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The Church of Burning Man: Counterculture spirituality
Burning Man Festival » Spirituality exists amid the flames of the counterculture and harks back to early Christianity.


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Sounds not so different from how Christianity sees some of its mission, but taking an altogether different tack.

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Message to the church » Christianity was once at the center of American culture, says Morehead, but no more.

"Along the way to the 21st century, the church has lost touch with its counterculture roots," he says in an interview. "If the church were in touch with the changing needs of the people, alternative spiritualities or places that incorporate all spiritualities like Burning Man would not be such a draw."

The modern church seems to have forgotten that early Christianity was once considered "countercultural" by the prevailing Roman and Jewish establishment, he writes in a recent online essay for Religion Dispatches. It was regarded "as deviant, and engaged in a variety of bizarre beliefs and rituals."

Contemporary Christianity has also neglected, he writes, "the significance of play as a possible ‘signal of transcendence,’ the importance of festivals with their rituals of inversion and the critique of society, and utopian considerations."

Morehead sees Burning Man as a kind of do-it-yourself spirituality that draws on various traditions and rituals, not simply as a pagan or New Age event.

"You’ll find diverse spiritual expressions, including those two," he says, "but it refuses to be tied down to a particular meaning."

As part of his research, Morehead participated in the 2006 gathering — and he was surprised by what he saw.

"I met doctors, lawyers and business people, an amazingly diverse group, " he says. "It was a fascinating coalescing of people across the spectrum, all looking for different things and forming a community from scratch."


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That’s another aspect that the church could emulate, he says. "Instead of looking at elements we disagree with, we should engage in self-critique and learn from its good points."

Amber Barger, a self-described Christian from Sacramento, Calif., has attended Burning Man with her husband for eight years.

Barger, a photographer who owns a construction company with her husband, has not been bothered by the nudity or drugs, aspects that she says are no more prevalent than in, say, Los Angeles.

"It’s the same as any other society," Barger says, "just condensed into a week."

She, like Morehead, finds much in the experience that could be replicated by the contemporary Christian church.

"I see churches moving more toward this," she says, "going into the community to spread love instead of expecting people to come to church to find God."

Barger then adds: "I think my pastor would love it there. He’d have a blast."

pstack@sltrib.com



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