This is the first week of September, and that means it is time to reopen our Window on the World. The Window on the World is a weekly opportunity to look at the world from the biblical point of view. Our window is the Bible, which always helps us to see things more clearly.
The first weekend in September marks a significant happening in American culture. I speak, not of Labor Day, but of “Burning Man,” a five-day neo-pagan festival which is held at the Black Rock Canyon in Nevada.
Burning Man began back in 1986 when a man named Larry Harvey broke up with his girlfriend. It seemed like a significant passage in his life, so Harvey invited a few of his friends to help him mark the occasion. They gathered on a California beach during the summer solstice to construct the figure of a large wooden man. Then they burned him, hence the name, “Burning Man.”
A similar gathering was held the following year, and the year after that. Each year the attendance grew exponentially, until as many as 10,000 people started to make Burning Man an annual happening. The festival is now held in the Nevada desert, and almost anything goes.
There are no vendors in the desert, so people have to bring their own food, water, and shelter. Drugs and alcohol are generally available, but not recommended. Clothing is optional; sunscreen, on the other hand, is mandatory. All kinds of original music, drama, art, and pagan rituals take place almost continuously. One year wooden crosses were even set up so people could stage their own crucifixions.
But the festival still culminates with the burning of an enormous man, now fifty feet tall. This conflagration, which will take place just a few hours from now, has come to take on spiritual significance. For some it represents a break with the past. For others it is a symbol of rebirth and renewal. For still others it is an emblem of self destruction.
The one thing everyone agrees about is that Burning Man is whatever you make of it. As it says on the festival web site, “On Sunday night, we’ll burn the Man. As the procession starts, the circle forms, and the man ignites, you experience something personal, something new to yourself, something you’ve never felt before. It’s an epiphany, it’s primal, it’s newborn. And it’s completely individual.”
In many ways, Burning Man is the perfect religion for post-Christian times. It is entertaining. It is pleasurable. It emphasizes personal choice. It offers an escape from the tired routines of modern life. It is based on a sacred ritual. Yet it has no doctrine except, of course, the doctrine that there is no doctrine.
Burning Man is explicit in its rejection of organized religion, especially Christianity. Many, if not most, of the people who attend say they were raised in a Christian church. What they are looking for is a new kind of religion, an experience without a dogma.
Burning Man serves as a reminder that human beings are essentially religious. We are made to worship. We cannot help but worship. We may worship food, or possessions, or peace and quiet, or the hottest new band. But we will and we must worship something.
In the first chapter of Romans, the apostle Paul explains that when people stop worshipping God, they do not stop worshipping. Instead, they exchange the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man (v. 23). What is striking about the figure towering over the Nevada desert is that he is a man. He is larger than life, this burning man, but he is still a man. Given the choice, human beings will worship themselves.
There is really nothing new about neo-paganism. Making a giant figure of a human being to worship takes us back to biblical times, to the emperor cults of the Romans and to the giant statue of Diana in Ephesus. The venue has changed, but it is the same old paganism.
Burning Man sounds like something King Nebuchadnezzar would have done in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar was the one who made an image of gold, ninety feet high and nine feet wide, and set it up on the plain of Dura (Dan. 3:1). Then he invited his friends to come and see what he had made (vv. 2-7). They didn’t burn it, because gold doesn’t burn, but they did worship it.
It is easy to be critical of the man-centeredness of Burning Man, but the festival does tell us something important about what people are looking for in these post-Christian times. People are looking for spiritual community. One of the phrases people at Burning Man repeat over and over again is “No Spectators.” In other words, you cannot stand on the sidelines and watch. If you want to go to the festival, you must participate in the life of the community.
Community is something that young people, especially, are looking for. The place they ought to find it is in the church. Every time we say we believe in the communion of the saints, we are saying that we believe the church to be the best and truest of all communities. If we believe that, then our love for one another ought to be so genuine that people will want to be embraced by it.
Unfortunately, when it comes to caring for one another, there are too many spectators in the contemporary church. That is one of the main reasons why people are going to places like Burning Man to find spiritual community.
The sad thing is that they will not find it there. Not really. They will burn their man tonight, and they will say that the past is behind them. Yet they will have do it all over again next year. And the year after that.
Hope and meaning for life cannot be found in the Burning Man. Hope and meaning for life can only be found in the Bleeding Man, the God-Man who bled and died on the cross for our sins once and for all. He alone is worthy of our worship, and he alone can bring us together in a community of love.
[Information for this Window on the World comes from www.burningman.com and from Read Mercer Schuchardt, “Bonfire of the Futilities,” Regeneration Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 4 (1997), 15-17]
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