Trading sham transcendence for the real thing
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Before I became a believer, I absolutely did not want to hear what “Jim and Suzy Christian” had to say. I’d spotted some of these exotic creatures in college and imagined the late Aussie naturalist Steve Irwin narrating my sightings: “Right! What we have here is a female—notice the clean-scrubbed face, modest skirt, and fistful of tracts. If you get near one of these—crikey!—they’ll evangelize you so fast it’s not even funny!”
I kept my distance.
I did not want to hear the smug moralizing I was sure would slip like brimstone smoke from between the teeth of their paper-doll smiles. I kept the memory of my own disdain for Christian tch-tch-ing at the forefront of my mind as I reflected on images from Burning Man 2023. Because torrential rains this year soaked the festival event, it stayed more in the news than usual. This both defeated my personal firewall against the neurotoxin known as social media and made me curious.
Some 70,000 seekers and shamans, survivalists and epicures, tree-huggers and tech bros, hippies, thrill-seekers, and sparkle ponies descended Labor Day weekend on a barren, 400-square-mile prehistoric lakebed outside Reno known as “the playa.” Watching clips on YouTube, I found the event a bit like a traffic accident: It was almost impossible not to gawk.
There were flamethrowers, flame-swallowers, Tarot readings, spellcasting, and barbed, skimpy costumes that seemed designed by the lovechild of Mad Max and Dita Von Teese. Sliding across the midnight hardpack: surreally large vehicles limned in glowing colors, as though the Star Wars Jawas had trimmed their droid-salvage-mobiles in neon and brought them to Nevada.
In a place called the Thunderdome, brutal cage-fights raged, with a color commentator growling, “We [expletive] love violence!” Media accounts also listed carnal events I can’t repeat here.
Christian Me wondered, “What are these people looking for?” But B.C. Me already knew: They are looking for transcendence.
A 2015 New York Times piece put it this way: “The Black Rock playa evokes feelings of both fantastic and limitless possibility. … It is not without significance that deserts have a long history as loci of transformative possibilities—from Moses to Muhammed and from Christ to Carlos Castaneda … helping to set the stage for transformative experiences.”
Though it is truly a sex-soaked bacchanal, it turns out Burning Man has principles. Ten of them, actually, the most important of which seem to be these:
Radical inclusion: Everyone is welcome without fear of judgment or discrimination. Gifting and decommodification: Participants are encouraged to share their art, food, and other items without expecting anything in return. Radical self-expression: Through art, music, dance, or any other form of creative expression, again without fear of judgment. Radical self-reliance: Each participant is expected to pull his or her own weight. Communal Effort: Participants work together to create a safe, welcoming, inclusive community. Together they create something greater than the sum of their parts. Civic Responsibility: Participants are expected to take personal responsibility and create a culture of respect.
Interesting. The whole thing sounds remarkably like the Church. Sadly, though, many Burning Man seekers likely see the Church the way I used to—a whole army of Jim and Suzy Christians utterly bent on judgment—when in fact, the Church looks more like the playa: a whole army of radically accepted misfits working together, each part necessary to the whole, without expecting anything in return. It is, in fact, radical inclusion that makes the gospel so powerful: that God accepts—to quote a lyric from Switchfoot—“the dropouts, the losers, the sinners, the failures, and the fools.”
“I came that they might have life and that abundantly,” Jesus said. He meant now. “He that believes in me even though he dies, yet shall he live.” He meant forever. That’s transcendence. My question is, why dabble in the desert when you can have the real thing?
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