Burners as Beloved Riff-Raff

Review by Jon Carlson

Readers weary of reactive responses to postmodern culture will find an engaging approach in Following Jesus to Burning Man by Kerry D. McRoberts, an Assemblies of God pastor. Through studious exegesis and ministerial guidance, McRoberts intends to prompt Christian assemblies of myriad sorts to explore examples of transformative ministry as well as to prepare themselves to “join Jesus at the Java Stop.”

The annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert provides a microcosm through which to contemplate our culture. McRoberts treats “burners” with warmth and insight; the flavor of the event is briefly but accurately represented; the ethics of the event organizers, however, are omitted from the discussion. Is this glimpse into Burning Man vivid and full enough to justify the parabolic use made of that event?

Having sketched the spiritual longing evident at Burning Man, McRoberts shifts — in homiletic style — into biblical exegesis centered on Jesus’ table fellowship, establishing an analogy: “Burners are riff-raff, like those with whom Jesus ate.” This exegesis is buttressed by Christian tradition: the “Vital Christianity” of William Wilberforce as a model of transforming praxis. McRoberts balances writing thoroughly enough to be intellectually satisfying while remaining approachable and able to prompt creative action among busy pastors and lay leadership.

In chapters that resemble a ministerial handbook, a broad swath of the emergent church is explored with suggestive ties to the preceding exegesis and an unwavering focus on praxis informed by careful research. Academically sophisticated readers might find this book’s philosophical categories too cursory; but McRoberts is candid about the messiness of ministry and more concerned to move from word into action. Even so, he takes great care to dramatize, in his prose and persuasive devices, a shift of thinking that plunges Christians into the midst of postmodern culture rather than allowing them to remain aloof like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal.

This book, bearing only a flame on its cover and taking Burning Man as impetus, struck me like a river flowing from a sober yet generous mind. McRoberts does not lack pastoral passion, but offers a blessedly cool response to a jarringly hot cultural phenomenon.

When my family made a pilgrimage to Burning Man, evangelizing Christians lined our approach bearing placards: “Jesus burned so you wouldn’t have to.” McRoberts likely shares my dissatisfaction with such an anti-participatory sentiment, but he might have appreciated the practical offering made by those same heralds: they gave out free water. McRoberts has given something more: flowing from baptism, his discourse has the potential to dislodge entrenched us/them attitudes among Christians and may even blunt the hostility of non-Christians to the gospel.

Jon Carlson is a Byzantine Catholic living in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with his wife and son.

Image by Jjock86 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons


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