CHELTENHAM, United Kingdom (Mennonite Mission Network) - More than 20,000 people gathered for the annual Greenbelt Christian Arts Festival August 28-31 at the Cheltenham Race Course in western England.
Mennonite involvement since the festival’s inception in the mid-1970s contributes to a strong Anabaptist flavor with an emphasis on discipleship, social justice and peace.
An invitation to speak, even once, at Greenbelt is a coveted privilege. This year, Vic Thiessen spoke five times in some of the festival’s largest venues, to a total audience of more than 1,700 people.
Thiessen, who serves as director of the London Mennonite Centre with Mennonite Mission Network and Mennonite Church Canada Witness, gave popular talks at the past two Greenbelt festivals. He spoke primarily about film and theology, the subject for which he is best known.
Thiessen was able to mention Mennonites directly in some of his talks because “Silent Light,” a film about a Mennonite community in Mexico, was one of Greenbelt’s five featured films. Brian McLaren, keynote speaker at the festival and an internationally known evangelical writer, also mentioned the importance of learning from Mennonites.
“[Greenbelt] has become a key way for me to subtly introduce our Mennonite insights and distinctives into the wider church,” says Thiessen. “All my talks deal with some aspect of Mennonite theology, whether it is highlighting the call to follow Jesus, or the fundamental importance of social justice, or the prevalence of redemptive violence in our world or the need for Christian community.”
Thiessen’s most well-attended address at Greenbelt 08 was on finding God in science fiction films. From the classic films, “Metropolis” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “Alphaville,” “1984,” “THX-1138” to more recent films like “Children of Men” and this summer’s hit, “WALL-E,” Thiessen showed how sci-fi films prophetically warn us about dystopian futures.
The genre typically depicts a rich minority exploiting the poor majority. Governments, abetted by corporations, are shown to use fear and lies to manipulate people and rationalize the need for unconscionable expenditures on weapons and war.
“Every time I watch one of these films,” Thiessen said in his Greenbelt presentations, “I hear God calling the followers of Jesus to be the prophets of our time.”
Thiessen emphasizes these essential components of the prophetic message:
• challenge the state and the neo-liberal capitalism which puts profit ahead of people;
• question the media;
• contest the arms trade and the very existence of the military;
• rediscover community;
• care for the poor and oppressed;
• examine the dangers inherent in our technological advances;
• expose society’s enslavement to screens and consumerism.
In a country where only a tiny minority still go to church, Greenbelt represents what many Christian leaders believe is the only way forward for Christianity, said Thiessen.
“People in the U.K., including evangelical Christians, are looking for a faith with integrity that addresses the needs of our time in a world suffering under war, poverty and environmental crises. This is the kind of faith they find at Greenbelt and this is the kind of faith that will bring people back into the church,” Thiessen said.
The Thiessen family – Vic and Kathy with their two daughters, Janelle and Katrina – has ministered in London since 2002. Their home congregation is Holyrood Mennonite Church in Edmonton, Alberta.