Thursday, October 12, 2006

Carnality, Burning Man and Alternative Culture

This post will likely push the boundaries of comfort for many evangelicals, both with the content of the post and the image that accompanies it. Let's begin briefly with the image and then move to content. For those evangelicals who find an image artistically representing the female body offensive then this indicates you've got the wrong priorities. (I found it interesting that so many evangelicals complained publicly about Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl a few years ago and yet remained silent on human slave trafficking. Curious.)

Now that we've touched on the image, let's move to the content of this post. In my research and experience in Burning Man the themes of carnality and nudity are significant. Graham St. John found the same features present at ConFest, an alternative cultural festival in Australia. He describes carnality in his Ph.D. dissertation as "the manifest desire for physical contact with co-participants: ranging from non-sexual tactility to erotic sensuality." St. John goes on to discuss carnality at ConFest and notes that "it is a form of public knowledge suppressed in Protestant modernity and to which nostalgic contemporaries desire to return."

Andrew Mclean touched on the these themes in an article he wrote for the Lutheran Theological Journal, and which we reprinted in Sacred Tribes Journal. Writing on Paganism in the context of the body, sexuality and nakedness, Mclean made the following comments in regards to nudity:

"Many who attend ConFest celebrate nudity publicly. They are not simply making a statement but discovering their inner self. When writing his PhD thesis, Graham St John attended ConFest and found that 'being naked in the presence of strangers was not as difficult as I had been conditioned to believe' (187). It helps to bring out the child, the carefree gaiety and uncontrolled fantasy that is the world of the child (St John: 180)."

In regards to Pagan views of sexuality Mclean wrote:

"Pagans also reject western views of sexuality. For them the body is sacred and pure. Public and ritual nakedness is affirmed by some, though probably not the majority. Tabloids and newspapers make much of the sexual perversion of witches, but Pagans believe that society has a suspicious and dirty-minded view of sex; it sensationalizes and tittilates. But sexuality is a part of life's cycle to be celebrated in an open and pure fashion. The intertwining of sex with religion lifts it above the perverse and shameful act that it has become in western society."

I raise the issues of carnality and nudity for Christian consideration because I believe they are important as we seek to engage various forms of spirituality and alternative cultures in Western post-modernity. Perhaps our views on these topics are not so much biblical, as they are peculiarly Western and as such are influenced by other sources that have colored our perceptions of these issues. If this is the case then our encounter with Paganism and alternative cultures can provide us with an opportunity to reassess our conceptions of the body, nudity, sexuality, and carnality. We need to be open to critique and modification of our views.

For example, Chas Clifton, a Pagan writer and blogger, came across the issue of Sacred Tribes journal where we interact with Paganism. He took issue with Lisa Woolcott's essay "Wiccans and Jesus: Making the Message Meaningful." Woolcott discusses "the Great Rite" in Paganism, and Clifton shared his concern that Woolcott found it necessary to "dodge the erotic aspect of the rite." Might our failure to consider and engage such aspects be due to our conservative Christian perspectives related to sexuality?

If Christians hope to meaningfully engage Pagans and participants in alternative cultures in the post-modern West then we will have to rethink our views on these important topics and not assume that our Puritanical notions of sexuality are necessarily biblical.

Image source:


Sally said...

brave man- thank you for this... Too often we neglect a holistic theology and deny sensuality and sexuality as good, in doing so we endorse at times an almost gnostic view of the body, failing to treat both our physical selves and others physical selves with the respect they deserve!

I wonder if we can read Ps 139 in the light of a healthy body image, marvelling at our own createdness!!!

oh dear you've started me thinkng now!!!

philjohnson said...


This subject matter invariably polarises people particularly when one "reacts" by thinking only of morally dubious behaviour.

The motif of nakedness in Scripture is something that R C Sproul examined in his book If There's A God, Why Are There Atheists? (Bethany 1976). He looked at the question by considering the themes of holiness and transparency. On reflection one might then ask: to what extent is there a yearning to return to Eden?

One can easily point to the abuse of human dignity in sexual aberrations. The misuse of persons is perennial and sexual abuse and perversions are easy to identify. However, that is but one part of the picture. We are created in gender and the essence of being a human made in the image and likeness of God necessarily means as creatures we are sexual. Sexuality is not just expressed in intercourse or even mere nudity. We express ourselves - whether female or male - as sexual beings. The healthy side of our creation needs to be brought into the picture. The misuse and abuse of sexuality does not negate the positive side of God's "good work" in creating humans.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sally said...

Picking up on this Philip:
The healthy side of our creation needs to be brought into the picture. The misuse and abuse of sexuality does not negate the positive side of God's "good work" in creating humans.

I wonder if we have such a bad theology of sexuality/ sensuality that we not only hide from the positive side of Gods good work in creating humans, but also hide from the negative and exploitative practices such as the salve trade mentioned by John- sexuality makes us uncomfortable therefore we ignore both the positive and the negative!

Anonymous said...

I'm drawn to seeing the Gospel as an Erotic Narrative. By Erotic I mean that which is intimate and sentient - it has to do with human closeness and physical touch.

I see Jesus as quite at home in his own skin, happy to party and even carouse with the common man, and clearly willing at all times to be intimate with all people.

Being human he also needed too to retreat into the desert to be alone with the Father.

I wrest the term from the authority of materialism/hedonism, who seeks to tackify it into the gratuitous, selfish, short termist notion it has come to embody.

And further that this, I question the term "perversion". From what I can gather, this is Freuds concept. I think it smacks of severe authoritarianism, the very worst of modernity and patriatchy.

Before anyone gets alarmed, I am talking about consensual sexual expression between adults. And more, I would emphasise there being be a loving committed relationship undergirding it.

I am not talking about pediophilia or anything that harms another creature, especially one who has no choice - children or any victim of anothers lust.