Today’s Madmen As Tomorrow’s Prophets: A Burning Man Experience (by Phil Wyman)
“Yesterday’s Madmen have become today’s Prophets, Seers and Saints. Today’s Madmen…?”
The quote remained unfinished upon the walls of the art installation. This was Burning Man, and the search for people who hear voices ought not to be considered a strange thing in this radical desert festival event of self-sufficiency and self-expression. But of course, even the mad create their own boxes of sanity.
Over the course of the week hundreds – no, I am sure thousands of people visited the site. They stood at the flame altar, they cast the things they felt compelled to surrender, they meditated upon the ten to twelve foot tall pillars, and they shared words which they “heard” by writing in holy graffiti upon the walls.
Some people might tell us that divine inspiration does not come in words. Others might view deity as something distant, unconcerned or perhaps even impersonal.
Caveat writes about his experience with the Pillars in an extremely fictionalized manner. (We know this, because we remember Caveat visiting with his mask.) He defines divinity as having the capacity of a capricious 2 year old, “It doesn’t care about prayers and poetry. The only words it knows are “yes” and “no.”” Somehow Caveat sees this impersonal “it” divinity only using events like, “dreams and comets, in calls to action and faces suddenly appearing out of the darkness,” but words are not part of the domain of the divine.
We thought otherwise, and provided a place for the Divine – God – The Spirit, to speak in words we can communicate with one another. It was a place for people to sit and listen – to sit and learn, to discover the simple things of life – the things we all need to be reminded of, and occasionally even the divine might explode upon us.
I suppose our view of God was larger – more personal, and allowed for dreams, and comets, and masks in the darkness to communicate as well as poetry and prayers. And so the walls were filled with words of a gracious expression – certainly more powerful than limited legalese of “yes” or “no.”
We were looking to create an anthropological experiment by asking people who hear voices to do so in an un-moderated manner. Yet, we also believed that the Creator of the universe has the capacity to break into our little lives and speak in ways we can understand, and ways we can communicate to one another. Did this happen? We have hundreds of photos of the all the phrases written upon the walls, and we think it might have occurred. Naturally, that is how a group of five silly Jesus followers might think.
Of course, some of the words are personal expressions of catharsis. Some of the words are ideas people carry every day, but some of the words were too deep for words, and some were transformative and new thoughts to the hearers, and that’s why we went to Burning Man with this concept. That’s why we will go back next year as well.
But of course, Burning Man is a place where the search for a voice in the wilderness ought not be considered a strange thing. Well, at least not for most, but I say that with a caveat in mind. (wink)
Phil Wyman is pastor at The Gathering in Salem, Massachusetts. Certified as a “heretic,” he and his church were asked to leave their denomination for befriending the Witches of Salem, MA. He can be found blogging at squarenomore.blogspot.com. This was his second year at Burning Man, and you can bet he will be returning to build art installations over the next couple years.