Friday, August 31, 2012

Religion Dispatches - Burning Man: Fear of an Alternative Pagan Social Order

Steve Matthews, an evangelical "cult and new religious movement and investigative journalist" with The Worldview Center, has written an essay on Burning Man Festival for SCP Journal. The first of two installments is out in the current edition of the journal, and in light of my past research and writing on this alternative cultural event, and that this week Burners gather from across the country and around the world, I wrote an essay in Religion Dispatches critiquing Matthews' analysis. In my essay I offer the view that Burning Man functions much like a Rorschach test in that individuals see in the cultural phenomenon either their highest aspirations, or their deepest fears. For Burners, it is the former, and for many evangelicals it is the latter, as revealed by Matthews' essay title "Burning Man: Preview to an Alternative Pagan Social Order."

After reading the first installment of Matthews' essay, reading another form of this essay on The Worldview Center website, and listening to his two radio interviews on the topic on the Frank Pastore and Janet Parshall radio programs, I provide my critique of his analysis, which as he told me recently by phone, is the "most fair and balanced treatment of Burning Man" in print. As the reader will see, I beg to differ, as I take issue with several instances of Matthews' analysis, including his understanding of Burning Man participant demographics, the theoretical lens that undergirds his approach, and his misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Paganism.

Matthews' analysis is common within evangelicalism, not only in terms of an understanding of Burning Man, but also the fears associated with Paganism and the New Spirituality in general. This dovetails with the analysis of Jason C. Bivins in his book Religion of Fear: The Politics of Horror in Conservative Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2008). In this volume Bivins describes evangelicalism as involving "a form of religious social criticism produced and sustained in evangelical engagements with pop culture." In his view, this results in 'political orientations [that] are shaped and spread by pop cultural narratives of fear and horror."

Interested readers can find my essay at Religion Dispatches here.

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