By John Zambenini
America’s most visible countercultural experience included its first Eucharist this year. Burning Man is a festival — there’s no better word — of self-expression, art, radical self-reliance, and partying. About 70,000 devotees trek to the Nevada desert each summer for the festival, which culminates with the burning of a giant, a stylized sculpture of a man. The festival meets on the last Sunday in August through Labor Day.
A small but committed cadre of Episcopal clergy and laity who have become Burners are beginning to express their faith at the pop-up desert community on the playa. The word describes both the festival’s landscape (a flat-floored bottom of an undrained desert basin) and its ethos (in Spanish, playa means beach). The playa is a thin strand between what Burners call “the default world,” known for its jobs and automobiles and consumption, and an ocean of imagined possibility for what a community might be.
This year marks the first time there has been a concerted effort to organize an Episcopal presence at the temporary city that appears in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert for a week. Boasting a dozen members, a Facebook group banded around a Eucharist at the Burning Man Temple. The Very Rev. Brian Baker, dean of Trinity Cathedral in Sacramento, celebrated the service Sept. 1.
Known for its emphasis on radical self-expression, participation, self-reliance, and “decommodification” — nothing is supposed to be bought or sold on the playa — Burning Man is a weeklong fever dream of art and spontaneity with a reputation for decadence. Hulking Dali-esque parade floats brought by Burners — “art cars” as they are known — crawl along the landscape. Nudity is typical. Burners say anything you want can be found on the playa.
Apart from consecrated altars or open Communion, the Eucharist at Burning Man touches on big questions for a traditional faith: how can a universal religion exist in a pluralistic society? What is the significance of one voice in a radically democratic community? Is there a community to be found in the midst of all of it?
Baker’s daughter invited him to Burning Man last year. “She asked me, her 53-year-old priest dad. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he told TLC. Baker was bowled over by what he found: a “radical community where people had your back.”
“It was a safe place of non-judgment and everyone was welcome no matter what their crazy was, and they were invited to be themselves,” he said.
As his contribution to Burning Man’s gift economy, Baker offered blessings to fellow Burners. While he eventually removed his tab collar, unsure if others thought he wore it ironically, Baker said his pastoral prayer compelled numerous Burners to collapse in tears in his arms.
His pastoral presence at Burning Man has been well documented. Episcopal Café, as well as a Sun Valley, Idaho, wellness magazine have written about Baker’s blessings. Video of a sermon he preached about the experience went viral, garnering more than 33,000 views.
When Baker returned to the playa in August, he brought both blessings and church liturgy.
Baker is not alone as a priest at Burning Man. The Rev. Canon Joey Rick, canon for congregational vitality in the Diocese of Washington, attended her fourth Burning Man this year. On a spiritual retreat in California, Rick was invited by others to attend Burning Man later that year. She had never heard of the festival and read up on it with an academic curiosity.
“Burning Man is counterculture to the degree that the Episcopal Church is culture,” she told TLC.
She had no idea what kind of spiritual experience to expect. “In some ways Burning Man is an example of the best our churches could hope to be.”
Rick said her years at Burning Man have been meaningful for her work in the Diocese of Washington. She returns home with a question: “How do we translate the eucharistic experience to people who don’t want the liturgical experience?”
The phenomenon is enormously spiritual, she said. Rick considers Burning Man nothing short of a pilgrimage. “Welcome home,” greeters tell Burners as they arrive.
Rick believes the harsh desert environment contributes to the spirituality of Burning Man. Contending with the elements means being in touch with basic human needs.
“The gospel comes alive in places like Burning Man,” Rick said. “It’s a tougher terrain. If all you’ve got is a glass of water, a glass of wine would be a miracle. It’s easier to get in touch with that there.” Rick said Burners experience a “vulnerability of self that’s hard to feel in the modern world.”
Rick described Burning Man Temple in reverent terms. “Anytime you get within 30 feet of the temple it is quiet, as if everyone’s souls resonate on the same note.”
Whatever Burners seek at the temple, Rick believes they find a shared experience. “It is religion without religiosity; it is as if we are all one and time stops.”
Along with the familiar 60-foot-tall sculpture, the temple is a mainstay of the community, wherein Burners meditate in silence, write regrets or prayers, and leave their cares to the universe. Rick said she found the notes of gratitude and prayer heartrending. She left mementos for a departed friend, a priest who had recently died. The temple, too, burns as the festival concludes.
But if underneath Burning Man’s radical expression of self and culture there is a deep undercurrent of spirituality, its postmodern and communitarian aesthetic defies a central authority that would lend itself to a religious liturgy. “Our faith is resonant with Burning Man,” Rick said. “It will be interesting to see if the pattern of our faith can overlay a world that is patternless.”
Could Burning Man, for all its spiritual thirst, develop a priestly sense of its vocation? Baker said the festival was too decentralized, too ad hoc, to understand something like priesthood.
Still, there is no shortage of ritual. Burners experience “almost a baptism at the gate,” Rick said. “There’s just not a table or altar, but people share food all the time.”
For Rick, Burning Man is “the best our churches could hope to be,” and like Communion without a liturgy.
And yet at the center of the festival is the enormously suggestive ritual, the burning of the man. With his ultimate burning, the man is a sacrificial figure, central to the temporary world Burners build in a giant ring around him. Might the playa be Christ-haunted, as Flannery O’Connor suggested of the American South?
Baker said he does not consider the burn sacrificial. “There’s no horror in it,” he said. Baker describes the man as an ironic effigy to gather around for a party.
“You get to make whatever case you want,” Rick said, “but if you’re Christian and you go and experience the man dying and rising again the next year, then the experience of Burning Man would validate your belief.”
For her, there’s no question that the man is a Christ figure, whether that is an unrecognized longing or an accidental expression of a pattern to the universe.
“All of Burning Man is an experience of resurrection,” she said. Each year, the town disappears and reappears; the man returns. “It’s not over.”
Burning Man’s playa as an experiment in world-building has gathered considerable cultural steam. Beginning on a San Francisco beach in the 1980s, the festival now boasts its own temporary Black Rock City Airport (FAA identifier 88NV). Baker’s festival included tantric chakra meditation, naked espresso bars, tap dancing, and build-your-own metal bikini workshops. The organization announced on its website that it has purchased land nearby for the purpose of establishing a permanent community. Burning Man is here to stay.
For all of its imagination and emphasis on the outside world as a “default” compared with the festival, Burning Man is not immune to the question of how its reality has been guided by the external culture: in radically expressing yourself, are you expressing anything that has not been somehow formed by an outside culture?
Meanwhile, the festival has been criticized as a playground for the rich rather than an anti-consumerist island. Wealthy Burners are reported to charge thousands of dollars per head to stay at exclusive camps featuring servants and hired models, despite the festival’s insistence on decommodification.
High-profile Burners include Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, and Larry Page. Tesla CEO Elon Musk told The New York Times in 2014 that Burning Man is an extension of Silicon Valley.
Burning Man’s increasing reflection of contemporary American life — dissertations range from analyses of organizational structure “growing up” to explanations of the festival’s broadening reach — raises questions about the Church in the public sphere.
If counterculture must define itself in relation to culture, and if Burning Man is a microcosm of contemporary American life with all of its self-expression and self-reliance, Eucharist at the temple is a testbed, a prelude of things to come for the Church in a pluralistic society.
What remains to be seen is whether the Eucharist at Burning Man may help Burners perceive something of both the beauty and the horror of a crucifixion.
John Zambenini is a chaplain, youth minister, freelance writer, and former beat reporter. He has a master’s of divinity from Duke Divinity School and lives in Durham, North Carolina.