While known as one of the most pagan, hallucinogen-friendly, and hedonistic events in the country, Burning Man has come to serve a pseudo-spiritual purpose for many Burners — and some of that group would likely argue that there's nothing "pseudo" about it. In recent years, more traditionally religious people have been flocking to the playa to see if they can find God there as well, and some have even devoted whole camps to their faith.
That's the topic of a new episode of The Intersection podcast, "Party Meets Prayer at Burning Man," as part of the series' third season devoted to Burning Man. The podcast, produced by local radio guys David Boyer and Jonathan Davis, devoted its first season to exploring San Francisco's Tenderloin via the intersection of Golden Gate Avenue and Leavenworth Street; and its second season to "Googleville," and the section of Mountain View that is now home to acres of Google/Alphabet properties.
This third season, which premiered October 30, 2019, is exploring all aspects of the 80,000-person city that lives for a week every summer in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, and gets completely disassembled and removed only to be rebuilt a year later along the same plan. Burning Man has recently been the focus of Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Romer, and no shortage of newspaper and magazine scribes around the country have devoted hundreds of pages, virtual and physical, to what Burning Man means, what it accomplishes, and what it feels like for the pilgrims who return there year after year.
Burning Man has also gained the attention of Christian media, like this positive take on the festival in Christianity Today in 2012.
Within the Christian Right in this country, it's naturally attracted plenty of fear and loathing.
"People commit suicide here. They sacrifice themselves here. They have orgies. They don't sacrifice animals yet but there'll probably be a tent for that soon," says one radio pastor quoted on the Intersection podcast.
But there are plenty of liberal ministers, rabbis, and members of communities of faith who have found their own reasons for going to Burning Man, and there's something intriguing about that. Sure, plenty of non-religious people ascribe spiritual and quasi-religious import to their pilgrimages there.
"That's why Burning Man is so powerful," says one minister speaking on the podcast. "We come here and we learn what it is that [all these people] longed for that they didn't get from church."
They also talk to Episcopalian priest Brian Baker from Sacramento, who came to Burning Man a few years ago with his daughter and had a transformative experience that has drawn him back, and that inspired him to start his own Christian camp called Religious as Fuck, or Religious AF.
Baker says that he encountered so many people who would say things like, I'm not religious at all but I'm very spiritual," and he would reply, "Oh, I'm religious as fuck." He felt the phrase encapsulated the kind of reluctantly religious Burner he wanted to attract, and would make them feel comfortable with the idea that this didn't have to be about quote-unquote "traditional" religiosity.
The camp includes a geodesic dome where services are held, and the group has now produced its prayer book specific to Burning Man.
"Last year there were a lot of people getting pulled over by the cops getting into Burning Man, so I wrote a Burning Man travel prayer, and that's in the book," Baker says.
The framework of the camp and its services is decidedly Christian, including a tapestry of Jesus hanging in the dome/sanctuary. But as Baker says, "We're not hear to sell Jesus, or sell the church. People are wounded, and we are here to bear the wounds."
As the camp's young Rev. Alex Leach told the magazine for Church Divinity School of the Pacific last fall, "It gave me great hope that 70 or 80 people showed up for a Eucharist at Burning Man. They just want to know that they’re going to be safe from being shamed."
Every service closes with a prayer that Baker wrote for Burning Man in 2015, and which brings host David Boyer to tears. It reads, in part, "The world is now too dangerous and too beautiful for anything but love. May your eyes be so blessed that you see God in everyone... and may your heart be so opened, so set on fire, that your love, your love, changes everything."
Photo: Religious AF