What Can Burning Man Teach Christians?

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Last weekend Costco became the third largest city in Nevada, vans packed like the Grinch’s sled prowled the streets of Reno, and there is no longer any bottled water or ice cubes to be found. This can only mean one thing.

Burning Man.

Burning Man is a social experiment of radical self-expression and self-reliance in the Black Rock desert of Northern Nevada where

1) a woman wearing gold wings claiming to be able to control time will paint peace signs on billionaire Silicon Valley executives;

2) where hidden tattoos will be revealed to all;

and

3) where 68,000 people will cheer as they circle around a giant flaming stick-figure.

I can almost taste the white sand caked to teeth that haven’t been brushed in six days.

The Burning Man experience is so potent that it has evolved from a couple friends spontaneously burning an effigy on a beach in San Francisco to an event that maxes out the capacity of the Black Rock.  It’s also spawning satellite festivals across the world and is influencing the cultural infrastructure of companies as large as Google.

It’s a powerful, life changing adventure.

But I have never actually been there.

Welcome, then, to what Burning Man can teach Christians.

I have friends who have been so blown away by the experience that I feel like I have too, even though I am on the outside looking in.  That’s because Burning Man doesn’t rely on marketing strategies or clever rhetoric – the “Burner Gospel” is spread through the passionate witness of people whose need (or intrigue) for self-expression is satisfied when they gather in a week-long collaborative community.

Their testimony is infectious.

But Burning Man is just a naked, drug infused party, right?  Not really.  If Burning Man is just an excuse to get high, why is there a temple in the middle?  The evidence that this festival is a religious experience is undeniable – it’s a desert oasis that attracts many who are thirsty to taste the beyond through the collective.  This is why I will never understand Burning Man, my friends tell me, until I fully participate in it.

The Christian life is no different.

Just as the Son came to serve, not to be served (Mark 10:45) we are to do the same, and something profound happens when we do.  As a writer and student, I’m prone to thinking that experiencing Christ from a distance without contributing to others is enough to stoke the flame of my faith – but I’m always wrong.  The true participants of Burning Man expose my isolating selfishness, which cripples my ability to share the gospel with their fervor.

Christ can’t be fully enjoyed from the fringes, and who shares what they don’t enjoy?

But this doesn’t mean Christians need to live in Acts 2 communes to experience authentic community.  Even Burning Man is not divorced from the realities of economics and civil law.  Burning Man simply offers a week where people are not defined by a title but are empowered to serve their community in their own unique way.  As a result, they are energized to go and influence their corner of the world.

Do our gatherings have this same goal in mind?  Are we empowering people to use their unique gifts in our communities?

Burning Man is not without ethics, either.  Burner conduct is guided by ten principles (sound familiar?) and even a form of “church discipline” (there is an annual list compiled of people who fail to “leave no trace”).  There are even “Burner fundamentalists” who try to protect the integrity of the event from those who don’t contribute anything, harm others, and/or could care less about the wooden effigy.  No movement is without its sponges and zealots, especially Christianity.

Are we spending more effort serving and encouraging ours, or criticizing them?

But deserts are filled with mirages, and the spiritual fulfillment found at Burning Man is one of them.

Burning Man is represented by the symbol of a wooden man (which eerily resembles the KOA logo).  He is the emblem of radical self-expression and is sacrificed at the culmination of a week of personal revelation.  But Christians have the cross, the symbol of the God-man sacrificed after a week of divine revelation.

The wooden man was created – the God-man wasn’t.

The irony is that it is not self-reliance but utter dependence on Christ that leads to our radical self-expression (the ability to be who you were created to be).  Self-expression is a deep felt need, but it’s not humanity’s deepest.  Being united with our maker is.

Christ offers both.

Finally, Burners are fond of saying “Welcome home,” but the festival is an imperfect echo of the grand festival that is yet to come – the Kingdom which culminates with a multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language that no one will be able to count (Rev. 7:9).

On that day there will be no temple, but there will be a man burning with glory at the center. On that day we will be gathered, shouting “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” as we look at Him (Rev. 7:10).

On that day it is certain that we will fully express ourselves as we unite around Him, and it will make Burning Man look like a campfire sing along.

And unlike those who are seeking the divine in the middle of the Nevada desert, we know that for those who call upon the name of Christ there will be no hunger, thirst, beating sun, or scorching heat (Rev. 7:16).

The difference is that we don’t have to go to Him – He will come to us.  Until then, serve in your unique way and go and tell others about Jesus with the passion of those emerging from the Black Rock desert.

And be ready for our eternal festival to arrive.

9 thoughts on “What Can Burning Man Teach Christians?

  1. Brandon, this is so well argued. I love it. I had a similar encounter which regards your first point with AA a couple of weeks ago. I met with the two leaders of AA for the Tahoe City area and they said that AA need not meet in large or comfortable places. They know their need, and will meet anywhere as long as they have a place, no matter how crammed or uncomfortable. The only unacceptable thing to them is not having a meeting at all. Oh if Christians felt the same way about their own gatherings! We must know our need, and respond by being a part of the only community that can truly heal, and that will ever last! Good stuff.

    • I agree, Danny. Obviously, we shouldn’t attempt to limit comfort, but it’s a shame when the church is, say, organizing a gathering on a Saturday and Christians object because it’s too early (or because the donuts aren’t sprinkly enough). The NT shows that people came to hear Jesus without any guarantee that they were going to eat that day. In my opinion, that should still be true now. Thanks for the support, brother.

  2. Really interesting! Thanks, Brandon. I don’t see myself ever going to Burning Man and I’ve always tended toward a more negative view of it (probably largely because of the field I work in). I’ve had some in depth conversations with a hard-core burner friend about what it’s all about there, and honestly some aspects of it do sound appealing, though I’m too uncomfortable with other aspects of it to ever go myself, most likely. But I like the parallels you drew, and reading about how we as Christians don’t need to be all anti-Burning Man is definitely good food for thought. :)

    • Thanks Stacy. There is a strategy of evangelism called “relational incarnational apologetics” that tries to find similarities between Christianity and other faiths, then show how Christ is different and better. This blog utilized that approach, so I’m glad it caused you to think about your “negative views,” which I for one am prone to hold. From my experience with people who love Burning Man, they listen more when I don’t come out and bash their event as a pagan festival of hedonism.

      • Yeah, I definitely see your points. It’s tough also to remember not to expect Christ-like behavior from people who don’t know him, or to condemn unbelievers for behaving like unbelievers. I can’t say I wouldn’t do the same (the stuff that sometimes goes on at Burning Man) if I hadn’t been saved.

  3. Mr. Wordsmith, you either jolt, humor, cause pause, delight, convict, or all of these. This craft of yours, one of excellence, is a gift for which I am thankful each time you post!

    RN&R Editor, D. Brian Burghart, wrote this about his pilgrimage to the playa in years past. Here’s the link to his article:

    http://www.newsreview.com/reno/burning-spirit/content?oid=1648537

    He wrote it in 2010 as part of his Filet of Soul column. Some may recall that he had come to Living Stones a couple Sundays on his weekly visits to various places of worship in Reno/Sparks. I do not know if he’s been back to the playa since then.

    Read the whole thing but this quote is telling, “There is a dark side to the ritual and spirituality of Burning Man, particularly when the ritual includes irresponsible sex and the communion is negligent drug use. Or that Black Rock City’s spirituality is primarily a Labor Day weekend thing, a non-transformative event that allows participants not to change the Default World to more resemble Black Rock City’s utopia, but to reserve their creativity and fervor for September. It’s analogous to Sunday morning churchgoers who don’t participate in the ministries that benefit the community at large.”

    A non-transformative event? Yikes, busted! Not just BM, but also how the world sees folks playing church on Sunday mornings. ugh. God, have mercy and catapult us into holy discontent that our lives and our city would be rescued and transformed, all to your glory! Forgive us when we live wasted lives because “we are far too easily pleased.” (uh, thanks, C.S. Lewis.)

    So come, Lord Jesus, come! Until then, I yearn and pray Proverbs 11:10 for us and for our cities.

    • Thank you, Thelma! I appreciate the encouragement. The article you posted is an interesting take from a Burning Man “de-convert.” While many continue to seek after the promises of Burning Man, there are some, like this author, who think they can never reclaim the “high” they once had.

      And I’m with you in praying for our city. My blog focuses on the “not yet” of the Kingdom, but we must not forget the “already” – that our King lives and that we participate in life with him now. Heaven is not the goal, but it is the culmination of our salvation. Until then, we live lives of worship, share the gospel, and do good in our cities.

  4. Yes, the unbelieving world sees churchgoers as hypocrites yet by God’s grace, we have been saved, and we confess with our mouth, Jesus is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, my life, yours, and the lives of the multitude of saints have been transformed from defeat to victory, from slavery to freedom, from brokenness to shalom, from death to life. I pray everyday that we live in that victory, through obedience and worship, sharing in the hope of the Gospel with one another, and loving and serving those who do not yet know Jesus.

    Thank you, Brandon, for shepherding this flock through your words of encouragement and wisdom.

  5. Brandon, I appreciate your perspective. There is no “either or” in my view – BM is not a rejection of Christianity but a celebration of humanity’s capacity for joy, celebration and creativity. And being a Christian doesn’t mean rejecting all that BM celebrates. Yes, there’s drugs, booze and nudity. So what? You’ll find those pretty much everywhere (though mostly displayed less blatantly), God created us naked and Jesus changed water into wine. Nobody who doesn’t like being around what goes on at BM needs to be there, it’s a100% volunteer event and those who go get to pick and choose what to do while they’re there.
    This year was another beautiful burn with inspiring art (participants being urged to BELIEVE in 15ft letters, https://fbcdn-sphotos-f-a.akamaihd.net/hphotos-ak-prn2/s720x720/1238061_529873703749812_1223008476_n.jpg) and beautiful organ recitals by random strangers luring people into the piece “Church Trap” and inspiring discussions about music and organized religion in our lives (http://www.flickr.com/photos/carnivillain/9621772161/). The artists intentions and views might not be yours but both works were beautiful and powerful and might have given more people on the Playa than just me food for thought…

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