn down what could be valuable playing experience.

However, if your friend is LBGT, I would straight-up ring the camp and say "Look, I'm excited about attending and grateful for the opportunity but I am also gay. Is this going to be a problem?"
posted by DarlingBri at 4:16 PM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think it's kind of disrespectful, actually, for your friend to consider participating in an program described as a setting for people from a "a wide variety of Christian backgrounds [to] unite to glorify God through performing arts and to grow deeply in their faith" when s/he is not a member of that target demographic and has no interest in participating in that stated mission. If the scholarship is funded by the organization itself, that's doubly offensive.

And I say this as a non-Christian, by the way.
posted by drlith at 4:18 PM on May 16, 2014 [8 favorites]

Are many of the pieces to be performed from religious music? It might be meaningful to your friend to see how these pieces fit into the lives of believers, and to see how Christians interact with the music that was written for Christian audiences. Particularly if they are going to be performed in an original setting.
posted by Liesl at 5:13 PM on May 16, 2014

Can your friend ask about participating in an 'observing' way? As in, can she just sit back and maybe not have to talk during a prayer get together, or 'watch' but not actively recite the prayers if they go against her beliefs? Most of the overtly christian types I know would welcome the chance to bring an outsider into the fold, and if your friend can preface their involvement as respectfully (not)participating, the organizers may still be really happy that an outsider is at least willing to give them a shot.
posted by efalk at 5:56 PM on May 16, 2014

I'd go. If it was a free ride to attend a rigorous clinic in my exact field of study? I'm there. This is coming from an LGBT Catholic. I'd just tune out or ignore the mandatory Bible stuff.

However, I'm also the type of person who excels at and loves Anthropological observation. If they're not, it might be a little more difficult.
posted by spinifex23 at 6:07 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

It depends. If your friend has a pretty solid emotional center, they might get something worthwhile out of it. Or it might be too weird. Young enough to be willing to experiment with a unique environment, but mature enough to deal with it?
posted by ovvl at 6:46 PM on May 16, 2014

My parents are Christian musicians (in a very "Liberal" Anglican/Protestant style). I grew up attending various events geared towards networking and skill-building that they participated in. These ranged from conferences aimed at their general cohort, as well as more Fundamentalist events. Some of the latter were held in Indiana, actually, which is something of a center of Contemporary Christian style music.

The people involved in the overall "Christian" music scene have bazillions of reasons for doing so, and as many different ways of practicing their faith. Some in the big-time/big-leagues just give it lip service; they are simply technically precise musicians ("sessions" people) who are happy to have a good gig. More to the point of your question/followups, students at prestigious university music programs routinely do stints as church musicians (organists, choir directors, and so on). They may have sincere spiritual leanings, or may have none. However, churches are some of the only venues available in which to gain experience for a future career, or to regularly play Classical/historical music in public. I am going to posit that many of your friend's fellow participants will be in a similar boat: outside of the group specifically targeted by the program, and willing to put up with the religious components that don't fit their worldview in order to play the music that they love.

If your friend is someone who doesn't actively search out offense, and who can stomach the mandatory participation element of things (I'd rather avoid that, personally, regardless of creed), I don't see why they couldn't draw something valuable from the experience.
posted by credible hulk at 7:08 PM on May 16, 2014 [2 favorites]

Your friend does understand that "evangelical" means they will be evangelizing? As soon as they find out your friend is not a Christian of their stripe, they will evangelize constantly to save your friend's soul. It is their mission as evangelicals. If your friend can say "NO" for four long weeks, sitting through Bible studies and prayer sessions pointed at the unsaved/unbelievers, your friend has more patience than Job.
Your friend will be a challenge and a conquest for the evangelicals looking to put another notch in their belts of the heathens they have "saved."
posted by littlewater at 8:11 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Based on personal experience (with only a week-long event that appeared, superficially, to be only nominally Christian), you cannot expect an honest answer if you ask whether something will be "a problem."
posted by wintersweet at 8:12 PM on May 16, 2014

More to the point of your question/followups, students at prestigious university music programs routinely do stints as church musicians (organists, choir directors, and so on).

This is not a church music program, it's a program to train musicians in the classical music world to be evangelists in that secular environment.
posted by Jahaza at 8:19 PM on May 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

What does the scholarship acceptance letter say?

I live in Focus on the Family country, where even the janitorial staff have to profess their faith to land a job there. Seriously, I just found an open position for a web developer(!) that requires the applicant to be:
a consistent witness for Jesus Christ; maintains a courteous, Christ-like attitude in dealing with people within and outside of Focus; adheres to the Standard of Moral Conduct and Statement of Faith; upholds Focus on the Family's ministry in prayer [AND] pray personally for Focus on the Family’s staff and constituents and may occasionally lead in a public prayer.
For a web developer.

If the scholarship documentation has similar requirements (is that even legal), I wouldn't go.

Alternately, does your friend know anyone in the organization who can give the inside scoop?
posted by mochapickle at 8:42 PM on May 16, 2014

I grew up fundamentalist Christian. I am now a pagan lesbian. I am very strongly opinionated about these things so take what I say with a grain of salt.
It really depends how deep this stuff goes. They could separate men from women during activities like swimming or regulate what modest clothing is. That kind of stuff will usually be clear in a handbook. It could be spending hours upon hours discussing spiritual warfare and the spiritual demons and using music to bring others to save them from eternal torture. They could remove all clocks because all time is God's time and control your every move (I've experienced this one) And this is very very real to the people involved.

However I have noticed that college aged Christians tend to be more liberal when it comes to things like 'drinking and dancing' even if it's against the party line. Most people just want to make friends and enjoy their time there.

If its not too fundamentalist I'd say if your friend is not argumentative (four weeks of repeating your beliefs is a loooooong time to do constantly) and doesn't mind paying lip service at appropriate moments it will be just fine.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:11 AM on May 17, 2014

Bible study isn't just sitting there. It's interactive. If she's willing to cheerfully and respectfully, but not dishonestly from her perspective, read and talk about Bible readings for 90 minutes a day, and whoever granted her the scholarship is cool with her saying things and asking questions that make clear she's a respectful non-believer ... than go for it. Otherwise, probably not.
posted by MattD at 11:55 AM on May 17, 2014

Have him bring a video camera. I can imagine a great "Jesus Camp"-esque documentary coming out of this experience.
posted by hworth at 12:11 PM on May 17, 2014

Reading between the lines-I am assuming your friend identifies as gay.

I'm thinking if I am correct I seriously doubt she'd be the only gay individual there.

If your friend is respectful of the Christian part, and is respectful about the fact she is not a believer (or decides just not to bring it up) I don't see a problem. I looked up the college and the impression I get is with that particular group she will blend on in as a musician and should be fine.

In other words, I don't think you will be dealing with the kind of fundies Alexiasky describes.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:17 PM on May 17, 2014

Oh hell motherfucker no, don't go. I would not want to spend four weeks* (a) doing a bunch of stuff I'm not interested in doing, (b) around a bunch of people who will HATE ME and HARASS ME if they ever figure out I'm gay, pagan, atheist, or whatever "offensive" thing your friend is. Hell, I had to spend three days staying with bigoted Christians and felt like I was always on eggshells because I never knew what might offend them, like mentioning that the twentieth century existed on film. Or that they might figure out I'm not One Of Them because I wanted to go to the bookstore and buy non-Christian books (had to hide 'em), for that matter. No way could I make it a week, much less a month, in that atmosphere.

* is this a place that would even let you leave? Like, can you bring your own car and leave campus if you want? Or is it ah, isolation-y, up in the mountains, everyone takes a bus up there and can't leave sort of thing?
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:02 PM on May 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Look, so much depends on the denomination or type of group....I know that some posters have had abominable experiences with some types of Christians but other types are very laid back, and THAT is what would determine what kind of experience your friend might have.

If there is any doubt, then if it were me I would call and ask.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:27 AM on May 18, 2014

Response by poster: Hey, everyone. My friend decided NOT to go to the festival in Winona Lake. She identifies as LGBT and was, very briefly, fascinated with the possibility of handling it like an anthropologist going out into the wild. She wound up passing on the opportunity, though -- her teacher had offered it to her without fully understanding how much evangelizing was involved.

And a little while ago, she was offered a scholarship to a different music festival that's totally secular, and with an even better faculty roster. All's well!
posted by QuantumMeruit at 1:46 PM on June 16, 2014 [7 favorites]

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