Full Worship Service from Sept. 3, 2023 – “The Phenomenon of Burning Man”

Chalice Lighting Words from, This is Burning Man, by Brian Doherty

“We bring light to unite the boulevards of Black Rock City: the light of civilization, navigation, and celebration. In honor of the immensity of the desert and the immensity of our dreams and visions, we hang our lamps high.”

Reading from, This is Burning Man, by Brian Doherty

“People do work at Burning Man  --and work remarkably hard--  on building ephemeral things for the joy of creation, for the fulfillment of working with others to pull off the grand gesture, for status and bragging rights in their transitory community, pursuing a pre-individualist vision of the good life, which at Burning Man is found only in working with and contributing to the polis. The experience provides so much more than any one person can see, do, or be. Burning Man is not an event or a happening or a theme park or an arts festival, though it has aspects of all those. It is, truly, a city… The story of how a handful of people burning a statue on a beach became… a temporary civilization of tens of thousands is one of the stories this book tells. While it is a long story, in its way, it is not ultimately very complicated: It happened because people wanted it to happen, people made it happen, and no one stopped them. No one planned it, ordered it into existence, bought it, or paid for it. It was a spontaneous flowering of a felt need of a free people…” [The author writes] “Burning Man’s hold on me is centered in all the possibilities it has opened-the chances it has given me to pull off fascinating stunts in merry fellowship with amazingly accomplished people. It promises a chance to be more than you’ve known… And as a man named Steven Raspa, whom I met at Burning Man, said to me once: ‘When people are able to act with joy in doing what they like, it’s good for everybod

Sermon “The Phenomenon of Burning Man” [Rev. Jennie]      

I first became fascinated by Burning Man almost 20 years ago. I was watching Book TV on CSPAN-2. A panel of authors at a book festival were speaking. I heard Brian Doherty read from his then-new book, This is Burning Man – The Rise of a New American Underground, and I was enthralled. I had previously only heard of Burning Man when people who considered themselves to be nerdy joked in late August that they were going to abandon all of their responsibilities and flee to the desert in Nevada. But hearing Brian Doherty’s accounts of his experiences of that annual spontaneous creative intentional community really opened my eyes. I was still fairly new to ministry. And I felt that when tens of thousands of people will travel great distances and endure environmental hardship in their quest for personal and spiritual meaning and for community, and for some mysterious reasons, they find those things, then there are some things that any congregation can learn from them.

So I bought Brian Doherty’s book, and I also watched the documentary called, “Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock,” which I watched again this week. It gives you, as no book nor still photograph will, the expansive view and the colorfully gritty spectacle of what it must be like to be there. This is a good thing because many people, like me, won’t ever go to Black Rock City in person. I am too fond of Creature Comforts, especially air conditioning. And so I guess I envy all the more the people who, when they have gone there, they have found their Shangri-la. Additionally, Burning Man is a balm for the constricted souls of people who, during the rest of the year in what they refer to as “the default world,” aren’t able to express themselves as their fullest most joyful selves. Yet in my life I largely have felt free to be myself, especially with you, the members and friends of our church. Here, I can be anywhere from plain and simple to goofy, playful, and earnest about things like the democratic process and the principles of Unitarian Universalism. I don’t have to go somewhere else to find people who feel like they are my kin.

Speaking of principles, Burning Man has some. As an organization, it has ten; we Unitarian Universalists have eight. Burning Man’s first principle is Radical Inclusion, and the fourth is Radical Self-reliance. And since I first started researching this back in the early 2000s, some controversy and conflict has arisen around those two principles. In recent years, celebrities and people who are very wealthy have begun attending Burning Man. They fly to the area in private jets. Their camps are cushy and glamorous. They bring private chefs to cook for them. Yet the organizers of Burning Man do not want to tell these people that they can’t attend. Yet they haven’t figured out how to regulate such behavior. My assumption is that when participants are not battling with the same harsh environmental conditions nor taking part in building the art, they aren’t going to have the same fulfilling experience. Another of Burning Man’s principles is Civic Responsibility. Everyone is to assume responsibility for the public welfare and conduct themselves in accordance with local, state, and federal laws.

Burning Man started out with no formal structure nor pre-determined purpose. In late summer of 1986, an infrequently-employed, inclusively-minded, artistic and visionary soul named Larry Harvey gathered together a handful of friends on a San Francisco beach, and burned a simple statue in the shape of a man.  Strangers gathered around them, in the shape of a horseshoe; music, story-telling, and intimate connections between the people, the statue, the fire, and the tabula rasa before them were birthed. Each year since then, more and more people have gathered together annually on the week before Labor Day, for essentially these same reasons. The ritual soon moved to the Black Rock desert in Nevada, where tens of thousands of people now gather to create, gaze at, interact with, and climb on sculptures, theme camps, art cars, and each other. The massive arts festival that now culminates in the immolation  --with live music, dancing, chanting, neon, and fireworks-- of a forty-foot androgynous icon is called, “Burning Man.”  Its core principles are “radical self-reliance,” “leave no trace,” and “no spectators.” Essentially, everyone is camping; nothing is sold except ice and coffee; marketing and advertising are not permitted; the culture is a “gift economy.” The metropolis that is created for that week, in the middle of 400 square miles of nothing, is called, “Black Rock City.” It has become the fifth largest city in Nevada. At the conclusion of the festival, all remnants of human activity are meticulously removed. “No spectators” means people come prepared to give hands-on assistance to creating the art, setting up the camps, and providing for each other’s wellness and entertainment. “No spectators” can mean simply wearing a costume. In, This Is Burning Man, Brian Doherty writes:

“You might hitch a ride on any number of fantastical conveyances, from flying carpets to giant heads to bus-sized white whales; [or] laugh at a man in a business suit working frantically using WiFi (the city has WiFi but no cell phone service) in the café, with his water bottle, also wearing a carefully crafted bottle-sized suit and tie, beside him;”[i]

Burning Man’s website states:  “You won’t be the weirdest kid in your classroom anymore” and “Uniting it all is: a sense that every day life is missing something.”[ii]  Doherty cites cultural theorist Hakim Bey as having written that, “the best a cultural rebel can expect in our modern world of institutions of total control is to create limited liberated areas. [Bey] calls them Temporary Autonomous Zones, or TAZ.”[iii] Doherty goes on to say:

“During those early years, attendees began to take care of one another out there, to build the structures of civilization, because they wanted to, because they could, because no one else was going to. When people were suffering minor health problems  --cuts, burns, dehydration--  community member Michael Lyons became a camp medic…  They’d all help one another out, informally, both in the planning to get out to the playa and in actually living there, with money, supplies, and labor for whatever needs arose.”[iv]

The documentary, Burning Man: Beyond Black Rock, described that it took 3,000 people to build the city, including twenty-five project managers, and 200 paid staff. Three-quarters of the population of the city is somehow involved in creating the city. The services provided to participants include safety, medical, communications, and emergency psychiatric and fire protection. Burning Man had, at that time, a seven million dollar annual budget. Scholarship funds support some artists’ projects. Many of Burning Man’s artists are not artists during the rest of the year; many of them work in the corporate sphere. The documentary also states that Burning Man is not for everyone; a certain sense of humor and open-mindedness is necessary. A woman interviewed stated that there are “at least 30,000 different experiences of ‘The Burn.’ How often do you see a fire that large, especially one that’s shaped like you?”[v]

This year, strong concerns and objections have arisen about how much fossil fuel is used for people to travel to and from Burning Man, a for “the Man” itself, and so many other works of art, to burn. Climate Crisis activists protested this year at the entrance. In that documentary, made in 2006, the organizers of Burning Man were already struggling with these questions and envisioning that in future years, Black Rock City would not be able to sustain twice as many or more participants than they had then. [Then it was 30,000; now it’s approximately 80,000.] So beginning back then, the organizers were encouraging and nurturing regional gatherings, which are based in the same ten principles of the original Burning Man. In that documentary, one of the organizers wishes that one day there would be regional gatherings all over the United States and all around the globe, including, she said, in Australia, in the Outback, in South Africa, and in Iceland. By now there are regional gatherings all around the globe, as not everyone can or wants to travel to the Nevada desert in September.

After the Burn, most people leave for home. A few stay a day or so longer. On the evening after the Man burns, a sculptor named David Best burns his majestic temple. He and the community have created it out of paper, cardboard, light wood, and sentiments they hold about people they have loved and lost. All week he has assisted people in writing those feelings and messages on the temple. As the temple burns, David Best goes around the circle, takes people’s hands, looks into their eyes, and says, “It’s not your fault.” Lots of people don’t really get it. But in the documentary Best tells us of a woman from Connecticut who responded, “I thought it was my fault. I had a son; he committed suicide. I had a fight with him the night he left.” David Best keeps repeating, “It’s not your fault.”[vi]

Toward the end of his book, Brian Doherty quotes Aaron Muszalski the creator of “the Domino Club,” a Burning Man theme camp that’s a jazz club [without walls] as saying:

“’Some priceless things happened, [things that] speak so much of the caliber of imagination of the people at Burning Man’…  It got Aaron thinking about consensual reality and the ways our own behavior and attitudes transform physical space into whatever we believe it to be, from a church to a smoky jazz nightclub. ‘If you get enough people playing along, it stops being make-believe. It becomes in every meaningful sense an actual [church or] nightclub, except we don’t have a building.’”[vii]

And so I think that what our church can learn from Burning Man is that when a community intentionally creates a culture with certain norms based on principles such as reverence for human beings and the environment, inclusiveness, second-chances, pitching in and helping where help is needed, and making spaces for people to express themselves through the arts, those values can ripple out far beyond the confines of that community. I’ll close this morning with this passage from the end of Brian Doherty’s book [pp. 283-4]:

“Once, Tyler Hanson was driving into Buring Man and saw a guy, a normal-looking guy in normal clothes, struggling mightily with an air pump, trying to inflate a mattress. He could see the guy wasn’t used to doing such things and was having a very hard time. Tyler thought about how he had spent all summer preparing to build and execute a huge art project and had just driven across the country with piles of metal that had to be put together, and he decided that he must suppress the initial little sneer he felt coming on when comparing the significance of his own contribution to that of this guy who couldn’t even blow up an air mattress and realized that this person’s struggle with the air mattress was as significant as all the work he did and saw that beyond his ego, what really was the difference…? ‘Maybe he had the time of his life, and you can never take anything away from that person.’ At the end of this story he is ecstatic, seeing the vision of this imperfect perfect society in which everyone has his place and everyone has an equal chance of achieving grace and glory.”

Benediction by Gary Kowalski [Rev. Jennie]

Gathered in our varied faiths,

We give thanks for the blessings of world community
As we share our common dream:
Homes and schools where children thrive,
Neighborhoods that are safe and clean,
A city rich in colors and cultures,
An economy where no one is expendable,
A beloved community where rich and poor alike have access to the
opportunity for a dignified and productive life,
Churches, mosques, synagogues and temples
Where our deepest hope is to be of service to a hurting world.
Enable us as we leave this place
To carry forth this prayer into the coming week,
Turning our thoughts toward charity, our hearts toward justice,
And our hands toward the work of peace. Shalom and Amen.

[i] Doherty, Brian, This Is Burning Man.  New York:  Little, Brown and Company, 2004, p. 7.

[ii] See, www.burningman.com.


[iii] Doherty, Brian, This Is Burning Man.  New York:  Little, Brown and Company, 2004, p. 58.


[iv] Doherty, Brian, This Is Burning Man.  New York:  Little, Brown and Company, 2004, p. 58 - 59.


[v] Brown, Damon, Director. Burning Man:  Beyond Black Rock. Austin, TX:  Gone Off Deep Productions, 2006.


[vi] Ibid.

[vii]Doherty, Brian, This Is Burning Man.  New York:  Little, Brown and Company, 2004, p. 216.




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