Research

Jim Gilmore (The Tribe, Los Angeles) interviewed by John Drane [pt.2]

Now how about the Burning Man? Can you say a bit about how you first came to go there, and why you wrote a dissertation on it. Would you like to summarize your dissertation in a few sentences.

Ever since I started coming to the Tribe, (an Emerging Church in California) I wanted to go to Burning Man. Some of the most integral voices in Tribe have been part of Burning Man for years, and have become real leaders and mature voices in their Burning Man community, known as Gigsville. They regaled me with Burning Man stories from just about my first time at Tribe. I honestly didn’t know what to expect until I got there and experienced it, and it really changed my life. I think the thing that affected me the most deeply was the commitment people had to it – not necessarily to this whole “Burning Man as ideal community” sort of thing, but to their very real, very concrete Burning Man experiences and to the communities they were part of. I saw things I didn’t think normal people could do, engineering and performance and artistic marvels, out in the middle of nowhere, and this community of commitment and joy and mirth surrounding it. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things out there I don’t really vibe with – I don’t do drugs, I don’t get naked, I’m really not much of an idealist, believe it or not – but there’s this underlying thing, what Victor Turner would describe as communitas, that brings everyone together. The artists, the Mad Max aggro types, the punks, the hippies, the greenies, and even cynics like me – we all drag our butts out to the desert once a year and party together and celebrate together and think deep thoughts together. Honestly, I’ve experienced more church at Burning Man than I have at a lot of churches I’ve been a part of.

The thesis rose out of the ashes of a previous thesis. I’d been working on a documentary film about my friend Kevin Rolly and his incredible artistic interpretation of the Stations of the Cross, which had been something that brought together Tribe and his Burning Man community and a whole bunch of other people, when all of a sudden the crucial part – a hard drive with all my raw and edited footage on it – died. The idea for the Burning Man project hit me a few weeks later while I was on a plane flying back to LA from Michigan. I was reading Gibbs and Bolger’s book on Emerging Churches and I thought, “hey, a lot of this stuff describes what they do at Burning Man.” Three months and a hundred different ideas later, I had a graduate thesis.

The fundamental argument of my thesis is that the Burning Man phenomenon and emerging churches share, at their fundamental level, the same sort of seeds – this thing sociologist Victor Turner calls communitas, which in his typology is the opposite of structure. Structure is about hierarchy, order, and predictability; communitas is about equality, chaos, and spontaneity. Turner, Jonathan Z. Smith, and Robin Sylvan say that society needs both structure and communitas, and when things tip to the structural end of the pendulum, communitas will happen spontaneously and out of nowhere and eventually be ritualized into a set of practices or even a subculture.

This, I think, is what has happened both with the Burning Man phenomenon and with emerging churches – they’ve taken these things that happened spontaneously and they’ve made them into a set of rituals in which people can experience the radical community and radical self-expression that is at the core of what they need, but in a safe environment where their actions can enrich and strengthen rather than weaken and destabilize their communities. Because they’ve got a lot of the same motivations, Burning Man communities and emerging church communities can learn a lot from each other, and really participate in each other’s community life – and I’ve offered Tribe and Gigsville as an example of how that can work.