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Forcing Jesus Into Burning Man
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Why I Left Burning Man -- and Why I'm Returning


Forcing Jesus Into Burning Man:
A Response to Christianity Today

by Deuce of Clubs

 

Danger Ranger (founder of Burning Man's Black Rock Rangers) posted a link on Twitter on Thursday morning (09aug2012):

Danger Ranger Christianity Today

The linked Christianity Today article is called Finding Jesus at Burning Man: How God used us at one of America's most hedonistic gatherings.

My initial reaction was, if God is conceived of as an all-knowing, all-powerful being who created and maintains the entire universe, wouldn't it be considered presumptuous for anyone to claim to be in a position to know "How God used us?"

I didn't end up thinking any more highly of the article than I did the subtitle. In it, a pastor named Phil Wyman tells how "about 40 Christians from all over the country" (it's always gotta be 40 with these Christians, doesn't it!) attended Burning Man "with the common goal of outreach."

Uh-oh.

"Opportunities for sharing the gospel could be limitless," Wyman says.

As a person indoctrinated as a Baptist from youth (but who managed, somehow, to escape the faith) and who has been to Burning Man many times, starting in the mid-1990s, I'd like to respond to a few things in Wyman's article.

Regarding "a developing festival culture in American society," Wyman says:

I believe these "developing cultures" cannot run far before finding that God is running with them, embedding hints of the gospel into the DNA of their own creative momentum.

I'd say it falls somewhere between disingenuous and condescending to claim, regarding the imaginative and innovative work of others—few of whom, I suspect, share or are motivated in any way by your religious beliefs—that they are unknowingly informed by the (to them) imaginary god of your religious belief. I doubt Christians would like it if I claimed that, "Well, yes, Amy Grant has a fine voice and all—but that is because she is the unknowing vessel of Cthulhu! She cannot run far before finding that Cthulhu is running with her, embedding whispers of R'lyeh into the DNA of her creative momentum!" (Christians definitely do not like hearing it suggested that paganism and Platonism are embedded in their religion's DNA, but we'll get to that shortly.)

I would suggest that if you see "hints of the gospel" somehow "embedded" into Burning Man, you may be reading into it what you want to see. I would suggest, further, that many Burners would regard proselytizing the Christian gospel at Burning Man as completely foreign to the spirit and nature of the event: an unasked-for attachment, like a barnacle (or a carbuncle). Mr. Wyman uses this idea of "embedding" three times in his article. It would be interesting to know why the Christian God would need to embed "gospel hints" into the work of artists unmotivated by it, uninterested in it, or even hostile to it. Why not bless Christians with the caliber of creativity that draws people to Burning Man? No disrespect to Amy Grant, but where are the towering Bachs of today? To his credit, Mr. Wyman allows himself to wonder about that, too:

I wondered why Christianity had not typically embedded itself into these festivals, why we weren't among the leaders of new cultural developments and wildly creative thought. Certainly God is wildly creative—enough to find his way into human hearts in other cultures around the world. But at these festivals, and in the newly developing cultures of postmodernity, there seem to be so few people of Jesus.

It doesn't appear to strike Mr. Wyman as odd to admit that Christianity is incapable of "wildly creative thought" such as is all over the place at Burning Man, and then claim, only a few paragraphs later, that Christianity's beliefs are somehow "embedded" in Burning Man, but if I had to guess why Burning Man is so wildly creative, and why it draws so few Jesus people, I'd say it might be at least partly because efforts such as Burning Man tend to be mostly about saying Yes, whereas the desert religions (that is, the monotheistic religions) tend to be all about saying No. Is it surprising that a No attitude would tend to cut into one's ability to be "wildly creative?" So how could it be surprising that popular Christian artistic expression tends instead to be blandly and slavishly imitative? That could be at least one reason why Christianity follows cultural developments instead of leading them (and would also explain how non-Christians flipping around a radio dial can instantly peg a "contemporary Christian music" song: because it sounds like a limp counterfeit of something else.)

Christians are therefore reduced to having to try to attach themselves to cultural developments, such as Burning Man, that have nothing to do with Jesus. They try to smuggle Jesus in, by performing a kind of interpretational conversion on them. For hundreds of years, many church leaders did the same thing by retroactively "baptizing" Plato (to the extent that Plato's ideas and Christianity's ideas came to stand almost in a hey-you-got-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate relation to one another). This sort of conceptual kidnapping happened even with the bizarre phenomenon of The Mojave Phone Booth: no sooner did it become popular than Christians began straining to squeeze the idea of a phone booth in the desert into trite sermon illustrations:

 

In this self-reliant age of science and cynicism, many people see prayer as a parallel to that now-phantom phone booth. In their minds, it had its use, years ago, but the world has moved on and prayer has been left behind, a faded symbol of a simpler, less sophisticated time. —"Ringing In the New Year," Cross Current

Most likely if you try to call the desert phone the line will be busy. However, you can place a call to an even better place called Heaven where the line is never busy simply by bowing your head, and closing your eyes. —"The Desert Phone," The Burning Bush Devotional

On May 17, 2000, Pacific Bell removed the "Mojave Phone Booth" that had been in service for more than thirty years; the voice in the desert disappeared. After thousands of years, the original bush that Moses saw is long gone. But that doesn't mean that God's voice is silenced! God still issues calls to repentance, forgiveness, and service today. Those calls come through His written Word as that Word is read and preached. As you hear God's call through that Word, are you ready to "pick up the phone"? —"A Voice in the Desert," Purkey's Bible Study Outlines

Compare this foolishness to Jesus' experience in the Garden of Gethsemane. That garden was also a deserted place—especially at night—when Jesus went there. But He went with friends, not searching for them. He was seeking to make a connection, but He wasn't in doubt. He talked frequently with the Father, and so He could always expect "someone to answer when He called." —"Hello? Is Anyone There?" by "C. R. B."

Perhaps I am over-analyzing the irony of people throughout the world making electronic contacts and cyber-pilgrimages to an American desert - in contrast to the message that emerged from a Middle Eastern desert 2,000 years ago.
Perhaps I am reading too much into this. The fact that a good news message, delivered via the Son of God, emerged from a desert landscape and spread throughout the world—long before the first computer was ever created - gives us pause to consider that the Gospel needs no gimmicks—needs no novelty. —"Deep in the Desert," Central News

 

Well, yes, you probably were reading too much into it, there, anonymous Christian, but as much as one has to laugh at such blatant and strained sermonizing, you can almost not blame the people engaging in it: they are stuck in a religion that claims its truth is sole and all-inclusive. Therefore, they can't allow anything to escape it or exist apart from it—especially anything that seems new, or better, or smarter, or more interesting, or fun. Everything must be interpreted from within that narrow, old reality tunnel. Nothing outside the reality tunnel can be allowed to be what it is, without being sanctified and baptized and somehow Christianized. By rejecting novelty and openness, you reject the very source of wild creativity.

There are, however, still some forms of creativity open to those stuck within the confines of the Christian reality tunnel. One of them is what I would call a wildly creative (or at least idiosyncratic) re-interpretation of other peoples' cultures or works, such as when Wyman writes of

The Jesus who has adeptly embedded his presence into the myths and histories of cultures....

This idea—that the pre-incarnate Jesus somehow went around leaving a scavenger hunt's worth of hints of his (eventual) gospel in pagan religions—is one that crops up from time to time in books by modern Christian writers such as C. S. Lewis, but it's an ancient dodge, at least as old as Justin Martyr, the second-century Christian apologist, that attempts to explain Christianity's syncretism (that is, its borrowings from pre-existing religions). In Lewis's version, the reason that Christian ideas could have existed in pre-Christian religions is that God was salting away the truths of The True Religion within false religions, as a way of "preparing their hearts" for the eventual Jesus story. That explanation seems to me not only silly on its own merits, but also impossible to square with the Bible's various accounts of God commanding his people to commit genocide upon other people explicitly for practicing the religions that Lewis seemed to think were leavened with pre-Christian Christianity. Justin Martyr's version was more straightforward, as well as easy to harmonize with God-ordained genocide: he maintained it was all part of a plot by the Devil! Regarding Jesus's reputed virgin birth, Justin wrote: "that Perseus was begotten of a virgin, I understand that the deceiving serpent counterfeited also this."

(Side note: Justin Martyr didn't deny that the myth of the virgin birth of Perseus existed long before the myth of the virgin birth of Jesus, so it would be pretty strange if "the deceiving serpent" had been able to counterfeit something that didn't yet exist. It might be stranger still if Satan had been able to divine the prophecy of a virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14, where no Jew ever did, and apparently the Paul the Apostle never did, and no one else did, until the anonymous writers of the gospels, decades after Jesus's death, ransacked their way through the Hebrew scriptures for verses to transform into prophecies of their Jesus, and got confused because they were using the Greek translations of those scriptures, rather than Hebrew, which evidently they were unable to read. Maybe "the Devil can cite Scripture for his purpose," but he'd have had to try pretty hard to twist the Old Testament as hard as the gospel writers did for their purposes. For those interested, an excellent introduction to this practice is Randel Helms's Gospel Fictions.)

What Christian missionaries at Burning Man are doing is not much different from what Christian missionaries have done for thousands of years: invade an alien culture and try to re-interpret its beliefs as being "really" about Christian beliefs. "That's not Shing Moo and her savior son! Why, it's perfectly obvious that it's the Virgin Mary and Jesus! See? In your blinkered darkness, you've really been worshiping Jesus all along." It's a technique as old as the Apostle Paul's speech on Mars Hill, where he is said to have informed the Athenians that their altar to The Unknown God was "really" an altar to the Christian God. "Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you."

At root, the message is one of condescension: What you think is real is merely a shadow of what I declare to be really real. Or, as C. S. Lewis expressed it, in the context of pagan myths that predated the Bible myths: "The Pagan stories are God expressing himself through the minds of poets, using such images as he found there, while Christianity is God expressing himself through what we call `real things.'"

Nearing the end of the article, we stumble into what I see as the crux of the contrast between Burning Man and Christianity's idea of itself:

Dennis told Daniel the meaning of his name: `Beloved of God.'

Contained in that seemingly insignificant error—the name Daniel does not mean beloved of God, it means God is my judge—is a picture of the huge gulf between Burning Man and Christianity. Burning Man is typically characterized by a flexible, non-judgmental openness to novelty and differences among people, whereas Christianity, which Christians often characterize as a religion of love, is usually more accurately characterized by inflexibility, close-mindedness, intolerance of novelty, claims to exclusive truth, and the conviction that its Jesus will one day be everyone's judge (not only of people named Daniel!). If that sounds weird or surprising to you, take a long look through the "good news" (that's what gospel means), and you'll find that no character in the Bible is represented as ranting about Hell more than Jesus does.

 


 

In 1996, I invited a Christian friend to come along with me to Black Rock Desert. Afterward, he had a one-word judgment of Burning Man: "Satanic."

I'd be willing to bet that if experiences such as Burning Man were Satanic, Satan would enjoy a better reputation than he does, and I'd bet also that if people visiting churches got the reception they get at Burning Man, and experienced what people routinely experience in Black Rock City—where the goodwill truly is free, there tend to be few, if any, exclusive truth claims, and there are no threats of judgment at all—there would be people lining up to crowd into churches the way crowds line up to get into Burning Man.

I wish Mr. Wyman and his fellow Christian missionaries no success at all in mashing Burning Man (and all else) down into the dark, pinched confines of their reality tunnel. More importantly, though, I wish them no success in their efforts to win converts, but insofar as they succeed, I hope that for every person they convert, at least a dozen Christians leave the closed environments of their churches for the openness represented by phenomena such as Burning Man.

I am glad, however, that Mr. Wyman and his Christian colleagues don't openly call Burning Man "Satanic," because it leaves open the chance that maybe, eventually, they might be able to open their eyes—maybe even at Burning Man—and truly see what surrounds them, without filtering it through a single reality tunnel built by an interpretation of the Bible.

But if they never do, they need not worry, of course: at Burning Man, only The Man burns. No eternal torment awaits unbelievers who refuse to accept Burning Man attendance into their hearts as their personal behavior.

 


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