In 2007 I was nearing the end of my seminary training in intercultural studies and I needed to complete my thesis. I had been working in new religions for many years, and studying in Utah it would have been natural for me to focus on something related to Mormonism. But I had, and have, diverse interests, and I wanted to do something different for my MA thesis, something related to my interests in religion and popular culture. Burning Man Festival, a festival and alternative cultural event held in Nevada each year, had been on my radar for some time, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity for research and writing. It also gave me an opportunity to attend the event so as to have the experiences necessary to compliment my other research.
Readers might assume that many Evangelical stereotypes about Burning Man were confirmed in my participation in the festival. As one Evangelical website described the event:
The Burning Man is a no-holds-barred New Age “Woodstock” style festival, where neo-pagans, wiccans, transvestite entertainers, and back-slidden Christians go to trance, perform rituals, burn sacrifices to pagan gods and goddesses, dance in the nude, engage in sex, and otherwise “express” themselves and become one with Gaia.
My experience at Burning Man, and subsequent research revealed that this characterization is inaccurate and unfair. Indeed, something culturally and spiritually significant is taking place at Burning Man, and many other Transformational Festivals in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom. And they involve a group of people that the church in the West needs to be aware of, engage, and even learn from: the Cultural Creatives.
Many of the participants at Burning Man come from a significant subculture known as the Cultural Creatives. This label is taken from the book of the same title by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson (Three Rivers Press, 2001). Ray and Anderson argue that the Cultural Creatives represented “less than 5 percent of the population” in the 1960s, but that since that time they have grown steadily to “26 percent of the adults of the United States,” representing some 50 million people who “have made a comprehensive shift in their worldview, values, and way of life – their culture, in short.” These Cultural Creatives are expressed in two different segments, with the smaller Green group being “more secular and extroverted,” and the Core segment representing “the creative leading edge of the subculture” that includes “[a] huge proportion of published writers, artists, musicians, psychotherapists, environmentalists, feminists, alternative health care providers, and other professionals.” This second segment is more active than the first, and is “concerned about both social justice and the development of an inner life” with an emphasis on “self-actualization, and spirituality.”
The paragraphs above help us understand who the Cultural Creatives are, but for Evangelicals a more pressing question is one of relevancy: why should we care?
First, the Cultural Creatives represent a significant aspect of American and Western life. For those Evangelicals who recognize the need to be culturally aware, as well as relevant, the Cultural Creatives must be understood as an import part of contemporary culture.
Second, the presence of the Cultural Creatives has much to tell us about the nature of the spiritual quest in the Western world in the twenty-first century. In late modernity or postmodernity, there has been a shift in religious meaning-making outside of traditional religious institutions and new structures are being created. Evangelicals who believe the gospel has something meaningful to say within such new spiritual outlets will need to engage the Cultural Creatives.
Third, and perhaps most difficult for Evangelicals to hear, the Cultural Creatives have something to say back to the church in critique that can be constructive for those with ears to hear. If Burning Man Festival can be understood in part as the festive immolation of modernity and Christendom culture, then perhaps it might provide motivation for Evangelical churches to be critically self-reflective. As a result, we might experiment with new forms of community life, artistic expression that speak with renewed credibility, relevancy, and prophetic vision for those seeking new understandings of self, explorations of spirituality, and alternative community.
John W. Morehead is the Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies. He blogs at Morehead’s Musings, and is the author of Burning Man Festival: A Life-Enhancing, Post-Christendom “Middle Way” (Lambert Academic Publishing, 2011).