Research

Burning Man Festival as Life-Enhancing, Post-Christendom ‘Middle Way’

Ian Mobsby chats with John Morehead:

The Burning Man Festival has become well known in emerging church circles – what caught your fancy about it and why did you start researching it?.
I have been aware of and interested in the Burning Festival and community for several years. I have worked as a missionary, researcher, writer, and speaker in the area of alternative spiritualities in the Western world, and Burning Man caught my attention in this regard given that it incorporates a variety of experimentations with various forms of spirituality.

What would you say are the key findings of your research?
Burning Man Festival is a growing area of academic research. Most of the scholarly treatments of the subject apply the theories of the late anthropologist Victor Turner, and this results in an interpretation of the festival where people come together in a liminal or threshhold environment and through art and ritual they experience a strong social feeling of connectedness called “communitas.” While I see the continuing value of this approach I wondered whether this had become something of an unquestioned academic orthodoxy of interpretation. I wanted to take a different approach to see what else might be learned about this festival. My graduate thesis for Salt Lake Theological Seminary in intercultural studies combined two perspectives and applied them to Burning Man.

First, I looked at the “homeless minds” thesis of the noted sociologist Peter Berger and two of his colleagues from a book they wrote in the early 1970s that they developed to explain the 1960s counterculture. In this thesis there was a loss of confidence in mainstream institutions and this led to people turnign inward to rely upon the subjective self. But given the thin resources available there it also resulted in the creation and adoption of new “secondary institutions” as a guide to the self. This included not only the familiar pathways of drugs, mysticism, and eastern spiritualities, but also new subcultures, such as the Jesus People movement, and a little later the Rainbow Family of Living Light. I looked at how this thesis was updated in the 1990s by two religious studies professors, Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead, and how they noted that the turn to the self has now become more expansive, holistic, and life-affirming. As a result, people now turn to life-enhancing secondary institutions to assist in the lives and their spiritual quest.

The second idea I explored came from an anarchist writer named Hakim Bey. He developed the idea of the Temporary Autonomous Zone. With this theory individuals come together to carve out temporary spaces that are free from social control where they can experiment with new sense of identity and community. I then put these together and applied them to the Burning Man Festival. The result is a view of the festival wher for many people who reject much of mainstream society and its institutions, including the church, Burning Man functions as a secondary institution that is life-enhancing and which aids in the quest for defining the self and community. This takes places through the creation of numerous Temporary Autonomous Zones (TAZ), and in fact, Burning Man might be understood as one giant TAZ. The result is that Burning Man serves as a new spiritual outlet in a postmodern and post-Christendom world. The second chapter of my thesis then applies this argument to other historical examples of countercultural groups, most notably the Rainbow Family, and notes that this group may be a historical predecessor and countercultural cousin for Burning Man. Chapter three of my thesis then takes these ideas and attempts to suggest a number of areas where the church might learn from Burning Man as a successful and growing group, even whiel the church in the Western world is struggling for credibility and viability.

How can your experiences and research assist the wider emerging church attempting to do forms of church mission and community in a holistically spiritual age and context?
I think the third chapter of my thesis provides a lot to reflect on in response to this question. First, I think we need to consider the idea that was popularized by J.K. Van Baalen years ago that the “cults are the unpaid bills of the church.” Now, I do not consider Burning Man a “cult” as evangelicals typically write and speak of them, but I think the concept is important for us to reflect on. Van Baalen and others have suggested that new religions and alternative spiritualities may arise and thrive in response to the church’s failures in praxis and theology in certain areas. So for example, the Western church tends to emphasize God’s transcendence, that God is beyond and separate to creation. While this is certainly a biblical teaching perhaps we have articulated this at the expense of God’s immanence, the notion that God is intimately involved with and present in creation. The result of our imbalance may have contributed to the rise of various nature-based spiritualities, such as Neo-Paganism and Wicca. More directly related to my thesis, I suggest that the church’s neglect in certain areas, such as what it means to be a counterculture, experimentation with a theology of play, recapturing festival and festivity as an expression of our worship and a feature of our community, and a Christian sense of utopianism, have contributed to the rise of Burning Man that includes aspects of each of these areas.

My hope is that people in the emerging church and others will find these ideas and my thesis helpful as a means of seeing elements in an alternative cultural event and intentional community that may provide examples for us to experiment with in our own cultural and subcultural settings, whether through new “church plants” or through implementation in existing churches and forms of Christian community. Perhaps our careful theological and missiological reflection on these aspects of Burning Man might be used by the Spirit to provide the seeds for the church’s revitalization and renewed credibility in the post-Christendom West.

I have just been reading Gordon Lynch’s book on Spirituality where he suggests the development of a new global post liberal progressive universalist spirituality which he sees as being very post-Christian. Given your experiences at Burning Man, how do you respond to this prediction?
I just ordered his book that describes his own loss of evangelical faith in the U.K., and I am sympathetic to his experiences and those of others like him. I think his prediction may have some validity to it, particulary in the New Spirituality (formerly labeled “New Age”) having become mainstream and becoming influential in the broader culture. In my thesis I briefly mention a group that Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson have called the Cultural Creatives, that they suggest represents some twenty-six percent of the adult population in the U.S. Their values, including those in the areas of spirituality and the environment, resonate with those of Burning Man, so it may be that this represents an expression of this “global post-liberal progressive universalist spirituality” that Lynch refers to. Even if Lynch’s thesis is off the mark, the presence of such large numbers of people involved in a spiritual quest should give evangelicals of any stripe pause for reflection.

I have just been reading Gordon Lynch’s book on Spirituality where he suggests the development of a new global post liberal progressive universalist spirituality which he sees as being very post-Christian. Given your experiences at Burning Man, how do you respond to this prediction?
I just ordered his book that describes his own loss of evangelical faith in the U.K., and I am sympathetic to his experiences and those of others like him. I think his prediction may have some validity to it, particulary in the New Spirituality (formerly labeled “New Age”) having become mainstream and becoming influential in the broader culture. In my thesis I briefly mention a group that Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson have called the Cultural Creatives, that they suggest represents some twenty-six percent of the adult population in the U.S. Their values, including those in the areas of spirituality and the environment, resonate with those of Burning Man, so it may be that this represents an expression of this “global post-liberal progressive universalist spirituality” that Lynch refers to. Even if Lynch’s thesis is off the mark, the presence of such large numbers of people involved in a spiritual quest should give evangelicals of any stripe pause for reflection.

Finally a few of us groups in the UK have been engaging with holding stalls for prayer, meditation and massage and alt. worship type activities at Mind Body & Spirit festivals. Given your experiences with Burning Man as the ultimate Mind Body & Spirit festival, what would your advice be to developing these forms of spirituality missions?
I would encourage them to do so, to educate and recuit others to the task, and to engage in dialogue with Christians with a track record in doing this in Australia. My friends and colleagues, such as Philip Johnson, pioneered booth ministry such as this in Sydney and Melbourne. They have produced a growing body of experiences, literature, and books on the topic that would be helpful It would also be worthwhile for those in the UK to have ongoing dialogue and encouragement with their Australian counterparts. (See our Lausanne issue group website at www.lop45.org for the names, contact information, and articles from those in this group.) Beyond this, I’d encourage those in the UK to engage the history of Christian missions and the discipline of missiology for lessons that can be applied in this new context.

How can people get hold of your research?
It’s available from this website here, or at:
http://www.lop45.org/forum/forum/uploads/JohnWMorehead/
2007-05-21_005740_MAICS_Thesis_read-only.doc

John W. Morehead
Biographical Information

Education
Mr. Morehead has a Master of Arts in Intercultural Studies at Salt Lake Theological Seminary in Salt Lake City, Utah. His thesis focused on sociological, historical, and ecclesiological aspects related to the Burning Man Festival in Nevada.

Ministry
Early on in his ministerial career he was licensed as a minister through the Southern Baptist Convention, and taught on new religious movements as an Interfaith Witness Associate with the SBC’s Home Mission Board. He has served as interim pastor for two Southern Baptist churches. Mr. Morehead is the associate director of Neighboring Faiths Project, a cross-cultural missions ministry to new religions and alternative spiritualities. Mr. Morehead is a contributing author and editor to several book projects dealing with new religions including Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach (Kregel, 2004), a book that he co-edited and co-authored. This book won the 2005 Christianity Today Book of the Year Award in the category of missions/global affairs. He has also contributed to the forthcoming The Baker Dictionary of Cults. He is the co-founder and co-editor of the e-journal Sacred Tribes: Journal of Christian Missions to New Religious Movements. Mr. Morehead has also provided expertise on mission strategy to new religions as unreached people groups with the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization at their meeting in Thailand in 2004. Mr. Morehead has also served as adjunct instructor in new religious movements, theology, and apologetics at Capital Bible College located in Sacramento, California.

Expertise
Mr. Morehead has been researching new religious movements, apologetics, and missions for twenty years, with an interest and expertise involving the application of cross-cultural missions principles for reaching adherents of new religions, and alternative and postmodern spirituality adherents as unreached peoples in the Western world. He has also conducted specialized research for his graduate degree intercultural studies which addressed the Burning Man Festival in Nevada, an alternative cultural event.

Recognition
Mr. Morehead’s work has merited his inclusion in Contemporary Authors.

Personal
He is active in his local church and lives with his wife, Wendy, their son, Joseph, and their daughter, Jessica, in Syracuse, Utah.

Neighboring Faiths Project
P.O. Box 160611 Clearfield, UT 84016
(801) 728-0334
Internet: www.neighboringfaiths.org
http://johnwmorehead.blogspot.com
E-mail: johnwmorehead@netzero.net