Saints and Sinners
Black Rock Desert, Nevada - 2010
Every year, 50-70,000 people create an alternative city in the remote desert of northern Nevada, bringing amazing (and often gargantuan) art, solar-powered night clubs, a city center, live music, art cars that double as traveling dance floors, and fire, fire, fire. It’s a neon-lit wonderland of costumed revelers at night, and by day, it’s a community of yoga centers, participatory performance art, conversations inside shady geodesic domes, and long bike rides in the desert. After one week, everything – I mean everything – is packed up and moved out.
It’s Fellini’s Satyricon. It’s Mardi Gras on steroids, with a thousand mutations of itself manifesting at once. It’s visually stunning, overwhelming to the senses, but more weirdly, to the brain, which cannot make order out of what it is taking in, for it doesn’t fit into any mental categories we already have.
My fellow-pilgrim Francis and I contributed an installation. Collaborating with Albert Rosales, an Albuquerque South Valley graffiti artist, we made a 12x24’ Temple for Sinners and Saints. It had a PVC-pipe frame with an arched 16’ ceiling, a shade-fabric floor, an altar, and it was festooned with colored streamers and Tibetan prayer flags. On the canvas drop-cloth walls Albert spray-painted images of Shiva Nataraja, the Virgin of Guadalupe, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Marley, the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Freida Kahlo, Dylan, Jesus, Sitting Bull, Cleopatra, the Buddha, and a baby. The temple was lit at night with blue LCD lights, and perched over the entrance was a skeleton in a black robe, and beneath him, the words Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust.
The uniqueness of our temple at Burning Man was that it was devotional, funky and homemade, made rickety ramshackle by the wind. Unlike much of the other art, more impressive and/or technological than ours, the temple was a humble little human environment to sit awhile in the shade, pondering the desert, or whispering sweet nothings to your lover.
We left markers so people could write things. And they did. They chronicled the full range of burner experience: I’m so grateful to you, God; There is no God, only oppressive priests and beliefs; Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future; When will I ever find love? and someone else’s response It is already within you. And one of my favorites: All matter is energy condensed into a slow vibration; we all are consciousness experiencing itself objectively; and there is no such thing as death. They lit the candles and incense we provided for them, meditated, slept, and left little offerings of tobacco, water, and puka shells.
As a temporary community, Burning Man is a generous place. People freely share food, massage, bike repair, dancing, and conversation. The first assumption about strangers is that they are quite possibly your new best friend. Nobody asks what others do for a living. No money is exchanged. We’re brothers and sisters, at least for a week.
But I was saddened by the absence of any Christian imagery or devotional possibility, aside from our temple. Well, except for the ironic Science of Churchology where you could get up on a cross and chat with your friends below. Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and others were all in evidence, but Jesus was nowhere to be found. A group of Jews celebrated Shabbat, much to the delight of passersby, but what would have happened had I held a Eucharist in the road? Maybe the same delight, but also, for them, a mind-bending surprise. Maybe next time, by some other priest.
We Christians have earned our exile from popular culture with too many fat, angry demagogues and brittle, out-of-touch control freaks. Contemporary people see this and say Who the hell cares? We’ve rendered ourselves irrelevant. And so I sometimes wonder what will become of us. Are places like St. Michael’s, or some of the places I will visit on this sabbatical, going to be enough for a progressive, imaginative, lively Christianity to remain a visible and credible part of our contemporary world?