The following is the first of a two-part installment.
An annual event held in connection with the Labor Day weekend in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada has become a pop culture phenomenon. Burning Man Festival, which began very modestly in northern California’s Bay Area with a handful of individuals, has now become an arts festival and experiment in intentional community for tens of thousands of people from around the United States and the world.
In this essay I will briefly summarize the origins and history of Burning Man, consider the meaning of the festival for participants and its function in late modern America, and will then suggest that this festival has something significant to say back to the Christian church in the West.
Beginnings of a Festival and Community
Those familiar with the large crowds who attend Burning Man each year, and the many more who participate in its community online or through associated local regional events, might be surprised to learn of the humble beginnings of the festival. In 1986 Larry Harvey and Jerry James ignited a small wooden effigy on Baker Beach in San Francisco, California. This spontaneous event was not only enjoyed by Harvey and James, but also by a handful of fellow beach goers.
This led to ongoing annual repetitions of the burn, and by 1988 the burning figure became known as the “Burning Man.” Through discussion of the event in a newsletter by the San Francisco Cacophony Society, the crowds continued to grow which eventually raised the concern of Bay Area law enforcement, necessitating a change in location for the event which moved to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert where it is held annually in connection with the Labor Day weekend.
In its early formats Burning Man evolved beyond expressions of individualism, anarchism, and hedonism. By the early 1990s the Bay Area arts community had an increasing presence in the festival. Today art is a significant component of the gathering expressed in a variety of forms, many of which are interactive, from wood and metal sculptures, to paintings, photography, and various building structures, to a limited number of designer cars under the supervision of the event’s Department of Mutant Vehicles, and the adornment of the human body through elaborate costuming and painting. The festival serves as a forum for creativity and artistic expression and the Black Rock Arts Foundation was created as a means of furthering and facilitating the artistic element.
By the mid-1990s the crowds at Burning Man had swelled to 4,000 and the location of the gathering came to be known as Black Rock City. Over the years the size of the Burning Man effigy at the center of the festival would grow, eventually reaching an average height of forty feet, and the size of the crowds grew as well to a reported 69,493 in the Black Rock City Census: 2013-2017 Summary Report.
Beyond the origins and history of Burning Man it is also important to understand the values of those who identify with this community. Burning Man was created as a participatory community, which embodies certain ideals. These include radical self-reliance in a hostile desert environment for which a temporary city is created, fostering a gift giving economy in opposition to consumerism, and leaving no trace as participants restore the desert environment to its original condition after the week’s events and festivities.
Another ideal is the facilitation of intentional community, not only during the week-long festival each year, but also as it is maintained throughout the year through various local regional burns and through the Internet by the Burning Man website’s ePLAYA discussion board, “Burner” blogs and community-related websites.
The Meaning of Burning Man
Before moving to a consideration of what Burning Man might “say” to the church it is necessary to understand its meanings for its participants, as well as the way in which it might function as a social entity in late modern culture. The facilitators and participants in Burning Man resist any kind of fixed meaning for the festival.
As one researcher has described it, participants wish “to keep the event free from the prison of interpretation, explanation, and the insidious net of Meaning.” With this caveat in mind, it is still possible nevertheless to discern a general meaning of the festival in spite of the many differing experiences, subjective frames of reference, and interpretations for those who participate in the event.
The Burning Man website includes a mission statement as well as an article titled “What is Burning Man?”. When these two documents are considered in tandem it is clear that the organizers of the festival intend the annual event as a form of culture (or counterculture) that serves as a means of facilitating an ongoing community.
Furthermore, this community is understood as a creative one wherein participants experiment in fashioning different worlds for themselves, usually understood to be in opposition to many elements of the world outside of the festival (the “default world” as they call it), and the festival community is viewed as a preference to experiences outside of it.
The event has also become the focus of academic study over the last few years. Most academic commentators have used the interpretive framework of the late Victor Turner, who worked with an African tribe and who observed their rites of passage for the youth in transitioning into adult life and responsibilities. His most important works include The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure as well as Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society.
For Turner, the “ritual process” entailed a time of separation from the community, a “liminal” phase between their earlier involvement and re-entry, and a return to the tribe with a new status and feelings of cohesion with the group, which Turner called “communitas.” Turner’s paradigm has been applied to Burning Man Festival wherein participants leave their participation in their regular lives, enter the liminal space and time of ritual during the festival in the desert, and a return to their normal lives at the completion of the festival.
In this application “communitas” is achieved through the liminal process and experience of the festival with fellow participants rather than with the rest of society that has not shared the festival experience.
Turner’s paradigm provides a helpful framework for understanding Burning Man. Since Burning Man it has become an object of scholarly focus, however, the Turnerian interpretation has become something of an academic “orthodoxy”. Other interpretations are possible as well. I myself have suggested previously that the festival and community can be understood as a life-enhancing social structure that functions for many participants as a means of personal and spiritual exploration and temporary autonomy and creativity.
Burning Man and Ecclesiological Reflexivity
I now turn my attention to consideration of Burning Man as a reflection point. I propose that since Burning Man functions as a life-affirming social institution that it has done so in part in rejection of aspects of late modernity, including perceived deficiencies in traditional religious institutions. Thus it entails several lessons that might be learned through appropriate reflection by those in traditional religious institutions who want to learn why their institutions are rejected in favor of various alternatives.
Specifically, I am going to discuss the lessons Burning Man might have for another movement that arose as a counterculture in the desert long ago, a group which was viewed by the dominant aspects of its host culture as being deviant, and engaged in a variety of bizarre beliefs and rituals, a movement which has successfully grown from a small counterculture on the margins of society to spread throughout the world.
I refer, of course, to Christianity. But while Christianity is thriving in some parts of the world, seeing its greatest growth in the Southern Hemisphere, for example, it is in decline in the West, and faces challenges even in America, a country long thought of as a Christendom culture. This situation, coupled with the popularity of alternative cultural events like Burning Man, indicates that Christians might benefit from critical reflection on this festival and intentional community.
But what posture must Christians take in order to learn these lessons, and what specific lessons might Burning Man present to Western Christianity where the mainline Protestantism as well as evangelicalism are in decline, and where it also increasingly suffers from perceptions of a lack of credibility?
In order for Christians in the West to learn from Burning Man they must engage in ecclesiological reflexivity, a process whereby the study of another culture provides the opportunity to step outside of one’s usual conceptions of cultural normality in order to not only understand another culture, but also to critically reassess one’s own culture and social location in light of the encounter with the cultural other.
This collective posture by Christians as they reflect on expressions of church community entails what I mean by ecclesiological reflexivity. Such a dialogical and self-critical posture is crucial, because as Gordon Lynch reminds us, “judging popular culture on the basis of our own preformed religious and cultural assumptions, without allowing the possibility for these to be challenged or changed in some way by our study of popular culture, will not help us become better cultural critics or more thoughtful theologians.” (x)
What can the church learn from Burning Man as a life-affirming social institution that functions as an alternative to Christian churches and other forms of traditional religion? Several possibilities can be considered, but in order to answer this question I will briefly consider three areas: 1) countercultural considerations in opposition to mainstream culture; 2) festivals and their connection to the church; and the utopian vision for society.
In his book on countercultures Yinger includes a quote from the New Testament book of Acts (17:6) with reference to the early church turning the first century Mediterranean world upside down, leveraging its spiritual message as a dynamic countercultural movement. Yinger writes that, “[a]n enormous literature examines Christianity as a counterculture – although the term is not used – and for the years after Christianity became the dominant religion of the West, as a target for its own countercultures”.(227) Christians in the West may have difficulties in thinking of their religious community as a counterculture movement, but this is because they have lost touch with this historic facet of the Christian faith.
Before further consideration of countercultures and their relevance to contemporary Christianity in the West, the question of definition needs to be addressed. As Yinger develops his thesis on countercultures, he states that,
The term counterculture is appropriately used whenever the normative system of a group contains as a primary element, a theme of conflict with the dominant values of society, where the tendencies, needs, and perceptions of the members of that group are directly involved in the development and maintenance of its values, and whenever its norms can be understood only by reference to the relationship of the group to the surrounding dominant society and its culture.(23)
Yinger notes that since countercultures define themselves by reference to some level of opposition to the dominant culture, this influences the form they take. As a result, countercultures “combine three forms of protest: direct opposition to the dominant values, but opposition also to the power structures and opposition to the patterned exchanges that are entangled with those values”.(5)
Yinger also discusses the various types of countercultures, and he summarizes these as forming “various mixtures of prophetic activism, communal or utopian withdrawal, and the search for ecstasy and mystical insight”.(94) He also describes these types as expressed in “[a]ctivist attack on the dominant culture and its institutional expressions,” to the “[m]ystical or bohemian search for insight and new experience,” to “[w]ithdrawal into a protected community” with its “[a]scetic purification of values”.(95)
Klaus Elder in an article from 1990 mentions a “flowering of counter-culture movements,” and explains this growth by noting that, “[t]he new counter-culture movements are trying to stall and even reverse what they regard as the self-defeating process of modernization”. (21) This is an interesting observation in that the current counterculture movements are reacting against aspects of modernization even as the earlier counterculture movements of the 1960s did before them.
Burning Man fulfills the same function, as Yinger notes, by expressing itself as a combination of Yinger’s counterculture types, including aspects of the “[m]ystical or bohemian search for insight and new experience” and the “[a]ctivist attack on the dominant culture and its institutional expressions”. (95)
John W. Morehead is a researcher, writer, and speaker in intercultural studies, new religious movements, the biocultural study of religion, intergroup emotions and social psychology in religious intergroup conflict, and multi-faith engagement, as well as theology and popular culture. He is Director of the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy (www.EvangelicalFRD.org). He also blogs on religion and cultural studies at Morehead’s Musings and on religion through the fantastic in popular culture at TheoFantastique.
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