Sunday, September 12, 2010

Burning Man: Post-apocalyptic, post-Christian, and somehow a return to an ancient faith

Burning Man 2010: I spent the week in the barren desert.  Well, it was a once barren alkali flat called a playa, but last week it was filled with 50,000 people, their goods, and art projects.  It was a party, it was a pilgrimage, it was a radical ongoing experiment in human community and creativity.  It was my first burn.

It was not new to me in its ethos.  I live in Salem, MA, and as a Christian pastor, I have been able to develop deep friendships with the Witchcraft/Neo-Pagan community.  This is not the same thing as Burning Man, but the rules of engagement are not dissimilar.

My church world, and their festival world are not the same.  We speak different languages - or we used to, but I have learned the languages of our culture in Salem, and it was not a significantly different language at Burning Man.

I walked away with a few observations which I want to put down in white and black.

Enculturation is at the heart of the Jesus way.

Popularly we speak of incarnational ministry in Christian circles, and this often means being filled up with God, Who then is poured out through us to others.  That view is good, but it is also mechanical if there is nothing more to it.  It presents the believer as a thoughtless, action-less vessel who becomes nothing in order to allow God to flow through unhindered.  The way of Jesus included that dynamic, but was not that only.  Jesus was incarnated as one of us.  Spoke our language, ate our food, worked a job we might work, and struggled with our calamities.  Incarnational ministry means being birthed into and becoming one with a culture.

So as to make sure I am not misunderstood:  This does not mean partaking of the unhealthy, unwise practices within a culture, but it does mean understanding and identifying with all things redemptive, and non-detrimental within a culture, and allowing those things to become a part of your own way of being.  For example - radical creativity is not antithetical to the Jesus way - in fact it is perfectly connected to the Jesus way.  It is part of the ethos of Burning Man, as it is in Salem, MA, and is easily embraceable.

Initiation into culture can be an important process.

A first time attender to Burning Man is asked to step out of the car, roll in the dust, and ring a bell declaring they are a "virgin."  The dust will be the ever-present host of the week.  It sticks to you like talcum powder, and will travel home with you as well.  Rolling in it has become the initiation.  Some people avoid this nasty process, and do not divulge that it is their first time on the playa.  I did not do that.  I happily declared that it was my first event.

I was ushered from the car to a dusty piece of ground near a large bell.  I was told that rolling in the dust was something new burners should do.  Dust angels were suggested,  I thought - 'no, not dust angels.  I grew up on the beach, not in the mountains.  I should surf the playa dust.'  So I did.

I laid on my belly, paddled in the dust like I was catching a wave, and then hopped up and declared that I was getting tubed in the playa dust.  I threw the dust over my head like it was a wave, then I shouted "wipeout!" and crashed around on the ground like I was being tumbled by waves.  This silly activity, was my way of embracing the ethos of Burning Man - I embraced the initiation with my way of doing things.  Then I hugged the group of greeters who had begun to gather around me.  This was followed by a lady who grabbed a big handful of alkaline dust from the ground, and poured in my hair delcaring "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust."

This encounter was more for me, than it was for anyone else.  I was initiated, and felt as if I had passed through a simple process of identifying with the event, and its people.  Those at the gate were laughing, and having a good time through it all, and I was in some small way identified as a contributor to an event which is all about contribution of the many members to one another in a radical community experiment.  The initiation was to prove to be a significant part of my high level of comfort with the whole event.  I was a theologically and morally conservative (I suppose some of you reformed thinkers may not believe that) pastor who was immediately at home in a wildly counter-cultural, post-Christian experience.

Finding the redemptive story in culture is invaluable.

People sat at the temple, which had been built out toward deep playa - away from the city, beyond the Man. 

Some sat on the ground holding pictures of loved ones who had died.  Others sat on benches built into the temple walls and cried over lost relationships.  All wrote on the walls with words of hope, or sorrow, loss or thanksgiving, lessons learned or pains inflicted.  I wrote on the wall too.  I wrote something deeply personal.  At the end of the week the temple would burn to the ground, and like the prayer written on a piece of paper and tossed into the campfire the smoke would rise to God.

This was a deeply potent experience for me to write on the temple walls, and I could have stayed in the temple for far longer than I did.  It came home with me, and will serve me well for a long time.

This was a redemption story built of wood, waiting to be burned to carry my struggles to heaven.  This was not the only redemptive story on the playa either.  Unbiased eyes will have walked away with a sense of holiness seen upon that blank canvas of desert, which had been turned into a painting with God's signature appearing upon some of the work.  God speaks into every culture, and developing cultures like Burning Man are not an exception to this rule.

God is already speaking.  We are merely translators of His voice.

I was privileged to participate in this event with a theme camp doing Dream Interpretation, and offering a variety of "Spiritual Encounters."  Every person I worked with was talented and brilliant, and it was an honor to stand with them.  Yet, we did not have to conjure up encounters with God.  People entered our Dream Tent with God upon their shoulders.

The Ancient One preceded us, and was already at work in people's lives.  How could it not be this way?  The One who loves us all, actively pursues us all.

People cried.  People rejoiced.  People had returned from previous years' encounters with stories to say thank you.

Incarnational ministry will change you.

Once you discover God speaking into other cultures, and are able to identify His voice you will be changed.  You will have learned more about God, and will have experienced His love in new ways.

Coming to Burning Man I was asked to have a "playa name."  I did not come up with one.  I did not pray for one.  I was determined that others would name me in accordance with what they saw in me.  Consequently no one name stuck, but I was constantly being named by people throughout the event.  Some names were embarrassing, some were glorious, all were acceptable because they came from other people.

Here's the list of the silly, the mundane, the sacred, and the profound names I was given over the course of the week:  Dr. Phil, Dr. Love, Jerry (as in Jerry Garcia), Treebeard and Greenman (for my costume), Moses, Abraham, and Socrates.

Hopefully I carry a little of all of those names with me.  Like being given a new name, I am in some small way a new person for having walked with friends, for having met new friends, and for having served in community with 50,000 other radical self-expressionists.

If our humanity is imprinted with imago dei, then self expression must have a bit of dei in it.  I found it last week, and I am the better for it.  I hope the people I encountered were imprinted with the little bit of dei I might have offered as well.

Like Old Testament religious experience, festival is the new (yet ancient) way of church for many people today.

People (like our new found friends at The Tribe in LA) have been fleeing the institutional church for decades.  Similarly to the Neo-Pagan culture I have come to know in Salem, MA there has been a development of seasonal festival experiences, which look something like the feasts of Israel.

It has replaced church, and become a new kind of church for many people.  God seems to have designed this pattern for the children of Israel in the desert.  Who's to say that it might not be a new, yet ancient way of drawing close to God today?

So, am I a Burner now?

Only if another Burner sees it in me.  I will not name myself what others can not see in me.  At the very least I am extremely comfortable in that world for the week Black Rock City exists.  Next Year in Black Rock City?  Who knows - perhaps - I would certainly love to be there in 2011.

Some special thanks to those who spoke into my life most potently:  Rob and Lisa - thanks for trusting me in a difficult season of life.  Hippie Fish and Fish-wife (couldn't resist) :-) - you make everyone feel comfortable - what a great gift it is, and I will be wearing a burner necklace for quite some time - even though I never wear jewelry.  John Bear - I miss your wry smile already.  Dannette - be seeing you soon in Salem perhaps?  The whole Deifell family - some real Burners who made me feel like a Burner too - included me in on their re-wedding, named me Socrates, and allowed their sis to hang with the weird Christian Dream camp and teach us how to really appreciate the experience fully. Roger, Elmer, and Monty - you may not have stayed in the camp with us, but your gracious ways both before and after we returned to default world were life giving.  Mr. Inventor Man - we could be seriously dangerous together if someone let us loose!  Godfather, and Mama Bear - I could not have met better friends to drive across the country with.  For each of you, mi casa es su casa.


Steve Hayes said...


I don't know if you've seen this Afrika Burns, a Christian response, by Mike de Freitas | CapeConversation, but you might enjoy it.

Pastor Phil said...

Thanks for the link Steve. Good stuff. The festival life moves forward in our societies and we as Christians may be well behind the times on a trend which holds unbelievable potential for redemptive stories to flourish.

acid 9 said...

Long time Phil. Hope you are well.

Some good friends of mine in TX travel to burning man every year with a dream interpreter crew. I emailed them about you, but I don't think your paths crossed with 50,000 folks there.

Glad your trip went well.

Pastor Phil said...

This must be Brian.

Hey Acid-9 Chapman Stick Man,

If your friends go with a Dream Interpretation team, then I was probably on the team with them. What were your friends names?

acid 9 said...

Their names: Jesse & Merry Bruton. They were part of some tean called Freedom Lounge or something. I think she added you as a facebook friend.

cern said...

Sounds like it was a significant event in your life. Good stuff. :)



Pastor Phil said...

Hey Brian,

They were part of a different team, I did not get to meet them while there. Maybe another time - I would like to return.

Pastor Phil said...

Hi Cerny-Mike,

Good for me indeed. Thanks bro.

Kantiki Jayamana Whateva said...

I love this time of year, when all the different eyes and experiences come away from the burn and share their stories. Yours is so unique and is completely open and embracing. The greeters had to have loved you! Dustsurfing. You know they're talking about it even now.

The Temple is 60% of why I return year after year. It tore me apart my first year and now it fills me up year after year. I've spent time (willfully) with cops on the playa, and many of them feel it as well. It's a connection a lot of us share in the tribe.

What's funny is that you made the 5-Year Wedding Anniversary with the Deifell tribe. Tony Deifell masterminded the "Why Do You Do What You Do?" project that was another large impact on my first year. You couldn't have been in with better people, Socrates.

Thank you for sharing!

Pastor Phil said...

Hi Kantiki JW,

Thanks for popping into Square No More. Tony and Hope were a great source of inspiration to me. Hope was part of our Dream Interpretation Camp this year, and attending the 5 year re-wedding was a great experience for me.

I am hoping we can pull off a little WDYDWYD? here in Salem, MA this year. I mentioned to Tony that we are interested in making it happen here, and have the artists for it.

Peace, and hopefully meet you at the next burn.

Kantiki Jayamana Whateva said...

Aloha Phil! You could definitely open up Salem to the WDYDWYD? project. I've only been there for the All Hallows pilgrimage, but I recognize the culture beneath it and the artist community behind it. It was one of my favorite places in the North-East. BTW, if these are posted in Salem and not online, let me know. I'm planning a return visit in 2k12 and would definitely check them out.

Have you seen this article "The Burning Man Festival as Modern Desert Pilgrimage" on The Chronicle yet? You're one of the burners I thought of when reading the article. Cheers!