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I originally wrote this in 2013. But, you know, Burning Man hasn’t changed that much…

Many words have been typed (I miss the expression “much ink has been spilled.” It’s a beautiful image lost to the sands of the twentieth century) about the hypocrisy of allegedly no-rules cultures. The truth about human beings is that we are addicted to law, to rule-making, and so even when we rebel against the rule-making of others, we tend to set up rules to govern our rebellion. This is true even in the most judgment-free environments in America, including the annual Burning Man festival in the ad-hoc town of Black Rock City, Nevada. In 2013, Grantland sent its Rembert Browne to report on the event, and he came back with what we might think of as the predictable report: it’s a crazy, free-wheeling, no-rules-just-right time out there on “deep playa.” Here’s what passes for a thesis of his article:

Speaking of family, as I split up from the bike gang to go explore on my own, I randomly ran into a friend from grade school who I then proceeded to dance with for two hours. After that, I spoke with a father who gave us his philosophy on bringing his kids to Black Rock City. In less than 10 minutes, he convinced me that this place, often characterized as a dust-soaked den of sex and drugs, was a wonderful space for kids. Between the programming and activities and the exposure to a judgment-free environment so early on, there was no better place for youth. While he was telling me this, his son was passing out peanut M&Ms to passersby and waving a stick of incense. I think Pops was right.

It should be noted that “dust-soaked den of sex and drugs” would be a pretty broadly agreed-upon description of Black Rock City, a town that only exists for the week during Burning Man. The question is not whether Black Rock City is such a den (it surely is), but whether or not this is a good thing.

The thing I’m most interested in for the purposes of this piece is Browne’s assertion that Burning Man is “a judgment-free environment.” Can this be true? Is Black Rock City heaven on earth? If so, no wonder people go every year, and weep when they have to rejoin the rest of us out here in the “default world,” as they call it.

But check out a couple of other quotes from Browne’s piece:

  • “Moving cars are frowned upon once they’ve been parked.”
  • “It all started with my revelation to them that this was my first time. I’d noticed that if you’re chill and appear to be present for the right reasons, people love first-timers.”
  • “So Diplo was in town. I heard rumors that he was going to play a show, but didn’t want to be that new guy who seemed more interested in a famous DJ doing a set than the spirit of Burning Man. So I relayed the message to just a few people. But, secretly, I wanted to see it so bad.”
  • “Also, we went to go get some ice. This was notable because we had to use cash. See, there’s no money in Black Rock City. The only economy is the gift economy — not barter, gifting. That is, except for ice. It wasn’t surprising that ice would be the one example of capitalism to sneak into Black Rock City, because it was by far the most precious, sought-after commodity.”
  • “I finally went to sleep around 5:45 a.m. I felt as if I were finally a part of the fabric of my camp. I’d gained the respect of the longtime campers. Even in this semi-utopian city, earning respect still mattered.”

So it seems, then, that Burning Man is a lot more like the outside world (though “default world” is the perfect name for our knee-jerk law reliance) than Burners would ever admit. There are plenty of rules, they’re just unofficial: once you park your car, you’re expected to leave it parked. The rule doesn’t exist, but, you know, don’t break it. People have to be at Burning Man for “the right reasons” to be trusted. You have to hide your love of the visiting DJ in order to appear to be “interested…in…the spirit of Burning Man.” The only economy is a gift economy…except when the goods in question are actually valuable. Earning respect matters. Sound familiar? It’s your subdivision, your schoolyard, your office, and your in-laws’ house.

Burning Man is the default world. God has put his Law into our minds and written it on our hearts (Hebrews 8:10): we carry it wherever we go. And if God’s Law is there, its pale human shadow is there too: be how you’re expected to be, go along, fit in, earn respect.

The reality is that rebels are just as bound to the law as the conformists they so loathe…and are just as in need of a Savior. They do the opposite of what the law requires, but are still living their lives in reaction to it, and forming their own laws to organize their reaction. Burning Man, apparently, isn’t Savior enough, despite the protestations of its citizens. The rain falls on the Burners and the Squares alike, we find that the Law finds us all bent in upon ourselves, and we are grateful that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world.

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