I have an old friend who recently encouraged me to look into Burning Man. I had never heard of it until a few months ago. So I asked a couple of my co-workers if they had heard of it and nearly all of them had. Huh.
Burning Man is, on paper, a big art festival in the Nevada desert. Every year there is something close to 80,000 participants. They create all sorts of art and music and spend time dancing and “gifting” their supplies to one another – there is no plumbing or cars allowed so you have to ride a bike around and use the out-houses.
But ask any “burner” and they tell you it is oh so much more than just an art festival. It’s something beyond your wildest dreams!
Burning Man essentially exists to promote two massive thrusts: first, completely free self-expression, including nudity, body paint, etc., and second, a temporary sense of autonomy from any form of governance – it seeks to produce a “temporary autonomous zone.” They are also committed to leaving no trace of garbage behind, which is a noble goal of course, (except for the many tons of carbon they gratuitously load into the atmosphere after burning loads of their massive art structures).
My buddy told me that folks like me, who care very much about the global mission of Jesus, need to consider the spiritual draw of this sort of thing. According to him, it’s a substitute for religious participation.
Of course, he is right – not that it’s a viable substitute for the true community that develops around the life under Christ – but that people like me do in fact need to pay some attention to this sort of thing. That is my aim in writing this…
The first thing to say is that the stated aims and ideals of the event are inherently unworkable and contradictory. They are committed to developing a sharing economy by “gifting” their supplies to one another and yet you need to pay upwards of $400 to get a ticket in. They are committed to “inclusion” and yet the vast majority of people attending (perhaps who can afford to go and burn $400 for a few days’ fun) are white, wealthy people from the Silicon Valley. They are also committed to environmentalism and yet they burn loads of stuff needlessly. Moreover, they are committed to pursuing autonomy and an anti-establishment vibe, and yet every year they realize they need more and more rules to regulate fires, and land use, and medical concerns, etc. No kidding. Apparently, communities of humans need governance for the well-being of all. Right.
Let’s not kid ourselves, the whole autonomous vibe is just for sales, appealing to the deep anarchy that lies in the heart of the naive consumer. No – they are not autonomous at all, in fact, the whole festival rests on the good benevolence of the surrounding society. The land they meet on in the Nevada desert is land set aside as natural space. The roads they drive on to get there are American roads. And if there is ever a health crisis they can helicopter you to a nearby American hospital. So much for an autonomous zone. Seriously, movements like this don’t develop in places like Somalia – an actual autonomous anarchy. A parasite needs a host.
But let’s pry a little deeper. What is the real driver for this festival? Why does it get people, oh so jazzed?
Burning Man is a substitute for religion precisely because it is a religion.
Burning Man is essentially an orgiastic fertility rite, like those of the ancient Canaanites. The two notable institutions of the festival that I have left out are the “temple,” where people are encouraged to go and get spiritual about stuff, and then also the sex booth, where people are encouraged to go and get…you know.
And that of course is nothing new. Throughout civilization, pre-Abraham and post-Abraham, people have been worshiping around the throne of Hedonistic Sexuality. Anyone who has taken even a basic introductory course in Old Testament knows this. The constant temptation for all Israel was to turn to Asherah, and Baal. Without getting too vulgar, these were massive sex cults – the Asherah pole was a priapistic symbol. And I’m supposed to believe burning man is the real Avant Garde thing. There is nothing new under the sun. At its root this is all just the same demonic garbage masquerading as “the in thing.”
What is more demonic that the climax of the event where everyone gathers around to watch a massive statue of a man burn. Symbols have meaning. What’s the meaning here? Is it not that the imago die is a curse that needs to be burned off of us? Demons always rejoice in the marring of that original image. And the sad news just this week is that one man literally threw himself into the flames. But isn’t that what we would expect? He is symbolizing what a generation is doing presently in their devotion to these sorts of destructive rites. Further testimony to the age-old truth that you become like what you worship. And the second that goes with it, that you are always destroyed by your idols.
This sort of fertility religion is exactly what Jesus came to do away with. And like King Josiah who ground the Asherahs to dust in pursuit of God’s blessing and revival (2 Kings 23:6), so Jesus also grinds to dust the idols that would turn us back to dust. Jesus builds lasting community in a kingdom that will never diminish, lasting life for those who repent of their wickedness and folly, and lasting fruitfulness to those who would acknowledge him as Lord. When Burning Man leaves dust in the ears and armpits, Jesus brings water in the dusty wilderness.
Jesus builds a lasting community in a kingdom that will never diminish, lasting life for those who repent of their wickedness and folly, and lasting fruitfulness to those who would acknowledge him as Lord. When Burning Man leaves dust in the ears and armpits, Jesus brings water in the dry places – water flowing into the paradise of God.