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.

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