Finding Jesus at Burning Man
Jesus was walking across the barren landscape, carrying a cross. I shouted to my friends, "Look, it's Jesus! Let's get a picture of him."
The three of us started walking across the desert toward Jesus, but he turned away, walking further into the nothingness. I hastened my pace and left my friends behind.
When I finally caught up to him, I said, "Hi, my name is Simon, and the Romans sent me to carry your cross." I hoped he'd get the reference. He did. Relieved, he handed me his cross, saying, "Oh, thank you. It's not too heavy, is it?"
I walked and talked with Jesus, and I told him my real name. "My friends and I created an art installation in honor of one of your saints, Simeon Stylites. We'd love to show it to you."
Jesus stopped. He looked me in the eyes and said, "Are you Phil Wyman?"
Jesus teared up. He said, "I've been looking for you. I was lost and couldn't find you."
Okay, that's weird, I thought. Jesus was lost, and now he's found. How often does that happen?
But this was Burning Man. And anything can happen at Burning Man.
Hedonism and Spiritual Searching
Burning Man is a late-summer festival held annually in the bleak Nevada desert north of Reno. Fifty thousand people gather on the barren alkali lakebed called Black Rock Playa to camp, party, create art, and burn things—big things—culminating in the immolation of a large effigy, the source of the festival's title. During the week it exists, it is Nevada's fourth largest city.
Touting the dual values of radical self-reliance and radical self-expression, Burning Man is a notoriously hedonistic event. There are some naked people, but not as many as the urban myths suggest. There are campsites that are adult playgrounds for a variety of sexual activities. Burning Man has drugs and an excess of free alcohol. By night the event becomes a series of large raves and dance parties, with walls of woofers and tweeters thumping and squealing until dawn. It might be expected that even angels would fear to tread the dust of this nomadic adult party. But art and hedonism are not the only things one finds at Burning Man.
For many, Burning Man is a spiritual pursuit, about finding a countercultural, nonmonetary way to live. You cannot buy or sell things at Burning Man. "Gifting" is the prime value, and most Burners bring enough supplies and gifts to give a great deal away to others—art, food, skills, and crafts. At our camp, espresso was being gifted, and when the espresso machine broke down, a 70-ish "Mr. Fix-It" gave us the gift of repairing it.
That wild combination of hedonism, art, and spiritual pursuit is what dragged me and four adventurous friends to Burning Man late in the summer of 2011. We wanted to see if Jesus was there. Like missionaries to an aboriginal culture, we were hunting for hints of the witness of God's Spirit in the midst of it all. If it is true that "where sin abounds, grace does much more abound," it seemed that Burning Man would be on fire with great grace. Opportunities for sharing the gospel could be limitless.
I wondered why Christianity had not typically embedded itself into these festivals, why we weren't among the leaders of new cultural developments and wildly creative thought. Certainly God is wildly creative—enough to find his way into human hearts in other cultures around the world. But at these festivals, and in the newly developing cultures of postmodernity, there seem to be so few people of Jesus. Yet, as the five of us would discover, we were not alone. We camped with about 40 Christians from all over the country, with the common goal of outreach. And at least two other Christian-themed camps were under way at the festival.