Burning Man Festival: Woodstock on Post-Modern Steroids

In case you’re not familiar with the Burning Man Festival, it happens in the Nevada desert every year for nine days around Labor Day. And what a nine days it is.

I initially thought the title was a bit retrograde, a  pre-feminist name for an event so post-modern that it goes full circle to become totally pagan. Look at the pictures and you’ll see what I mean: Woodstock on post-modern steroids. But shouldn’t it be called Burning Person Festival? My daughter quipped that maybe it is totally feminist after all because feminists want to burn men. I’ll confess, I hadn’t thought of that. But I think more is going on with the name, as I’ll conjecture below.

The first thing I think of when I see something like a Burning Man Festival is a point I’ve made with my kids all their lives: human beings are meaning striving creatures, and when they jettison their Creator as their ultimate meaning and end, they’ll seek to find meaning in anything and everything else.

If you walked through the festival and interviewed the attendees asking them if they are religious, in addition to getting a strange look you would likely get an answer like, are you serious? This whole festival is anti-religious! Such an answer, though common among a Western people steeped in secularism, is obviously absurd and false. The same person who tells you that Burning Man has nothing to do with religion, might tell you that instead of God they are worshiping human expression, or community, or inclusion, or any of the other “Ten Principles of Burning Man” that you’ll find at the end of this piece. 

What this tells us if we’re not blinded by secularism, is that man is a worshiping and thus religious creature. As I’ve made the case over and over again, all human beings live by faith, and all worship something, or many things. As Christians we know that this urge to worship anything but our Creator God is built into our nature post Fall. Satan’s temptation was that we, the created, would want to be “like God, knowing good and evil.” In other words, we would get to be the ultimate definers of reality, not the God who created reality. Insane, I know, but that yearning to be God is the essence of what sin means. Sin is not primarily, or even most importantly, fornication or lying or stealing or cheating. It is those things, of course, but there is always sin underneath the sin. Sinful acts come from a sinful heart that is driven by the desire to usurp God’s place in the universe. We’re all treasonous little rebels by nature.

Which brings me back to the title Burning Man. As I’ve thought about it, another name came to mind: Prometheus. In Greek mythology Prometheus is the Titan who stole fire from Olympus and gave it to mankind; Zeus punished him by chaining him to a rock where an eagle gnawed at his liver until Hercules rescued him. In the Western classical tradition, Prometheus became a figure who represented human striving, particularly the quest for scientific knowledge, and the risk of overreaching or unintended consequences.

I learned from Wikipedia that the name came from a bonfire ritual at a beach in San Francisco (where else?) on the summer solstice in 1986. It eventually turned into burning a wooden effigy of a man. One of the founders called it a spontaneous act of “radical self-expression.” I doubt very much he knew of Prometheus, or what the name came to represent. Those who embrace Satan’s temptation and are determined to “be like God,” are not concerned with “overreaching or unintended consequences.” They are bad enough in this world, but truly horrifying in the next.