Article ID: JAF2321 | By: Steve Rabey
This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 31, number 01 (2009). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Founded on a lark by a handful of people in 1986, Burning Man is an annual event that celebrates “radical self-expression and self-reliance.” The latest Labor Day–week gathering attracted nearly fifty-thousand people to the Nevada desert.
When some critics look at Burning Man they see little more than sex, drugs, and godless confusion. The many Burners who gather worldwide throughout the year, however, see their movement as an antidote to the soul-deadening constraints of modern life. Some even see the Burning Man community as a spiritual fellowship, making it a laboratory for exploring postmodern belief.
What brings fifty-thousand people out to the barren and dusty salt flats of the Nevada desert for a week? For more than a decade, the draw has been the annual Burning Man festival, which features art, music, and plenty of something organizers call “radical self-expression and self-reliance.”
Each Burning Man event concludes with the ritual conflagration of a giant wooden effigy that has been erected in the center of the short-lived desert city. After the man burns, all the Burners go back home. But not before they remove all traces of their encampment.
The Burning Man events, which last a week and are held around the Labor Day weekend, feature plenty of drugs, nudity, and sex. This makes for juicy media coverage, but veteran Burners say that portraying the event as a drug-fueled bacchanalia misses a deeper point. Many Burners are looking for spirituality, although they don’t always call it that.
“Spiritual isn’t a word I use a lot in my own life,” says Jessica Bruder, a reporter for the Portland Oregonian and the author of the 2007 collection, Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man. “I spend most of my time in the secular world,” says Bruder, who was raised in a Jewish-Catholic family, “But as I look at it, and think about the roots of what drives people to participate in Burning Man, I see that it’s a sense of community similar to what people find in religion. If they’re religious people, or if they hunger for something bigger than them, Burning Man is certainly bigger than they are, even though they create it themselves.”1.
Growing up in a postmodern culture that accepts and celebrates diversity, many Burners describe themselves as “spiritual, not religious.” But researchers say participants have experiences that are similar to those that have long inspired more traditional religious believers: ritual, transformation, community, celebration, pilgrimage, and a shared world view/ethical framework.
Burning Man is spreading far beyond the annual celebrations. Burners have created a year-round global community that promotes ongoing connections with like-minded people around the globe. Some even work together to practice good works through Burners Without Borders, a group that has assisted victims of Hurricane Katrina and other tragedies.
BIRTH AND GROWTH OF A MOVEMENT
Larry Harvey is an unlikely prophet, but the simple act he first performed on a San Francisco beach in 1986 has ignited a global movement. Two years after going through a difficult break-up with his girlfriend, Harvey and 20 friends took a wooden effigy to Baker Beach and set it aflame.
Over the next three years the circle of friends grew larger for the ritual conflagration, which was held on the same beach until 1991, when Harvey moved the party to the Nevada desert. By 1996 the event attracted more than 8,000 people. For the last decade, the event has been held in its current location in the Black Rock Desert 100 miles outside of Reno near the town of Gerlach.
Burning Man has come a long way from its ad hoc beginnings to the nearly military-style preparations that must now precede each annual event.
At the 2008 desert gathering, a vicious dust storm closed down the entrance gate for seven hours. The Burners persevered, enjoying larger works of art (including a ten-story steel structure called Babylon) and a more complex roster of events (one Burner, thumbing through a seventy-seven-page guide to approved activities, complained that the event had become too “mass-produced”).2
As TIME magazine reported in a 2000 article, “The Man Behind Burning Man,” Harvey insists the symbolism of his event has no inherent higher meaning.
“Everyone wants a founding myth,” said the chain-smoking Harvey. “That first man was just eight feet tall, and it was enough. Something bigger than they are—that’s all people need. It’s at least enough to inspire a leap of faith.”3
During a 2002 speech Harvey gave in New York City, he expanded on that first burning man. “I did this on impulse. There was really nothing on my mind. I’ve thought about it over the years, because they keep asking, and the best I can say is that some passionate prompting, some immediate vision just had to be embodied in the world.”4
Describing the event itself is not easy, as the Burning Man Web site acknowledges: “Trying to explain what Burning Man is to someone who has never been to the event is a bit like trying to explain what a particular color looks like to someone who is blind.”
Once there, participants hang out. They meet and talk to others. They admire the artwork, musical compositions, or dramatic productions others create. They dance. They couple. And they survive the harsh desert environment, where temperatures often top 100 degrees and dust storms can turn the playa into a blinding inferno.
For Harvey, whose personal story includes work as a craftsman, artist, and urban planner, it’s the social dimension of Burning Man that gives the gathering its true power. “What more is there to say, except that I believe there is a way that all of us can be together.”5
More and more, this togetherness is extending beyond the weeklong annual event. In recent years Burners have fostered the growth of an “After-Burn” movement that seeks to connect Burners through regional networks in the U.S. and abroad that were founded after the 1997 event. Today, there are more than 60 regional contacts throughout the U.S. with additional networks of the “Burning Man Diaspora” in Asia, Africa, and Europe.6
THE BURNER ETHOS
What makes Burners tick? Harvey says the common link is radical self-expression, which he described as “the feeling that your inmost vital self is real and that you can project a vision of this sense of your own being onto the surrounding world….Most people just don’t have the confidence anymore because they’re too isolated; they’re too passive.”7
When missiologists like John Morehead listen to Burners, however, they hear echoes of the 1960s. Morehead attended Burning Man in 2006 and wrote his Master’s thesis for Salt Lake Theological Seminary about the group.8 His research uncovered interesting parallels between Burners and varied groups that emerged during the ‘60s and ‘70s, including both the Jesus movement and the ecologically minded Rainbow Family of Living Light.
“When I first heard of Burning Man it was all the typical ‘wild’ stuff about sex and drugs,” says Morehead, Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies and a former staffer with Watchman Fellowship. “But examining Burning Man led me to a mental shift in terms of how we should understand these groups and how Christians should engage them.”9
Morehead’s analysis of Burners’ core values accentuates principles that have been an important part of Christian history until recent centuries:
Community Boundary Demarcation Terminology. Much as Christians speak of secular and sacred worlds, Burners have their own sense of sacred territory, as Morehead discovered when he entered the Burning Man playa for the first time:
“I was welcomed with a traditional greeting of ‘Welcome home!’ and asked if I had ever been here before. When I answered in the negative, I was asked to exit the vehicle. I did so, and was asked to pick up a large piece of metal where I was instructed to strike a bell and shout to the desert, ‘I’m not a virgin anymore!’”10
Utopian Vision. From Larry Harvey on down, Burners dream of a world that corrects the flawed values of our present world, in which money and status play a much bigger role than they should. Burners are encouraged to be who they are and express themselves. Even some of the nudity that is common at Burning Man represents participants’ desire to cast aside the narrow confines of a restrictive culture.
Economic System. Unlike most other places in America, Burning Man offers nothing for sale. Instead, participants barter with others for any food or water they need. For Harvey and others, this economy expresses a deep-seated critique of American-style capitalism and materialism. And for scholars like Morehead, the Burners’ approach clearly represents a rejection of the consumerism model of living—a model that has been broadly adopted by many church leaders on the “seeker-sensitive” or “church marketing” movements.
Inclusiveness. Everyone’s welcome at Burning Man, so long as they abide by the community’s minimal rules. Even those who can’t afford the full-price tickets (which this year started at $210) can get low-cost or scholarship tickets.
Experientialism and Immediatism. Beginning with Harvey’s first impromptu Burning Man event in 1986, it has all been about the feeling rather than rationality. Burners live in the moment, and many of them find it difficult to express what the event means to them.
Ethical Practices Regarding Nature. Burners clean up their Nevada staging ground and return it to a pristine state before leaving. And many Burners travel to the event in low-carbon-emission vehicles of their own creation.
Affinity for the Desert. Deserts were important to Moses and the Desert Fathers, and the desert is important to Burners, too, says Randy Bohlender, author of “A Pastor on the Playa? Why I Go To Burning Man,” an article posted on the Burning Man Web site.
“Historically, God has chosen the desert as a backdrop when He wanted to strip the peripherals away,” writes Bohlender, who was the director of small groups at Vineyard Community Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 2000 when he and four other church members attended their first Burning Man in 2000, where they gave away 5,000 bottles of water.
“God draws me to the desert to remind me of who I am, of how little influence I have apart from His plan, and the power He holds over all of us. The playa puts me in my place.”11
Some of the behavior on display at Burning Man events would offend many Christians, but Morehead says that people who look beneath the surface will find a quest for spiritual values. “When I look deeper at what is going on at Burning Man, I see people having amazing transformational experiences that function for many as spiritual or religious experiences,” says Morehead. “Burning Man illustrates a significant cultural shift in spiritual exploration.”
THE “RELIGIOUS,” AND EVEN CHRISTIANS, FOLLOW THE FLAMES
Some Burning Man participants would describe themselves as non-religious or even anti-religious. And some of the event’s artwork and costumes ridicule religion. At the same time, more religious groups and individuals have been participating in the event in recent years.
“‘Burning Man’ gets religion,” reported the Washington Times in September 2007. The article opened by looking at Jack Fertig, a Muslim who laid his prayer mat on the desert floor, faced toward Mecca, and prayed to Allah.
The Washington Times article also described how people of other faiths feel called to participate in Burning Man: Dan Robbins of Seattle has attended the event for five years and he attends the Black Rock City Jewish Community Center’s Shabbat services; Rich Mackin, a Zen Buddhist, has led a Zen chanting service on the playa for the last two years.12
In addition, devotees of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness created a Krishna Camp at Burning Man beginning in 2006.
Christians, too, attend Burning Man. Randy Bohlender, who now works with the International House of Prayer in Kansas City, saw the Vineyard of Cincinnati’s outreach to Burners as part of their ecclesiology of being a “go and do” church rather than a “come and see” church.
Members of Tribe of LA, a Christian community in Los Angeles, have organized Christian services at the annual event.
Of course, not all Christians are so Burner-friendly. On the Web, one can find plenty of criticisms of the movement. One, entitled, “Burning Man 2001: Satan’s Birthday Party,” says, “To me, the Burning Man origins obviously parallels ancient pagan celebrations when Druids burned humans in wicker cages as sacrifices to their gods at least eight times a year, on their eight major holy days, one of those of course being the Summer Solstice or Litha, a Celtic fire festival.”
And a contributor on the modernconservative.com blog wrote: “Most attendees are libertine, pseudo-spiritual, artsy, lefty elitists. Anyone who has lived in a major city, attended a university, or read the editorial page of any major newspaper knows exactly the type.”
But for Jared Veteto, an entrepreneur and avid hiker who lives in Colorado Springs, Burning Man provides a form of community and fellowship that illustrates what church could be if it were following a more biblical model.
Like many 20-somethings, Veteto is a Christian who does not attend church. But he finds community as a volunteer leader with a Colorado network of Burners. “The Burners I know are good, genuine, honest selfless people, and being with them rejuvenates my outlook on life,” says Veteto, who grew up in an Evangelical church and school but found his creativity stifled in both.13
While there’s plenty of drugs and sex at Burning Man, Veteto assures his parents he steers clear of such temptations. “The event gives me exposure to people and things and creativity that I would otherwise not see,” he says. Certainly the event offers a venue for spiritual expression and connection that is not available via organized religion.
No one knows what the future will hold for Burning Man, but in its first twenty-three years, it has served as a beacon for a large, global, and thoroughly eclectic group of people who want to turn their back on mainstream society—at least for a week—and celebrate each other and the creations of their hands.
Steve Rabey is an award-winning author of two-dozen books and 2,000 articles in Christian and mainstream outlets (www.rabeywords.com). His 2004 Christian Research Journal article, “Making Peace with the Sixties,” was named Best Freelance article of the year by the Evangelical Press Association.
What is Burning Man? An Insider’s View
The group has never written its own official history, but Molly Steenson, a Burning Man participant and former member of its Web team, has. Here’s her look at the event and the movement:
You belong here and you participate. You’re not the weirdest kid in the classroom—there’s always somebody there who’s thought up something you never even considered….You’re here to build a community that needs you and relies on you.
You’re here to survive. What happens to your brain and body when exposed to 107-degree heat, moisture wicking off your body and dehydrating you within minutes?…The mind-altering experience of Burning Man is its own drug.
You’re here to create. Since nobody at Burning Man is a spectator, you’re here to build your own new world. You’ve built an egg for shelter, a suit made of light sticks, a car that looks like a shark’s fin.
You’re here to experience. Ride your bike in the expanse of nothingness with your eyes closed. Find your love and understand each other as you walk slowly under a parasol. Wander under the veils of dust at night on the playa.
You’re here to celebrate. On Saturday night, we’ll burn the Man. As the procession starts, the circle forms, and the man ignites, you experience something personal, something new to yourself, something you’ve never felt before. It’s an epiphany, it’s primal, it’s newborn. And it’s completely individual.
You’ll leave as you came. When you depart from Burning Man, you leave no trace. Everything you built, you dismantle. The waste you make and the objects you consume leave with you. Volunteers will stay for weeks to return the Black Rock Desert to its pristine condition.1
Three Ways to Critique Culture
Events like Burning Man may not lend themselves to some of the traditional forms of cultural critique that Christians have long embraced, says Gordon Lynch, an English academic who wrote Understanding Theology and Popular Culture (Blackwell, 2005).
Lynch says there are three methods of understanding culture, and critics should use those methods that work best for understanding the phenomena they are researching.
(1) Author-Focused Approach. This method explores how a particular work of popular culture (film, novel, piece of music) reflects the background, status, personality, and intentions of its particular author or authors. Because Burning Man’s founder declines to serve as the movement’s official spokesman, the author-focused approach will only take one so far.
(2) Text-Based Approach. This method explores how we can read the meaning of cultural “texts” (from TV programs to fashion). Since Burning Man has no official myths or scriptures, the text-based approach offers limited value.
(3) Ethnographic or Audience-Reception Approach. This method focuses on research that uncovers the meanings that cultural activities or artifacts have for the people who consume them.
Scholars like Lynch and Morehead think the ethnographic approach is best suited for postmodern events such as Burning Man, which “mean” different things to different participants. Morehead says it’s ethnographic research that persuades him that the event functions in a spiritual or religious way for its participants, and that has led him to conclude that “Burning Man may be understood as an alternative cultural event that functions as a secondary institution and new spiritual outlet in rejection of mainstream institutions and traditional religion.”1 —Steve Rabey
Editors’ note: We asked freelance journalist Steve Rabey to investigate Burning Man, an annual festival that attracts fifty thousand people and has spawned a global movement. Rabey’s reporting reveals three distinct responses to Burning Man:
- Participants tend to approach the gathering with quasi-religious fervor, with some testifying that it has been a life-changing spiritual experience.
- Christians and other adherents of traditional values tend to view the gathering as a celebration of deviance, citing such common occurrences as nudity, drug use, and expressions of hostility toward Christianity.
- Other Christians, however, are attempting to respond to the movement redemptively, with some even attending in the missionary spirit of Paul on Mars Hill (Acts 17) or in the contemplative spirit of the desert fathers.
We at Christian Research Journal do not presume to legislate how the church should respond to Burning Man. We do, however, strongly advise that
- Christians who attend Burning Man do so in the company of other Christians with a mutual commitment to hold each other accountable to Christ.
- Christians attend only when accompanied by much prayer, a clear sense of calling, and a thorough inspection of their spiritual armor.
- Attendance of such events never serves as a substitute for attendance of a Bible-believing, Christ-honoring church.
NOTES: Main article
- Interview with author.
- http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/08/31/BA1212LNF7.DTL. Meredith May, “Burning Man Festival Evolves, SFGate, August 31, 2008.
- Joel Stein, “The Man Behind Burning Man,” TIME, September 18, 2000, 77.
- Many recent articles have examined this phenomenon. One of the best was Julia Chaplin’s “Burning Man Spreads Its Flame,” The New York Times, November 12, 2006.
- John W. Morehead, “Burning Man Festival as Life-Enhancing, Post-Christendom ‘Middle Way’ (masters thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Arts in Intercultural Studies, for Salt Lake Theological Seminary, May 2007; available for purchase online at lulu.com.
- Interview with author.
- Morehead, 4
- Frappa Stout, “ ‘Burning Man’ Gets Religion,” The Washington Times, September 3, 2007.
- Interview with author.
Notes for Sidebar 1
Notes for Sidebar 2
- Interview with the author.