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SXSW 2013
Photo by Mark Davis/Getty Images for SXSW
SXSW 2013

Innocents in Austin: ‘Where … is this God of yours?’

Culture | God does show up at South by Southwest 2013, but sometimes in strange ways

AUSTIN, Texas—It should probably be no surprise that the South by Southwest Festival, entering its next-to-last day on Saturday, tries to put thoughts of God out of mind. That’s especially true the deeper you get into the festival, with Friday and Saturday nights resembling bacchanals more than music festivals.

But you may remember a scene from the movie Forrest Gump. Wounded Vietnam War veteran Lt. Dan Taylor, played by Gary Sinise, was mad at the world, and especially God. When his shrimping business got particularly bleak, Lt. Dan mocked the simple-minded Forrest, asking, “Where the hell is this God of yours?”

Forrest said, “It’s funny Lt. Dan said that, ’cause right then, God showed up.”

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There was a lot of God-mocking at SXSW 2013 this week. The promotion of homosexual rights, for example, was a cottage industry. I saw a group of boys in their teens walking down Sixth Street wearing T-shirts with bold letters (and a bold sentiment), saying, “Gay OK.” One young lady stood on a street corner topless, facing the wall of one of the buildings. On her back someone had written, “Austin P.D. Sucks. Arrest Me.” The Austin Police Department was nowhere in sight, but a crowd of mostly young men had gathered with camera phones trained on her back, waiting—I guess—for her to turn around.

Animal rights activists passed out literature encouraging veganism. I thanked one of them for speaking up for the welfare of animals, but asked if his group cared as much for the welfare of humans by protesting abortion and euthanasia? “Our group doesn’t take a position on that,” he answered. I probed further, “But do you have a position personally?” “Yes,” he replied, “but I’m not going to tell you. I’m doing this today.” And he held out a flyer. I took it and walked away.

But just as in Forrest Gump, in the midst of the mocking, God showed up, though sometimes in strange ways.

Street preacher David Stokes from Houston’s Bulldog Ministries preached a “turn or burn” version of the gospel to passers-by on Friday and Saturday, and he was far from ignored. Most of the attention he received was negative, and much of it unprintable on a family-friendly website. But he also was asked serious questions about the character of God (usually beginning with some version of “How could a loving God …?”), homosexuality, abortion, and lots of other issues. I listened for about 15 minutes and was astonished by his patience. He had to yell to be heard above the crowd and the music pouring out of bars on both sides of the street, but his tone was for the most part respectful. When one heckler accused him of being a “hater,” he looked straight at that person and said with great sincerity, “I don’t hate you. I love you. That’s why I don’t want you to go to hell.”

Performer Billy Bragg had a somewhat bullier pulpit. Bragg is a Brit who spent a few years with the alt-country/Americana band Wilco and specializes in leftist/socialist politics. He performed Friday afternoon at the Stages on Sixth and spent a good bit of his set dismissing big corporations and advocating universal healthcare. But toward the end of his set, he said, “When I go into the soup kitchens and the homeless shelters and the food banks, I find people of faith.” Bragg then said that was why, in 2011, on the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible, he participated in a project in which 66 artists—musicians, painters, writers, and others—each picked a book of the Bible and produced a piece based on that book. Bragg chose the Gospel of Luke. The song that Gospel inspired, “Do Unto Others,” brought a rousing ovation from the SXSW crowd. It’s included on Bragg’s new album, produced by Joe Henry (who has produced Over the Rhine among many others) and set for U.S. release this week.

So, yes, just about the time all the God-mocking might lead you to believe that He had abandoned us to our own devices, He showed up in strange ways. These appearances were perhaps not enough to redeem the city, but God promised to spare Sodom if Abraham could find just 10 righteous men. So I choose to take these God-sightings as indicators that all is not lost … yet.

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., is vice president of WORLD News Group and the host of the radio program Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.

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