Christians Say the Darnedest Things: Woodstock was a Secular Worship Service

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. 

….

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.

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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 pervasive—if 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.

— Brett McCracken, The Gospel Coalition, Woodstock was a Secular Worship Service, August 3, 2019

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13 Comments

  1. Brunetto Latini

    Is he old enough to opine on Woodstock? I’m not, and surely I’m from his parents’ generation.

    Reply
    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      No, he is not. I was 12. He’s an Evangelical, so he thinks he’s an authority on virtually everything.

      Reply
  2. Ami

    Dude. Woodstock was a concert. Attendance was a lot bigger than expected, but that’s really what it was. Why the compulsion to assign a larger meaning to a simple thing?

    Same bullshit, different day.
    Although he did spell things correctly and used proper grammar.

    Although referring to a/the church as ‘she’ always rubs me the wrong way. Stupid on every level. Does nothing to improve the credibility of the writer.

    Reply
    1. thatotherjean

      It was a very large concert. It rained a lot; people drank a lot and got stoned. There was a lot of great music, over several days. Only two people died, out of nearly 400,00–one from an accident, and one from a drug overdose.

      Spiritual wanderers seeking transcendence? This sounds more like a graduate student straining to find one more untested angle on Woodstock, in hopes of coming up with a a PhD thesis his adviser will accept. Like the over-analysis of Shakespeare’s plays, it makes you wonder how many of the participants would recognize the event after the author got through with it.

      Reply
  3. Brunetto Latini

    I think he should try mindfulness before dismissing it. Maybe when he’s 40 or older and life starts to take its toll, he’ll discover how helpful it is. There’s NOTHING in Biblical Christianity that can even approach it for dealing with stress. That’s what I found, anyway.

    I was 5 in 1969.

    Reply
  4. Brunetto Latini

    I’m thinking Trump rallies should be critiqued like this. I’m expecting any day that Trump devotees will kneel at one of those events whenever they hear “the cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music”.

    Reply
  5. Karen the rock whisperer

    “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. ”

    Authoritarianism is indeed a more stable foundation on which to build a society. Everyone knows their place, and life requires a lot less thinking. Also, most people are unhappy with their places. Authoritarianism is the antithesis of liberty.

    Without such a stable foundation for our society, We The People are called on to do a continual balancing act as citizens if we want to make our country a better place for everyone. This is the price of liberty.

    Reply
  6. ObstacleChick

    No, dude, it was a music festival.

    It’s funny how evangelicals need to frame everything in their own terms, viewing a music festival as a worship service. It wasn’t a worship service, it was a bunch of people hanging out to hear some pretty awesome music.

    Reply
  7. Skyler

    If I had to choose between which “worship”service” I would definitely choose the one in 69.
    That looks like more fun. I was only 3 at the time. But grew up to love the music as many of us have. 🎶🎵🎶

    Reply
    1. Carolk

      I definitely would choose Woodstock as well. I remember learning about it at the time it was happening and thinking “Why wasn’t I there?” Well, the fact that I was a a 14 year old girl in South Carolina may have had a lot to do with it. ( Now if I’d been Sally Draper on Mad Men, I totally would have been there.) I bought myself the CDs a few weeks ago and have been listening to it in my MINI. I played the “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag”when I was driving by Bob Jones U the other day and my windows were down. I just wish I’d timed so it would have been the Fish Cheer. “Give me an F!”

      Reply
  8. oldbroad1

    Wahaha! Suckbutt – the forerunner to the modern trombone. When i pointed this out to my then middle school trombone playing son, it made the rounds in the band. That poor band director-teacher…..

    Reply
  9. Skyler

    That’s cool Carolk. I used to live in eastern Pa. and in the late ninties (while at a nearby music festival in up state NY) we rode over to see the original site of Max Yasgers farm. There is a plack there commemorating Woodstock. Pretty cool.

    Reply
  10. Dale

    …or they went to a big music festival to listen to the top acts of the time in one place.

    Reply

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