Jesus at Burning Man
Decoding the Symbolism of Black Rock City
As a week-long psychedelic art rave in the middle of the Nevada desert, Burning Man is the pinnacle of counter-culture excess — a Woodstock for my generation. The festival is known for its astounding life-sized art, the influence of psychedelics, and the impressive generosity of its community. There is nothing else quite like it.
But there is more going on at Burning Man than just a massive party. The celebrations of the week serve as a backdrop for public rituals of sacrifice and rebirth. The ritual language draws from ancient symbols that reflect universal features of human psychology. In these symbols, we can even find a seed of the Christian gospel.
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This might shock you. Most Christians who know about Burning Man shun it, if not for its decadence, then for the climactic ritual which mimics a pagan human sacrifice — the burning of a massive, wooden human effigy on the last day of the festival. But perhaps Burning Man is not anti-Christian, but pre-Christian. And those pre-Christian symbols point us to Jesus of Nazareth by showing us that he is unique and necessary.
One afternoon in the sunny, dry climate of Ancient Greece, on the rocky hill known as the Areopagus, St. Paul stood in dialogue with the pagan philosophers. He used their own system of worship to reveal to them the truth of his Christ. Imitating him, let’s investigate the pagan symbols of Burning Man, following the threads wherever they may lead, until we find ourselves at the foot of the cross.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
The Man as Victim
To examine the meaning of Burning Man, first we have to set the stage for what Burning Man is.
At the spiritual and physical center of the festival is THE MAN, a giant wooden effigy of a human being condemned to be burned on the festival’s seventh day. He is raised in the center of a ring city and serves as its primary landmark.
When The Man is finally burned, it is accompanied by an ecstatic celebration. There is a wild, aggressive energy that spreads through the mob as the inferno works its way up the wooden effigy. After the man collapses into smoldering ruins, the mob dances in a circle about the remains.
It is never explicitly stated what The Man represents. Perhaps he is the part of ourselves that we want to purge. Perhaps he is the forces in society that hold us down, as in the phrase “working for the man”. The effigy is faceless and abstract so that any number of meanings may be projected onto him. But one thing is certain — burning him feels good.
Leading up to the burn, life at the festival feels like some kind of utopia compared to the day-to-day grind of life back home, which is referred to as “the default world”. Senses are heightened, wonders are everywhere, and the culture is an intoxicating blend of meaningful play. Where there is anyone in need, that need is freely filled without compensation. It is a true spirit of abundance and brotherly love.
Here we come upon the revelation of the first secret of the event. The joyful atmosphere of Burning Man is only possible because The Man stands condemned. He is like the child in Ursula Leguin’s fictional town of Omelas. There is some hidden alchemical law that states that our joy must be balanced by his misery.
But why is this so? Why are light and darkness symmetric?
The answer is that the Man is a scapegoat. Scapegoats are people singled out and sacrificed to restore peace to a community. It is a mystery that this works, but it does. The mechanism of the scapegoat is described at length in the works of the philosopher René Girard, who finds the scapegoat mechanism to be a constant theme throughout human history and literature.
The flaw in this ritual is that the unity it creates is only temporary. Following the initial catharsis of the sacrifice, conflict soon begins to bubble up again. Whatever dark forces are satiated by the scapegoat must be repeatedly fed with new blood. So the Man must be burned every year, just as the ancient Jews had to offer their animal sacrifices over and over again, and just as other societies needed to continually find new human victims.
The Lamb Who is Slain
The story of Jesus also matches the scapegoat pattern. But Girard discovered a unique twist in the death of Christ that undermines the ritual logic of the scapegoat mechanism and destroys its effectiveness. It thus marks a turning point in human history.
The crux of Girard’s argument is that scapegoat ritual works because the victim can be plausibly blamed for the problems of society. Some rationale can usually be found for the death of the victim: he is a demon, she is a witch, his philosophy is misleading the young. The very fact that the scapegoat is paraded in front of the group as a victim provides social proof that he must have done something wrong, even if it cannot be articulated precisely what that is.
But Jesus reveals the injustice of the scapegoat mechanism because we know he is innocent. He is sinless and divine. He is the least guilty person on all the Earth, and somehow he is the one marked to be the victim. After the death of Christ, we can no longer sacrifice a scapegoat in good conscience, and that concern for victims robs the scapegoat mechanism of some of its ability to generate social cohesion.
Even if you don’t believe in the literal truth of the Bible story, you can consider it as a hypothetical meditation on human nature. The story addresses the question: “What would happen if a perfect person did walk the Earth?” And the answer the Bible gives is that we probably couldn’t stand him and would find an excuse to kill him. He would be an irresistible victim. If you find this answer plausible, then how can we maintain the illusion of the justice of the scapegoat mechanism?
The cathartic frenzy of Burning Man echoes the angry mob calling for Jesus’s death. After his innocence is definitively established, the Roman prelate leads Jesus out in front of the public to declare the verdict. But the mob is whipped up into a frenzy by their leaders, shouting “Crucify him! Crucify him!”. Fearing the mob, the prelate allows Jesus to be handed over to soldiers for execution. He is led up to a high place where he is surrounded by a crowd and crucified.
That cross on the hill called Golgotha would become the central landmark of human history for the next two thousand years.
Now that we’ve established the commonality of the main symbolic themes of Burning Man with the gospels, let’s examine specific details of the festival for further parallels.
As we have covered, the abstract effigy of The Man is featureless enough that each person can project his own meaning onto it. It is supposed that The Man represents the forces of society that keep us down, or the old self that we are trying to let go of.
But the story of Christ reveals a new possibility: The Man is the best among us. And maybe by participating in the howling mob we are ritually demonstrating the worst aspects of fallen human nature. We are the low that hates the high, the sinners that hate the pure.
There are further details of The Man’s construction that suggest the person of Christ. The Man is designed so that his giant arms can move. Seconds before he is lit on fire, he raises his arms above his head, as if voluntarily accepting his immolation. Christ’s sacrifice was also voluntary. In the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom we refer to “the night in which He was betrayed, or rather offered Himself up”. Christ gives his body to be broken and his blood to be spilled in order to redeem and transform human nature. Both are willing victims.
The most striking feature of The Man is the lack of one — he is faceless. This helps the mob overcome its guilty conscience. Since the crucifixion of Jesus, the humanity of the victim can no longer be ignored, even in effigy.
But the facelessness also raises the level of abstraction, suggesting the platonic ideal of a human - the everyman. Jesus is also considered the human ideal: mankind fully realized and incarnating the divine logos. In the Bible he is called “the son of man”, and the fate of all humanity is linked to his fate. If The Man is the ideal human in the abstract, then Jesus is the ideal human in the concrete.
Festival as Paradise
The enclosed, circular structure of the Burning Man festival grounds suggests the walled garden of paradise. In Orthodox hymnography, the cross of Christ is identified with the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden, and its life-giving fruit is the Eucharist. For those with the eyes to see, the cross stands at the center of the cosmos and transfigures reality into paradise.
In the aftermath of his death, Jesus’s disciples were able to discern that they had been initiated into the grand mystery of a world redeemed. The tragic nature of existence, life leading inevitably towards annihilation, had been upended by the crucifixion of Jesus. In the formulas of Orthodox hymnography, captivity was taken captive, death was trampled down by death.
Like the cross, The Man also stands in the center of a walled garden paradise. But the meaning and power of his sacrifice, if any, is veiled to us. The role assigned to us as Burning Man ticket holders is that of an extra in the madding crowd, one who cannot penetrate into the meaning of the great events unfolding. We demand sacrifice though we know not why. At the end, we are left spiritually blind and confused among the ashes.
Destruction of the Temple
The final symbolic ritual of the Burning Man festival is the solemn burning of an ornate temple. This temple is filled with mementos to loved ones who have passed away. The temple ritual was a later addition to the festival, and its meaning is more transparent. It is supposed to provide a mechanism to bid farewell to people or things that we have to let go of.
In Christian history, the Temple reminds us of the destruction of the Jewish temple. At Burning Man, The Temple is displaced by The Man off to the side of the festivities, symbolizing its secondary importance. Similarly, the crucifixion of Jesus displaced the centuries-old cult centered around the Jewish temple, and for the faithful its destruction represents the mourning of the old order.
Transfiguring Burning Man
“Who do you say that I am?” was a frequent riddle that Christ presented to the world. We can ask ourselves the same thing about The Man. Who is he?
As a creation of human art, there is no fixed meaning to The Man. But the patterns he fulfills limit the possibilities of interpretation. Lacking divine revelation, the true meaning of events can only be seen with the eyes of faith.
If Burning Man can be criticized from a Christian perspective, it is that we burners represent the vengeful many, rather than the faithful few. The Christian is not called to imitate the baying mob, but its victim — to pick up our cross and follow Christ.
I imagine the possibility of a theme camp at Burning Man which reinterprets the ritual, revealing the gospel truth within. This camp would be friends of the man, who tell people about his goodness leading up to the sacrifice. And after he is burned, they mourn him and proclaim his innocence.
As the world leaves behind religion, it finds the need to reinvent it. Who knows what impulses motivated Larry Harvey when he burned the first effigy of The Man in 1988 on the beaches of San Francisco. It seems that his soul was searching for the missing piece in the secular heart: the sacrifice of Christ.
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