Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Burning Man at odds with the academy?

 I'm a Burning Man academic, listed on the festival's official website. I state that at the outset so that readers understand my perspective and bias. Consider what follows accordingly.

The Burning Man blog recently featured an essay titled "Burning Man should treat 'Academia' the way it does 'Commercialization.'"  The essay written by someone with the playa name Caveat Magister, who states in various places throughout the essay:
"I’ve reluctantly concluded that academia per see is very, very, bad for Burning Man – and that we’d be better off if Burners engage in a campaign of civil disobedience against it."

"But while any given piece of individual research is likely harmless, the project of academia itself is kryptonite to the spirit of Burning Man."

"Above all, we must not let academia define our culture on its terms.  We should be willing, and eager, to confuse, befuddle, and overwhelm the academic attempt to define Burning Man at every stage …  from strenuously  critiquing published accounts to refusing to respect data-gathering processes … and under no circumstances take academic studies too seriously."
 If I understand the author's argument, it seems as if the methods of the academy are seen as being at odds with the freedoms of Burning Man and its principles, and in addition the definitions of the scholars may be seen as impositions on the self-definitions of participants themselves. I understand the author's concerns, but as I stated in my MA thesis on the festival, while festival organizers and participants resist fixed definitions, surely some type of understandings can be gleaned by careful observation and reflection. This may at times pose a conflict between the academy and participants, but it need not be. Indeed, they could be complimentary.

Not only does the author's argument seem difficult to sustain, it would seem to fly in the face of the libertarian ideals of Burning Man. The festival is comprised of thousands of differing and at times conflicting interpretations. Why not allow the various academics to have their interpretations, and if participants or organizers disagree with it, so what? And how does this perspective relate to the Burning Man ideal of radical inclusion? It would seem that a diversity of opinions and interpretations are allowed so long as they don't run counter to those of certain segments of the festival population, and if this is correct then how is this not to be construed as anything other than a form of orthodoxy and boundary maintenance, some of the very things Burning Man is reacting against in the default world?

Burners might also consider that a "no academics allowed" perspective on the festival stifles in-depth reflection on the variety of meanings of what the event means to individuals, to event organizers, as well as to American and Western cultures in which it is situated. Not only that, it cuts off a venue for critique. In one example of how this might be problematic, one of the challenges Burning Man faces as a counter-cultural movement is the difficulty of maintaining the tension necessary for a counter-culture in relation to mainstream culture. Some of the academic analysis of Burning Man might help identify areas where the organization/movement might consider in critical self-reflection as it navigates its way forward. Cut off academic critique and its only the insiders who can provide this content, and surely insider-only perspectives have their biases in need of a helpful corrective.

Burning Man has extended and invitation to academics to explore their festival and I hope this continues. To oppose this with the threat of civil disobedience is wrong-headed in my view, and problematic.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Burning Man Festival contrasted with India's Kumbh Mela


Today I stumbled upon an interesting comparison of Burning Man Festival with the Kumbh Mela festival in India. The contrast at Fest300 by Chip Conley is largely through photographs accompanied by some commentary, but the contrast of these transformational festivals across cultures is worth taking a look at for those students and scholars of religion and festival culture. The photo above is taken from the site with the author's comments:
I know Burning Man founder Larry Harvey didn’t have Kumbh Mela in mind when the he first burned an effigy on the beach in San Francisco. This blossomed into a festival dedicated to using art as a means of one regenerating oneself, but the similarities are uncanny and say something about the commonality of enduring human ritual. Here’s a few Kumbh Mela pictures considered from the viewpoint of Burning Man.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Fox News (and Other Media) Denigrate Wicca

Fox News recently portrayed an aspect of Paganism inaccurately and unfairly, apparently as a way of bolstering conservative and Christian feelings of religious persecution in the public square. As the Witchy Words blog reports:
Not only do they repeatedly refer to Wicca as "Wiccanism," but suddenly jump from a figure of 20% (which accounts for the eight standard Wiccan sabbats) to 20 holidays. They continue to stereotype what a standard Wiccan is like, calling us "compulsive Dungeons and Dragons players" or "middle-aged, twice-divorced older [women] living in a rural area." Neither of which I fall under.
The Wild Hunt blog also provides additional video and media examples.

Conservatives, whether of a political or religious stripe, can and should do better than this in at least three ways. First, a fair and accurate understanding is called for. Second, Wicca should be portrayed just as sympathetically as an individual would want their religion and religious commitments portrayed. And third, conservatives have to find a way to move beyond demonizing others in the culture wars as a means of boundary maintenance and bolstering a sense of being under attack. To this Evangelical and religious diplomat, it doesn't appear like this is a very Christlike way of religious encounter.

New Transitions trailer

Transitions trailer from WIIS on Vimeo.

A new trailer has just been completed that promotes Transitions: The Mormon Migration from Religion to Relationship. This will be used in a new social media marketing campaign to increase awareness of the resource, and it will be featured in a revised form of the website at Please take a look at the trailer and pass along the link to others.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Utah Valley University - Intersecting Convictions: Core Beliefs and Civil Dialogue

Intersecting Convictions: Core Beliefs and Civil Dialogue 
Utah Valley University Interreligious Engagement Initiative 
Friday, March 1, 2013 

Conference Description 
Human history is marred by conflict rooted in religious differences. A key component in the advancement of humanity toward mutual respect and peaceful coexistence is the practice of interreligious diplomacy between competing traditions. Productive engagement across religious lines includes the exploration of foundational principles and points of contact. This conference is designed to both examine and model the highest standards of interreligious engagement free from coercion, disrespect, and uncivil exchange.

Format and Participants
The conference sessions will include a range of religious and nonreligious voices. The aim of this dynamic blend of panelists is to develop a richer understanding of contemporary American and world religious landscapes. The conference will be an opportunity to: 1) adhere to Krister Stendahl’s (former dean of the Harvard Divinity School) charge to ask adherents of a tradition directly about their beliefs or positions and not its enemies; 2) observe civil dialogue between presenters that requires the communication of complex core convictions; and 3) allow conference attendees to engage presenters and, panelists, in productive and stimulating dialogue.

Schedule of Events
Welcome and Introduction: 
Blair Van Dyke, Interfaith Dialogue—Discipline and Diplomacy

Session 1
Judaism & Mormonism 
Joshua Stanton (Jewish)
Joanna Brooks (Mormon)

Jewish-Mormon Dialogue 


Session 2

Evangelicalism & Atheism 
Chris Stedman (Atheist-former Evangelical)
John Morehead (Evangelical)

Evangelical-Atheist Dialogue

Session 3


Intersecting Convictions
Panel Discussion
Joanna Brooks
Joshua Stanton
Chris Stedman
John Morehead

Conference Presenters 
Joanna Brooks is a national voice on religion and American life. She is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith, a senior correspondent for Religion Dispatches, an award-winning scholar and teacher, and chair of the Department of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University.

John Morehead is the Custodian for the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy and Director of the Western Institute for Intercultural Studies. He is the co-editor and contributing author for Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach, and the editor of Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue, and co-founder and editor of Sacred Tribes Journal. He has been involved for many years in interreligious relationships and conversations in the contexts of Islam, Mormonism, and Paganism.

Joshua Stanton is Associate Director of the Center for Global Judaism at Hebrew College and Director of Communications at the Coexist Foundation. He is Founding co-Editor of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue, which is helping to build inter-religious studies as an academic field. Josh likewise co-edits O.N. Scripture -- The Torah, a weekly online Torah commentary featured on The Huffington Post. Joshua Stanton will be ordained a rabbi in May 2013 and received his Masters in Hebrew Literature in 2012 from Hebrew Union College, where he studied as a Schusterman Rabbinical Fellow. Josh serves on the Board of Directors of Odyssey Networks, WorldFaith, and Education as Transformation, as well as the Editorial Advisory Boards of CrossCurrents Magazine and The Interfaith Observer.

Chris Stedman is the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University and the Values in Action Coordinator for the Humanist Community at Harvard. He is also the Emeritus Managing Director of State of Formation at the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue and founder of the first blog
 dedicated to exploring atheist-interfaith engagement, NonProphet Status. He has written articles for The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, and Religion Dispatches, among other forums. Chris is an atheist working to foster positive and productive dialogue and collaborative action between faith communities and the nonreligious.

Blair Van Dyke coordinates Interfaith Engagement and Mormon Studies at the Orem Institute of Religion and also is an adjunct professor in the Department of Philosophy at Utah Valley University. He serves on the advisory board of the Mormon Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy. He has published articles in domestic and international journals and has co-authored a book on the history of Mormonism in the Middle East. His recent interreligious undertakings have engaged Mormons, Muslims, Methodists, Catholics, Evangelicals, Hindus, and Adventists in constructive dialogue.

Interreligious Engagement Initiative - Utah Valley University
Richard L. Evans Chair of Religious Understanding - Brigham Young University
Foundation for Religious Diplomacy - Evangelical & Mormon Chapters

Friday, February 08, 2013

Interfaith and Religious Difference: A Dialogue About Dialogue

My latest essay at the Evangelical Channel of Patheos is now online. It is titled "Interfaith and Religious Difference: A Dialogue About Dialogue." The point of departure for the piece is a 2007 episode of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly on the interfaith work of Eboo Patel and his Interfaith Youth Core. In my essay I interact with his discussion of a space between the public and private dimensions of faith in his approach among students involved in interfaith. From the essay:
Third, I would argue that this is one of the weaknesses of interfaith approaches, and that an important dimension is missing that would strengthen his worthwhile interfaith activities among America's youth. There are many interfaith organizations and approaches to bringing adherents of various religious traditions together. Many come from the more progressive end of the spectrum, and they advocate a downplaying or ignoring of contradictory and competing religious truth claims. As Stephen Prothero has noted in his book God is Not One, this way of working toward the resolution of religious conflict can be a huge problem:
"The Age of Enlightenment in the eighteenth century popularized the ideal of religious tolerance, and we are all doubtless better for it. But the idea of religious unity is wishful thinking nonetheless, and it has not made the world a safer place. In fact, this naive theological groupthink -- call it Godthink -- has made the world more dangerous."  
Instead of this form of interfaith I suggest religious diplomacy as the better way forward. The essay can be read here.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Grand Rapids, and Interfaith?

Grand Rapids, Michigan is not the first city that comes to mind as an example of Evangelicals grappling positively with religious pluralism, perhaps even in an exemplary way. But according to a recent segment at Religion & Ethics Newsweekly on PBS it is. Here's a segment of the transcript from the video:
Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a city with deep roots in conservative Calvinist Christianity—a place where dancing and card playing were once banned, mowing the lawn on Sunday was frowned upon into the 1960s, and in more recent years, a professor who taught evolution at Calvin College encountered harsh criticism. Though the Dutch Reformed Church and its more conservative offshoot, the Christian Reformed Church, is still a strong presence here, Grand Rapids today is also home to 82 Catholic parishes, five mosques, two synagogues, and Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh temples. Interfaith dialogue would have been considered unacceptable by many here in the past. But in the last year, with support from the mayor and a wide range of community leaders, Grand Rapids has held 250 events aimed at deepening interfaith understanding.
Of particular note in the video is Dr. Douglas Kindschi with his distinction between "thin" and "thick" forms of dialogue, with the latter not compromising on religious convictions in interreligious encounters. Another is Pastor Kyle Ray's concerns that many forms of dialogue do indeed compromise religious truth claims, and the pastor reflects the concerns many Evangelicals have about dialogue. Dr. Kindschi's call for "thick" dialogue is the right approach to such endeavors, and the one advocated by the Evangelical Chapter of the Foundation for Religious Diplomacy.

The video also details a key demographic in receptivity to interreligious engagement via younger members of a religious tradition. High school as well as college and university students are already interested in engaging other religions more positively, so this makes for the right audience. Even so, it can also be a challenge in that many younger Evangelicals can also be hesitant to engage in "dialogue" and are more interested in evangelism.

Yet in spite of these promising developings in Grand Rapids, it appears that it has yet to impact a key religious demographic, that of Evangelicals. In my follow up to Kelly James Clark in relation to this activity, he responsed that this has yet to spill over into Evangelicalism. Grand Rapids has connections not only to Calvinism and the Christian Reformed Church, but also broader Evangelicalism, including the Evangelical publishers Kregel and Thomas Nelson. If programs like this cannot find a way to prepare Evangelicals in Grand Rapids to embrace a new way of engaging those in other religions that is faithful to their religious convictions and makes a more positive contribution to the common good in the public square, then it cannot serve as a model for the rest of the nation given the size and prominence of American Evangelicals.