At Work & Economics 101 & Public Square

Faith, Work & Economics at Burning Man

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Kayla Westbrook standing in front of the Temple of Grace at Burning Man 2014

This past week, nearly 68,000 people from across the world gathered in Nevada’s Black Rock Dessert to participate in Burning Man, North America’s largest annual outdoor art event.

Burning Man’s official website calls the festival an “annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and radical self-reliance.” Some consider it America’s largest pagan cult gathering or even a sign of the end times, so it may be the least likely of places to find traces of Christian theology.

But despite its pagan reputation, themes of Christian faith, work, and economics can be seen at Burning Man.

Spirituality at Burning Man

For many burners, the festival is a spiritual experience. According to Lee Gilmore in her book Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man, 46 percent of participants surveyed in 2004 affirmed their own experience of Burning Man was, in various ways, spiritual.

The most obvious tradition that highlights the spirituality of Burning Man is the Temple that is built in the center of la Playa each year. This year’s temple was called “The Temple of Grace” and is meant as a sacred place for “memorials, reflection, celebration, and to commemorate life transitions.”

The Temple is evidence that Burning Man isn’t just a big hedonistic party. The week-long event points to a universal human desire to experience and express something greater than ourselves.

Created to Create

Burning Man is a celebration of unique self-expression and creativity. For many burners, this the heart and soul of the event. Some participants come to the Playa days early to build massive art installations. Others spend prep time designing quirky costumes or practicing a song or dance to perform.

In 2012, Pastor Phil Wyman wrote about his experience at Burning Man in Christianity Today. He believes if anyone should be the leaders of such creative work, it should be Christians. He says,

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.

Another Pastor, Randy Bohlender, says one of the reasons he attends Burning Man is because creativity points to the Creator. In contemplating the vast creativity found at Burning Man, he says,

What is it within the heart of a man or woman that leads them to create? Why must we augment our reality with our depictions of it? That thing that has driven us to scratch the outline of a woolly mammoth on the wall of a cave, that has pushed us to build pyramids, paint pictures, and build flamethrowers […] The animal kingdom has no such compulsions. Why is mankind so different? 

Celebrating such creativity and uniqueness is celebrating Imago Dei. Whether those who participate in Burning Man know it or not, they are celebrating our God-given uniqueness and affirming that we are all created to create.

A Gifting Economy

The second principle of Burning Man is gifting. The official website says, “Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value.”

The Playa is a commerce-free zone during the week of Burning Man. Currency is not accepted. Instead, participants are encouraged to come prepared with what they will need as well as a unique way to serve others throughout the week. Some choose to gift water, coffee, jewelry, grilled cheese, dances, services, or skills—in whatever way they can best contribute—without expecting anything in return.

While a pure gifting economy would certainly not be sustainable in the long-run, it seems to work temporarily on the Playa since burners know what to expect and are also encouraged to come fully prepared to be self-reliant. Giving and receiving gifts are an added bonus.

Kayla Westbrook who attended this year’s Burning Man, likens the gifting economy to a family picnic:

The founders describe it as a picnic. You buy all the things you need for your picnic and then you give things away to your family members because who makes family members pay for a hot dog at a family picnic?

The gifting culture creates a strong sense of community through generosity. Pastor Wyman also says gifting is the principle of Burning Man that most closely reflects Jesus, arguing:

Burning Man is calling us to be gift givers ourselves. It calls us to prepare gifts for others. […] Only in learning to become Gifting Agents will we be able to express the heart of God among our fellow Burners. […] Give. Give hilariously. Give freely. Prepare how you will give now. This is the only way you become a Burner, and not just a poser. That may be true for Burning Man, but it is true for the Kingdom of God too.

God in the Desert

Though Burning Man is a far cry from anything explicitly Christian, the rituals practiced at least point to a desire to experience and express God.

It reminds me of IFWE’s trademark symbol, the triquetra, also known as the Irish Trinity knot. It was once a pagan symbol representing many different things—the interconnectedness of mind, body, and soul—yet today it is recognized as a Christian symbol of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Burning Man reminds us that God’s image is everywhere. We were created uniquely. We were created to create. We were created to give. And that’s something worth celebrating.

Burning Man reminds us that God is beckoning to his people everywhere, especially in the middle of the desert.

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  • Anneke9

    I’m wondering if the author has ever been to Burning Man or is just familiar with other people’s descriptions of it? As a Christian wannabe-artist, I would love to attend art festivals, but this is not one of them. There’s too much public nudity, drug use, partying, etc. One of my running buddies went this year with a group-designed art installation… which included a giant pink phallus. Not exactly the kind of place most Christians need to be unless you’re an evangelist looking to save souls.

  • Great article.

    That Wyman quote reveals some bad thinking. Christians ARE often among “the leaders of new cultural development and wildly creative thought.” They just aren’t always recognized by the Christian subculture, which seems to favor confrontational, politically charged, ‘explicitly Christian’ rhetoric over subtle, ‘faithful presence’ efforts to influence popular culture and encourage people to stop for a moment, examine their lives and think on higher things.

    Consider the NFL. Remember Tim Tebow? He was lauded by the evangelical Christian community for professing his faith loud and clear in the face of some ridicule. Less confrontational Christian players (like Eastern Orthodox Christian Troy Polamalu) rarely get such praise. Yet though they don’t express their faith as loudly as Tebow, I think they have a bigger impact on fans–especially those who disagree with their religious beliefs but admire their character. The same phenomenon occurs in Hollywood and in the mainstream media.

    Wyman is right that Christians should start influencing the culture in more creative ways. But the step should be to support those thousands of Christians who are already doing it!

    “Christians need to abandon talk about ‘redeeming the culture’, ‘advancing the kingdom’, and ‘changing the world’. Such talk carries too much weight, implying conquest and domination. If there is a possibility for human flourishing in our world, it does not begin when we win the culture wars but when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, reaching every sphere of social life. When faithful presence existed in church history, it manifested itself in the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care – again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone. Faithful presence isn’t new; it’s just something we need to recover.”

    • Elise Amyx

      A great point, Nick. I agree, and I love the James Davison Hunter quote.

  • Phil Wyman

    Hey Elise, Thanks for the nod. This year’s Burning Man continued my search for discovering ways to embed faith into festival life, and vice versa, to bring the festival creativity back to the church. Blessings on you. Pastor Phil

  • Elise Amyx

    No I have never been to Burning Man. My purpose was not to encourage Christians to attend or to not attend. There are definitely aspects of Burning Man, like what you’ve mentioned, that no Christian should accept or participate in. The purpose of this post was just to provide an example of the way God shows up in the most unlikely of places.

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