Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Burning Man and the Future of the Missional Church

Does the Burning Man festival tell us something about the future of the church? It’s an interesting question. But first if you don’t know what Burning Man is here’s a quick overview:

Burning Man is an eight-day-long festival held annually, beginning on the last Monday of August and ending on the United States Labor Day holiday in early September. The festival takes place on the playa of the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, 90 miles (150 km) north-northeast of Reno, though the specific location on the playa changes from year to year. The temporary city is put forth as an experiment in community, radical self expression, and radical self reliance. The culmination of the event occurs on the sixth day of the event, Saturday, when a large wooden sculpture of a man is burned.

This year just last week 40,000+ people descended onto the dessert for Burning Man. Most Christians would look at the event and proclaim it to be devoid of anything of value to the church, but I beg to differ. I think there is a few things the church could learn from Burning Man.

1. Burning Man’s main attraction is the sense of community. Everyone belongs and for 8 days everyone is family.

2. People like a challenge! Burn Man is harsh conditions – but people will do what it takes to have their need for community filled.

3. There are endless forms of expression! I don’t agree with them all – but Burning Man shows how diverse expression can be. The church could learn to be more tolerant of expression.

4. There’s a spiritual hunger that people will go to extremes to satisfy. One goer said on his website “Burning Man is my church. Except, instead of going every Sunday, I go for one INTENSE week that gets me through the rest of the year.”

The missional church has a chance to meet all these felt needs. Community, challenge, expression and spiritual thirst. The question becomes will it?

This was originally posted a couple days ago on my blog. I'm interested in your reaction!


John Lynch said...

What a powerful picture of the culture in which we live & minister! To add to your challenging thoughts, Jerry, I also feel acutely aware of the parallel between Burning Man's artistic impulse & that of our culture & humanity in general. My wife is a missionally-minded artist & has led me to see in ways I've not ever seen before. I'm learning first-hand that the stuff of life is much deeper than language can hold.

Also a question to toss your way... What do you think the experiential or sensual nature of Burning Man teaches us as we begin incarnational-missional communities?

Ordinary Radical said...

I think this concept is great at its core..have you heard of "The Simple Way"..Shane Claiborne's community? If not, you should check it out!

John Lynch said...

Actually, G, I just bought that book! (...I was inshpired by you, brother!) Praying for you as always homeboy & happy to see you can get on these blogs from way the heck over there in the land-that-shall-not-be-named!

John Lynch said...

Another thought... Burning Man appears to be one more attempt to achieve the blessings of Christ-followership without actually following Christ. What is the spirit of the Burning Man community? I wonder if it isn't more an opportunity to throw oneself into an orgy of unleashed, unrestricted, uncondemned lust? After all, lust provides a very extreme sense of short-term satisfaction. So what are the real lessons of Burning Man for us who seek to do mission better?

philjohnson said...

Perhaps Burning Man can be evaluated and appreciated and queried on many levels. Perhaps we could consider aspects of Burning Man as an instance of Peter Berger's "signals of transcendence" (as per his book A Rumor of Angels 1969).

In this respect Burning Man encapsulates the yearning for human communitas that is authentically linked to our immanence in the creation whilst looking for transcendence simultaneously. Perhaps the "unknown god" (Acts 17) can be intuited here, especially when we take note of God's immanence and transcendence in Scripture.

Perhaps the nudity encapsulates light and dark simultaneously? Yes it is easy to think of peversion in sexuality. However, it is also the case that humans have a primordial yearning to get back to Eden and the physical, emotional and spiritual transparency that Genesis 1-2 highlights. R C Sproul in If There's A God, Why Are There Atheists (1976) took up holiness and transparency as an important point about human fragility in the presence of God. He looked at motifs of nakedness throughout Scripture especially where God was encountered.

Perhaps Burning Man calls us to recalibrate our understanding of a creation theology and creation ethic?

Perhaps Burning Man in many of its facets points to the "unpaid bills of the church?" -- those Godly commissions that we have neglected to do?

Perhaps the Burning Man gathering exemplifies what the anarchist poet Hakim Bey speaks of as a Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ)? In the TAZ people reclaim open public spaces and by their presence reshape its use and meaning. Perhaps Burning Man when understood as a TAZ speaks to us about the artificiality of modern urban life and consumerism. Our urban dwellings become mini Towers of Babel, little Parthenon Temples to greed, conformity and so on. Perhaps the way we design our houses and city buildings speaks of human hubris and even an attempt to physically "shut out" (metaphorically) the Spirit of God. Perhaps the convergence of people into the unimpeded desert suggests a pilgrimage, a sojourn (albeit briefly) in a search to recover a deeper connection with the creation, rather than the creation being regarded as a resource for exploitation? Perhaps the creation needs to be better appreciated on the basis of Genesis that we are appointed in servanthood to act as guardians of God's property and God's animals, and here we act in immanence because we belong in the creation, yet we are semi-transcendent because as beings made in the image and likeness of God we also have semi-transcendence over the creation.

Perhaps it is easy to find error, fault and sin, and much harder to discover what there is in Burning Man that connects with the revelation of God in Christ? The Patriarchs lived at times in the desert, the grizzling tribes wandered in the desert, and Christ spent 40 days in that eremetic wilderness; and so too the desert fathers also communed with God.

Being in the desert in search of transcendence probably seems strange to our minds that have been shaped by values of modern urbanity. But, maybe the positive kernels inside Burning Man could find their fulfilment in Christ (to paraphrase: "I have not come to destroy Burning Man but to fulfil it" and "you Burning Man folk worship what you do not know, but we worship what we know, for salvation is from Jesus the Jew" and again "Burning Man people I see how extremely spiritual you are in every way ... what therefore you worship in ignorance I now proclaim to you..."

And for more meditations consider:
"Citizens of Ephesus ... you have brought these men here [Paul and his companions] who are neither temple robbers nor blasphemers of our goddess." (Acts 19:35ff)

While Paul did not applaud the idols neither did he give religious offense by "blaspheming" what the non-Christian Ephesians considered "sacred". Perhaps we who are desirous of making disciples via events like Burning Man should strive to also emulate Paul's behaviour ... may the Burning Man people recognise those qualities of earnestness, integrity, cultural sensitivity and authentic respect in us as we give a reason for the hope in us "with gentleness and respect."

John Lynch said...

I appreciate your thoughts, Phil... especially the notion of pilgrimage. There is a portion of the human heart inclined to questing for discovery. In everything from the fantastical Treasure Island to the common refugee's search for water.

Something deeper too. Something about being changed on way - by the "Way". We feel the need to go somewhere. Reminds me of Hebrews 13:13... "Let us, then, go to Him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace He bore."

I can hear it in Jesus' voice... "I offer you a path. Take up your cross & follow Me." And I can see its power in the disciples' response. It leads me to consider the role of leadership on such a pilgrimage. To me, Burning Man appears to be a convergence of misguided pilgims... "sheep without a shelpherd".

Paul said "imitate me as I imitate Christ". Are we to say the same? Are we to say, "I offer you a path. Follow me & I will lead you to Him."? Sounds risky... dangerous even. I'm unresolved on it. The thought of me having "disciples" is certainly biblical; but I've grown so used to offering myself as a fellow traveler, that it seems foreign. So what now?

philjohnson said...


I guess the heart-felt problem concerns an apparent divide between discipleship and being a spiritual sojourner. Yet I wonder whether the dichotomy is itself a barrier of our own making? In other words is it "either/or"? Perhaps we need to recognise it as "both/and"?

My first musing is that since the Great Awakening of Evangelicalism in the 18th century there has been a tendency to approach non-Christians on a progressive linear set of steps: "believe/convert", then become a disciple, then become a discipler of others.

If we return to the synoptic gospels we discern something else: Jesus says "follow", and in the context of the following the questions emerge "who is this man", "why does he do the things he does" etc. He acts, and the actions prompt questions which in turn prompts the teaching, and so it goes in a spiral process rather than a strict linear progression. In effect the call to discipleship seems to come first, and the believing ensues in its wake. So part our perceptions about discipleship may be grounded in contemporary formulaic steps rather than the dynamics found in the synoptic gospels.

If we move on to the acts of the apostles, we continue to see the original band of followers in a spiral process of growth, doubt, questioning, reflecting, moving forward. So Peter continues to grope for answers even as he is confident of Christ being risen from the dead. Peter can boldly preach in Acts 2 and 4, but then has doubts about whether the Samaritans are indeed meant to receive the blessing (Acts 8), and again has to conront new thresholds in meeting Cornelius (Acts 10-11). Indeed he still has struggles as Paul reminisces how he had to "rebuke" Peter over worrying "what will the Judaizers think".

So in one sense the apostles do not reach a plateau where they cease to need discipling and can merely disciple others. They are dsciples, they disciple others, yet they are pilgrimson a sojourn in faith and discovery.

Then again note Paul's actions. Paul seeks to call others to follow, but it often arises out of contexts where he acts (like healing someone in Lystra Acts 14), which requires explanation or teaching (don't worship us, says Paul, this man was healed by the power of the risen Jesus). Paul takes time to talk and the talking leads to formal explanations or teaching opportunities. So he starts conversations in the marketplace in Athens, and his conversations provoke interest and he is invited to speak to the Areopagus. Again he spends 2 yrs teaching in Tyrannus' hall.

When we read Paul saying "imitate me" note that these remarks are in letters addressed to people (Timothy, Titus, Philippians etc) who are already well on the way and know the rudiments of Christian faith. This summons is surely at another level of discipleship to those who have reached some maturity and can be entrusted to pass on the message without corrupting or confusing it.

My colleaue in missions, Harold Taylor (a veteran of missions in Papua and in home missions) has remarked that we do better to start with what we have in common in creation rather than commencing with our differences. In reviewing historical examples of missions among the Celts and Muslims he says:

"Several common factors emege: respect, understanding, identification, appropriate communication, cultural and religious sensitivity, empathy, and a consuming desire to understand other people ... these principles are expressed in an ancinet Chinese poem that aptly summarizes many of the main factors of effective communication:

Go to the people, live among them, learn from them, love them, start with what they know, build on what they have."

None of this requires compromising on discernment, especially discerning what is not aligned to God's will. However, while we need to exegete a culture and exegete Scripture and engage in reflection, the twin things remain simultanesously: the broken Imago Dei cries out for healing and schizophrenically turns inwards to self. A handsome and holistic approach will find the points of contact and what is in common (because we too bear the Imago Dei, we cry for complete healing and we are fragile enough to choose our own idols at times) and positively walk as a sojourner among sojourners; yet, we will also intuit things that tend toward idols and those things must be honestly acknowledged and turned away from.

The difficulty we have is when we approach Burning Man as though the participants were the Pharisees, and then follow Jesus' rebukes as the way of communication. Our models for communication are surely better grounded in the way Jesus and the apostles interacted with non-Jews (John 4 woman at well, Paul in Lystra, Paul in Athens, Paul before Festus). The modern "Pharisees" already go to church; Burning Man people are "gentiles" who have never been reared in the "synagogue", do not know the OT, and hence have no relationship to the Jerusalem Temple (today's manifold variety of churches).

If Burning man people were regularly church goers then Elijah on Mt Carmel and Jesus vs the Pharisees would be the apt models. But since the social data shows the opposite, then they are like the woman at the well, and the Areopagus.

So we are both sojourners (like they are) because we have not arrived at our destination (new earth, new heaven), and we can say "hey follow" and in that context the questions begin. Those who grow will later become those who will be told "imitate me and choose faithful others".