Spiritual Life

A Christian pastor explores the gifts of Burning Man

This is the first in a three-part series on Young’s experience as a Christian pastor at Burning Man, the annual art event and temporary community based on radical self-expression and self-reliance in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.

I spent the week before Labor Day participating in Burning Man. Every year in the dust of a dry lakebed at an elevation of 4,000 feet, volunteers build from scratch a temporary city, this year with a population of 68,000 people. The site lies 110 miles north of Reno and is accessed only by a single-lane road.

People who do not know me well wondered if I were suffering from a midlife crisis. They had seen pictures of partially clad people in outlandish costumes wildly dancing to electronic music at past events. My cousin wondered if it would be like visiting Sodom and Gomorrah, with everyone around me tripping out on psychedelic drugs in the physically punishing desert climate.

I had different hopes than some of those I met. I went to become a temporary citizen of another country, another America, with different rules and values. In our culture, we can feel powerless to make our world more humane. It may be difficult to even imagine alternatives to pictures of reality that limit or distort us. Burning Man, I hoped, could give me a clearer idea of how to serve in God’s kingdom, because God’s reign is not just what happens when you die. It is continuous with the way we live right now.

This spirit motivated the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the fourth and fifth centuries, whose spiritual breakthroughs ultimately led to the invention of monastic life. Those early Christians wanted to explore alternatives to the cruelty, slavery, exploitation and arbitrariness of the dominant Roman culture.

I went for similar reasons, to experience an alternative to the consumerism, bureaucracies and hierarchies that color every interaction we have with each other.

The desert monks articulated rules that governed their lives together. Burners similarly have 10 principles written by Burning Man founder Larry Harvey: radical inclusion of everyone, generosity, freedom from commerce (no buying, selling or even the display of corporate logos), self-reliance, self-expression, community, responsibility, environmental stewardship, participation and the value of immediate experience.

Burning Man will not cure all the ills of a broken, decadent and unjust society. It is not a replacement to our economic system that will last forever. It is a temporary experiment in how we treat each other. It is a chance to step into a more generous place with different freedoms and constraints, hazards and blessings. We came from different worlds but shared one experience in common – generosity, hospitality and openness to meeting new people.

The most striking element of this experience is giving. Walking down the street, people gave me hotdogs, Sno-cones, steak, pancakes, drinking water, beer, a telephone call home, clothes and costumes, Polaroid pictures, Pop-Tarts, jewelry, fresh peaches, entertainment, a newspaper, books and music.

In the desert, I saw hedonism and self-sacrifice, narcissism and generosity, indifference and grace, despair, self-destruction and signs of wonderful new life. People went there for different reasons and brought with them different expectations. But the one thing we all shared was the radical giving at the heart of that community, a kind of hospitality that should inspire all people of good faith.

The Rev. Malcolm C. Young, author of “The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau” (Mercer University Press, 2009), is on sabbatical from Christ Episcopal Church in Los Altos. For more information, visit ccla.us.

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