Posts in religion

October 1st, 2012  |  Filed under Spirituality

Could Burning Man replace religion? For real?

Photo taken at Center Camp.

When Christian media first got wind of Burning Man, they accused it of being the latest fad in Satanism.

They still do that … apparently Satan’s had a slow decade … but now there are so many articles with the premise of “my time at Burning Man as a Christian” that it’s practically its own genre – and many of these articles posit that Burning Man is something the Church can learn from, and that there is a place for the Cross at the Man.

There’s Phil Wyman’s recent article in Christianity Today – along with numerous posts on his blog. Wyman, incidentally, also creates Christian themed art for the playa that fits in perfectly with the rest of our patented brand of madness. (I wrote about one of his pieces here, and he strongly disagreed with my take here, but there’s no question in my mind that his work contributes fittingly to our ethos.)

There’s Steve Matthews posting for The Worldview Center, which is mostly critical (and badly misinformed) but still asks “What the church can learn from Burning Man.” There’s a number of posts about Burning Man on the Sidewalk Theologian blog. And many more.

Which begs a question I’ve been wondering for a while: When exactly did a Cacophony sponsored trip to the desert to build art and shoot guns transform into a major spiritual pilgrimage for the Western world?

Whether or not it’s appropriate to think of Burning Man in those terms, there’s no question that many people do. The number of camps offering morning yoga has increased alarmingly in just the last few years. A number of people talk about Burning Man as though it were an alternative to mainstream religion – as, for example, this recent Huffington Post blog suggesting that because Burning Man fits Joseph Campell’s criteria for a religion it’s ready to hit the big leagues. And as a Volunteer Coordinator for Burning Man, I receive hundreds of volunteer applications every year that say something like this: Read more »

June 22nd, 2011  |  Filed under Spirituality

Earthalujah Explained!

[Editor's Note: For those of you unfamiliar with him, Reverend Billy is a New York-based performance artist whose work speaks to the heart of Burning Man's principles of decommodification and radical self-expression. He was a Burning Man honorarium artist in 2003, where he performed in front of the Man as part of that year's "Beyond Belief" art theme. Enjoy!]

Reverend Billy’s brilliantly bombastic, boldly brief Earthalujah sermons — now available as a podcast! Watch more episodes and subscribe at


Sometimes people come up to me and ask “The Church of Earthalujah…what is that? Is it a political rally? Is it a real church? Is it a comedy sketch? What is it?!”

Question: Is consumerism, is consumption, is consuming too much killing us right now? Yes it is. In the Church of Earthalujah we are definitely fighting consumerism. And that starts with the flags, the banners of consumerism are labels. There’s a label on every product, Amen! So, let’s not label anything. Let’s get beyond labels – that’s the devil!

We have an Earth crisis right now that we can’t label. In the old days it seems like there used to be people who would run down to the village common and shout “there’s an emergency here!” The traditional town crier. Someone should be shouting “Hey! The atmosphere! Too much heat! Extinction! Everything’s dying! Do something!” Where’s that person now? There seems to be a giant hush from the governments, celebrities, corporations, religions, armies – all the people who are supposed to be leading us. There’s a hush because they don’t have the right labels. But they look around them and they see what we all see: fires, floods, tsunamis, quakes, typhoons, tornadoes…Yes! That is the town crier! That is the force that is so powerful it’s chasing the God-forsaken celebrities off the front page of the newspaper. And that is the Earth itself getting our attention, and killing some of us.

In the Church of Earthalujah we regard these events as expressions, as words, as communications from a living being. The Earth is talking to us not just through these tragedies but every time we love each other, the Earth is whispering in our ear. When we walk out across a field on a beautiful day the Earth is alive.

Lets continue to live here. Let us ask the Earth to teach us to save the Earth and save ourselves. Amen.

September 23rd, 2010  |  Filed under Tales From The Playa

A Christian at Burning Man

Tales From The Playa are dreams and memories of events that took place at Burning Man, as told by its participants.

by Weinstain

I try to remember this recent past the way one tries to remember an interesting knot in a log in last night’s camp fire. There are obvious parallels between Burning Man and the Bible: Desert, anti-commericialism, temple, smashing money-changers tables, man and fire, golden calf, gold burned from dross, contrition, expungement, community, take-care-of-thy-neighbor, come to it like a little child, Jesus was accused of drinking too much wine, talking to the woman at the well, etc… At Burning Man, I overheard a man in a short skirt say “Jesus was a burner” and someone else suggested a Jesus camp where everyone dresses like Jesus and talks about who Jesus was and now means. Certainly the art work at Burning Man made me think of what we might have access to if the Right Wing did not control so much of our assets and now our tax base.

Christians, like most influenced by their own human nature, try to find what is wrong or different with others in order to reflect they believe in the Bible or their place in the world. It’s a perverse type of announcing one’s faith or belonging, and I just did it myself! But, I do not go to church because when I tried, almost no one wanted to know me except those truly spirit gifted people who remain my friends for decades and through them I hold communion and confession. I still go on Church campouts, but most stay in their own family circles which is understandable in light of managing kids and resting from work. My church is on the sidewalk, it is in the hours I put into the things that represent meaning and honesty to me and I watch miracles happen all the time and sense a path laid out before me which is also a cerebral one. It is hard to prove or describe this algebra of serendipity that I have encountered my whole life. I also want to avoid the paralyzing mixture of self circumscription and inadvertent ego absorption that Christians suffer from when they have concluded they absolutely know what Christianity looks like and by-damned, they are going to tell you and exist solely in their own mental paradigms, thereby making their cognitions above God Himself. BTW, in case you dont know, that is how Satan got kicked out of heaven. The “man” burning in the desert seems to me like sacrificing a god to a god. There are definitely idolotrous aspects to the burning of the man and temple, as well as the offerings placed at both. But the counter proof is that no matter where people are in the space/time continuum (and it is also part of Primate behavior) they do two things: create community and find a venue for worship. Eternity is as old as humanity.

My Burning Man camp leader, the one who invited me and one of the most capable, clever, and community building people I have ever met, is a preaching atheist. He says “Faith is the absence of thinking.” Thought seems, to me, to be an act of faith. I think God is the greatest scientist and we can see his handwriting in creation. I think he wants us to discover whatever there is out there to discover because we will find more of Him. My friend thinks that if it were not for Faith of any kind (he refers to any religious person as an “asshat”) that for one we would have skipped the Dark Ages and would have already cured cancer and other futuristic feats and that all believers should give it up and start improving the world in which they presently live and that we are mostly born OK the first time. Hard to argue with that, except sometimes certain things happen that belong to the spiritual realm, such as I dreamt of Burning Man before I even decided to go, without seeing pictures or anything else or even knowing to identify what was in the dream as Burning Man. I.e., at the entrance gate line, there was a wooden circus wagon with the exact detailing and half door in front of me that was in my dream. Exactly. If God is not real, I was merely tapping into the collective conscious or somehow psychically reaching out for higher intelligence and manifesting that need to communicate with an object that would appear in the future. And then there are prayers answered in such specific and timely ways, that one cannot deny there is some greater organization we cannot see. Either way, at worst God is a great imaginary friend and I am not giving Him up. I declined going out to the playa for either temple or man burn and explained to an asking campmate that God will put up with alot, but He will not put up with worshipping other gods. That someone thanked me for she secretly prayed every day but was ridiculed by any one she told of her prayer.

God looks upon the earth and at any moment sees millions of people “getting it on”. He did say go forth and multiply, afterall. 19 months ago someone demanded I take Plan B. I relented due to the ramifications of getting pregnant. As a result, I have quit ovulating on a regular basis and my uterus is building cells at an unhealthy rate. I bleed profusely for weeks at a time. I am pre-cancerous and my uterus should be removed. Sex is dangerous, and I felt taken too lightly at Burning Man not for reasons of free expression but of licentiousness and lack of meaning in the generation after mine. There was a time when a man simply courting a woman was said to be “making love to her.” I grow old, yes, I wear my trousers rolled. Partially because food and wine are my major acts of hedonism and have the hobbit body to prove it. On the other end, I felt woman were self-objectified because that was the social norm at Burning Man. Regardless, it seems that most people do what they want because they do not believe in God at all anymore. And that is the major difference between any secular excercise and Christianity: the notion of eternal life.

My biggest worry about being at Burning Man was not the sex, mind altercations, or nudity. It was the fear that I would have to endure people with some cheap surface notion about revisionist pagan or earth dieties chastising me for not completely giving over to the “when humans are left free to do what they like” (which, btw, not even wild animals undergo the mating ritual every day of the year), and I did not endure this at all until we were waiting in line to get out. The lady behind me asked me what I thought and I told her that the sex and mind altercations were a bit much for me, and then she and another lady decided to burn sage at me and give me funny looks. If there were a true apocolypse, it would be these people that would revert to Lord of the Flies behavior in a heart beat. I did not want my last memory of my first burn to be of this. As I turned onto the asphalt, there was a person dressed in some kind of monastic robe with a shamanistic stick, tapping it on the ground and saying something out to the pure white playa before him. Was he apologizing? And then I remembered my preburn skepticism about 50,000 people not leaving a trace, for 23 years ago I had studied geology with just a handful of people who were willing to build a road to go around an egg filled nest before the bus. Whomever this person was, s/he reminded me of Cabeza De Vaca and all the complexities of spirituality and nature I already believe and the irritation faded.

The question is not how bad and hedonistic is Burning Man. The real question is, is my faith at least as large as my judgement against others? It is not how shocking others are, but how shockingly true I find my faith to be. Do I believe and practice that which I *think* I espouse, that I *think* exists? Do I just think I believe in Christ and that He died on the cross for our sins so we could have eternal life? Do I invest myself into the world in a way which shows I believe this, or at least seeking the answer to this, and everything that comes through it such as “love thy neighbor as thyself”? I can say my atheist camp leader friend is actually a better Christian than I in that department. Anyone can be cool, but awesome takes practice.

June 25th, 2010  |  Filed under Spirituality

Theater in a Crowded Fire

As the Burning Blog’s occasional religion and spirituality blogger, I would be remiss if I failed to mention a couple recent posts about Burning Man on other blogs and online mags. However, in this case, I must admit that my task also falls into the category of (cough) blatant self promotion, as I am the author of the interview and guest post in questions (and, coughs again, the book+dvd that inspired them).

The first interview was featured in an excellent online magazine called Religion Dispatches, which seeks to engage diverse, progressive, and academic perspectives on religion in an accessible public forum. My piece (which the editors titled Burning Man: Religious Event or Sheer Hedonism) set out to summarize some of the key ideas in my book–namely, why does Burning Man (sometimes) smell like religion? And, then what does that say about some of the directions that religion seems to be evolving these days? Broadly, I encourage folks to reconsider the concepts of “religion” and “spirituality” as defined less by matters of institution, doctrine, and belief and more by questions of ritual, practice, and experience. From this perspective, Burning Man can be seen as an exemplar of the extent to which spiritual feelings and desires often emerge in settings not traditionally defined as “religious,” and I argue that this should cause us to stop and think about what we mean by the terms “religion,” “ritual,” and “spirituality” in the first place. Cross-culturally speaking, I think the ideas and experiences which we attempt to describe with such language are much larger and more complicated than is popularly understood.

The other essay was a recent guest post on one of my favorite blogs, The Wild Hunt, which is widely considered to be among the best sources for news and commentary on contemporary Paganism. Here, I dig down a bit deeper on a related set of questions about the relationships between Burning Man and NeoPaganism. In this context, I like to distinguish between uppercase Paganism (as a specific family of religious traditions) and lowercase paganism (as an underlying, primal “root religion” that underlies all global religions and that also pops up in festive ritualistic events like Burning Man.)

Finally, I was also interviewed last week by writer and longtime Burner Erik Davis on his Expanding Mind podcast. Along with his co-host Maja D’Aoust, we had a delightful conversation about (you guessed it) Burning Man and its religious elements.

The book itself is the product of over 10 years of participating in and observing Burning Man and its surrounding culture–including numerous interviews and an online survey. (And who knows, maybe some readers here contributed to this research?) I wrote the book because I wanted to tell the story of Burning Man (or, at least, my version of that story), and because I think the event has something important to teach people about the nature of spiritual expression and experience in late modernity.

Finally, since I suspect some readers may wonder if I am abusing Burning Man’s anti-commodification ethos by linking to commercial websites and, well, pitching my project, please believe me when I state that academic publishing typically runs at a loss and academic authors make very little money. Since I’m a big nerd for religion and anthropology, I see this book (and DVD) as my particular art form and as my way of participating in this community. I’m honored to have the venue of this blog to tell folks about it. And should you want more info about me or my project, I’ve put together a simple page here.

Coming soon: a brief recap of other recently published books that cast scholarly eyes on Burning Man.

May 18th, 2010  |  Filed under Metropol, Spirituality

The Temple: Sacred Heart of Black Rock City

[Lee Gilmore teaches Religion & Anthropology at California State University Northridge and is author of Theater in a Crowded Fire: Ritual and Spirituality at Burning Man. This post is part of the Metropol Blog Series.]

As travelers, historians, and archaeologists can tell you, great cities contain spiritual and ritual centers–physical manifestations of the human quest for the transcendent and magisterial.  Grand cathedrals, imposing temples, and mosques with soaring minarets–each an attempt to intersect both divine and earthly powers.  For Black Rock City, that heart is perhaps best identified with the annual Temples–each an ephemeral locus of memory and mourning.


Rod Garrett tells us that the origins of BRC’s famous layout of concentric circles lay in pragmatic and organic decisions.  Nevertheless, when viewed through a symbolic lens, its template readily suggests a labyrinth or mandala.  The placement of the Man at the BRC’s center readily evokes what historian of religion Mircea Eliade called the axis mundi–a symbolic manifestation of the sacred center of the cosmos and the location of hierophany–the eruption of the sacred into the profane world. As both the spatial center and temporal apex towards which each annual event is definitively aimed, The Man forms axis of space and time in Black Rock City.

Yet over the course of the past decade, the sacred heart of Burning Man has shifted a few hundred yards outward.  Where the Burning of the Man can bring joy, catharsis, and transformation sharpened into a singular, ecstatic moment, Temples’ rites can engender a deeper and perhaps more difficult self-examination in asking us to consider our own mortality.

The Temples grew out of tragedy and immediacy when Petaluma artist David Best first transformed his 2000 playa installation called the Temple of the Mind into an impromptu memorial for a friend who had died in the weeks just before the event that year.

Temple of Tears, 2001

In 2001, a similar but significantly expanded structure would be called the Temple of Tears where all Black Rock Citizens were invited to inscribe memorials upon ornate wooden walls and to leave behind photos and other objects of personal significance. As my friend and colleague Sarah Pike has noted, through the physical inscription of memories on the Temple’s walls, and in turn through reading the inscriptions of others, participants were able to share, ritualize, and transform private grief into public expression in ways that are generally unavailable to many contemporary Americans.  Finally, on the festival’s final night, the Temple and its tokens were ultimately offered up in flame, dust, and ashes as thousands looked on in reverential silence.

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