Sunday, October 24, 2004

One-dimensional Figures

I have commented on stories from Real Live Preacher before. Yesterday, he posted a story titled Visiting My Picasso, which recounted a small incident which revealed much about where he was writing from.

As for me, I’m here to visit my cousin who has broken her life into little pieces that can never be put together again. Prison has taken the shards of that life and assembled them into a Picasso-like image of her former self. Both eyes and her mouth are now on the same side of her face, and she speaks to me through glass framed by black steel. I don’t know how she will function on the outside. Perhaps she will have to be broken down and rebuilt again when she gets out. I wonder who will be up to that task.

Something about this place shatters everyone connected with it and rebuilds them into angular, one-dimensional characters: The guard, the warden, the prisoner, the visitor. This is not the world you know, and good intentions count for nothing. Even an innocent encounter with a stranger can spin off in directions you can’t imagine, and there is always someone looking down from above, making the worst possible guesses about who you are and what you might be up to.
Very true, this, and it is something you have little to no control over. The challenge is detention ministry is how to break through this and somehow help all those in the system to be more than one dimensional if they choose.

You have to hold onto the knowledge that what you do is often not that important. What is important is who you are, and that you are faithful and present. A key part of our work is that nobody is paying us to be there, and we are not relatives of anyone inside -- we don't have to be there, we want to be there. We have nothing to give but our attention, we're not there to hand out money, or goodies, or get out of jail free cards.

And that is what is so hard, so exhausting about this work. When inside, you really have to be seriously present all the time, completely there for everyone you are dealing with. The person or persons in front of you right now have to get your best attention, but at the same time, you must remember where you are the the limitations of that. You can't coast and daydreaming will not work. By the time we get back to the car on a Sunday, we are often limp. And you will never know about many of your greatest victories and defeats -- and you will sometimes wonder if you are having any effect at all.

But when you can really engage another person in a way that, even if just for a minute, takes them outside the place they are in, whether it is the prison outside or the prison within them, you offer them the opportunity to be someting more than one-dimensional characters in a badly written play. The nature of these places makes this difficult, and the stange relationships between the various groups can make is difficult to effectively work with more than one group at a time. In detention ministry, we are told that our calling is to everyone in the system. The reality is that if you work with prisoners, you probably will not be that effective with corrections officers or administrators, and security restricts you from dealing with visitors. That's a sad effect of the one-dimensionality of the relationshipes between the groups involved.

So you do what you are able and allowed to do, you make yourself present to those you are there for, and you leave the results in the hands of God.

Monday, September 20, 2004

Christ on the Playa

Well, I'm back with the next installment in my series on Burning Man -- a couple of weeks later than planned.  Blame work and trying to keep up with a class that I'm in -- both good ideas but the post just kept slipping.  Well, onward.

There's never been much question that some find Burning Man a deeply spiritual experience.  Don Thompson of the Las Vegas Sun (thanks to Religion News Blog for this) talked with some of them:

Jacques Rossouw of San Francisco sat in another niche playing haunting reverberating music on a didgeridoo, an instrument he learned living with an aboriginal family.

"I find Burning Man is spirituality without the church, without all the religious practices," he said. "It doesn't come with any of the traditional strings attached."
The role of spirituality at the Burn has been noticed by others, according to Thompson:
"The people who are going to Burning Man - Boomers and Xers - are the most educated generations in history. They're trained to question," said Jerome P. Baggett, who teaches religion and society at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif.

They're more likely to see religion as a lifelong search for meaning, and to look beyond a single traditional faith, he said. For a week, they can experience mass rituals that can mean everything, or nothing at all.
Other Christians have their doubts, to say the least, about the festival. One thread on Philip Greenspun's LUSENET web bbs titled "A Believer in Christ" details a wide variety of responses to one poster's equation of Burning Man with idolatry. I can understand both the concern of this poster, as well as the reactions of some of the responders. Other responders I simply could not understand.

Randy Bohlender has a different perspective on the festival. He's a pastor in Kansas City who has been to Burning Man several times, with a team of Christians handing out thousands of bottles of water to show the other participants a different side of Christianity. The first experience in 2000 redefined his idea of weird:
After spending those days in the desert, discussing philosophy with a man wearing nothing but a rubber chicken, and watching a group called "The Sacred and Propane" fire off huge propane bombs, things I would have stared at before no longer get my attention. A few days after leaving Burning Man, I gathered with some friends in Washington, DC. In the 100 degree heat and high humidity, we watched a man walk down The Mall in a white tuxedo and a top hat. My friend said "Isn’t that the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen?" I had to tell him no. That was pretty mild compared to what we’d witnessed in the desert.

Conversely, things about the church that would have never garnered a second glance from me before Burning Man now grab my attention. More then once in the past few weeks I’ve thought about some of church in respect to Burning Man and muttered "THAT is weird!" In that sense, Burning Man drew me back to scripture.

Lamentations 3:40: Let us examine our ways and test them, and let us return to the Lord.

Failure to examine ourselves will lead to the fostering of our own peculiarities. The church is full of such idiosyncrasies that, when viewed from an objective point, seem much more weird than the rubber chicken-wearing philosopher.
In the article quoted from above, as well as his essay Why I go to Burning Man and entries on his weblog, Randy does not spend his time judging Burning Man, rather, he reflects on his experiences and what they imply about himself and his faith.  And while I will summarize and exerpt some of his comments, you really do need to go and read these essays -- it's rather good stuff and Randy has been quite gracious in letting me use some of his writings here.

He finds it weird that the church strives to convenience people when people really thrive on challenge, and the church world appears to have been made from a cookie cutter. While he no longer finds it wierd that people will go to great lengths to escape their reality, Randy finds it weird that so many Christians are satisfied with their present reality.

In explaining why he still goes to Burning Man, he explains that "the playa puts me in my place", that God uses the desert to show him that he is more than what he owns or consumes, to strip away what is peripheral.  He goes back because creativity points to a creator, and gifting looks a lot like God's idea. He returns  because the church has spent too many years at the trailing edge of society, a point I will return to in the next installment of this series.  And Randy goes to Burning Man because he has something to offer:
It didn't take me long to acquire the burner's innate disdain towards spectators. Consuming social capital while contributing nothing to the greater good of the whole, they are societal parasites. We received an incredible variety of things on the playa. Our neighbors made us homemade ice cream. A flamenco guitar player named Tao favored us with a song. Three hilarious young men located somewhere above 255 entertained us with a tag team story telling session that remains so vivid an experience that I laugh out loud when they appear on our video tape. It seems everyone had something to offer, and my 'something to offer' is what brings me the Black Rock City. My gift, though taking the form of a bottle of water, is really much more than that. I come to present hope...a bite sized morsel of grace that people can take home to chew on for themselves.

Towards the end of the week, one young man approached me and said "can you confirm a couple of rumors I've been hearing?"

"Sure" I said.

"Word on the playa is that you guys are all from a church." The way he said 'church' led me to believe he probably didn't believe the rumor.

"Yep," I said, "We are."

His eyes grew wide. "And I also heard that you are a pastor."

"Again, confirmed."

He then moved in for the kill. "And I heard you came out here to convert us all."

I looked both ways as if to see if we were being spied on, leaned forward and asked "Do you own your own home?"

He seemed a little stunned. "Yeah. Bought it last year." "How long did you look for a house?" I continued.

This line of questioning was not what he expected. "I don't know - maybe six months."

I smiled. "Okay, so it took you six months to find a place to live. That's not unusual. Some people look for a year or more and no's a huge decision. If it seems normal to look for a house that long, don't you think it would be arrogant for us to anticipate that you would make a major religious paradigm shift out here in the desert in just one or two short conversations?"

"Uh, yea" he said. By this time, he was more puzzled than he had been when he walked in.

"We're not so arrogant as to expect that you're going to change everything about what you believe just because we told you...but we do think that if you walk away from this experience thinking a little differently about God or the people who claim to serve Him, that's a good thing. Drink our water. Hang out. Be our friend. Then go home and make your own decision about the God that motivates us."

I go to Burning Man because I have something to offer...a fresh perspective of an old institution. An image of the church rising from the ashes of hypocrisy to prove itself relevant to the image of a church made of servants, in the model of Jesus, caring for people and loving God.

And that's why I go to the Burn.
This leads directly into the next, and probably last segment of this series, which is my own reactions to all of this.  It's been a a documentary up to this point, pretty much,  putting together a piece from here and a link from there to try to paint a picture of an event that I think may be significant, but that I have not attended myself.  I want to discuss the deep needs that the Burning Man experience seems to disclose, why those needs are not being met, and what in the festival may, in some way, adresss those needs.  In particular, I want to dive into why the Church may not be meeting those needs, and a first couple of guesses on what might change that.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Postmodern Man

Ok, so the seventh largest city in Nevada (it's true, the four after Las Vegas and Reno aren't huge) is the provisional week long annual settlement, Black Rock City, the site for the Burning Man festival.  This the third piece in a series of posts about BM, and it's time move from the history of the event, to the underlying rationale (if you want to call it that) for the whole shindig.  This will include two fair sized excerpts of interviews of the co-founder of the festival, to provide some insight into what has guided the development of Burning Man up to this point, and presumably will guide it into the future.

Larry Harvey started BM with some friends on a San Francisco beach 15 years ago, To provide an escape from what he calls (in this exceprt from an interview by Darry Van Rhey) the postmodern situation

Postmodern means that in our time there exist many different types of "now". Nearly every style and every idea that has ever existed now has its adherents. We live in an eclectic age. There's no defining paradigm, no single idea to unite us. Historically modernism meant progress, science, rationalism; the extension of our conscious control of the world. To be modern meant that one had shed myth and superstition, all the unreasoned traditions of the past. The race had reached adulthood. As moderns we would order things differently. We would no longer blindly serve the past, but work to construct a new future that was based on rational principles. The unconscious would be analyzed, houses would become "machines for living", the form of everything would be designed to follow a rational function. Aided by science, we could completely control our destiny. But people no longer believe this is so.

DVR: Why? What has happened to destroy our confidence?

LH: Two World Wars, for one thing. Suddenly science was perceived to be doing these monstrous things. Science, we realized, was only a tool; a means, not an end. It couldn't produce any ultimate values; rational mind reached the end of it's tether. The final horror of the Nazi death camps lies in the realization that such evil results were arrived at by thoroughly rationalized methods. Sure, other historic atrocities match this in scale, but the Nazi's ran factories -- marvels of applied science. And, of course, there's the Bomb. Suicide and scientific reason strolling hand in hand. People still believe that science can command the world-- more so than ever, I think. But our faith in reasoned progress has been shattered. And there are other factors as well. The world has expanded, gone global. We live now in the midst of many voices, many competing traditions. We've become very self-conscious. We now question assumptioms. We've lost the assurance that once made forthright action possible.

DVR: So what faith are we left with? Are things simply falling apart?

LH: Nothing so dismal as that. The good side of postmodernism is that we're so free and sophisticated. We can choose from the past. Today in America every idea or creed or lifestyle that has ever existed is laid out before us, as if spread on a giant buffet, a never-ending post-graduate course. Never in the entire history of mankind has such freedom existed. Never before have individuals been so empowered to shape their ends.
This is a better description of postmodernism than I have found in many more formal treatments. I am not nearly so sanguine about the result, but I must accept that we do live in a truly postmodern world, dealing with broken myths and broken symbols.

In this 1994 interview (interviewer not identified) Harvey discussed the need for ritual, the lack of true ritual in modern society, and how the creation of ritual plays a key part in Burning Man.
L - . . .We encourage people to invent ritual, to invent games. Every year someone will devise some kind of performance art. You can call it performance art, you can call it ritual. I think performance art is basically an attempt to recreate ritual, for the most part, at least that's the impulse behind it. Last year suddenly this giant hand appeared next to the Man with a mysterious circle in the center. Nobody new what it meant. It got burned, I have no idea who did it. It was enormously expressive. Every year things get invented. If something delights everyone and there seems to be an instant consensus, if this was indeed an expressive and meaningful thing, whatever it might mean, as long as it strikes a chord, we tend to find out who did it, encourage them to continue, or adopt it and somehow incorporate it into the things we consciously plan from year to year. And by that means we acquire a measure of received tradition. We're building a body of that. It's all a result of spontaneous contributions on the part of people.

R - This is a growing tradition, I mean some of the traditions are kind of, have been fixed. You're definitely in the realm of what is traditionally considered religion and that area, you're on the same kind of ground.

L - We're definitely on the same kind of ground.

R - Most religions don't encourage the creation of a new ritual. (Laughter)

L - No they don't.

R - It's kind of like this is the way it is.

L - Well that's distinctly what divides us from religion. Historically religions have pretty uniformly derived from some kind of primary mystic experience. The charismatic figure goes out in the desert, comes back with this wonderful visionary message for their fellows, and that vision then gets translated into a religious observance . We take people to the threshold of religion. Our aim is to induce immediate experience that is beyond the odd, beyond the strange, and beyond the weird. It verges on the wholly other. It contemplates a realm of profoundly irrational experience. I think that kind of experience is the fountainhead for all religions. Essentially what happens to religions is that a priestly class intrudes in the process and stations itself between the believers and the immediate, the overwhelming the unfathomable, the irrational the transcendental experience that inspired the religion in the first place. They become the keepers of the mystery . They place themselves between the communicants of the religion, and the immediate experience. And then they dictate the terms on which you can have contact with this wonderful mystery. We don't dictate those terms. We create a mystery alright, and we encourage others to create a mystery. But we don't propagate any doctrine; we don't insist on any metaphysical interpretation. We just invite people to the experience itself. If you look at what we're doing, it's on the pattern of stone age ritual, you know. Using pretty slender means, we evoke something tantamount to a megalithic temple complex. It involves a pilgrimage to a remote place, an initiation. The focus of our whole ritual is sanctified in the sense that it's removed entirely from the world. Put in a place profoundly apart from ordinary experience. The Black Rock Desert is about as far apart from ordinary experience as you could get. It involves meditation on an extraordinary object, which in it's setting seems to be incomparable to anything else, to be almost not subject to the normal rules of our perception. It culminates at last in a act of sacrifice. It's all done on a cosmic scale. This is plainly the stagecraft of religion. That's what we practice, yeah.
I quoted these two passages at some length, both to make sure that there was some context, and becaise there is a lot to learn from both. Summarizing from the various posts, Burning Man has grown from a group of friends on a beach to a emporary experimental society of thousands, based on powerful common experiences that fulfill the human need for ritual, for pilgrimage, for mysterious beauty in a postmodern society even though the participants do not share common beliefs. The next post will review what a pastor has written about his experiences at Burning Man.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Growth of the Man

OK, you have a fair sized town that comes into being for one week a year, in the middle of a desert, then dissapears without a trace.  It's not Brigadoon, it's Black Rock City, and this is the second segment in a series on Burning Man, which is going on right now.  Haveing looked at what BM has become, the question is, how did it develop?

The history of Burning Man can be split up roughtly into three periods:

  • the early years on a San Francisco beach (1986-89)
  • the years as a largely "underground" event in the Nevada desert (1990-1996)
  • Burning Man as an established event with major public impact (1997-?)
It started on Baker Beach in the Presidio of San Francisco in 1986 with Larry Harvey, Jerry James and maybe 20 friends (from this interview):
That was one thing, I don't know, you know, it was done on an impulse, I just thought, suddenly, that it'd be a great thing to build a large wooden man and burn him. You know the more I think about it, the farther back I can trace, in a sense, I've always been fascinated by religious ritual, by sacred architecture, by monumentality. ...  And clearly, when we went to the beach so casually, and burnt figure that was only 8 feet tall, slightly taller than us, we weren't quite prepared for the experience. Suddenly, poised against the flat horizon of the ocean, he seemed prodigiously bigger than us. And when soaked with gasoline, he incandesced! Gasoline was the wrong fuel to use; it's very volatile. We're lucky we didn't blow ourselves up. He just turned into this wonderful ball of fire instantly . And we were thrilled, we were transfixed by it . It turned out to be a more moving image than I had guessed it would be, and instantly drew what few people were on the beach to it. People are fascinated by fire, and when you combine fire with the human form, I think it has a certain significance that certainly transcended our intent. So we just came back and did it the next year.
From the beginning, powerful common experiences, such as the Burn or life on the playa, drove the development of the festival.  These experiences created community in the midst of radically diverse expression, gave people a new perspective on their lives, and were good reason to come back each year.  But over time, two key interrelated tensions seem to have developed. The first is between the need for autonomy and the need to manage the effect of the festival on the communities around it.  The other is between the sometimes anarchic past and what Burning Man is becoming.

The burn on the beach was repeated for three more years, until the local authorities started to have a problem with a party burning objects on a public beach.  This is the start of the first essential dilemma of BM: how do you create and maintain that autonomy from the surrounding "real" world that makes powerful self expression and the key common experiences possible, while managing the effect, if not damage, that the festival causes to that surrounding world.  The threat of not being able to hold BM next year has been a constant part of the history of the festival, and seems to have been a supporting cause for some core values of BM, such as Leave No Trace.

Instead of using a beach the next year (1990) Harvey and 100 others headed east to Black Rock Desert in Nevada and burned a 40 foot high man.  For the next several years, the festival grew and developed many of the characteristics is it is best known for, but it stayed an underground event, largely known only in the Bay Area.   By 1996, though 10,000 were attending the event, and media attention arrived as well.  Possibly the best piece on it was by cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling in Wired (which I quoted from in a previous post). Brian Tierney has some pictures of BM from the early 90's (most of the very early BM web sites are now dust).

The next year (1997) it had started to become a media event, especially on the web, and BM's roots in the Bay Area in the mid to late 90's meant that it would get maximun coverage on the web, and later, in the general media.  Burning Man now finds itrself in the position of being famous -- and that causes problems.  There is now a formal organization staging BM, Black Rock City LLC, which organizes activies year round in several locations, and contributes to art organizations.  BRC LLC continues to try to find the balance that will allow the festival to grow and thrive.

Lessley Anderson's article Burning Spin in the SF Weekly outlined the strict control that the BM organization exerts to influence how the festival is seen, to keep it stricly non-commercial, and to protect the privacy of participants.  It's a matter of survival:
For Burning Man organizers, not wanting the event to be widely portrayed as a rave or Mardi Gras is hardly a matter of aesthetics; stories that paint Burning Man as a big party scene jeopardize its hard-won, cordial relationship with local Nevada government and law enforcement officials -- and, therefore, its very existence. Though Burning Man brings cash into Reno and the tiny towns of Gerlach and Empire that sit on the edge of the Black Rock Desert, the festival is still viewed suspiciously by many locals.

"These people, they look different. The onus is on them to, you know, they're going to be scrutinized," says Joanne Bond, a county commissioner for Washoe County, through which participants drive and shop on their way to Burning Man. "You can't have purple hair and not stand out."

"I have people make comments all the time about Burning Man, and their perception is driven by media coverage," says Sheriff Ron Skinner of Pershing County, where the event is held. "I think the media has focused on the party atmosphere of Burning Man rather than the art aspects of it. And I think that those people looking to that type of atmosphere have flocked to Burning Man."
Anderson outlines one news report of widespread drug problems that, while inaccurate, caused a crackdown by local law enforcement.
It is exactly the kind of public misperception created by an inaccurate and simplistic wire report that Burning Man's organizers seek to avoid via hard-edged media relations tactics -- and simple repetition. "Burning Man is a celebration of self-expression," says Goodell. "It's not a giant party."


At first glance, Burning Man's media policies may seem draconian. In the abstract, it is easy to hold that Burning Man intrudes too far on journalists' right to report the news, and on documentary-makers' ability to express themselves through their art. But when you remove Burning Man from the world of abstraction, and look at it in the context of the real world and real-world media practices, you can see that the event's press-relations strategy is necessary for survival. Without spin control, Burning Man could spin right out of the organizers' hands into an environment controlled by people who fear, suspect, or simply dislike the event's essential messiness, and its aims.
Not everybody is happy with BRC LLC.  As time has gone by, the list of rules that will be enforced has grown.  For example, dogs are now forbidden, and local police are much more numerous on the playa with a change in attitude -- they will make arrests for activities such as selling drugs.  And that leads to the second dilemma -- the conflict between the past and the future.  Google the term "BMorg" and you will find a sizeable set of complaints about the effect that the growing BM organization has on the once anarchic playa.  These complaints run the gamut from decrying the influence of some people close to founder Larry Harvey have, to the amount of time it takes to get a permit for using their flame thrower.  (It is Burning Man after all, and fire art remains a big thing.)  Sone of the posts read like the normal nose-out-of-joint complaints you find in any smal town or nonprofit organization.  Others, in my opinion, are expressions of nostalgia for the anarchists summer camp that the early Black Rock festivals reportedly were, when Burning Man was flying under the radar of just about everybody.  That won't work now, when Black Rock City is for one week, reportedly the seventh largest city in Nevada.  The early days are gone, and can't be brought back, so for some of the pioneers, the Burning Man is dead.

Changes continue at BRC -- The SF Chrionicle has a good story about efforts to better handle the growing number of families with children at the Burn, and a some of the artists that would be at the festival this year were part of the protest activities at the Republican convention this week.

The two essential dillemas are still visible in the latest development -- the possibility of a permanent home for the festival.  The existence of Burning Man each year is dependent on how well the federal Bureau of Land Managment feels the festival met their commitments the previous year.  As part of the effort to make Burning Man a year round organization, BRC LLC is looking for a place of thier own, according to the SF Chronicle:
Founder Larry Harvey envisions a place where affiliated nonprofit organizations could gather -- perhaps with a conference center, a park for the event's trademark huge outdoor exhibits, and facilities for creating interactive artworks that could be transported to gatherings nationwide.  "That's going to be a huge leap, and it's going to take some fund-raising," Harvey said. The most likely location is in Nevada or nearby, relatively close to the festival 120 miles north of Reno.

But some participants at this year's event said the thought of permanence is contrary to the Burning Man experience.

"This is about leave no trace and that includes the art," said Colleen Wynn, 35, of Seattle. "It's temporary art for a temporary audience. That's what's so unique -- people spend thousands and thousands of dollars for something that goes away. Forming a permanent collection, I think, would take away from the original spirit,"
A permanent home would probably mark a fourth and different age in the future life of the Burning Man. That future will rely on how well Larry Harvey and the BM organization find that balace between the festival and the outside world, and between their own past and future.

We've taken a look at the festival, and how it got here.  Next, Larry Harvey's opinons on why Burning Man exists, and what may keep it going.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Out in the Desert

Labor day weekend sees a lot of strangeness in a lot of places -- it's the end of "official" summer -- but for the past decade something rather strange has been going on out in the Nevada desert for the week leading into Labor Day - Burning Man.

Mark Morford tried to capture the essence of BM in the SF Chronicle:

This is the essence of Burning Man. It is extraordinary and dirty and dangerous and hilarious and annoying and raw and smelly and hot and spiritual and real in its deep, deep whimsicality.

It breaks down everything you think you know and replaces it all with scenes and images and odors and a purified, skewed, inverted sense of community you will very likely never know again, unless you go again next year.

Some people disagree. Some think BM is just one big drug-addled rave party in the desert. Some think it's a giant dumb naked group-sex romp. Some believe it's Satan's own breeding ground, a giant filthy Club Med for neo-hippie drifters, a glorified yuppie ogle-fest, a creepy fire ritual, some sort of overblown self-important masturbatory quasi-tribal jamboree masquerading as sensual adventure.

These people are absolutely right. But they are also completely wrong.
The first detailed description that many people read of BM was in cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling's 1996 article in Wired:
The place feels like the afterlife. When you walk across it, you just drift over endless cracked whiteness, lifting your feet maybe a quarter inch from the surface. It's all mobile; it's all temporary. Twist the ignition key and drift with the wind.

Burning Man is an art gig by tradition. Over the longer term it's evolved into something else; maybe something like a physical version of the Internet. The art here is like fan art. It's very throwaway, very appropriative, very cut-and-paste. The camp is like a giant swap meet where no one sells stuff, but people trade postures, clip art, and attitude. People come here in clumps: performance people, drumming enthusiasts, site-specific sculptors, sailplane people, ravers, journalists, cops. I'm a journalist and a newbie, but even I can tell the pros from my fellow newbies. The veterans have brought their own pennants, bicycles, flashlights, and tiki torches, plus enough water for anything.

The alkali dust is like a fine and bitter talcum. It gets into everything, so why fight it? Just throw off your clothes. Keep maybe a straw hat, shades, and boots. Throwing off all your clothes is the cheapest, quickest way that was ever invented to cop an attitude. It's also a cool youth-culture solidarity move. Young people look great without clothes. Young people don't need 'em.

Vehicles have scattered all over the playa. It's as if a giant bowl of mixed nuts had dropped off a kitchen counter onto white linoleum. The parachute-covered Central Camp does duty as the broken bowl. All around it are cashews, peanuts, and sunflower seeds: dinky pup tents, some bigger pop tents, RVs, pickups, trailers. There's even an honest-to-goodness geodome erected by some ambitious guys who have brought a crane. Their towering construction crane arouses much envy, and they get to boast of having "the biggest tech on the playa."

The streets are vaporous formalities. They're premarked with tiny colored plastic flags: the flags get bent, they get stepped on, they even get run over. But once the idea of a street is established, the community standard holds.

You're not supposed to throw anything away on the playa. You're supposed to leave nothing at all. The idea of leaving no visible trace is a central part of the Burning Man zeitgeist, a performance-art process move. The organizers are very specifically eco-correct - maybe because they're so lighthearted about tolerating most anything else.
That was in 1996 with 10,000 attendees -- and at least three trimes as many show up now, to a more organized evert. Certain things seem to be consistent from then to now, and here is my take on some of them.
Black Rock City, a "Temporary Autonomous Zone" -- One of the fundamentals of Burning Man is that you are now in a completely different place than the "normal" world -- whatever that means. As I understand it, this is an experimental, temporary, and recurring community removed in many ways from the framework of expectations, prohibitions, and perspectives that surrounding society imposes on individuals and groups. There is nothing unconditional about this autonomy -- while any number of laws seem to be winked at during the festival, Burning Man has rules, and they are enforced, often to preserve that temporary autonomy from the outside world. Black Rock City is laid out in a set of coincentric circular and radial streets, centering on the figure of the Burning Man. The Esplanade at the center is where many art displays and theme camps are set up and where the most people are. But one large segment of the circle is left open, for various activities and temporary structures.

Radical Self Expression -- The stated purpose of Burning Man -- A purpose of "temporary autonomy" is to remove any unnecessary barriers to self expression, which can result in art objects, performance, or just walking around the playa looking weird. One of the requirements of truly radical self expression (from one's own roots or center) is self knowledge -- and such expression can also enhance that self knowledge. This ends up including all the raucous and notorious activities that Burning Man is known for -- as well as some truly sublime art.

No Spectators -- Yes, you over there behind the car. Everybody is a participant at BM so get cracking and find some way to express yourself, even if it is as small as being a volunteer or creating a really snazzy camp with flags and lots of lights. This is a show, but everybody is a member of the cast. I don't think this is a minor point, it plays a major part in protecting radical self-expression. You don't worry about looking like a fool if everybody looks a little crazy -- you're just part of the club.

Radical Self Sufficency/Gift Economy -- The only things that you can buy at BM (after paying a couple of hundred for the ticket in the first place) are ice at Camparctica and coffee/chai at Center Camp. Everything else you either have to bring with you, trade with some one else, or recieve as a gift from someone else. It's a long, long way to the nearest 7-11. One form of self-expression is to bring things to BM to simply give away. The outside economy in reverse.

Leave No Trace -- Everything you bring in, you take out with you, unless you can burn it. The agreement that BM has with the Bureau of Land Management requires them to leave the playa (intermittent dry lake) with little or no trace that Black Rock City was there. They are still cleaning up scorch marks from campfires built directly on the playa years ago, when the rules were looser. One part of this is that you cant use your car or motocycle in Black Rock City, unless it has been recognized as an "art car" by the DMV (the Department of Mutant Vehicles).

Theme Art -- Each year, Black Rock City has a theme (this year it is the Vault of Heaven) that many of the individual campers try to work into their expressions. Of course, many ignore it. There are buidings, camps, exhibits, displays, costumes, performances -- the best way to understand it at this distance is to either browse the Burning Man site or just Google it. There are thousands of pictures and books full of stories out on the net about people's art and experiences. In recent years, one specific expression has gained a great deal of attention. Marin County artist David Best has been building, often out of scrap plywood, incredibly beautiful multistory temples, offered as places of memory, mourning and remembrance. Along with the Man, these temples are burned at the end of the festival.

The Burn -- The climax. On Sunday evening, everything comes together at the center of Black Rock City for displays of fireworks, fire art, the burning of art objects created only for the week, and the Burning Man itself.

This is an introduction to a the much larger subject of an annual event producing intense and life changing experiences for thousands of people. Next post -- the development and meaning of BM in the words of it's primary founder, Larry Harvey.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Coming Attraction

Just about two years ago I decided to restart this blog. I have managed to post at least a few times a month and often several times a week. (My original target was at least once a day. So much for good intentions.) What got me blogging again was looking at pictures from the 2002 Burning Man festival, which is coming up again over the Labor Day weekend at Black Rock Desert in Nevada. I started to collect a couple of links and started an article, but never finished it. I think it is time to put all this together and get it posted.

I try to watch for signs in the world around us of spiritual hungers not being met, and what people are doing to try to meet them. I think Burning Man (BM) presents us with a rich display, if we care to look.

My basic approach is to split up my research and writing into roughly four or five essays, with at least three of them to come before the Burn this year.

  • What is Burning Man? -- a view of the event and it's history, in particular how it has been seen in the various media.
  • BM as Post-Modern Event -- one of the founders of BM has given a number of interviews on the festival as post-modern art and experience. An exploration of what may be the intent, social significance and meaning of BM.
  • A Pastor at BM -- an pastor has been attending BM, and he has some unique insights into the event, and the place of God there.
  • My Reflections -- my own summing up, as someone who has never been there, and probably for good medical reasons, never will go. (I am having to say that more and more -- very strange.). I am starting to think that this may be more than one part, with reflections and what may be lessons on evangelism as separate segments. These may well be after the event this year, and incorporate what happens this year.
I have one very important point that should be made before I get started. A lot of things go on at Burning Man, things that are not consistent with Christian practice in almost any sense. Public nudity and occasional sexual activity, recreational drug use, a variety of religious practices including some activities that Christians might find offensive are clearly part of BM. It is a "temporary autonomous zone" where anything goes and anything can be questioned or mocked, including persons and symbols that we as Christians hold sacred. This is not an event that you should schedule for your next parish youth group event. A lot goes on there that, if I were there, I would just not do. Even if I could. Don't even think that I am endorsing everything that goes on there -- but I am not going to be spending a lot of time trying to judge or condemn it either. That is not the point to this examination.

BM is also an event that includes sublime art and temporary architecture, tremendous creativity, and an important alternative view of how human society can work. I think we can see some of the deep human needs that are not being met in our culture here in the west, needs that the Church must address.

Updates: I will post links to each of the individual posts as they go up
Out in the Desert - an introduction to Burning Man
Growth of the Man - how the festival started, and the challenges it faces
Postmodern Man - word from founder Larry Harvey about the basic ideas behind the festival
Christ on the Playa - spirituality, in particular Christianity, at the festival

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Messianic Kingdom

The lessons for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time:

  • Zechariah 12:10-11
  • Psalm 63:2-6,8-9
  • Galatians 3:26-29
  • Luke 9:18-24
There is a temptation when reflecting on the lessons appointed for a particular Sunday. You can perform a variety of mental gymnastics to try to make all three readings (and the psalm as well) fit into some single theme. Some weeks this works, some weeks it does not, and the bishops that put together the Lectionary warn against trying to see some link that is just not there. Not every set of readings go together in that way, and most homilists will pick some single theme from one of the lessons, quite often the Gospel lesson, to preach on.

But this week I am going to give into that temptation, because I think there is a common thread underlying several different readings, a common theme that is not immediately apparent, but is very important. The first reading, from Zechariah, is the least familiar. Christians generally see phrases like: and they shall look on him whom they have pierced and see a connection to Jesus. This would make this entire reading a propecy of a sort of the coming regin of the Messiah. This will include, according to this passage, an outpouring of the Spirit that brings both grace, and the call to repentance:
I will pour out on the house of Davidand on the inhabitants of Jerusalema spirit of grace and petition;and they shall look on him whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only son,and they shall grieve over him as one grieves over a firstborn.
The Gospel selection is much more familiar and is a continuation and expansion of this theme. Once Peter declares him the Messiah, he warns:
He said, "The Son of Man must suffer greatlyand be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,and be killed and on the third day be raised."Then he said to all,"If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himselfand take up his cross daily and follow me.For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it."
We see that it is the destiny of the Annointed One to suffer, be rejected and die -- and then rise from the dead -- him who they have pierced indeed, but with a different and more triumphant result. He then turns the table on his disciples and tells them that it is not only His own destiny, but theirs as well as anyone who wants to be a follower of Jesus.

At first blush, Paul seems to be on a different wavelength. This selection from Galatians is also very familiar -- in fact it includes one of the most astonishing statements in scripture:
For all of you who were baptized into Christhave clothed yourselves with Christ.There is neither Jew nor Greek,there is neither slave nor free person,there is not male and female;for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
This is saying that membership in the baptismal community transcends nationality, class, or gender, all things that divided the Church of both that time and this time, as well as all human societies. The compilers of the lectionary though, included the next verse:
And if you belong to Christ,then you are Abraham's descendant,heirs according to the promise

This means that as baptized persons, we are, today, full members of the Messianic Kingdom spoken of by Zechariah and other prophets, even though that kingdom has not yet been fully realized on earth. Taken together, we learn something important about the Messianic Kingdom of God proclaimed by the prophets, brought into reality in Christ and lived out today. As members of that Kingdom, there are three specific calls from God that we must respond to, calls to recognize the truth and confront where we have not lived up to it:

  • Repentance -- We are first called to confront where we have fallen short, and change direction. Zechariah warns that one effect of the outpouring of the Spirit is that we will finally recognize the evil that we ourselves have done, and understand the consequences. This is a call to honesty and integrity.
  • Action and Sacrifice -- Not only must we confront what we have done wrong, we must commit to following the truth, no matter what the cost. This is not some one-time decision, but an everyday reality. We must choose to die to ourselves, to live in Christ.
  • Unity and Humility -- Once we have taken these two steps in our own lives, we must confront the reality of the Kingdom in both the Church and the world. That reality is that no matter what apparent barriers there may be from race, class or gender, the fellow Christian in front of me is my very brother or sister in reality right now, no better or worse than I am. We are called to treat every human on earth this same way.
One important point from all this, is that answering the first two calls is necessary to being able to answer the third, and the first two are not complete unless they lead to unity and humility. That's about it for tonight.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Saint Thomas More

Give me thy grace, good Lord,
To set the world at nought;
To set my mind fast upon thee,
And not to hang upon the blast of men's mouths;
To be content to be solitary;
Not to long for worldly company;
Little and little utterly to cast off the world,And rid my mind of all the business thereof;
Not to long to hear of any worldly things,But that the hearing of worldly fantasies may be to me displeasant;
Gladly to be thinking of God;
Piteously to call for his help;
To lean unto the comfort of God;
Busily to labour to love him;
To know mine own vility and wretchedness;
To humble and meeken myself under the might hand of God;
To bewail my sins passed;
For the purging of them, patiently to suffer adversity;
Gladly to bear my purgatory here;
To be joyful of tribulations;
To walk the narrow way that leadeth to life;
To bear the cross with Christ;
To have the last thing in remembrance;
To have ever afore mine eye my death that is ever at hand;
To make death no stranger to me;
To foresee and consider the everlasting fire of hell;
To pray for pardon before the judge come;
To have continually in mind the passion that Christ suffered for me;
For his benefits uncessantly to give him thanks;
To buy the time again that I before have lost;
To abstain from vain confabulations;
To eschew light foolish mirth and gladness;
Recreations not necessary to cut off;
Of worldly substance, friends, liberty, life and all, to set the loss at right nought, for the winning of Christ;
To think my most enemies my best friends;
For the brethren of Joseph could never have done him so much good with their love and favour as they did him with their malice and hatred.These minds are more to be desired of every man, than all the treasure of all the princes and kings, Christian and heathen, were it gathered and laid together all upon one heap.

from Prayers and Meditations

I should have known that my career as an Anglican was in trouble when I came to believe that the heroes of the English Reformation were SS. John Fisher and Thomas More. It did help that More is the central character in Robert Bolt and Fred Zinneman's masterpiece, A Man for All Seasons, especially with Paul Scofield playing. Learning about More was a central part of my becoming a Catholic, and I strongly recommend Peter Ackroyd's recent The Life of Thomas More.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Why it is worth it

Warning: this is a rather long post saying that I both like this song a lot, and love my wife madly. You've been warned.

I can hear you downstairs crying on the phone
Telling someone that I’m here but you still feel all alone
Maybe we were too young
Goodbye, I’ve gotta go
I can hear the baby waking up
Got to get back to the life I know

I should have never believed him
Maybe I should just leave him

Maybe I’m not but you’re all I got left to believe in
Don’t give up on me
I’m about to come alive
And I know that it’s been hard
And it’s been a long time coming
Don’t give up on me
I’m about to come alive

(Charlie Colin, Pat Monahan, Jimmy Stafford, Scott Underwood, Rob Hotchkiss)
My musical tastes cover quite a range -- in fact it is often easier to say what I don't like. For example, I did not like opera unitl Marilee introduced me to Turandot, and things have gone gently from there. Well, like many children of the 1960's, a lot of my musical tastes were formed by the Beatles, and therefore I still have a love for the kind of strongly melodic pop and rock they perfected.

Working in radio some time back, I managed to keep up musically into the early 90's and then stopped trying. Lately though, lilke most of the Western world, I encounterd the former Bay Area cult band Train. I gave in last weekend and spent some birthday money to get their latest CD My Private Nation, hoping for something a bit higher energy to add to my music collection at work. The CD more than fulfilled that expectation, full of strong melody, lots of hooks and the big choruses that Train has become well known for.

But the last listed song, I'm About to Come Alive, snuck up on me like a 2x4 along side the head from behind. It is the quietest song on the disk, but it struck me hard emotionally as it described well I place I have found my self many times.
No one thought I was good enough for you
Except for you
Don’t let them be right
After all that we’ve been through
‘Cause somewhere over that rainbow
There’s a place for me
A place with you

Maybe I’m not but you’re all I got left to believe in
Don’t give up on me
I’m about to come alive
And I know that it’s been hard
And it’s been a long time coming
Don’t give up on me
I’m about to come alive
I was once, in the 1970's, a sort-of Evangelical. One problem I had was the attitude of many Protestants towards popular culture, especially popular music. To avoid some of the more offensive content (and there both was and is a considerable amount), there seems to be an approach of creating a kind of parallel media universe. This is allegedly aimed at proclaiming Christ's message to the world, but generally those who already believe are the main consumers of this kind of book, music and film. There are some great exceptions to this, but when I tune into some of the Christian radio stations, I find an attempt to "baptize" music of popular styles. The lyrics vary in quality from rather good to exremely trite. And in almost all cases the music is not only theologically but emotionally "safe". The problem is that art that can really reach far down inside us is a matter of more than skill -- and it is rarely "safe".

What strikes deeper into me is music created by gifted people who are trying to simultaneiously do something new and better (even in a small way), while being true to their own persons. If they, at the same time, produce something commercial, I don't have a problem with that. You have to pay for this somehow.

That's why some of the my strongest spiritual experiences with music, or any other art form, have been with works that are not explicitly or formally "spiritual". Some have strong spiritual content, but are not produced with an explicitly evangelical (in it's wider sense) intent. What the artist intended was to create the best song, picture, film, or book that they could. They were trying to create something that was, in the deepest sense of the word, true. But they have to be free to do more than polish the surface of our emotional and spiritual lives.

There are parts of our lives, sometimes the more broken places, where we can respond more to art created by someone who can understand our brokenness, who can convince us by their art that they have walked the same road. When they, instead of just leaving us leaving us is despair with ourselves, can share a little bit of the hope they have found themselves, it can be healing, affirming, cathartic or convicting.
In every frame upon our wall
Lies a face that’s seen it all
Through ups and downs and then more downs
We helped each other off of the ground
No one knows what we’ve been through
Making it ain’t making it without you

Maybe I’m not but you’re all I got left to believe in
Don’t give up on me
I’m about to come alive
And I know that it’s been hard
And it’s been a long time coming
Don’t give up on me
I’m about to come alive
We have never had a picturebook marriage. Nothing titanic -- just two rather broken people inadvertently hitting the other person's broken parts on a regular basis. There have been too many times that I, after proving how complete a screwup I could be, could sing that refrain maybe I’m not but you’re all I got left to believe in, don’t give up on me wth all my silly broken heart. The fact that I entered marriage not being able to express myself emotionally did not help at all. The song reminds me of all those times, and all the times that we have managed to get up and forgive each other. At those and other times, Marilee has been able to be an image of God's love to me in a way that nobody else has ever been.

While driving home from dinner Saturday night, Marilee asked my opinion about an issue she had at work. What floored me is the brief offhand comment at the end, that she really did trust my insights and intuitions about people. I told her later how surprising I found that, as I grew up somewhat detached from other people, and have had to work hard to open up over the years. We started talking about some of our problems and she said that while there were things about me that would grate forever, that she always saw me as a person of deep compassion.

I still have a hard time breathing when I think about that. What a tremendous gift to give to someone. Trust me, it's better than a card. I don't know yet what I can do in response to match, but I am working on it. We will have been married 25 years this coming December, and I would not have survived to now without her.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Surviving Anaheim

I've got some traveling to do next week.  I have been attending the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in Anahiem on and off for the past decade (this will be the fourth year in a row).  As I did last year, i will be making a week of it, speinding the early portion of next week on retreat at New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, then driving down the coast to Anaheim on Thursday.  (My posts from last year are here, here and here.)

If you are not familiar with it already, the RE Congress is probably the largest regularly scheduled gathering of Catholics in North America.  It is held at the Anaheim Convention Center across the street from Disneyland.  Thursday is Youth Day, which attracts around 15,000 high school age kids, and Friday through Sunday is the Congress itself which is attended by anywhere from 15 to 20 thousand teachers, catechists, musicians and other Catholics in ministry from all over the country.  There are dozens of conference sessions each day with Masses and other events in the evenings.  Some of my closest friendships in the Church began over dinner at Congress.  This year several members of our New Wine group are going for the first time, so in collaboration with others, I put together a Dozen Handy Tips for Surviving Anaheim.

  1. Dress for comfort – there is nothing formal about RE Congress. Good shoes and socks are a must. Think of it as going on a day hike with ten thousand of your closest friends.
  2. Get there the night before (Thursday) – and if possible the afternoon before. Try to avoid crossing downtown LA between 3 and 7 pm. Driving time from Merced is about 5 and a half hours – and that is if things go just right without stops.
  3. Remember to take your entire registration packet (just leave things in the envelope). Get there Thursday evening between 7 and 8:30 or early Friday to avoid lines when picking up your book and nametag holder. Once you have your book, keep track of it as it has most of the information you need, and the text of the Arena liturgies. Stick your tickets behind your nametag holder so you will have them when you need them.
  4. Bring a pack or something you are comfortable lugging all day – a shoulder strap to take the weight can be a life saver. There are no lockers, coat or bag check.
  5. Pack a lunch – especially if you have (as I do) special dietary needs. You can save money, time, and aggravation by bringing your own lunch with you each day. There are food vendors around, and both the supply and quality improves each year, but the prices don’t. And you avoid the lines.
  6. Take everything you need and nothing else. Pack that lunch, a small bottle of water (there is ice water in each conference room), medicines and anything else you need to have during the day. Don’t plan to return to your room unless your hotel is very close indeed. Leave room for your jacket or sweater( as it can get warm in some areas) and, of course, room for any purchases you plan to make. Also, some conference sessions and all liturgies tend to be crowded, so you don’t want too much stuff in the way – it may all end up on your lap.
  7. Lose the car. Either walk from your hotel or take the Disney shuttle ($3 per day – check with your hotel) – parking at the convention center is $8 per day and can be a hassle.
  8. Shop early – Get your serious shopping and buying done on Friday – Saturday is a zoo in the vendor’s area and many are either bought out or have closed on Sunday.
  9. Plan ahead for evening Mass and dinner. Know where and when you will meet the other members of your group.
  10. Chill out. Find out where the Sacrament chapel or some other peaceful corner and make sure to get some quiet time in by yourself or with a small group of friends. And don’t feel like you have to go to everything – sometimes it’s better just to kick back and buy the tape later. Don’t forget that the Sacrament of Reconciliation is offered as well and sometimes there is nothing like confession to a priest you don’t know. The Chapel and Reconciliation are located next to each other on the second floor of the Convention Center.
  11. The Arena sessions are always open. Remember, you can always hang out at or near the Arena sessions (English – Main Arena, Spanish – Hall B), which can be a good place to meet up as well.
  12. Go where everyone else is not going – There is a “main drag” in the Convention Center from the Arena, through the vendor area in Hall A, past the main Hispanic workshop in Hall B to the first escalator in the main lobby of the newer portion of the Convention Center. Most of the workshops are in the second and third floors of this area. Most people just stay on this one beaten path and use the first escalator they come to – and the worst crowd scenes of Congress result. Sometimes it is easier just to walk around the outside of the center (there is a very nice walkway between the Hilton and the Convention Center just for this) and when you get to the lobby, go to the far end where there is another elevator that is not nearly as crowded. If you have mobility problems, there are elevators just for you..
Have fun, take it easy, and give the Holy Spirit some room to work in!
We'll see how things go. I've known some people to try to criticze Congress on a number of levels. Over the past decade I've seen the RadTrads and Call to Action take turns picketing it -- which sounds about right. Anyone else going to Congress out there?