Sunday, September 10, 2006

Burning Man, Communitas and the Church

As I biked around the desert playa of Burning Man during the festival as a culmination of my summer research, I wrestled with understanding the essence of the event. I recognize the incredible complexity of this cultural and social phenomenon and that any such understanding must resist oversimplification to the point of misunderstanding.

A number of elements which comprise the Burning Man experience have been suggested, and several come from the Burning Man website itself. These include a sense of belonging as a part of a group; survival in a hostile desert environment; empowerment through art and other forms of personal expression; sensuality as it relates to the festival serving as a feast for the senses; celebration through performance art and the burning of the Man; and liminality which understands the festival as a threshold event in time, space, and culture. Frost and Hirsch have recognized and commented on these facets of Burning Man in their fine book on missional Christianity, The Shaping of Things to Come (Hendrickson/Strand, 2003). In addition, I would add the strong emphasis on art and festivity, but these might be considered subsets of sensuality and celebration (although festivity might be understood much more broadly and with greater social and theological significance than celebration).

But even with these elements in my my questions remained as to the essence of Burning Man. Previously I thought I had boiled it down to either art or festivity as the key elements, and then wondered whether one gave rise to the or whether they should be recognized as occurring in tandem without one being an epiphenomenon of the other. In my earlier thinking I leaned toward festivity giving rise to the art, a point of view which runs counter to much of the thinking on this event. I hope to include a future post on Burning Man and festivity which will discuss this further.

But last night I was reminded how curiously seemingly unrelated strands of research and thinking can come together to shed new light on research. I have commented in the past on symbolic anthropology as it relates to understanding Latter-day Saint pageants and temple openings. Much of my thinking here has been influenced by the work of the late Victor Turner. In reviewing some of this previous research I became convinced that it is also directly relevant to understanding a if not the key element of Burning Man.

Researchers into the Burning Man phenomenon often point to community as a major facet of the appeal of the festival. I believe this is a step in the right direction but it does not go far enough. Burning Man holds great appeal and significance as a social and cultural experience because it offers far more than community, it offers what Turner called communitas.

Victor Turner was a symbolic anthropologist who did some groundbreaking work in Africa studying the place of rituals and their symbolic meaning. He studied initiation rites and their role in the social situations of given tribal cultures. Turner noted that in these rites the participants pass through a liminal state of transition from their previous place of social location in the tribe to eventually transition to a new social location of the mainstream on the other side of the threshold. Turner’s work was fascinating in that he noted that the experience of the participants in the liminal state resulted in an intense feeling of intimacy among the participants. Turner saw this as an experience that approximated what occurs in religious events and he described the strong liminal experience of social togetherness of the initiates as communitas.

Turner’s insights are valid both in non-Western societies in which he first observed them as well as in Western societies. He noted that societies include the stability of normal life, or "structure" as well as communitas that might be labeled “anti-structure.” Turner’s explanation of this juxtaposition of these elements illustrates much of what can be seen at Burning Man in terms of the social forces that under gird and energize the creative expression of the festival:

“I have used the term ‘anti-structure’ . . . to describe both liminality and what I have called ‘communitas.’ I meant by it not a structural reversal . . . but the liberation of human capacities of cognition, affect, volition, creativity, etc., from the normative constraints incumbent upon occupying a sequence of social statuses.”
Understand what Turner is saying: the strong feelings of community in the liminal state results in a liberation that affects human thinking and creativity that is not often found normal social situations. Communitas is a key facet to understanding both the increasing popularity of Burning Man itself, and what is often lacking in Chrisitan community in Western Christendom. Consider the following:

1. While Christian churches often experience a sense of community, rarely do they experience the intensity of communitas. We need not think in either/or terms, but the church might consider the significance of the community/communitas distinction.

2. Community tends to be inward focused and follows from a sense of working together as a result of a focus on each other and common goals; whereas the intensity and strong social bonds of communitas come from an outward focus of people working sacrificially toward a task.

3. Community can be artificial as people come together through shared beliefs, history and ideals, whereas communitas occurs naturally and intensely through shared experience.

4. Communitas has far greater potential to unleash creative thinking and artistic expression, elements desperately needed in Western Christendom.

5. If Christians in the West moved outside of community concepts in order to enter the liminal spaces of culture, the result would likely be communitas resulting in societal change both within local churches and the broader culture as well.

Michael Frost has recognized the importance of communitas to missional expression in the West, as spurned on by his association with Alan Hirsch. Missional Christians are encouraged to reflect on this idea further both as an aid to understanding the citizens of Black Rock City and as a means of transformation and empowerment for Christian communities.

Michael Frost, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture (Hendrickson/Strand, 2006)

Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure (Aldine, 1969)

Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theater: The Human Seriousness of Play (PAJ Publications, 1982)

Image source: Copyright Burning Man LLC, Michael Stewart – photographer


John Smulo said...


I like your new hair color in this picture better than the green it was last time I saw you.

I found your thoughts on Burning Man very interesting again, and especially what you wrote related to Turner's (and Frost's) thoughts on communitas.

I struggle that this appears to be missing in so much of western local church experience, while seming to be common at events like Burning Man, as well as in much of the parachurch.

Anonymous said...

Not only is it missing, it is usually regarded as "worldly" and/or "demonic". There is no reflection on its meaning in any other sense.

Dana Ames

Sally said...

... there is such a hunger for comunitas amongst the churches, tho' it rarely finds expression...

Gatherings such as Greenbelt in the UK are going some way towards this, but are not quite there...

I believe there is a real struggle withing western expressions of Christianity with what it means to be fully human, we want to sell oursleves well but are aware of our flaws, this results in a necessary juxtaposition of brokeness and hope!

Thank you for this post

Amber B said...

As a Christian couple who also attended Burning Man for the first time this year, I really appreciate your thoughts on the festival. We had no idea what to expect when we arrived, as all of our "Christian" friends warned us about the pagan love fest in the desert full of orgies and naked people. What we found was a wonderful community that embraced everyone openly and really showed the need for community that so many people are trying to fill in thier lives. We had great conversations with all sorts of people and loved the displays of art and performance. We will definitely return again!

Anonymous said...

I was struck, reading Turner, of how communitas was linked to initiation rituals.

And how often these involved an external manipulation of environments eg older men forcing young adolescents into forest and deliberately scaring them. These were tribal cultures sure, by I wonder how these transfer into your missiology. When you encourage communitas in Christianity, are you willing to argue also for these mechanisms of manipulation and control? How do they reconcile with the way of Jesus? I am not being smart. Whenever I hear talk of communitas, I have wondered about this.

Anonymous said...

sorry, i forgot to identify myself ;; steve taylor,

John W. Morehead said...

Steve, thanks for leaving the comment and question, and then identifying yourself. If you had remained anonymous I would have deleted the comment because it rings a little confrontational. But I appreciate your work in the emerging church and the chance to engage your concerns.

Turner's work among tribal societies did involve a certain amount of pushing adolescents into the liminal state in order to participate in the rituals of transition. Perhaps some were coercive and some were not. I'm not sure that Western cultures with their lack of any transitional rituals marking the shift from childhood to adulthood is necessarily better than some rituals in tribal cultures. But at any rate, I am not advocating force in Christianity as it relates to communitas.

However, any concerns about aspects of how communitas is achieved in tribal cultures does not mean it does not exist in other cultural settings. Scholars have recognized it in alternative community experiments such as Burning Man. The question is how does this relate to Christian community in post-modernity.

I believe the issues surrounding Burning Man, including questions of identity, self, community, and festivity in post-modernism raise serious challenges to Christian conceptions of community. The question of missional engagement as liminality working toward communitas is an interesting thing to consider as well.

Over the next few days I'll be posting excerpts from my Burning Man research paper that touch on what this festival is saying to theological education, the contemporary church, and emerging church. I will also include a link to the complete paper which touches on communitas.

Thanks again for the conversation.

Anonymous said...

hi, i totally agree with you that burning man raises "identity, self, community, and festivity in post-modernism raise serious challenges to Christian conceptions of community". for me, i've found the work of zygmunt bauman very helpful and in my book, out of bounds church? i apply him to these very questions of identity and community as they could relate to festivals.

and i chose bauman over turner cos of my unease, as articulated above.

i appreciated your comment, but my unease still remains.

my gut intuition says that christians who are using turner have "cherry picked" him for their own use and for me to be convinced of the appropriateness of his categories for mission today and think there needs to be some serious theological work done on the underlying power issues.


John W. Morehead said...

Steve, I appreciate your continuing concerns about Turner's communitas. I will consider the source you mentioned. I agree that careful theological reflection needs to take place in regards to interaction with Turner and its application to missiology. I have not applied Turner to Burning Man or the church uncritically. In my paper on the topic I interact with Turner and Hakim Bey's concept of Temporary Autonomous Zone and recalibrate Turner accordingly. The same type of reflection needs to take place in theological and missiological interaction with Turner in any application to the church and its conceptions of community.

May I also suggest that while we need caution in application of Turner's communitas, our theology must also be in conversation with anthropology and sociology as well. Perhaps concerns over power in Turner's communitas arise more from Western notions of power and its abuse in a postmodern critique than from sound theological and missiological consideration Turner's concepts.

Anonymous said...

John, I have not read your stuff so I am not making comment on you. I have read the stuff from Forge and hence made my "cherry picking" comment.

You wrote: "Perhaps concerns over power in Turner's communitas arise more from Western notions of power and its abuse in a postmodern critique than from sound theological and missiological consideration Turner's concepts" ... and that is why in my very 1st comment in relation to this I asked "How do they reconcile with the way of Jesus?" .... I consider the way of Jesus to be a theological consideration.

Having said that, I consider one of the gifts of postmodernity is the expose of the systemic and hidden nature of power: patriarchy and colonialism: in much modern discourse. For me it is part of Christ's turning light on in dark places.


John W. Morehead said...

Steve, thanks for your continuing interaction on this. I agree with much of post-modernity's critique of modernity which should speak volumes to Enlightenment enamored evangelicals.

It might be beneficial for you to read my paper on Burning Man where I discuss communitas in connection with the notion of Temporary Autonomous Zones. You can download the paper from my blog or I can email a copy.

I'd also be interested in your comments on my posts related to Burning Man and what this says to the emerging church.

Anonymous said...


I appreciate the ongoing interaction from you also. I really struggle with the suggestion re "Burning Man and what this says to the emerging church." I just don't think there is a generalisable "emerging church" entity. Sure, it makes an easy target for protagonists, and equally, makes it fustrating for those who might seem conversation, but I don't think it exits. I've commented a no. of times recently on my blog that I think there are simply local churches struggling with missional issues. They share loose, networked conversation that might deserve the label "emerging", but I think it's a mistake both theologically and structurally to try and generalise this conversation.

But to cast them as an single entity is IMHO, a modernist attempt that will remove individuality and particularity.

In other words, I am simply a local church pastor, constantly wondering what it means to find God in the narratives of my community.


John W. Morehead said...

Steve,while you may not agree that there is a general emerging church as a defineable entity, perhaps we can agree that there are churches in the West that are responding to modernity and post-modernity in various ways, some missionally, some ecclesiologically, etc. With this general framework in mind I think it is legitimate to consider what alternative communities like Burning Man, and the alternative spiritualities might be "saying" to emerging churches in their local contexts, as well as in more broad fashion as exemplified by Emergent in the U.S. and other entitities outside of the U.S. context.

As you know, theology and missiology make generalizations, sometimes problematically so, sometimes not. While theology and missions must be considered locally we must not ignore the broader cultural contexts in which we ministry and the valid generalizations that can be drawn from careful reflection.

Even so, let's shift the question: how might you reflect on what Burning Man and the alternative spiritualities are saying to your local church context and your desires to be missional there?

Anonymous said...

i'd respond by writing a book called Out of bounds church: learning to create a community of faith in a culture of change; with chapters on framing mission as listening to local narratives; mission as midwiving (allowing feminine and organic and relational approaches to mission); creativity (thus accessing the non-rational and wholistic strands of burning man); spiritual tourism (encouraging a "commodification" of extreme discipleship); community (the search for relationships); yet aware of the danger of seeing these relationships as "weekly and gathered" i'd also pen a chapter on titled missional interface which links a festival spiriutality with the work of bauman and integrated with OT notions of pilgrimage and tourism.


John W. Morehead said...

Steve, I must admit this last post is more than a little frustrating. You frequently refer to your book and while I appreciate the thoughts that go into a book as an editor and author myself, I'd like to ask that you move beyond merely referencing a book and engage a few specifics in dialogue. I could refer to my book on new religions and say this is a problem for the emerging church in its local contexts, but that would do little in our exchange of ideas. So, without referencing a book, how do you specifically respond to the challenge of new religions and alternative spiritualities in your local church context.

In addition, while I appreciate your previous concerns over the abuse of power and its possible surfacing in Turner's communitas as applied to local church communities, I think your critique is vulnerable to the same critique in that the source you cite in deconstruction appears to be used as a power or authority to silence any consideration of communitas in Christian community. Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

sorry john, it's just that the book is a concise summary.

in terms of your comment: "I think your critique is vulnerable to the same critique in that the source you cite in deconstruction appears to be used as a power or authority to silence any consideration of communitas in Christian community." .... does your line of thinking suggest that the use of authorities imposes silence? if so, it does sound very postmodern in terms of deconstruction.

i would want to allow a place for authorities ... while allowing room to quesion those authorities. all i have done is raise a question that i have about Turner.

which was what i thought that was what the comments section of a blog was for.

i wasn't trying to silence turner, nor use bauman a silencing authority. i would love to hear your critiques of bauman.

equally, i would love to continue to be able to focus on whether communitas can be "created" and what are the theological implications of that.

however given that this is now archived on blogger and not easy to get to; i would prefer to do this, not by commenting on your blog but by email: steve at emergentkiwi dot org dot nz;

nic paton said...

Hello Earth and Sky Warriors:
Just to say I check into this debate, 13 months late.

Having just returned from Afrika Burns, having gone there with all sorts of missional inclination, I have been transformed.

I didn't do much objective critting, but rather lived through the experience, but I am glad that guys like you are thinking about it.

For me its still Carnival; reflection and possibly Lent shall follow at the appropriate point.