Tuesday, September 05, 2006

I've Been Burned

I returned to the Salt Lake City area yesterday on my return trip from Burning Man Festival. I'm currently playing "catch up" in my workload from seminary and ministry, not to mention trying to spend some reconnecting with my wife and kids. Over the course of the next week and beyond I will post comments as I reflect on my experiences, and as I work on my paper on the festival for seminary credit.

I thought in this initial post it might be appropriate to comment on my personal experiences. The posts that follow will likely be more academic as I try to understand the meaning of Burning Man, for its participants as well as for church in the Western world. I thought it might be appropriate with this first post to simply share some initial emotional and experiential reactions.

First, I and my fellow small group of participants that I traveled with went with something of a biblical "theme verse" that guided our initial thinking about the festival. Although I am usually opposed to theme verses given their tendency to serve personal application at the expense of sound exegesis, I resonated with a verse quoted in AfterBurn: Reflections on Burning Man, Lee Gilmore & Mark Van Proyen (eds), (University of New Mexico Press, 2005), Hosea 2:14: "I will entice you into the desert and there I will speak to you in the depths of your heart."

God did speak to me through my experiences, and I'll share three brief highlights. In the first instance, my greatest apprehension on attending Burning Man was not the people or the culture, often characterized by the popular media and the church as the lunatic fringe, but rather the harsh elements of the desert. I admit it: I'm a creature of modern civilization who loves all of our conveniences, including air conditioning. The prospect of a week in the heat of the day, freezing nights, and sandstorms was less than appealing. But I followed God's enticement into the desert, I experienced the heat, the cold, and one serious sandstorm, and I lived. Perhaps I need to take my own commentary more to heart in venturing out as a traveler rather than a tourist.

In the second instance, I experienced a time of great emotional unity with fellow Burners in an experience that was the most moving for me during this event. As I biked across the playa I almost went past the Temple, but as my fellow travelers stopped for a look inside I joined them. This open air Temple made of wood included small pieces of wood for participants to write their notes of love and remembrance for lost loved ones. At the conclusion of the festival the temple and the memorials are burned up. The mood in the Temple was somber as people sobbed, hugged, and remembered. Reading the messages was moving, and felt a little intrusive as well. I decided to use the opportunity to write a message to my son Jacob who I lost to suicide a couple of years ago. My experience at the Temple in doing this was intensely moving and cathartic as I anticipated my loving memorial message being burned as an offering to my son. The experience was in many ways more therapeutic than other forms of dealing with grief that I experienced, including those found in church and other civic forms of grief expression in society. (Sarah Pike touches on this in her chapter "No Novenas for the Dead: Ritual Action and Communal Memory at the Temple of Tears" in AfterBurn.)

Third, my experience at Burning Man challenged my stereotypes. It is all too easy to dismiss Burning Man participants as Bohemian liberals of little or no consequence to the rest of "normal" society. But an experience with one of the citizens of Black Rock City illustrated that participation in the ethos of Burning Man exceeds its 40,000 attendees. On the first full day of our experience we were privileged to meet Krusty (his playa name). How can I describe Krusty? I suppose the easiest way to do it is to think of the 1980s film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and recall Sean Penn's colorful surfer character, Jeff Spicoli. If you modify this character by the addition of passionate intensity for Burning Man, and add an expletive "f***" for every third word or so, that's close to a representation of Krusty. On the second day of our Burning Man experience, it was easy for me to come away from my encounter with Krusty as confirmation of the festival's stereotypical attendee. But this would be wrong, as we discovered toward the end of the event. As I and fellow Burner Scott Eggert discovered while washing dishes for our camp in a later encounter with Krusty, there is more to this colorful Burner than meets the eye (and the stereotype). Scott asked Krust what he does when he's not at the festival and he said that he lived for the Burn. When pressed further, Krusty replied that he works at a hospital. Intrigued, Scott asked whether he was a LVN or RN. Krusty said no, he was a physician, and that he had been "catching babies" for a hospital in southern California for several years. Krusty, the intense Burner who had been so easy to dismiss early in the week was in fact a very intelligent OB/GYN. Amazing.

So with this first post I must admit that I've been Burned, not only in participating in the festival, but in having my attitudes, my stereotypes, my assumptions about people and culture burned and reconfigured. It will be interesting to see what rises from the ashes.


Lainie Petersen said...


Lovely post and tribute both to your son and to Krusty. I'm going to show this to a friend who attends Burning Man. I am sure that she will appreciate it.

Anonymous said...

Welcome Back John! Glad to hear that your brain has been stretched a bit more. I admire your fortitude and stamina staying the whole week. I look forward to your coming posts and your thoughts on burning man.

Anonymous said...

both from a distance and up close at the same time ...

geographically, time wise and context wise, I am far away.

but in terms of the Burn, really close, I "second that emotion".

in terms of Jacob, i am mute.
in terms of Jacob, i and at your side.

we are all headed for the holy consuming fire and the joyful reuniting thereafter.