What Can Burning Man Teach Christians?
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 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;
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.